In France the freedom of expression is unlimited for some, but narrow for others

The French Government follows a rather lopsided approach to human rights, in particular to the freedom of expression. This is what becomes increasingly clear in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of last week that cost the lives of 17 persons, among them 4 cartoonists of the “satirical” magazine Charlie Hebdo.

While French media and politicians (including President Hollande, who referred to them as “our heroes”…) have paid effusive homage to the four murdered cartoonists, styling them as martyrs who gave their lives so that we could continue enjoying our freedom of expression, it now turns out that this freedom is not for all. As “Le Figaro” reports, a huge number of persons have been arrested and sentenced for alleged “glorification of terrorism”, a new crime that was introduced into the Criminal Code only a few months ago.

Among those condemned, there are indeed some who have proffered threats and hate speech (such as “I hope you will be the next ones… “ or “The Kouachi brothers are just the beginning; I should have been with them to kill even more people”) which must be deemed unacceptable in any civilized society.

But among the statements sanctioned there are also some that do not threaten violence, but simply insult the victims: “Long live the Kooachis and Mohamed Merah, – f*** your mother, Charlie”. The comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has been arrested for having written on his Facebook page: “I feel like Charlie Coulybaly”. (Amédy Coulybaly was the name of one of the gunmen involved in last week’s attack).

Dieudonné has had to learn that for him the freedom of expression is not unlimited.

Despicable as some these utterances may be, one can with right ask the question: in what do they differ from similarly disgraceful insults that for many years the makers Charlie Hebdo have liberally heaped upon the targets of their (so-called) “satire”, and for which they are now glorified as the incarnation of “our common principles and values”?

Indeed, has not Charlie Hebdo itself in the past glorified terrorism (including Islamist terrorism), and mocked its victims? Look, for example, at the following cartoon:

Print and sell 45.000 copies of this, and you are a courageous defender of the freedom of expression.

Very funny, isn’t it? In Nigeria, 200 young girls have been abducted by terrorists, and then forcibly converted to Islam and/or sold into slavery. And Charlie Hebdo portrays them as the willing concubines of their slave-masters, and as fraudsters seeking for (French?) social benefits… Is that not mockery and insult of terror victims? Is that not glorification of terrorism? Not to mention the racist sterotyping… And what exactly did the competent public prosecutor do about it? And what did Cristiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice, do about it?

With this, we are not saying that persons glorifying terrorism and mocking its victims should not be persecuted. We would just recall that the laws must be the same for all. If we really believe that the right to freedom of expression must include the right to gratuitously insult other people, then clearly that right should be enyoyed by all, not only by a happy few. In that case, those who so enthusiastically defend the “right to insult” and “the right to blasphemy” as essential human rights should accept that their own sensitivities can be the target of derision. In that case, the notorious Christiane Taubira – who so persistently looked the other way when people felt offended by the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo – should maybe be a bit less touchy the next time she herself is made the object of a racist slur that likens her to an ape. After all, the laws ar there not only to protect the sacrosanct person of the Minister of Justice, but also the citizens whom she should be serving.

Put this on your Facebook page, and you get a 9 months jail sentence

What we are witnessing today in France and elsewhere is a sickening exhibition of extreme double-standards, bigotry, and hypocrisy. Tolerance is not shown by provoking others and then lecturing them about “freedom of expression”, but it is shown by tolerating the expression of opinions that violate one’s own sensitivities.

If we want to live together peacefully and in diversity, what is needed are not pathetic statements about the “right to insult” and “the right to blasphemy”, but a culture of mutual respect.