In Charlie Hebdo’s wake, free speech remains repressed

The recent attack on the publishing offices at the famed satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” left far more wreckage and ruin in its wake than the bodies of the 12 victims shot inside the building. For starters, this tragedy was, tragically, not universally condemned. In Turkey, two Islamist newspapers ran headlines saying, “Attack on the magazine that provoked Muslims,” and “Attack on the magazine that attacked our Prophet.” (Hurriyet Daily News, “Islamist Turkish dailies draw ire after Charlie Hebdo attack,” 01.07.15) These outbursts and others, by such notables including Boko Haram, ISIL (also known as ISIS), Noam Chomsky, Al-Shabaab (A Somalian branch of Al-Qaeda), and the Taliban in Afghanistan show that passions over Western free speech and satire laws continue to stoke religious indignation and outcries of supposed hypocrisy. Violent protests held the following week, over the release of the next Hebdo issue, by large crowds in Niger and Pakistan show that the slaughter in France, far from being a catalyst of peace, is simply bringing to surface rabid and visceral emotions regarding speech. (Al Jazeera, “Deadly Niger protests over Charlie Hebdo,” 01.17.15) (Al Jazeera, “Anti-Charlie Hebdo protests held in Pakistan,” 01.16.15)

The attack galvanized many governments into publicly reaffirming their continued support for the freedom of speech. At a mass rally in Paris, dozens of world leaders marched shoulder to shoulder in solidarity. However, the supposed power of this great image was somewhat diluted by the presence of particular rulers, including President Erodgen from Turkey, Qatari Sheikh Mohamed Thani, and Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra—all who represent notably repressive governments. (Times of India, “List of Leaders who attended Paris Rally,” 01.11.15)

The concern I hold regarding Charlie Hebdo is not that the world will publicly decry those who insist on limiting free speech, for by-and-large freedom of speech is enshrined in the majority of constitutions round the globe. However, I do see a consistent hypocrisy, at least in particular countries, in the enforcement of free speech laws. Broadly speaking, the world has actually become more repressive of dissent despite strides in some nations.

The rise of President Jokowo in Indonesia, a moderate man of the people promising to end and investigate abuses in state powers by previous leaders, doesn’t quite balance out the increasing repression of free speech in Turkey, Russia, China and France. Since the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AK or AKP) in Turkey, headed by Recep Erdogan, Turkey has locked away more journalists than any other country in the world, 100 at last count. (The Guardian, “In Turkey the right to free speech is being lost,” 06.10.12)

Russia and China are well known for their consistency in silencing dissent as well as their brutal methods of ensuring compliance from those deemed threatening or disharmonious. China, ruled by Premier Xi Jinping has, under the auspices of rooting out corruption, sent thousands to prison and further solidified his airtight grip on the Communist Party. (National Public Radio, “China’s Fierce Anti-Corruption Crackdown: An Insider’s View,” 12.24.14)

Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation is a masterful political leader, constantly refracting questions over his handling of the economy and diverting attention with Russia’s proxy war in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Part of his tactics on the home front have recently involved a new law that designates any NGO (non-governmental organization) receiving foreign funding and engaging in something broadly defined as “political activity” as a potential threat and requiring them to register with the Kremlin as a potential spy. (European Council on Refugees and Exiles, “We Are All Foreign Agents!”) This obviously disruptive law has already driven out droves of NGOs, including USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development. This NGO provided funding for groups that included Golos, an election monitoring group that had criticized the 2011 Russian elections. (World Socialist Web Site, “American NGOs pull out of Russia,” 02.26.13)

The reason I included France on the list in the previously, but did not elaborate, is because the governments above have a fairly long history of limiting free speech. France, as an extremely well developed nation, is generally held to a higher standard by its own citizens simply due to the age of the Republic. French peoples are accustomed to certain liberties, prominent among them freedom of speech, and generally any attempt to revoke them is met with massive protest and public rebuke.

France does however have some significant contradictions regarding free speech that are worth pointing out. Due to the collaboration of the Petain Government with the Nazis during World War Two, there was a tremendous push by the French people to enshrine the protection of Jews above other minorities. This led to the creation of laws, ostensibly to protect a damaged minority from any more hate, which prevent French citizens from recanting the Holocaust as well as set strict limits on the publication of material deemed “Anti-Semitic.” These laws, prevalent in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Denmark, have only tightened their restrictions since Charlie Hebdo. France’s controversial ban on Hijabs, a traditional form of wear for practicing Muslim women, has been seen by many as hypocritical, banning the free speech of one religious minority while protecting another.

These concerns are extremely valid. Although increasing immigration and devastating encounters with Islamic extremists could lead some to believe that Europe is “under siege” by Muslims, the reality is that Muslims are not only, on the whole, peaceful and productive members of the societies they inhabit, but they are minute in terms of size and power. For every European Muslim that sympathizes with the Hebdo murderers, there are a hundred more that protest the slaughter for the travesty it is. To malign the many on the actions of a few is not only unwise, but deeply flawed. When European nations criticize others on their human rights record or attempt to push for international efforts combatting the suppression of free speech, their marble pedestal is eroded by the deep gullies of their biased free speech laws.

Henceforth lies the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo. Rather than a stirring reminder of the power of the voice, regardless of its utterances, the massacre became a platform for populists to criticize and further restrict Muslims. The consequences of these actions will be felt by the next generation of Europeans for which suppression of free speech is the norm. No longer will France or The Netherlands be excluded from the list of “traditionally” repressive regimes. Indeed, they will be heading it.


—Pieter Block ’18 is a student at Vassar College.

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