12 March is World Day Against Cyber Censorship, first designated in 2008 at the request of Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières/RSF) and Amnesty International. Like World Press Freedom Day (3 May) it concentrates on restriction of Internet access issues and online freedom of expression. It’s purpose is to:
“rally everyone in support of a single Internet that is unrestricted and accessible to all. It is also meant to draw attention to the fact that, by creating new spaces for exchanging ideas and information, the Internet is a force for freedom. However, more and more governments have realised this and are reacting by trying to control the Internet.” – Reporters Without Borders
The event logo, designed by Reporters Without Borders is a computer mouse freeing itself from its chains, symbolising the defence of free expression online.
Freedom of Expression Index 2015-2016
Last year say saw 64 journalists killed carrying out their jobs, along with 6 media assistants. A further 19 netizens and citizen journalists were killed. In the first 10 weeks of 2016 another 11 journalists have been killed and over 300 journalists and citizen campaigners have been imprisoned for defending freedom of speech.
EU member hopeful, Turkey, ranks in the 150s out of 180 nations, and on 4 March the state forcibly took over the critical newspaper, Zaman. A decade ago it ranked at #98. “Turkey’s “underlying situation” score – covering such areas as cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders – actually worsened, showing that freedom of information continues to decline.”[UPDATE – the day after
“Turkey’s “underlying situation” score – covering such areas as cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders – actually worsened, showing that freedom of information continues to decline.” – RSF World Press Freedom Index
[UPDATE – the day after World Day Against Cyber Censorship a bomb exploded in the capital city Ankara killing at least 37 and injuring over a 100. Turkey’s state response included a broadcast ban by its broadcasting agency, RTÜK and then a court banned Twitter and Facebook after blast scene images were shared online. This despite Facebook instituting its “marked safe” check-in procedure for its users there.]
AdBlock call for the Internet to be Unblocked
Only for today, AdBlockis “un-blocking” some ad banners – just those from Amnesty about online censorship and freedom of speech. AdBlock’s CEO points to RSF’s “Enemies of the Internet” list as justification for this wake-up call:
“On their current list of ‘Enemies of the Internet’, Reporters Without Borders include China, the United States, North Korea, the United Kingdom, and many others.” – Gabriel Cubbage, AdBlock CEO
“Blocking ads is both easy and ethical”, says Gubbage, but blocking the Internet is not.
Saudi Arabia Internet Content Blocking
Raif Badawi is one of many in Saudi Arabia, e.g., Waleed Abu Al-Khair and Tariq al-Mubarak, to have fallen foul of one of the world’s leaders in Internet content blocking. Strict web filtering is in place to block content deemed pornographic, or “morally reprehensible” – the latter has come to include religious apostasy, state criticism, or discussion of human rights issues and abuses.
United Kingdom Surveillance
Even the United Kingdom is a current “enemy of the Internet”. Why the UK? For our unprecedented CCTV, cyber and telecommunications surveillance, in some areas second only to China and in others worse than the US, according to Edward Snowden. This stems from a confusion that journalism equates with terrorism, or its risk, as the Guardian knows only too well.
“GCHQ thus gathers an unprecedented quantity of information”. – RSF
Since 1992, Reporters Without Borders, along with more recently TV5 Monde have offered a journalistic freedom Prize to reporters and online activists around the world. 2003 saw RSF give a first cyber freedom award to imprisoned Tunisian cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui. Since 2010, RSF has been awarding a Netizen Prize to the cybercitizen online activist, blogger, or journalist, who has most fought for freedom of expression and reporing on the Internet.
Countless other thousands of journalists and activists, and millions of netizens, deserve a free and unfettered Internet. We must learn to police ourselves, rather than be censored by others. For who decides when a state is right or wrong if the freedom to even discuss or criticise that state is removed from us?
It is a year since the Charlie Hebdo shootings, already dwarfed as a massacre by the Paris attacks last month – two in a year of terror for France. Some countries witness those levels of extremist terrorist attack on an almost daily basis – Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Libya to name but a few. But these two atrocities brought it home to Europe. The result? More fear and less freedom. Today saw another shooting in Paris, this time of a man wearing a fake suicide vest, possibly expecting “suicide by cop” as a fast-track route to fanatical fantasy heaven.
