Perhaps, the right not be gagged is the most inalienable human right, expressed by every being from the time they are born. Mothers, doctors, courts of law, and the State can all take away the right to be born. Even idiotic militias have been known to prematurely terminate a budding life. According to tales from Uganda’s civil war in the ‘80s, government troops allegedly slit open pregnant women’s tummies, “in search of bombs they were carrying”, not babies, as common reproductive science tells us! Fanatical ‘social moral watchers’, like family members have also brutally ended lives of the unborn, when they have murdered their female relatives. Crime: becoming pregnant before marriage, thus bringing shame onto their family! True story!
Nonetheless, it is near impossible for anyone to deny any person, including a newborn child, the Freedom of Expression. A child starts expressing itself in its mommies tummy with a kick, signaling its presence or turning from side to side. Immediately upon birth, the newbie announces its presence with a cry or scream, which can also imply it is expressing its right to eat, sleep, or pee, to a diaper change or to no more boobie time.
How then can we say that Charlie Hebdo should limit its Freedom of Expression on religious issues? By what magnitude? Under what circumstances? On which specific cases? Or with regard to which person or persons? should CH set limits or censor itself?
Recognizing that Article 19(2) of the 1997 ICCPR – International Convention on Civil and Political Rights explicitly denotes that “..Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
Though, the Right to Freedom of Expression has not been without controversy, contestation or control. Even the United States, a society that aggressively defends free speech as legally protected under the First Amendment, has imposed limits where it is has been deemed that unchecked freedom of expression may incite lawlessness, or encourage child pornography or obscenity. Limits on free speech have also been set to regulate undesirable commercial advertising -and here I am thinking of popular disclaimers by liquor companies [Do Not Drink and Drive] or cigarette manufactures [Smoking By Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury]. Of course, we have ‘dumb’ disclaimers like those found on shopping carts, “Do Not Fold Baby in shopping cart….something like that..!
Per, Article 19 of ICCPR, Clause 3 stipulates grounds for limitations on Freedom of Expression to (a) respect the rights or reputations of others, or (b) for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
It is here that we are confronted with several questions regarding 1) who is the public? 2) what is national security or public order? 3) what is public health or morals? 4) what is the rights or reputation of others? 5) who’s rights? 6) who is “others”? Should we say that the militant islamists, who shot and killed twelve people at Charlie Hebdo offices, a satirical French newspaper did so to ‘protect the rights or reputations of others’, reportedly, “to avenge the Prophet Muhammed”? After all, they too are entitled to “Freedom of Expression”, including their morals and reputation as members of the French public, right?
Could we justiciably defend their choice of expressing their right? Or are rights that disrupt public order and national security indefensible? The choice for Charlie Hebdo to allegedly harm the reputation of others through satire may as well be seen as indefensible, a cause of discomfort and anger by “The Other” who did not find it funny but offensive. Yet, the choice and course of counter-expression utilized by the gunmen appears more problematic and disproportional. I ask, had they [Avengers of Prophet Muhammad] chose own satire to respond to Charlie Hebdo, would the outcome have been within the provisions of Article 19? Perhaps it could have been deemed less inhumane, or savagery as French President Francois Hollande described it, and not against national security? Perhaps it would be seen as “proportional expression of freedom of speech”, right? Instead of driving and dividing the world further into the anti-islam or anti-muslim backlash, currently spreading like wildfire throughout Europe and the world.
This reminds me of a another controversy concerning media freedom v rights and reputations of others, back in 2014 while living in Senegal. A popular print media published a personal story about President Abdoulaye Wade, then considered by many a scathing attack on “the Person of the President”, before he became the “Benevolent Dictator” that tried to unscrupulously manipulate the country’s long established constitutional rule and perpetuate himself in power. Anyway, I do not quite remember the details of the article, but I listened to a radio interview with one of his supporters, a History Professor at the nation’s largest Université Cheikh Anta Diop. The interviewed asked the professor [I guess also a Presidential Advisor], why they decided to write a response article to the press instead of taking the journalist in question to court. To my recollection, the professor responded that, “If we had chose to go to court, you, the media and the public would have complained that we are infringing on media freedom. So, we decided to respond with the same tool that utilized to attack the president – through the media.” [paraphrased].
How about that for ‘Prophet Muhammad’s Avengers’? After all, Senegal, is also a country with 94% Muslim population, who adore the prophet [S.A. A. W. S] as much as the muslim gunmen at Charlie Hebdo in France. In international relations, Senegal is among a few countries in the world, where a majority religion [Islam] chooses a President from another religion [christianity]; the country’s first Post-colonial President Léopold Sédar Senghor was Roman Catholic, with a white French wife! Senegal also holds a respected place globally, as one of the few long-standing democracies in post-independence Africa, which has never experienced a military coup, with each change of government via electoral democracy. On a personal note, in Senegal Islam is practiced with a human face as a community culture rather than a dogmatic religion. Even non-muslims generally feel comfortable saying As-salamu alaykum, without coercion! It let a great impression on me, relatable to my childhood in Uganda, when my muslim friends always invited me to break the fast with them during Ramadan and celebrate Eid. Just to let you in my “well-kept secret”, I was once engaged [yes, me!] to be married to a Senegalese. Thankfully for me, my Right to Freedom of Speech, allowed me to change my mind, when I expressed my change of plans in writing, without any physical harm to my fiancé or undermining public order. May we never seek to take lose the Freedom of Expression nor deny ourselves the Right to control or alter how we express our discomfort, whenever we disagree with verbal, visual or literal satire. Sometimes, violent and fatal Freedom of Expression may just be Indefensible!