The recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy has propelled freedom of expression to the forefront of human rights across the world, with countries scrambling in line to condemn the tragic shootings that took place on January 7. However, with the calls for the right to free speech has also come glaring hypocrisy in the same name. This week, York PEN turns its attention to France itself, and how the arrest of controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, and what this incident highlights regarding the degree of double standards that government policies towards free speech currently operate on.
On January 14, Dieudonné was arrested for being an ‘apologist to terrorism’ following a remark he made on his Facebook page. Appropriating the Je Suis Charlie slogan which became popularised following the horrific shootings, Dieudonné expressed an apparent sympathy with the gunman Charlie Coulibaly, writing that ‘Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.’
Whilst Dieudonné is infamously known for previously controversial comments that were met with accusations of racism and anti-Semitism, the comedian’s response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings raise important questions about France’s arguably selective, and thus restrictive, position towards free speech, and what it considers to be appropriate material. Adrienne Charmet, campaign coordinator for La Quadrature du Net, argued that:
We can definitely talk about hypocrisy here. In the past days we have seen a lot of people condemned for putting out words, no matter how condemnable those words, and receiving sentences that seem quite exaggerated. French opinion is split in two. Some see [Dieudonné’s arrest] as the worst possible response to last week’s attack…another segment of the population [does agree with it]. Either way, this crackdown on freedom of speech is a betrayal of last Sunday’s march.
Within a week of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, 54 people faced similar charges to Dieudonné, and given his profession as a comedian, direct parallels can be made between the charged individual and the satirical newspaper. Charlie Hebdo produced inflammatory material, to some anti-Islamic, yet the paper’s right to express its opinions, no matter how radical, was supported. Therefore, it has to be asked: no matter how controversial, and to many distasteful, Dieudonné’s comments regarding Charlie Hebdo were, in essence how far did they differ in from the magazine depicting the Prophet Mohammed on its cover? Were they not both radical comments? Were they not both an expression of an individual’s or collective’s opinions, satirical or otherwise?
York PEN is not seeking to absolve Dieudonné of any insult caused from the comments he made, and we are not saying that we agree with them. What we are trying to say elucidate is the hypocritical and selective nature in which the French government decides what is, and what should not be considered as appropriate levels of free speech. The inherent meaning of freedom of expression is that everyone should be able to express their opinions freely without fear of censorship. If this is not held up to a blanket of equality that is applicable to every one of every creed, then the world will cease to become a dictionary of opinions. We will become a work of literature; complex, intellectually stimulating, but none the less structured and conditioned by the hegemony of the world’s authors: the government.