Politics & Policy

Free Speech Is Not Peripheral

Press freedom is a first prinicple.

Alan Johnston has been held longer than any other foreign captive in Gaza. The BBC correspondent was abducted by four gunmen on March 12, and the ensuing silence and lack of demands from his captors have been unnerving, to say the least. The Monotheism and Jihad Brigades, reportedly affiliated with al Qaeda, at one point even distributed a press release stating that they had executed Johnston, though with no proof to back up the claim. On May 2, the Palestinian government announced that it knew the identity of the abductors but felt a rescue attempt was too dangerous.

In the face of the Palestinian government’s weakness and little but lip service from other world bodies, the BBC took the opportunity of World Press Freedom Day earlier this month to rally outside the United Nations for Johnston’s release. Yet sources reported that posters advertising the rally put up around the U.N. were ripped down by security staff. Organizers were then told they could display the posters on tripods, only to have those taken down as well.

The U.S. Mission to the United Nations hosted a panel discussion the same day — for which I was the moderator — discussing threats to Internet free-speech worldwide. The fliers prepared by the office to advertise the panel featured an image of a news brief about the four-year prison sentence for blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman — datelined, of course, Egypt.

The U.S. was asked to remove the word “Egypt,” said deputy spokeswoman Carolyn Vadino, lest they offend a member state. After the mission refused to edit the fliers, approval to post the fliers was denied by U.N. officials on the grounds that they were only approving postings for “cultural events.”

Was someone afraid that people might find out that vaunted countries in the big, happy family of member states actually do bad things?

Unfortunately, the world body that should be tasked with protecting the most elemental human right to free speech is more concerned with playing nice, while the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, which was supposed to signal a brilliant dawn after replacing the discredited Human Rights Commission, is working hard at discrediting itself.

UN Watch’s May 7 assessment of the HRC outlines how the body is actually defending “defamation of Islam” charges like those for which Soliman received three years of his sentence. A March resolution, UN Watch wrote, “urged legal measures to protect religions rather than individual believers, specifically mentioned only Islam, and stated that the right to freedom of expression may be limited out of ‘respect for religions and beliefs’ — a qualification not present in international human rights law.”

Sadly, after we wrapped up World Press Freedom Day activities, a court in Azerbaijan on May 4 sentenced Muslim newspaper editor Samir Sadagatoglu to four years in prison and journalist Rafik Tagi to three years for publishing an article deemed insulting to Islam. In addition, an Iranian ayatollah has issued a fatwa calling for their murders, even offering his house as a prize to the assassin.

Tagi wrote a piece titled “Europe and Us” in Senet’s weekly edition for November 6, arguing that the Christian values of Europe led to more successful, peaceful, and tolerant societies than the values of Islam. “A person can’t be condemned for their opinions,” editor Sadagatoglu told the court, ironically just after Reporters Without Borders added Azeri president Ilham Aliev to its list of “predators” of press freedom. “Such a person is an apostate in view of his confessions, if he is a Muslim,” Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani said in a fatwa conveniently posted online. “If he had been an unbeliever (Kafir), he is considered as someone who has insulted the Prophet and in any case, given his confessions, it is necessary for every individual who has an access to him to kill him. The person in charge of the said newspaper, who published such thoughts and beliefs consciously and knowingly, should be dealt with in the same manner.”

Why should Washington care about these offenses against free speech? Free expression is the greatest threat to tyrannical regimes, the groundswell of discontent from which democracies are formed. America has made many sacrifices in the spread of democracy and freedom and to combat extremism and oppression, but there is no freedom without a free press. Our efforts at promoting freedom are inextricably linked to the success of free speech in oppressive nations.

Some press advocates have praised Speaker Nancy Pelosi for backing a federal shield law, but her kaffeeklatching with Bashar Assad (dubbed a “predator of press freedom” by Reporters Without Borders) while Syria holds several journalists and cyberdissidents behind bars should quickly squelch that admiration.

Rep. Christopher Smith (R., N.J.) has seen the importance in lobbying for figures like Father Nguyen Van Ly, the imprisoned editor of an underground Vietnamese publication and a leader of that nation’s vital pro-democracy movement. The House passed Smith’s resolution May 2 calling on Vietnam to release all political prisoners and to respect basic human rights. The resolution passed 404-0 with three members voting “present”: Michael Conaway, Louie Gohmert, and Ted Poe, all Texas Republicans. “As a former judge, I am quite reluctant to tell another country what its verdict should be until I have properly and objectively reviewed all the evidence,” Gohmert said.

As proof positive that these measures do indeed irk offending regimes, Vietnam accused Congress of meddling. “We have many times reiterated that the Vietnamese State always respects the rights of the individual,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said May 3 with a straight face. “No one in Vietnam is arrested due to their political views or religion; only those who violate our country’s laws, and in turn we process them in line with our laws.”

But U.S. efforts should also include some housecleaning. Rumblings are growing louder against U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone, whose statements in the face of that country’s human-rights abuses inspired one pro-American Egyptian blogger, Sandmonkey (who recently quit blogging in the face of governmental crackdowns on bloggers), to title a post last year “Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, F*CK YOU!” in response to a speech where Ricciardone said the good in Egypt was “overshadowed by negative headlines” and answered a question about the detention of pro-democracy activists with a spiel about the U.S. investigating its own bad-apple, crooked soldiers and cops.

“Ricciardone, it’s people like you who give the US the world over a bad name and who are responsible for the anti-american sentiment in our country, because you continue supporting and cheer-leading for this regime, WHEN YOU KNOW, YOU KNOW WHAT THEY DO,” Sandmonkey wrote.

And this spring on Orbit TV, in an interview that reads as no less than an embarrassing representation of a U.S. diplomat sugar-coating human-rights violations, Ricciardone said, “Here in Egypt as in the U.S., there is freedom of speech, so it is possible for anyone to complain about any personal or social problem,” chalking up discrimination against Coptic Christians to “people who lack good manners.” Soliman sits in prison for blogging about vicious attacks he witnessed by those “bad mannered” people on Coptic establishments.

We must demand that all of our partners respect the rights of free speech and a free press. And this starts with some introspection in Washington and Turtle Bay. Our policies, our people, should never waver.

– Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She blogs at GOP Vixen.

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