Protect journalists against religious intolerance, RSF and UN rapporteurs say on Charlie Hebdo attack anniversary

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the attack on the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people including eight members of its staff, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and two UN special rapporteurs appealed today to governments and international organizations to protect journalists against religious intolerance.

The joint appeal was made at a press conference in Paris by Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary-general, Ahmed Shaheed, special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and David Kaye, special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, who spoke by video-link from California. Richard Malka, Charlie Hebdo’s lawyer, and Elizabeth O’Casey, Humanists International’s advocacy director, attended the press conference.


Deloire, Shaheed and Kaye condemned the increase in religious intolerance and hate speech in general, which is responsible for institutional violations of journalists’ rights and physical threats against them. And they stressed the close link between freedom of religion or belief on the one hand, and freedom of opinion and expression on the other, in the Rabat Plan of Action and in the work of the UN Human Rights Committee.


Above all, they called for issues related to religious intolerance to be included in prescriptive initiatives and international actions on protecting journalists. This means that UN member states should decriminalize “blasphemy” in line with the UN Human Rights Committee’s comments, the Rabat plan of action and UN General Assembly Resolution 16/18 of March 2011, that these issues should be included in the next UN resolutions on protecting journalists, and that a particular focus should be placed on these issues in the Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech that UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres launched in June 2019.


The lessons of the attack on Charlie Hebdo have not been learned,” they said, speaking five years after the attack on 7 January 2015. “We remind heads of state and government – including those who marched against terrorism and for free speech through the streets of Paris on 11 January 2015 – of the importance of not only protecting journalists and cartoonists but also protecting their right to criticize systems of thought.”


Deloire said: “UN resolutions on protecting journalists, whether adopted by the Security Council, General Assembly or Human Rights Council, have not once mentioned the issue of the danger that religious intolerance poses to journalists. Whether by oversight or deliberate omission, this failure to refer to one of the gravest threats to journalism must be rectified in order to stimulate international mobilization.”


Blasphemy is at the core of human rights and I don’t think there can be democracy and human rights if you cannot blaspheme,” said Charlie Hebdo Richard Malka, who voiced concern about an increase in fear five years after the attack. “Who still dares to criticize religions?” he asked, adding: “Recognition of the right to blaspheme and use of the right to blaspheme are necessary.”   


Five years on, however, there are worrying signs that we may not be as committed to the defence of free speech as we claimed in the aftermath of the attacks, Ahmed Shaheed, special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. it will of course be important to remove the illegitimate restrictions on free speech. We also need to prioritise those countries where these laws are used most frequently and violently, he added.


The possibility of debate should not be solely the prerogative of democratic societies,” David Kaye said, deploring the fact that “anti-blasphemy laws are used in some parts of the world as way to reinforce threats.”


"On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo – an attack on dissent, on free expression, on the right to poke fun, and speak truth to power - I want to reiterate that not only is there a legal right to criticize any system of thoughts without constraint from the beliefs or sensitivities of others, but such criticism is needed, Elizabeth O’Casey, Humanists International’s advocacy director said . “We need to stand up for speech that annoys people, that challenges people, that makes people think and questions the status quo and our power structures," she added.


An international commission created at RSF’s initiative and consisting of 25 well-known figures, including Nobel laureates Shirin Ebadi, Mario Vargas Llosa, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, issued a Declaration on Information and Democracy on 5 November 2018. It inspired the International Partnership of Information and Democracy that 30 countries signed during the UN General Assembly in September 2019.


This declaration says: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right of individuals to express themselves. In accordance with international standards on free speech and with due regard to the rights and reputation of others, it includes the right to criticize any system of thoughts and cannot be constrained or limited by the beliefs or sensitivities of others.”

Scant progress on decriminalizing blasphemy since 2015


Since the demonstration for free speech and against terrorism by 56 heads of state and government and leaders of international bodies in Paris on 11 January 2015, there has been little international progress on the decriminalization of blasphemy. 


