Simon Williamson

What a difference five days make

2015-01-16 07:38

Simon Williamson
It was but a week ago that foreign leaders from around the world joined arms in a #JeSuisCharlie march, in a show of unity against terrorism, celebrating the much treasured value of free speech.
It's just such a pity that the height to which one gets in political office is inversely proportional to how much one actually cares about the rights of citizens to express thoughts that are not palatable to the greater public.  
Here in the US, President Barack Obama got it in the neck for not joining in the Paris march. He would have actually been a pretty decent fit, considering his administration has gone after more whistle-blowers than any administration before.

During his time at the helm the Justice Department secretly vacuumed up the phone records of a number of Associated Press journalists for two months in order to intimidate future whistle-blowers, sentenced Chelsea Manning to three decades of prison for leaking information, charged Edward Snowden with espionage charges for busting secret government spying programmes, gave New York Times journalist James Risen the legal runaround trying to get at a source of his, spied on Fox News journalist James Rosen and tapped his parents' phonelines, and successfully pressured the Yemeni government to imprison journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye after he was pardoned for reporting on a US drone strike.
Other international leaders at the march have horrendous records regarding freedom of speech, but it is the French who have turned out to be the most contemporary hypocrites. While free speech rights in the rest of the world are nowhere near as sacrosanct as they are in the US, one would think, at least in the current climate, that governments would ignore tendencies to imprison people for thoughts and words.

Instead, France arrested and opened a criminal investigation into comedian Dieudonné for a rancid Facebook rant he undertook, seemingly siding with the perpetrators of the second attack at the supermarket.
Dieudonné is a miserably heinous person and expressed some disgusting thoughts. But I really shouldn’t need to explain to you that free speech includes all speech. The entire point of the philosophy is so that government cannot decide what you can and can't say, or think (publicly or privately), whether that be anti-Muslim cartoons, or anti-government cartoons, or anti-Jewish cartoons.

Or, perhaps, expressing the idea that black people should have basic human rights – revolutionary ideas that anyone of a reasonable age will remember as outlawed in South Africa not all that long ago.  
The French have also outlawed pro-Palestine protests. At the march, according to Reason Magazine writer Nick Gillespie, those wearing "I do not stand with Charlie" buttons were asked to remove them, and those wearing – ironically or not – "I am Kouachi" badges were arrested.

An AFP journalist said on Twitter "54 cases opened for ‘condoning terrorism". The country also boasts a range of free-speech impinging laws, including forbidding insulting someone based on their religion, ethnicity, national origin and so on, and although courts aren't usually receptive to complaints in this vein, enough instances take place that permit the government to continue to think it is in charge of who can say what.
While the French may be the most high profile hypocrite under current circumstances, other international leaders at the march have no leg to stand on whatsoever. Spain just signed into law a set of rules regarding public protests, where they may or may not happen, restricting photographing and – I kid you not - insulting police officers.

Israel's forces killed 17 journalists in the most recent conflict in Gaza, to which the government replied with as many apologies as Lance Armstrong has won Tours de France. British Prime Minister David Cameron proudly strode the streets of Paris 18 months after forcing The Guardian newspaper to choose between destroying computer equipment holding government information, or handing it over.

The Russians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Qataris, Palestinians and Saudi Arabians all vastly limit their citizens' rights to free speech, and the Turks have (well, they're trying) blocked access to parts of the internet where Charlie Hebdo's new issue, bearing a cover depicting the Prophet Muhammed, is broadcast, on top of having police inspect a secular magazine.
It’s great world leaders came together to put up a unified front against terrorism, but let's stop pretending anyone at the front of that march gives the faintest hell about free speech. It was, however, a great show of support for speech that is publicly acceptable.

- Simon Williamson
is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. He previously worked on the campaign of Michelle Nunn, a Democratic candidate for Georgia’s US Senate seat in 2014. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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