With the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, freedom of speech has become a crucial talking point in the international community. 2014 was not a promising year for this particular liberty, with Freedom House ranking free speech at its lowest globally in over a decade.[i] The organization stated that the decline was partially due to major losses in freedoms and rights in many Middle Eastern countries, namely Egypt, Libya, and Jordan. Last year witnessed 66 journalists killed, 119 kidnapped, and 178 incarcerated.[ii] Additionally, there are currently 165 imprisoned reporters worldwide.[iii] For most of us in the Western world, freedom of speech is taken as an inalienable right; the statistics display how dangerous exercising that right can be in nations that do not respect it as such.
These issues were highlighted on February 1st with the release and deportation of Al-Jazeera reporter Peter Greste. Greste, an Australian national, was imprisoned in Egypt for 400 days under allegations of reporting, which was “damaging to national security.”[iv] These charges were in response to Al-Jazeera’s favorable position towards the Muslim Brotherhood, a position that became dangerous once the Egyptian Military staged a coup against the organization and Fatah Al Sisi assumed the presidency.[v] While the first to be released, Greste was not the only one arrested. He was charged on January 29th, 2014, alongside two coworkers, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, and 17 others. Greste has expressed great relief at his liberation but emphasizes the importance of pursuing similar justice for his coworkers who remain imprisoned. The reporter stated that he felt “incredible angst” in leaving the other journalists, students, and activists behind.[vi]
Mohamad Fahmy, a citizen of both Canada and Egypt, will likely be freed as well, under the condition that he renounces his Egyptian citizenship. However, prospects are less hopeful for Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian who holds no other nationalities. After being convicted for colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood, Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years, while Mr. Mohamed received ten. These sentences were met with international protest and condemnation, which may have helped the process of re-trial and eventual release (in regards to Mr. Greste ).[vii]
Thanks to organizations such as “Reporters without Borders,” the international community is kept up to date, with missing, murdered or imprisoned journalists. Public knowledge in the digital age helps place scrutiny on countries that have high-rates of oppression and violently suppress the principles of Free Speech. It takes a mere Google search to discover that of the 165 incarcerated journalists, 15 are currently serving sentences in Egypt.[viii] The fact that Mr. Greste was released is a big step but one that many believe is only a face-saving measure for the Egyptian government.
Journalism has always contained elements of danger for those traveling to environments that are hostile towards criticism and transparency. It is understood that a journalist must answer to the laws and beliefs of the country in which they are reporting, thus in certain areas of the world the associated dangers are accepted as a professional risk. What is unusual is that we are increasingly witnessing attacks on free speech in nations where the right has been cemented for centuries. This year began with an assault on freedom of speech, not in a closed autocracy or military dictatorship, but in Paris, the capital of a nation that stands as a foundation for liberty in the Western world. Just two weeks ago, a cafe in Copenhagen came under gunfire as Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was attending a conference on Free Speech. In a globalized world the proximity of the affairs of others makes clashes between opposing ideals on liberty of speech ever more distinct. As the media circulates at an accelerated speed these contradictory values transcend borders. It is possible that free speech is no longer an issue for independent communities and individuals in undemocratic societies to fight for. In a sense, their struggle has become a global issue.
As these developments to the journalistic profession evolve, the parameters of public discourse are simultaneously changing. A renewed emphasis on political correctness is creating an air of “taboo” around stating opinions that are controversial particularly in regards to societal groups. These issues largely arose because of events such as the Charlie Hebdo incident. At what point does freedom of speech constitute defamation? Does freedom of speech supersede other human rights such as religious liberties and minority representation? These questions must be reflected upon in order for an acceptable public rhetoric, to be established.
There appears to be a need for the international community to agree upon the merits of transparency and the importance of free speech. Even in the West the nature of free speech is not uniform; in the United States, the right is considered so sacred that it is practically unrestricted, providing platforms for organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to preach white supremacy and racism. In Canada, a space in the public discourse does not exist for such a group, as their rhetoric falls under the sanctions of “hate speech.”[ix] The two countries share immense similarities, but their notions of what constitutes free speech differs, with Canada maintaining that certain content is too damaging to the public to be permitted. Similarly, in many European countries such as Germany, France, and Austria, public Holocaust denial is an offense subject to legal action.[x]
These differences create complexities; should the international community be advocating absolute free speech in the sense that it is understood in the United States, or should it promote a more limited and protective form? Should the protections made for the Jewish community in Germany for example, due to their long and difficult history with anti-Semitism, be extended to protect other minority groups?
Overall, 2014 was a step back for free speech in the world. 2015 commenced with the brutal attack on cartoonist Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters and later the assault on the Copenhagen cafe. The fate of Baher Mohamad is a potential re-trial, which could result in another lengthy jail sentence. He and many others are being punished for a trade, which in some nations is hailed as the foundation of freedom, and in others, condemned as a disturbance to national peace and security. In light of these events, it is crucial to deliberate the future of free speech and journalism and the measures that can be taken to create some uniformity in our understanding of liberty of expression. The momentum that the Charlie Hebdo incident generated was enormous. Large parts of the international community stood together in solidarity with France and in defense of freedom of expression. Whilst the world’s attention persists, that awareness must be utilized to make 2015, and the long-term, a step forward towards free speech.
[i] Freedom of the Press 2014.” Freedom House. N.p., 2014. Web. <https%3A%2F%2Ffreedomhouse.org%2Freport%2Ffreedom-press%2Ffreedom-press-2014%23.VNE_11bO7wI>.
[ii] 2014 Round-up of Violence Against Journalists.” Reporters Without Borders. N.p., 16 Dec. 2014. Web. <http%3A%2F%2Fen.rsf.org%2Frwb-publishes-2014-round-up-of-16-12-2014%2C47388.html>.
[iii] Greste ‘angst’ for Jailed Colleagues.” BBC News. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-31098691>.
[iv] Al-Jazeera Journalists Held in Egypt.” BBC News. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25546389>
[v] Greste ‘angst’ for Jailed Colleagues.” BBC News. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-31098691>.
[ix] Greenawalt, Kent. “Free Speech in the United States and Canada.” Law and Contemporary Problems 55.1 (1992): 5-33. Print.
[x] Bazyler, Michael J. “Holocaust Denial Laws and Other Legislation Criminalizing Promotion of Nazism.” Genocide Prevention Now. 2009. Web. <http://genocidepreventionnow.org/Portals/0/docs/Bazyler-GPN-Original.pdf>.