GEORGES GOBET / AFP
On the eve of the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris and amid controversy about the satirical weekly’s latest cover, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) cautions against the insidious imposition of a “religious correctness” that poses a major threat to the journalistic freedom to inform others (and make them laugh).
The supporters of “religious correctness” are using respect for God and concepts such as blasphemy to create an exception to freedom of expression in general, and freedom of information in particular – an exception for which there is absolutely no provision under international law.According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, expressing disrespect for a religion or any other belief system may be prohibited only if it constitutes “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”Unlike “political correctness,” a concept limiting freedom of expression that is not in any way binding, “religious correctness” is imposed in many countries with extreme force and violence.This is more than just conformism. It is a grave violation of the right to information and often leads to bloodshed. Some may feel offended or hurt by criticism of their beliefs, especially in the form of satire. But freedom of information and expression – the freedom of both journalists and the public – must not be constrained or limited by anyone’s convictions or sensibilities, or else a form of totalitarianism will take hold before we know it.Nearly half of the world’s countries (94 out of 198) had a law penalizing blasphemy with varying degrees of severity in 2013. Eight of these countries are members of the European Union. Raif Badawi, a blogger detained in Saudi Arabia since 2012 for “insulting Islam,” is sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes.It is in the name of “political correctness” that the Jihadi armed group Al-Shabaab commits atrocities against media personnel in Somalia. Two journalists with the newspaper Cumhuriyet continue to face charges in Turkey for reprinting – albeit in miniscule format – some of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published after the massacre a year ago.RSF deplores the self-censorship and overcautiousness that has taken hold in the media in democratic countries. Even in the United States, where freedom of expression is protected by the First Amendment, newspapers and TV channels often succumb to religious correctness.In May, 200 English-language writers and novelists criticized PEN America’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo its Freedom of Expression Courage prize.“All those who display editorial courage by refusing to join in creating sanctuaries for belief systems of any kind must be protected, even by those who do not share their convictions,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.“The armed wings of religious correctness do not content themselves with preventing criticism of religions. They also prevent journalists from investigating and covering entire areas of political, economic, social and cultural reality.”