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French arrests raise question: Is free speech for all?

Published:Monday | January 26, 2015 | 12:00 AM
AP File - In this Wednesday, January 14, 2015 file photo, Jean Paul Bierlein reads the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo outside a newsstand in Nice, southeastern France.

LONDON (AP):
WHEN CARTOONISTS at a French publication that had poked fun at the Prophet Muhammad were shot dead, millions around the world felt it as an attack on freedom of speech.

Since the rampage that left four dead at a kosher supermarket and 12 at the Charlie Hebdo offices, French authorities have arrested dozens of people including a comedian for appearing to praise the terrorists or encourage more attacks.

That has unleashed accusations of a double standard, in which free speech applies to those who mock Islam, while Muslims are penalised for expressing their own provocative views. Many Muslims complain that France aggressively prosecutes anti-Semitic slurs, but that they are not protected from similar racist speech.

French police have arrested more than 70 people since the attacks for allegedly defending or glorifying terrorism. The most famous is comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala, charged over a Facebook post saying "I feel like Charlie Coulibaly" a merger of the names of magazine Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, the attacker who killed four hostages at the supermarket. The comic also has repeatedly been prosecuted for anti-Semitism.

Dieudonne later suggested he was being silenced by free-speech hypocrisy. "You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly, when I am no different from Charlie," he wrote in an open letter to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

Many countries have laws limiting free speech and, on paper, most hate-speech rules do not discriminate against any particular faith or group. In Britain, recent prosecutions include a white supremacist convicted of sending a threatening anti-Semitic tweet to a lawmaker, a Muslim teenager tried for posting on Facebook that "all soldiers should die and go to hell" and a 22-year-old man jailed for posting anti-Muslim comments on Facebook after two al-Qaida-inspired attackers murdered soldier Lee Rigby.

 

Line crossed

 

French law bans promoting racial or religious hatred, as well as inciting or defending terrorism or crimes against humanity - a line that prosecutors say Dieudonne's remarks crossed.

Blasphemy, in contrast, is not illegal in France, so Charlie Hebdo's mockery of religion is regarded differently.

But the line between religious satire and hate speech is not always clear, and Charlie Hebdo was sued by Muslim groups for "publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion" over cartoons it ran in 2006. The paper was acquitted, with the court ruling that the cartoons took aim at extremists, not Islam.

And Muslims are not the only ones to have taken offense at the paper. For example, Charlie Hebdo also has been sued by Roman Catholic groups. Defenders of Charlie Hebdo argue that the cartoonists are not motivated by hatred or a desire to spread discrimination when they make fun of religion.

The latest French arrests have been criticised by Amnesty International, which has expressed concern about a new French law that permits sentences of up to seven years in prison for defending or inciting terrorism.

The human-rights group says some prosecutions have been excessive, including that of a drunk man who praised Paris attackers the Kouachi brothers and told police: "I hope you will be next". He was sentenced to four years in prison.

"You have a French society that considers, not unjustly, that freedom of expression itself has come under attack," said Amnesty Europe Director John Dalhuisen. "You have to attack the criminals, but not in a way that undermines the idea."