“Perhaps the most far-reaching threats to freedom of expression in 2015 came from governments ostensibly motivated by security concerns. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, 11 interior ministers from European Union countries including France, Britain and Germany issued a statement in which they called on Internet service providers to identify and remove online content ‘that aims to incite hatred and terror.’” – PEN International
Repression and Restriction
Some national responses have been to monitor more communication, restrict creative output and freedom of expression, shut down borders, target migrants. Some newspapers have fomented xenophobia by encouraging that fear of attack by certain minorities – namely all Muslims.
Other communities have risen up to support migrant peoples and minority sections of society, to engage with Islam and unite with the peaceful majorities within them. Vigils and campaigns calling for an end to retaliatory air strikes on Islamic State targets embedded in civilian populations have been held, so as to prevent escalation.
Last year pen and brush, stand-up and essay, fought back against the terrorists and the censors. My fear is that we will see more censorship and not less in 2016. The whereabouts of five missing booksellers and publishers in Hong Kong is unknown. Cartoonists, bloggers, and journalists, around the world remain in prison or disappeared.
Whilst everyone is criticising Saudi Arabia over its executions and inflaming conflict with Iran, remember that it is Iran which imprisoned a female political cartoonist – Atena Farghadan. That is not to say that the cartoons and comment themselves should not also come up for criticism – but it is the very freedom to criticise that we need to preserve, it is the sign of a safe society that we can.
All religions. All philosophies, ideologies, political views need challenging. Humour is a necessary part of the debate to prevent people taking themselves overly seriously and as an essential barometer of freedom itself. Laws that say you cannot ridicule the leader, party or religion, are by their very existence signs of repression.
In Islamophilia (“the disproportionate adoration of Islam”), Douglas Murray draws attention to the fact that if we can make fun of Islam with impunity then there is less need to do so, but “until then, we have a moral duty to do so.”
“If somebody threatens to kill people who draw a cartoon because it offends them, the only proper response is not to agree to alter everything you draw in future or avoid certain subject matters: it is to keep drawing that cartoon until such a time as the people who do the complaining stop. And then you stop doing it because it’s no longer necessary – just rude.” – Douglas Murray, Islamophilia
David Low was a New Zealand cartoonist who published cartoons depicting Hitler and Stalin in the UK during the Second World War infuriated the Nazis. Humour can humiliate and ridicule dogmatic ideologies – it is why historically it has been employed as a strategic counter measure. Nobody, within government at least, would dare do that currently, fearing that it would inflame the situation.
Low is but one in a long line of satirical and sarcastic commentators on society’s tyrants stretching back to biblical times, ancient Greece and Rome, eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain and France, to name but a few. It’s a tradition to be valued as much as any religious tradition. If we value freedom of expression at all, we must allow the freedom to criticise to co-exist alongside the freedom to practice any faith.
“On the anniversary of the brutal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo we, the undersigned, reaffirm our commitment to the defence of the right to freedom of expression, even when that right is being used to express views that some may consider offensive…Under international law, the right to freedom of expression also protects speech that some may find shocking, offensive or disturbing. Importantly, the right to freedom of expression means that those who feel offended also have the right to challenge others through free debate and open discussion, or through peaceful protest.” – PEN International
Charlie Hebdo simultaneously attracts praise and criticism
Charlie Hebdo continues to inspire both writers’ rage and courage. It is to receive a PEN award for Freedom of Expression Courage and yet half-a-dozen writers are already staging a stay-away protest. It has also been condemned for an apparently migrant-bashing cartoon that it turns out was neither anti-Mediterranean migrant nor by the satirical magazine anyway. C’est la vie mais pas la vérité!
PEN Freedom of Expression Courage award
Following the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris in January this year, a social media and public protest campaign using the phrase “Je suis Charlie” went viral but also forced us to ask questions of whether satire always punches up or even gets it right at all.
