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Is the free press really free?


On Wednesday 7 January, ten journalists were shot dead in an attack on the offices of satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The attack is believed to have been orchestrated by a group of extremist individuals angered by the publication’s controversial history of depicting and mocking Islamic figures.The shocking events have ignited debate around freedom of the press and the right to free speech; David Cameron, Barack Obama and President Francois Hollande have unanimously condemned the attack, while members of the public have taken to the street and social media declaring the statement ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) in an expression of solidarity with the journalists murdered in the events.

As a state, France has prided itself as a liberated republic since it’s ten-year revolt over 200 years ago. The Revolution led to the creation of The Declaration of the Rights of Man that provided for the freedom of speech.

Writing in a period before the Revolution, historian and philosopher Voltaire made the statement: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible to continue to write” (often paraphrased as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will Idefend to the death your right to say it”). This sentence has since been used as a solitary quote to describe the principle of free speech and as a war cry in the fight against censorship of the press.

The recent attack is not the first use or threat of violence as a means of silencing journalists. In 2002 Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel authored a comment piece discussing the Miss World beauty pageant for Lagos-based newspaper Thisday. The pageant was set to be held in Nigeria later that year and had received much contestation from the Nigerian Muslim community.

In addressing this issue, Daniel made the following remark: “The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity. What would Mohammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them”. The provocative comment, allegedly intended by Daniel to make the article “funny” and “light-hearted” ignited outrage and prompted violent religious riots that lead to the death of more than 200 people. Daniel’s life was put at risk when the Islamist government of a Nigerian northern state issued a fatwa on her.

While the term ‘fatwa’ is one often sensationalised by the press, in this instance the states deputy governor Mamusa Aliya Shinkafi issued a statement that “it is abiding on all Muslims wherever they are to consider the killing of the writer as a religious duty”. The threat to her life led Daniel to flee the country, taking refuge in Europe, where she currently resides.

Many of the events brought to the forefront of the media depict those against free speech as predominantly being from an extremist Islamic background, but it’s important to recognise that this is not the truth, nor the only group that has perpetrated attacks against the freedom of the press.

In Russia there is an increasing agenda to narrow the diversity of opinion in its press. In 2011 Russia decriminalised defamation (groundless criticism) and addressed the issue of violence or threats of violence towards journalists and their relatives. What seemed to be a step forward on the road to a more liberated press was short-lived, when, in 2012, Putin recriminalised libel. While the state’s constitution provides for freedom of speech, laws such as the libel bill, regulations and politically motivated criminal investigations have forced the press to exercise self-censorship in order to avoid reprisal.

One of Putin’s most prominent critics, an anti-corruption blogger named Alexei Navalny, was found guilty of libel in 2014 after tweeting that a member of Putin’s political party was a drug addict.

“Many of the events brought to the forefront of the media depict those against free speech as predominantly being from an extremist Islamic background, but it’s important to recognise that this is not the truth.”

Russia also hit the headlines in 2013 when the state issued a bill known as the gay propaganda law or LGBT propaganda law that criminalises the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors, that being positive or neutral depictions of LGBT relationships. Since the bill there has been a reported rise in homophobic attacks, and some individuals are even afraid to hold hands with their partners in public, illustrating just how ferociously restrictions on the press and media can directly impact people’s lives.

During the recent prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong, the city-state saw a possible threat to its press’ freedom when, in July, Ming Pao, a newspaper celebrated for its independence, changed its headline midway through printing leading to the distribution of both uncensored copies that reported the protests and censored copies believed to have been ordered by the paper’s editorial director, who many speculate has pro-Beijing leanings.

As a former British colony, Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle its press has autonomy from China’s Communist Party leaders. Freedom House reported China’s media environment as one of the world’s most restrictive in 2013 with many journalists dismissed or forced to resign from their roles for failing to adhere to censorship guidelines. In 2014 it was listed as the worlds worst jailer of journalists. While many papers in China have condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo, The Global Times’ Chinese Edition went so far as to blame freedom of speech for causing ethnic tensions in Western societies, arguing that Western leaders have been “unwilling” to persuade the media to exercise restraint for the fear of losing electoral votes and that the lack of such freedom in China is a blessing for all ethnic groups in the country.

In Mexico, governments have failed to take action to address violence directed at its journalists, and, in a country with the highest levels of unsolved crimes against the press, its journalists put themselves at great danger to report the truth.

A drug cartel took to the Twitter account of citizen journalist Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio to post a photograph of her lifeless body in October. Rubio reported on local gang violence and druglords in order to help members of her town avoid being victims of shoot-outs, kidnap and extortion. Maria’s case is one of many, but unfortunately few of these crimes are reported on mainstream media due to the use of fear and intimidation to ensure a media blackout.

“[Charlie Hebdo] sits among many global attempts to silence the voices of those whom some would prefer not to be heard.”

Last week marked one year since Al Jazeera reporters Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste were arrested and convicted in Egypt for allegedly aiding the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news. In June 2014 Fahmy and Greste were sentenced for seven years and Mohamed for ten. Egypt’s top court has ordered a retrial for the three who say they were simply “reporting the news”.

While the attack on Charlie Hebdo has been declared the most lethal act of terrorism to target the media in modern Europe, its sits among many global attempts to silence the voices of those whom some would prefer not to be heard.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 1109 journalists have been killed since 1992 and as such, the resilient voices of those who stand against this most re- cent attempt to repress free speech chime loudly in unison with those with those who have spoken before them.



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