After years of diplomatic wrangling over the issue of “defaming religions,” UN Human Rights Council resolution 16/18 of 24 March 2011 committed all countries to combat religious intolerance by promoting the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, and non-discrimination, which are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. An international process was launched in Istanbul in 2011 and a plan of action in Rabat in 2012.


Unfortunately, little has been achieved as a result of these initiatives. According to The Freedom of Thought report by Humanists International, only eight countries have repealed “blasphemy” laws since 2015, and laws continue to penalize blasphemy in 68 other countries. It is sanctioned by corporal punishment in Saudi Arabia and by imprisonment or execution in Egypt. Those charged with blasphemy face a possible death sentence in six other countries – Mauritania, Brunei, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia. Apostasy, a charge sometimes brought against journalists and cartoonists, is penalized in 18 countries. “Apostates” face a possible death sentence in 12 of them.


Contrary to the March 2011 resolution, some anti-blasphemy laws have even been reinforced. Under Brunei’s new penal code, adopted in 2019, blasphemy, apostasy, homosexuality and adultery are all punishable by flogging, caning or death. Article 306 of Mauritania’s penal code has been replaced by new provisions for an automatic death sentence in cases of “blasphemous statements” or apostasy.


It is in Europe that the process of decriminalizing blasphemy has made most progress since 2015. Norway had begun in 2009 but it was only after the Charlie Hebdo killings that it finally repealed its blasphemy law. Iceland’s Pirate Party persuaded its parliament to repeal its blasphemy law in a session in July 2015 in which three members of the party took the floor in turn and pronounced the words: “I am Charlie.” In France, blasphemy has not been a crime since 1881 except in Alsace Moselle, where it was finally abolished in 2017. Six other countries have repealed their blasphemy laws since 2015: Malta in 2016, Denmark in 2017, Ireland (by referendum) in 2018 and three more countries in 2019 – Canada in February, New Zealand in March and Greece in July.


While the penalization of blasphemy in the strictest sense is tending to disappear in Europe, insulting religious beliefs or offending religious feelings is still penalized in some countries. In a highly questionable ruling, the European Court of Human Rights endorsed a member of the Austrian far right’s blasphemy conviction for referring unfavourably to the Prophet Muhammad. Will this judicial precedent mean prophet cartoons are no longer permitted? Could it be used against Charlie Hebdo? Unfortunately, the question is open.


Religious shackles on news and information


While the entire world was following the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers on 9 January 2015, thousands of kilometres away, the Saudi authorities – who had condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo – were flogging Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old blogger, for exercising his right to free speech and freedom of opinion. They gave him 50 of the 1,000 lashes to which he had been sentenced in November 2014, along with ten years in prison, on charges of apostasy and insulting Islam in blog posts about secularism. Although backed by many countries, Badawi is still in prison.


For reproducing a cartoon of Muhammad with a tear in his eye and holding an “I am Charlie” placard, Hikmet Cetinkaya and Ceyda Karan, two Turkish columnists with the Cumhurriyet newspaper, were sentenced in 2016 to two years in prison for “inciting hatred” and “insulting religious values.” They are still waiting for their appeal to be heard.


The Egyptian blogger Sherif Gaber was arrested in October 2013 on a charge of spreading “atheist ideas” online and was sentenced to a year in prison in 2015 for “advocating atheism.” After being giving permission to appeal against his conviction in return for depositing a large sum of money, he went into hiding to avoid having to serve the jail sentence. In January 2019 he posted a video on YouTube entitled “Help me escape Egypt.”


Limon Fakir, an outspoken Bangladeshi blogger who wrote about Islamic fundamentalism, was tortured by the police for two weeks after being arrested in April 2017 and was finally charged with “defamatory language against the Prophet” under the notorious section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, which is often used to gag bloggers and journalists in Bangladesh. He is still facing a possible 14-year jail sentence. Asas Noor, another Bangladeshi blogger, fled to India after being arrested in January 2018 for writing articles deemed to be critical of Islam. He is also facing a possible 14-year jail sentence.

