Protect journalists against religious intolerance – RSF and UN rapporteurs

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and two United Nations special rapporteurs appealed to governments and international organizations to protect journalists against religious intolerance on the fifth anniversary of the attack on the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

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

Deloire, Shaheed and Kaye condemned the increase in religious intolerance and hate speech, which was responsible for institutional violations of journalists’ rights and physical threats against them.

They all 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. These issues should be included in the next UN resolutions on protecting journalists with a particular focus 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.

“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.”

The attack killed 12 people – including eight members of the Charlie Hebdo staff. In 2006, Charlie Hebdo reprinted controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. French President Jacques Chirac criticized the decision and called it “overt provocation.” In 2011, the magazine’s offices were destroyed by a gasoline bomb after it published a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed.

Mandy Mallia, the sister of murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, pointed out the irony of the attitude of Joseph Muscat towards the French attack when compared to the ongoing campaigns calling for justice for Caruana Galizia’s death.

During the press conference, 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.”

Five years on, “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”, Shaheed said. “We also need to prioritise those countries where these laws are used most frequently and violently.”.

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

O’Casey spoke about the importance of standing up for speech that “annoys people, that challenges people, that makes people think and questions the status quo and our power structures”.

“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,” O’Casey said.

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.

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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