A month ago PEN awarded the Charlie Hebdo magazine the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, which is to be received in person by staff member Jean-Baptiste Thoret on 5 May in New York, who arrived to work late on January 7, “barely escaping the attack that killed eight of his co-workers and four others.”
“The Charlie Hebdo attacks dealt a blow to the bedrock principle that no act of expression, no matter how provocative or offensive, can justify violence”
Writers protest Charlie Hebdo PEN award
The double Booker Prize-winning novelist Peter Carey is one of a number of writers protesting the praise of Charlie Hebdo. In a New York Timesinterview he said the PEN award went beyond the organisation’s role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression, saying:
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
The PEN International Charter states that:
Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.
In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.
Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds, and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world.
It is, perhaps, questionable whether Charlie Hebdo or indeed PEN are doing their “utmost to dispel race…and national hatreds” or increasing “good understanding”.
Teju Cole, another of the protesting writers, wrote in January, shortly after the magazine massacre, an opinion piece in The New Yorker magazine, ‘Unmournable Bodies‘, in which he drew attention to Charlie Hebdo’s willingness to satirise and insult all, yet increasingly Islam, and highlighted Western hypocrisy:
“The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture.”
There was some excellent and varied commentary upon the New Yorker piece on their Facebook page from French citizens bemoaning the lack of understanding of French satire and cultural context.
The current PEN America president, Andrew Solomon, has acknowledged the offence felt by some at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, but has added that PEN believed strongly in the “appropriateness” of the award:
“It is undoubtedly true that in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims, as their cartoons offended members of the many other groups they targeted, but, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracise or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority to place broad categories of speech off-limits, no matter the purpose, intent or import of the expression. We do not believe that any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats.”
“It is the role of the satirists in any free society to challenge the powerful and the sacred, pushing boundaries in ways that make expression freer and more robust for us all…In paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”
Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president and someone with the experience of people coming after him for what he wrote, said:
“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name”
Mediterranean Migrants Cartoon case of Mistaken Identity
Charlie Hebdo was also, last week, condemned for a cartoon depicting drowning migrants (“people” for those of us with a streak of humanity) in the Mediterranean, on that platform of accurate factchecking – Twitter. Except it wasn’t a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, just by one of their newer cartoonists and published elsewhere in a French-Algerian publication, Liberté. The gross caricaturing of African migrants in it seems to fail the “punching up” test and appears to mock a humanitarian tragedy at sea.
The double irony, however, was that the cartoon, condemned for racism among other things, was drawn by an Algerian, Ali Dilem, who was satirising French immigration policy (“regroupement familial”) and condemning the losses at sea because of that policy. Not everything is what is seems before we jump to judge.
“Ironically, Charlie Hebdo has actually done a magazine cartoon which condemns Europe over their inaction over the thousands of African migrants dying in the Mediterranean monthly.”
Furthermore, Charlie Hebdo has actually critiqued the Mediterranean migrants issue in its own cover-image cartoon based around the idea that a tragedy of Titanic proportions is happening each fortnight in the Med. Last year some 3,500 of 350,000 people escaping North Africa died at sea – that’s a similar number to the deaths in Nepal due to the recent earthquake. This year we’ve reached half than number in barely months.
It is a whole other question – to which I don’t have an answer, of whether disaster and loss, tragedy and terrorism, should be satirically pilloried at all, and if they are, how.
Human Writes and Wrongs
The right to offend should never be taken lightly, nor honoured without a thought to the consequences of what it may encourage. That is not to say that PEN is right or wrong in its award, perhaps that there might have been better, or safer, recipients. Playing it safe, though, is not what freedom of expression is about. The right to offend, satirise, challenge, does not mean that we should always write it. Think it, yes, voice it perhaps, but disseminate it – that is a choice, not just a right. Rights come with responsibilities – though, none that would suggest the Charlie Hebdo attack was merited or justifiable.
