On the Anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo Attack Dissenting Voices Must be Protected

07 Jan 2016
On the Anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo Attack Dissenting Voices Must be Protected

7 January 2016

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.

The Charlie Hebdo attack, which left 11 dead and 12 wounded, was a horrific reminder of the violence to which journalists, artists and other critical voices are subjected in a global atmosphere marked by increasing intolerance of dissent. The killings inaugurated a year that has proved especially challenging for proponents of freedom of opinion.

Non-state actors perpetrated violence against their critics largely with impunity, including the brutal murders of four secular bloggers in Bangladesh by Islamist extremists, and the killing of an academic, M M Kalburgi, who wrote critically against Hindu fundamentalism in India.

Despite the turnout of world leaders on the streets of Paris in an unprecedented display of solidarity with free expression following the Charlie Hebdo murders, artists and writers faced intense repression from governments throughout the year. In Malaysia, cartoonist Zunar is facing a possible 43-year prison sentence for alleged ‘sedition’; in Iran, cartoonist Atena Fardaghani is serving a 12-year sentence for a political cartoon; and in Saudi Arabia, Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death for the views he expressed in his poetry.

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.’ In July, the French Senate passed a controversial law giving sweeping new powers to the intelligence agencies to spy on citizens, which the UN Human Rights Committee categorised as “excessively broad”.

This kind of governmental response is chilling because a particularly insidious threat to our right to free expression is self-censorship. In order to fully exercise the right to freedom of expression, individuals must be able to communicate without fear of intrusion by the State. 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.

On the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we, the undersigned, call on all Governments to:

  • Uphold their international obligations to protect the rights of freedom of expression and information for all, and especially for journalists, writers, artists and human rights defenders to publish, write and speak freely;
  • Promote a safe and enabling environment for those who exercise their right to freedom of expression, and ensure that journalists, artists and human rights defenders may perform their work without interference;
  • Combat impunity for threats and violations aimed at journalists and others exercising their right to freedom of expression, and ensure impartial, timely and thorough investigations that bring the executors and masterminds behind such crimes to justice. Also ensure victims and their families have expedient access to appropriate remedies;
  • Repeal legislation which restricts the right to legitimate freedom of expression, especially vague and overbroad national security, sedition, obscenity, blasphemy and criminal defamation laws, and other legislation used to imprison, harass and silence critical voices, including on social media and online;
  • Ensure that respect for human rights is at the heart of communication surveillance policy. Laws and legal standards governing communication surveillance must therefore be updated, strengthened and brought under legislative and judicial control. Any interference can only be justified if it is clearly defined by law, pursues a legitimate aim and is strictly necessary to the aim pursued.
  • PEN International
    ActiveWatch – Media Monitoring Agency
    Adil Soz – International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
    Africa Freedom of Information Centre
    ARTICLE 19
    Bahrain Center for Human Rights
    Belarusian Association of Journalists
    Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism
    Bytes for All
    Cambodian Center for Human Rights
    Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
    Center for Independent Journalism – Romania
    Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
    Comité por la Libre Expresión – C-Libre
    Committee to Protect Journalists
    Electronic Frontier Foundation
    Foundation for Press Freedom – FLIP
    Freedom Forum
    Fundamedios – Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study
    Globe International Center
    Independent Journalism Center – Moldova
    Index on Censorship
    Initiative for Freedom of Expression – Turkey
    Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information
    Instituto de Prensa y Libertad de Expresión – IPLEX
    Instituto Prensa y Sociedad de Venezuela
    International Federation of Journalists
    International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
    International Press Institute
    International Publishers Association
    Journaliste en danger
    Maharat Foundation
    Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
    Media Foundation for West Africa
    National Union of Somali Journalists
    Observatorio Latinoamericano para la Libertad de Expresión – OLA
    Pacific Islands News Association
    Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms – MADA
    PEN American Center
    PEN Canada
    Reporters Without Borders
    South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
    Vigilance pour la Démocratie et l’État Civique
    World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters – AMARC
    French PEN
    PEN Mali
    PEN Kenya
    PEN Nigeria
    PEN South Africa
    PEN Eritrea in Exile
    PEN Zambia
    PEN Afrikaans
    PEN Ethiopia
    PEN Lebanon
    Palestinian PEN
    Turkish PEN
    PEN Quebec
    PEN Colombia
    PEN Peru
    PEN Bolivia
    PEN San Miguel
    English PEN
    Icelandic PEN
    PEN Norway
    Portuguese PEN
    PEN Bosnia
    PEN Croatia
    Danish PEN
    PEN Netherlands
    German PEN
    Finnish PEN
    Wales PEN Cymru
    Slovenian PEN
    PEN Suisse Romand
    Flanders PEN
    PEN Trieste
    Russian PEN
    PEN Japan

    (Image courtesy of Access Now)