Amnesty International's Siobhan Reardon explains why, in the wake of the Paris attacks, the fight for press freedom is a fight for everyone's freedom
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Article 19 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights
It still seems unreal that just a week ago today as I write journalists were slaughtered as they sat at their desks. The attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was a brutal assault on freedom of expression – not just in Paris, but everywhere.
Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported 61 journalists were killed in direct reprisals for their work. The most dangerous country was, unsurprisingly, Syria. The second week of 2015, and the CPJ’s figure is already at five – the most dangerous country is now France.
Standing up for freedom of speech and expression is something we do at Amnesty as a matter of course – it is unthinkable to imagine a world where fear, intolerance, and brutality take the place of artists holding those in power to account through their words and images.
Those who worked at Charlie Hebdo were fully aware that their work made them a target for extremists. Since this terrible attack there has been debate about whether it was wise to publish drawings depicting the Prophet Mohammed – are some things just too provocative to print? The New York Times certainly seems to think so – they reported on the deaths of the journalists and political cartoonists without showing a single sample of their work. Lawyer Lloyd Abrams, who had previously defended the newspaper, wrote to express his dismay – “There are times for self-restraint, but in the immediate wake of the most threatening assault on journalism in living memory, you would have served the cause of free expression best by engaging in it.”
At Amnesty International we believe that you should always engage with freedom of expression, even in cases where something is deemed offensive or provocative. There are certain, very limited, circumstances where free speech can be restricted – “hate speech” or incitement to discrimination for example.
Often the greatest threat to freedom of expression comes from the authorities. As images emerged from the Paris unity march last Sunday, many of the world leaders attending were criticised for their country’s treatment of journalists. Among them was foreign minister Shoukry of Egypt who stood in Paris while the Al Jazeera three – journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed - languished behind bars with nine other media workers in Egypt – the fourth highest jailer of journalists in the world
There are ways we can support freedom of expression and make a difference in the lives of those currently imprisoned for their work.
Last week, Saudi Arabian blogger and prisoner of conscience Raif Badawi was flogged in public in front of the al-Jafali mosque in the city of Jeddah. He received the first 50 lashes of the 1,000 to which he has been sentenced. His punishment also includes ten years in jail and a fine of a million riyals (£175,000). His crime? Creating an online forum for public debate and “insulting Islam”. We are working to have him released.
Sri Lankan political cartoonist and journalist, Prageeth Eknaligoda, has been missing since January 24, 2010 – we suspect for his criticism of the government. When Prageeth’s wife Sandya went to the police to report her husband missing the following day, instead of supporting her, police detained her at the station – she has been campaigning for the truth ever since.
These are just two examples of urgent action required right now. If you have said “Je suis Charlie” over the last week, please consider how you can do even more to protect people’s freedom of speech and join Amnesty’s Urgent Action Network now.