The responsibility for PEN, Charlie Hebdo, Liberté, and us all, I would caution, is that we need to take account of the context, culture and consequences, of what we write – draw or say, of how we depict not just what we depict. Sometimes, the end may not justify the means. Not all freedoms are equally important. Respect, however, should be mutual and equally carries the responsibility of two-way tolerance. To caveat what Voltaire never said: “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it and my right to critique the manner in which you said it, or whether it needed to be said at all.“
In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi remains in prison under threat of 950 more lashes and 9 more years of a 10 year sentence and a further 10 year travel ban upon release, as punishment for “insulting Islam”. Additionally, his trial lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, who set up a human rights monitoring organisation (MHRSA) in Saudi, was also subsequently charged himself for various breaches. Both had their sentences recently increased by half again, not cut or commuted.
Waleed Abu Al-Khair
Among other things, Waleed Abu Al-Khair (also written as Abulkhair) was accused and convicted of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and sentenced to a 15 year prison term in 2014 and a 15 year travel ban upon his release, he was already prohibited from travel since 2012.
Abulkhair had defended many people for socio-religious and political crimes in Saudi, including a British national when he was hired by the British embassy. If political is even a word that can be voiced in a state that is an absolute rather than even a constitutional monarchy. Opposition and democracy are thus, inherently illegal.
He ran, in his own home, a mixed sex politico-religious discussion group or salon called Smood (“resistance”) and used Twitter and Facebook for further discussion, somewhere he felt free at last. Indeed, Forbes magazine listed him as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Arabs on Twitter.
Social media activity is an uncensored medium that has got away from Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Arab Twitter users and a Facebook user base second only to Egypt. Perhaps the United Nation’s big #SocialUN gathering on 30 January and discussion of digital diplomacy will foster awareness of those imprisoned for freedom of speech on social media.
“Do I hate anyone?” I wonder, particularly those who have insulted me and my family, using the foulest of words in the course of the investigations? Do I hate those who imposed a travel ban on me for years with no legal reason? Do I hate the judge who ordered that I be put in jail simply because I have a signed a statement calling for fair trials? Or should I hate the Prince, whose emissaries have continuously threatened me with being put in prison for years if I refrain from signing an affidavit? Do I hate men of religion who drafted heinous reports about me to the security agencies – full of lies and proclaiming me an apostate? Or should I hate the people using pseudonyms on new media outlets, so they could lie about me and my family so as to damage my reputation further?
I reach deep within my heart and find that I bear no grudge against anyone. I realize that I rather feel sorry for them, the same way I feel sorry for those who decided to give up their freedom, just like an alcoholic who roams aimlessly after willingly giving up his mind to liquor.
Freedom of expression on social media hasn’t stopped Saudi reaching beyond international boundaries to extradite and imprison one Hamza Kashgari for questioning Islam via Twitter. Thousands of Saudis backed calls for this young man’s execution for apostasy and support of the Arab Spring. He served 2 years after apologising but was banned from writing again.
Kashgari described his original actions in the following terms:
“I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rights – freedom of expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain. I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”
Raif Badawi was arrested in 2008 and again in 2012 for apostasy and insulting Islam by electronic means, i.e., he set up the website Free Saudi Liberals to enable discussion of religion and politics. Cited charges included “ridiculing Islamic religious figures” and “going beyond the realm of obedience” – whatever that means!
The Saudi court ordered him to undergo 50 lashes every Friday for 20 weeks, publicly outside a mosque on a religious day just after prayers, only the first instalment has been delivered to date, in the middle of the square in front of Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah where a large crowd gathered to witness the flogging. Last Friday, he was again not caned – the third time the punishment has been postponed, allegedly due to his previous wounds not having healed enough, but also likely due to international media attention on Saudi following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the death of King Abdullah.
Religion and Punishment
What kind of religion or state combines faith and flogging, prayer and punishment, in such a way? Well perhaps ancient Judaism might have done. Certainly, biblical texts of the Torah allow for the stoning of those caught in adultery, for instance, or tell of the clinical purging of an enemy for idolatry. That the populace tried to pick up stones, to stone an alleged adulteress, as recorded in the gospels, proves that the law was still known, if not in use, though there’s little record of it being enacted. Jesus intervened, in this case, and it didn’t happen. Likely as not, the Romans would have had a problem with people literally taking the law into their own hands anyway.
