The tragic events that took place in Paris last week have stimulated heated debate about a range of difficult issues including where the limits of freedom of expression lie and how best to tackle extremism. This post is not intended to deal comprehensively every aspect of this debate but to highlight the hypocrisy of those who have aligned themselves with the ‘je suis charlie’ diaspora whilst otherwise adopting an anti-human rights approach to policy.
It was of course incredible to hear of the reported 3.7 million people marching through the streets of France in defiance of the terrorist acts and in support of freedom of expression, but I was incredulous to learn of the presence of politicians from such oppressive regimes as Egypt, Russia and Turkey. The lineup of politicians ironically read like a who’s who of the most notorious repressers of freedom of expression. This post by Daniel Wickham provides a comprehensive rundown of some of the worst offenders – who routinely have journalists and dissenters jailed, tortured and killed – scraping the bottom of the barrel in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.
The presence of these characters reveals a bare-faced hypocrisy, using the march as nothing more than a public relations exercise to excuse their respective countries’ dubious human rights records, with no intention of granting their own citizens fundamental rights like freedom of expression. Reporters Without Borders warned “We must not let predators of press freedom spit on the graves of Charlie Hebdo.”
David Cameron was of course centre-stage, and whilst it would be somewhat melodramatic to compare the UK to many of the more tyrannical regimes on display it is certainly worth looking at our own political discourse. Whilst Cameron pretends to be a champion of freedom it should be remembered that the Conservatives continue to reveal an onslaught of draconian anti-privacy and anti-freedom of expression measures, which will become a reality in the event of a Tory win in May. They will repeal the Human Rights Act and potentially withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Extremism Disruption Orders (see my previous post here) will see ‘extremists’- encompassing not just hate preachers and the like but also peaceful political activists- who have not even committed any criminal offence have their social media accounts and public appearances pre-emptively censored. They insist on reviving the Snoopers’ Charter, which will make it easier to obtain blanket access to electronic communications, and even plan to disregard the traditional safeguards of journalistic and legal privilege – rather than protect them from being trampled upon as they are now. Incredibly they now want to ban all methods of sending encrypted communications – which would include many of the most popular instant messaging apps on the market. Cory Doctorow explains that such a move would be technically impossible, would harm completely the wrong people, and put us in league with Syria, Russia and Iran. And even Frankie Boyle was quick to remind us what happens to those who try to exercise their freedom of expression in parliament square.
That spying on people’s communications can and will deter them from expressing themselves freely should really be a given, but this notion is being conveniently ignored. The usual cognitive dissonance leads people to believe that freedom is best defended from terrorists by cutting out the middleman and allowing the government to take it away from us, and blind faith in the State leads people to the conclusion that security is more important than liberty. These misguided attitudes, proffered by politicians and cheered on by the media, continue to be prevalent in any debate around human rights and this one is no different.
Spurred on by a renewed fear of terrorism, LBC’s premier bore Nick Ferrari has called for everyone who travels to Syria to be automatically and without any form of trial stripped of their citizenship – echoing Boris Johnson’s sentiments that he was “not bothered with this civil liberties stuff” as far as terror suspects are concerned.
The Sun cheered on surveillance by the intelligence services and our clearly outdated and unfit-for-purpose RIPA legislation – conveniently forgetting that only a couple of months ago it was complaining that police had abused that very same legislation to access the phone records of its own journalists. Like the Daily Mail, they instead decry “liberals” for having concerns about civil liberties. To do so under headlines such as “freedom fight” and “free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy” is almost beyond irony.
Tory MP David Davies somehow came to the conclusion that the attacks in Paris “show [the] need to scrap the Human Rights Act” – an argument which betrays an embarrassing ignorance as to the law, and one which was rubbished with little difficulty by Adam Wagner and Mark Elliott, who summed up particularly well:
“To the extent that the Paris shootings are relevant at all to the debate about human-rights law in the UK, their significance is not that they demonstrate that public security and human rights are incompatible. To the contrary, they stand as a stark reminder that liberal values are worth standing up for. Freedom of expression in general and freedom of the press in particular are values that were championed by the journalists and cartoonists at CharlieHebdo, and they are values enshrined in Article 10 of the ECHR and, hence, in our own Human Rights Act. To suggest that the shocking events that took place in Paris this week establish a need to repeal that legislation discloses not only an astonishing degree of legal illiteracy but a fundamental failure to appreciate what it means to live in a liberal democracy.”
Returning to those who are claiming allegiance with Charlie Hebdo – whether from within the UK or further afield – I will say this: To declare “Je suis Charlie” is not simply about being opposed to terrorism. The victims of the atrocity will be remembered as martyrs for freedom of expression and, by extension, for human rights and the wider system of values associated with those rights. It is therefore completely disingenuous for you as politicians and media institutions to align yourselves with the cause when the rest of the time you espouse entirely the opposite values. Vous n’êtes pas Charlie.