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On the anniversary of Charlie Hebdo, dissenting voices must be protected

Citizens carrying a giant cardboard pencil reading
Citizens carrying a giant cardboard pencil reading "Not Afraid" take part in a Hundreds of thousands of French citizens solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris January 11, 2015.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau.

On the anniversary of the brutal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo we, the undersigned, reaffirm our commitment to the defense 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 his secular views, including as 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.

Signed,

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
MARCH
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Foundation for West Africa
National Union of Somali Journalists
Norwegian PEN
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
South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
Vigilance pour la Démocratie et l’État Civique
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC

Danish PEN
English PEN
Finnish PEN
Flanders PEN
French PEN
German PEN
Icelandic PEN
Kurdish PEN
PEN Afrikaans
PEN Algeria
PEN Bolivia
PEN Bosnia
PEN Colombia
PEN Croatia
PEN Eritrea in Exile
PEN Ethiopia
PEN Japan
PEN Kenya
PEN Lebanon
PEN Mali
PEN Netherlands
PEN Nigeria
PEN Peru
PEN Quebec
PEN San Miguel
PEN South Africa
PEN Trieste
PEN Turkey
PEN USA
PEN Zambia
Palestinian PEN
Portuguese PEN
Russian PEN
Slovenian PEN
Wales PEN Cymru

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