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Was the Paris March a Symbol of Hypocrisy in the Name of Free Speech?

Paris March

By Mirza Arif

Edited by Nandini Bhatia, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

#JesuisCharlie or #Jenesuischarlie. Well the dilemma continues to baffle us. Much has been said, read and written about the aforementioned hashtags. The mayhem that unfolded on the vacant streets and at the office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo resulted in deaths of more than 17 people, including 12 cartoonists/journalists. The reasons are conspicuous and known to the world now. The magazine frequently indulged in activities often regarded as nefarious in the Islamic world.

No religion, including Islam, sanctions the killing of innocent humans and they must be condemned vehemently. Depiction of the Prophet is considered sacrilegious in the Muslim world, though it is widely contended that there is no clear mentioning of it in Quran.

From spread legged Mary to a nude caricature of Prophet Mohammed, Charlie Hebdo didn’t leave any stone unturned to make a mockery of any religion. With a circulation of around 60,000 in France, Charlie has made its name for caricaturing not only Prophet but also top most politicians of France. The events of 7th January however culminated into the inception of a new chapter, not only about terrorism in France but also sparked a discourse on freedom of speech and expression.

Shedding a bit of light on Article 24 of Law on Press Freedom (1881) in France would present a vivid picture. It prohibits “anyone from publicly inciting another to discriminate or to hate or to harm, a person or a group for belonging or not belonging or in fact in fancy to any ethnicity or nation or sex or religion or sexual orientation or having a handicap”.

Not only Article 24, but recent legislations passed by France leading to the ban on wearing the face veil (burqa/niqab) in public places establishes the fact that freedom of speech and expression is certainly not absolute in the country where people have chanted slogans in favor of this fundamental right. In September 2011, France also passed a law barring Muslims from street prayers and approximately 564 women were arrested in 2014 for wearing veils, clearly stifling the freedom to express. France was also the first country to ban pro-Palestine protests on its soil.

The left-oriented magazine Charlie Hebdo continued to hurt the sentiments of different religions with impunity. This surely casts a shadow on the barometer via which an offence or incitement is calculated in France. During the course of its stride to offend, the magazine was sued 12 times by the Catholic Church.

Maurice Sinet, one of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo was fired by the magazine for making remarks which were tantamount to anti-Semitism. If the core objective of the magazine was to make a travesty of every religion, the outburst against Sinet was and is still beyond comprehension.

Sunday, 11 January, 2014 saw more than 1.5 million people thronging on the streets in Paris extending solidarity with the journalists of Charlie Hebdo who had fallen prey to the ire of fanatics. The unity march also witnessed Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Gabonese President Ali Bongo, and representatives from countries like Egypt, Turkey and UAE walking hand in hand espousing free speech. Their presence does epitomize just one thing, sheer hypocrisy. Who can forget the brutality inflicted by Benyamin Netanyahu on Gaza that resulted in the deaths of more than 2200 people? Israel recently passed a bill to declare itself an all Jewish state. His decision to walk in the unity march perplexed everyone.

After the ouster of Morsi, Abdel Fatah al Sisi banned any gathering of more than 10 people without government approval in Egypt. 16 journalists have been arrested in Egypt including 3 from Al-Jazeera for allegedly supporting Morsi’s regime. Life is not easy for journalists in Gabon as any expose against the tyranny of Ali Bongo invites fierce ramifications. In 2012, Gabon’s state run media suspended two weeklies Ezombolu and La Une for being critical of the government. In the same year, journalist Olivier Ndembi was summoned and interrogated for his research into suspected involvement of Gabonese politicians in ritual killings.

To see these suppressors leading the free speech march in Paris is a farce. In the same week, carnage precipitated in the northern town of Baga, Nigeria by extremists from Boko Haram as well. Amnesty International defined this massacre as the deadliest in the 10 year history of Boko Haram and the number of killings catapulted to more than 2000.

Unfortunately, neither media nor the custodians of free speech and human rights paid heed to this event. Another point to be taken cognizance of is that, there is preponderance of Muslims in northern-Nigeria and there is a high possibility that majority of the victims could be Muslims.

Unfortunately, we get swayed by killings of 17 cartoonists in one part and the killings of more than 2000 civilians go unnoticed owing to our apathy. Another thing to be learnt from the events of last week is that ‘fanatics don’t belong to any religion’. For, all those who walked in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo and all those who reiterated #jesuischarlie the question is: Are all of them really Charlies? If yes than they should also promulgate #iamBaga else they should do away with this hypocritical practice.

Mirza Arif Beg is pursuing his Masters in Convergent Journalism from AJKMCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia New Delhi. He takes keen interest in International Affairs. He tweets @arifmirza22 .

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