So, just because Jesus stopped a public punishment, does that place Christianity above Judaism in ethics? Far from it. Church history records the Crusades and the Inquisition, brutal tortures, executions, burnings of heretics, witches, liberals. Some countries and US states continue to commend the death penalty based upon biblical texts.
Islam – Peace or Violence?
Ironically, whilst Islam means “submission” it stems from the same root as the Arabic salām سَلاَم meaning “peace”. Numerous people have referenced its over 100 verses suggestive of killing varieties of “unbelievers”, yet it also condemns the taking of a single “innocent life” as equivalent to murdering the whole world. Like all religions, it seems, there is plenty of Scripture to cut and paste and formulate one’s own intolerant beliefs, or to foment and indoctrinate via human interpretation.
“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God hears and knows all things.” – Qur’an, Al-Baqarah, 2:256
Indeed, all three monotheistic religions have scriptures calling for tolerance, mercy, love and peace. What we choose to focus on, judge by, is therefore, a function of our beliefs, not something we can justify by selective religious reasoning.
State Sanctioned Hypocrisy
The hypocrisy of not only Saudi Arabia, but those nations and leaders that visited the country in the wake of the recent death of the king, even flying flags at half-mast, like England but not Scotland, is visible to all. Transparently and desperately trying to get in with the new king to gain access to oil, defence, and trade agreements.
As Abulkair has written:
“As long as the oil keeps flowing, the world will turn a blind eye if Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on freedom and human rights.”
Saudi’s own hypocrisy lies in not exercising mercy and tolerance in order to deserve the same, principles cited by Muhammad himself:
“No mercy would be shown to him who does not show mercy”, Muhammad in Sahih Al-Bukhari and in Sahih Muslim
“Be tolerant to be tolerated”, Muhammad narrated in Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad 1/248.
Tolerance, or samah, in Islam is considered to also mean leniency.
Furthermore, it has been pointed out that they extreme flogging sentence breeches even the grounds and interpretation of Quranic and Sharia punishments.
Human Rights Campaigns
Various Change.org and Amnesty International campaigns are keeping the pressure up, but governments are turning a blind eye to Saudi, tolerating one form of extremism over another, Islamic State. Mainly, it seems, because IS (ISIL/Daesh) is missionary, i.e., wanting to expand and conquer, whilst Saudi is content to rule its own citizens with an iron rod, beheader’s sword and flogger’s cane.
Other international human rights, humanitarian, peace and journalists organisations have continued to publicise Badawi and Abulkhair, giving them prizes and awards to draw attention to their plight and honour their fight. For instance Badawi has been awarded the PEN Canada One Humanity Award 2014, the Reporters without Borders Netizen Prize 2014, and Aikenhead Award 2015 of the Scottish Secular Society.
Whilst the حديث ḥadīth or saying(s – technically أحاديث ʾaḥādīth is the plural) of the Prophet are outside the Quran, they like the Mishnah and Talmud for Jews, form a significant part of traditional interpretations for Muslims. Indeed, much Shariah law is derived from the Hadith. For those campaigning for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair you could do no worse than to quote the following hadith to them:
“It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.” – Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1011.
In fact it is an injunction of one hadith to call Islamic oppressors to account:
Allah’s Apostle said, “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed,” A man said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I will help him if he is oppressed, but if he is an oppressor, how shall I help him?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing (others), for that is how to help him.” – Sahih Bukhari 9.85.84
Abulkair finished his final letter pending imprisonment with this:
“…freedom is cultivated, its seeds are those who have sacrificed a lot and have made the sky the limit to their sacrifice… There will always be free souls in this world who will not be silenced by oil!”
Please, and especially in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, do not forget those in prison for standing up for freedom of expression in the Arab world. Keep the pressure on governments, agencies and media alike to Free Raif Badawi and Free Waleed Abulkhair.