On World Press Freedom Day, PEN International (and a long list of global press and free expression organisations – all names available from 30th April) remembers those journalists who were murdered in the January attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices and stands in solidarity with all those journalists and writers who find their right to express themselves freely under threat. Following the Paris assault, government authorities around the world – including those from India, Russia, Senegal, Kenya, Turkey, France, the United Kingdom and others – have responded by either openly clamping down on journalistic free expression, by calling for greater powers of surveillance on us all, or by the over-zealous employment of broad anti-terrorism legislation.
This public statement, signed by some of the world’s leading free expression and press organisations, is not only a public show of support for all journalists and writers whose freedom of expression is under threat, but a forceful reminder that the greatest threat to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists comes from governments, not from attacks by individuals motivated by an ideology.
PEN urges all governments to uphold their international obligations to protect the rights of freedom of expression and information, as an essential component of a free and democratic society.
WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY 2015
Joint statement 116 days after Charlie Hebdo
On World Press Freedom Day, 116 days after the attack at the office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 11 dead and 12 wounded, we, the undersigned, reaffirm our commitment to defending the right to freedom of expression, even when that right is being used to express views that we and others may find difficult, or even offensive.
The Charlie Hebdo attack – an horrific reminder of the violence many journalists around the world face daily in the course of their work – provoked a series of worrying reactions across the globe.
In January, the office of the German daily Hamburger Morgenpost was firebombed following the paper’s publishing of several Charlie Hebdo images. In Turkey, journalists reported receiving death threats following their re-publishing of images taken from Charlie Hebdo. In February, a gunman apparently inspired by the attack in Paris, opened fire at a free expression event in Copenhagen; his target was a controversial Danish cartoonist who had depicted the prophet Muhammad in his drawings.
But many of the most disturbing reactions – and the most serious threats to freedom of expression – have come from governments.
A Turkish court blocked web pages that had carried images of Charlie Hebdo’s front cover; Russia’s communications watchdog warned six media outlets that publishing religious-themed cartoons ‘could be viewed as a violation of the laws on mass media and extremism’; Egypt’s President Al-Sisi empowered the prime minister to ban any foreign publication deemed offensive to religion; the editor of the Kenyan newspaper The Star was summoned by the government’s media council, asked to explain his ‘unprofessional conduct’ in publishing images of Charlie Hebdo, and his newspaper had to issue a public apology; Senegal banned Charlie Hebdo and other publications that re-printed its images; in India, Mumbai police used laws covering threats to public order and offensive content to block access to websites carrying Charlie Hebdo images. This list is far from exhaustive.
Perhaps the most long-reaching threats to freedom of expression have come from governments ostensibly motivated by security concerns. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, eleven 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 the UK, despite the already gross intrusion of the British intelligence services into private data, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that the country should go a step further and ban Internet services that did not give the government the ability to monitor all encrypted chats and calls.
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 World Press Freedom Day, we, the undersigned, call on all Governments to:
- Uphold their international obligations to protect the rights of freedom of expression and information for all, especially journalists, writers, and 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, especially for journalists, artists and human rights defenders to perform their work without interference;
- Combat impunity for threats and violations aimed at journalists and others threatened for exercising their right to freedom of expression and ensure impartial, speedy, thorough, independent and effective investigations that bring masterminds behind attacks on journalists to justice and ensure victims and their families have speedy access to appropriate remedies;
- Repeal legislation which restricts the right to legitimate freedom of expression, especially such as vague and overbroad national security, sedition, blasphemy and criminal defamation laws and other legislation which is used to imprison, harass and silence journalists and others exercising free expression;
- Promote self-regulation mechanisms for print media;
- Ensure that the respect of 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.