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Leaders from countries that persecute journalists march for freedom of speech in Paris

January 14, 2015 at 1:30 pm

Around 40 world leaders joined more than one million people in a massive rally in Paris in support of freedom of speech and in honour of the 17 people killed in terrorist attacks last Wednesday.

The attendance of the leaders was supposed to be a show of solidarity and unity, however many came from countries with their own poor records of freedom of speech and long histories of repressing the work of journalists.

Here are some of the countries respresented in the march:


Algeria was represented by Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra.

Does Algeria protect freedom of speech?

  • Algeria was ranked 121st out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders (RWB) press freedom index;
  • According to Human Rights Watch, the state operates all television and radio stations and on key issues, such as security and foreign and economic policy, they broadcast the official line and allow no dissident commentary or critical reporting;
  • The January 2012 Law on Information eliminated prison sentences but raised fines for journalists who commit speech offenses. The crimes include defaming or showing contempt for the president, state institutions and courts. The law has also broadened restrictions on journalists by requiring them to respect vaguely worded concepts, such as national unity and identity, public order and national economic interests.MIDDLE EAST Of the law’s 133 articles, at least 32 can be used to restrict coverage by stifling free expression, research by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) shows.


Bahrain was represented by Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa and Prince Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa.

Does Bahrain protect freedom of speech?

  • Bahrain is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in the 2014 RWB press freedom index;
  • Ever since the start of a popular uprising in February 2011, the Bahraini monarchy has worked hard to manipulate the coverage of street protests and the ensuing crackdown, employing deportation orders and prison sentences for journalists to do so;
  • On 14 April, 2013, Bahrain’s cabinet endorsed an amendment to Article 214 of the Penal Code increasing the penalty for offending King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa or the country’s flag and other national symbols. That year, five activists were sentenced to a year in prison each for insulting King Hamad on Twitter;
  • The youngest to be arrested for activities relating to journalism this year is 15 year old Firas Al-Saffar. He was picked up on his way to school after filming “unauthorised” demonstrations;
  • In late March, a Bahraini court sentenced award-winning freelance photographer Ahmed Humaidan to ten years in jail.


Egypt was not on the AFP new agency’s list of confirmed attendees, however Egyptian media and other sources claimed Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri represented the country.

Does Egypt protect freedom of speech?

  • In December, RWB ranked Egypt as the second country in the world for the number of journalists arrested and the world’s fourth “biggest prison” for journalists, in its annual roundup on abuses of press freedom;
  • The organization said that in the year proceeding December 2014, 46 journalists were arrested in Egypt. Currently, 16 journalists are imprisoned in Egypt; nine per cent of all professional journalists imprisoned worldwide;
  • Three Al-Jazeera journalists: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, have been held in prison for over a year after being falsely accused and then found guilty of aiding the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.


Hungary was represented by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Does Hungary protect freedom of speech?

  • According to RWB, Hungary has “undergone a significant erosion of civil liberties, above all freedom of information”, since Viktor Orbán was elected prime minister in 2010;
  • A highly restrictive media law passed which guaranteed “political interference in news and information content”.


Israel was represented by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Does Israel protect freedom of speech?

  • 16 journalists, one media worker and one media activist were killed during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer;
  • In the November 2012 assault on the Strip the Israeli army attacked several media offices and journalists. Such attacks killed two cameramen travelling in a car marked as a press vehicle and injured at least eight journalists;
  • In the West Bank journalists are routinely arrested, injured and media offices raided;
  • An Israeli court indicted eight Palestinians from East Jerusalem in December for “inciting” anti-Jewish violence and supporting “terror” in postings on Facebook.


Qatar was represented by Qatari Sheikh Mohammed Bin Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani

Does Qatar protect freedom of speech?

  • Qatar ranked 113th out of 180 countries in the 2014 RWB press freedom index;
  • According to Human Rights Watch’s 2014 country report, provisions of Qatar’s penal code are inconsistent with international free speech standards. Article 134, for example, prescribes a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment for anyone who is convicted of criticising the emir or vice-emir;
  • In February, an appeal court reduced to 15 years the life imprisonment sentence imposed on poet Mohammed Ibn Al-Dheeb Al-Ajami. The court convicted him of incitement to overthrow the regime after he recited poems critical of Qatar’s then-emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani.


Russia was represented by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Does Russia protect freedom of speech?

  • Media freedom is heavily restricted by a set of draconian laws governing Russia;
  • Since 2000, at least 33 journalists have been murdered in connection with their work in Russia;
  • Despite officials claiming Russia has solved 90 per cent of its murder cases (clearly showing capable investigation units),the families of the victims are unlikely to see justice due to a culture of impunity that surrounds the murder of journalists;
  • It ranked 9th in RWB’s 2014 global impunity index, placing it in the worst ten countries in the world for prosecuting those who target journalists;
  • Timur Kuashev, a journalist and human rights defender, was found dead in August 2014. Kuashev had written about alleged human rights abuses by the security forces in the course of anti-terrorism operations. He also criticised the Russian policy in Ukraine. As a result he received numerous death threats, which the authorities failed to respond adequately to. Due to the wide scale impunity, his killers are unlikely to be prosecuted.


Turkey was represented by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

Does Turkey protect freedom of speech?

  • Turkey has ranked the worst for the arrest of journalists in 2012 and 2013 according to the index;
  • During the Gezi Park Protests RWB reported that 153 journalists were injured and 39 detained. A number of journalists working for international media organisations reported that they had received anonymous threats of violence;
  • Fusün Erdoğan, former general manager of the leftist Özgür Radyo (The Free Radio), was imprisoned for more than seven years before being sentenced in November 2013 to life in prison on anti-state charges.


United States was represented by its ambassador to France, Jane Hartley. No senior official attended but apologies were sent.

Does the US protect freedom of speech?

  • Obama has used the Espionage Act more freely than any other US leader, charging more people under the act than throughout the act’s existence;
  • While 2012 will be remembered in part as the year of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, 2013 will be remembered for the National Security Agency computer specialist Edward Snowden, who exposed the mass surveillance methods developed by the US intelligence agencies;
  • That year will also be remembered as the year of the Associated Press scandal, which came to light when the Department of Justice acknowledged that it had seized the news agency’s phone records;
  • The recent Ferguson protests, a mass uprising in the US following the killing of an unarmed black teenager, were characterised by a crackdown on journalists. The American Society of News Editors called it a “top-down effort to restrict” First Amendment rights; the group’s president, David Boardman said: “The police have made conscious decisions to restrict information and images coming from Ferguson.”


United Kingdom was represented by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Does the UK protect freedom of speech?

  • In 2013 the government sent officials to The Guardian’s basement to supervise destruction of the newspaper’s computer hard disks containing information from whistleblower Edward Snowden about the practices of GCHQ, Britain’s intelligence agency;
  • Shortly thereafter, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian star reporter who had worked closely with Snowden, was held at Heathrow Airport for nine hours under the Terrorism Act.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech.” Article 19 reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

As we look along the line of the heads of state leading the march in defence of this right in Paris, we see officials representing a range of countries in which the rights of freedom of speech and expression are not respected. Instead of seeing a united front in the face of attacks against these rights, I see thousands of journalists who are not Charlie seeking to expose truth under governments seeking to silence them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.