In Iran, hundreds of intellectuals, including journalists and citizen-journalists, have been arrested, tried and sentenced to long jail terms or even executed since 1979 on charges of insulting “what is most sacred in Islam, the Holy Shia Imams and the Koran.” The treatment of Tehran-based photographer Soheil Arabi, the 2017 RSF Press Freedom Prize laureate in the citizen-journalist category, is typical of the ferocity of this persecution. Subjected to solitary confinement for months after his arrest in December 2013, he is still being held nine years later. He is one of around ten journalists who are currently in prison– either pending trial or serving sentences – on blasphemy charges.


The release in July 2019 of Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Mkhaïtir – a Mauritanian blogger who was initially sentenced to death in December 2015 for apostasy and insulting the Prophet Muhammad and was then held for more than five years – offered a ray of hope for other victims and for all those who, like RSF, had supported him during his nearly six-year ordeal.


Violence by individuals or armed groups

Five years after the attack against Charlie Hebdo, the threat of violence against those who discuss or make fun of religion has not diminished and is even being amplified by social networks. In other words, journalists are threatened by legislation, by armed groups or by both.


A criminal charge of “hurting religious sentiments” was brought in April 2018 against Swathi Vadlamudi, an Indian journalist with The Hindu newspaper, for drawing a cartoon of two Hindu gods. At the same time, a campaign of online harassment and death threats was unleashed against her. It included predictions that she would suffer the same fate as Gauri Lankesh, a well-known newspaper editor who was gunned down in September 2017, probably by Hindu nationalists.


The situation is just as bad, if not worse, in Bangladesh. There were recent calls for Shyamal Dutta, the editor of the daily newspaper Bhorer Kagaj, and his staff to be publicly hanged. Many atheist bloggers have been murdered in Bangladesh since 2013. They include Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was hacked to death by militants in February 2013 after posting comments about religious fundamentalism online. Four bloggers known for defending tolerance, free speech and freethinking in their posts – Avijit Roy (the founder of the news website Mukto-Mona), Washiqur RahmanAnanta Bijoy Das and Niloy Neel – were killed in 2015. The young citizen-journalist Nazim Uddin Samad was gunned down in April 2016 for defending secularism in his writing. The police investigations into these murders have all ground to a halt and none has led to a conviction. Shahjahan Bachchu, a freethinking blogger and editor of the Amader Bikrampu weekly, is among the latest victims. An advocate of religious tolerance who had been threatened by Jihadi groups and radical Islamists for years, he was killed in cold blood by masked gunmen in June 2018.


In Pakistan, blasphemy accusations ended tragically in April 2017 for Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old journalism student. After a debate about religion, fellow students accused him of insulting Islam. A student mob dragged him from his university dormitory the next day and beat him to death in broad daylight. Videos of his murder showed a style of lynching and “mob justice” often associated with Islamist groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State.


In Jordan, the Christian writer Nahed Hattar was gunned down in 2016. He had been jailed by King Hussein in the 1980s for criticizing the monarchy and had narrowly escaped a murder attempt in 1988. A gunman finally shot him in the street in September 2016 while he was on his way to the court where he was on trial for sharing a cartoon on Facebook that mocked the Islamic State jihadi vision of God and paradise.


Even in France, there are journalists who must have police protection because of threats linked to religious intolerance. They include current and former Charlie Hebdo journalists who are still receiving close police protection five years later. The continuing threats take a toll on the magazine itself, which has had to spend more and more on security over the years although it has lost most of the additional readers it gained in the immediate aftermath of the killings.


Charlie Hebdo’s former journalists are still being threatened. Former editor Philippe Val has had a police escort ever since he published the famous Muhammad cartoons in 2006. Although he has not worked for Charlie Hebdo since 2009, he continues to be a favourite target for fundamentalist groups. Former Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb el Rhazaouia’s protection was stepped up again in December because she is still the target of death threats and calls by fundamentalists for her to be beaten or raped.

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Mise à jour le 07.01.2020