The war on freedom of expression: stories from Paris to Bahrain

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Never has freedom of information been so closely associated with democracy. Never have journalists, through their reporting, vexed the enemies of freedom so much,  the NGO says in relation mostly with the Arab spring.
“The attack was was not only on the freedom of expression and the freedom to laugh. Attacked was one of the foundations of democracy – the right to protest and debate. The attack in Copenhagen (a terrorist assault against the Swedish artist Lars Vilks in mid-February, where a man was killed and four other were wounded during a debate on freedom of speech – auth. note) proved that these people (the terrorists) do not want a debate. And if we stop debating, that would mean that we are no longer alive.” These are words of the new editor of the French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” Gerard Briar who opened a discussion on the struggle for freedom of expression in different parts of the world, held at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia (15 – 19 April 2015).
Besides Briar, who joined the conversation via video link, their experience with various forms of brutal repression shared Ali Abdulemam, founder of “Bahrain Online”, Khalid Albaih, Sudanese cartoonist, who became famous at the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Farida Nekzad, founder of EIC Wakht News Agency in Afghanistan and Annabel Hernandez, Mexican investigative journalist and writer.
A right of blasphemy or a need of tolerance? It depends on where you live and work.
“We decided to move forward because we wanted everyone to understand that exercising a right is not an act of provocation. We were always accused of being provocative because we defend our right to satire, to blasphemy. For us blasphemy is important as it is a way to challenge the authority, to provoke, and that is a fundamental part of democracy. To prohibit blasphemy is to put an end to democracy”, Gerard Briar added.
Currently living in London and previously imprisoned and tortured by the forces of the regime in Bahrain because of his work, Ali Abdulemam also believes that free speech is inviolable. “Democracy means accepting that we are different. Nobody deserves to be murdered because of their words or actions. I come from a very conservative and religious society, which is highly sensitive in terms of their religious symbols. I am afraid that this is the greatest danger for our region – each of us focusing on her/ his identity and not accepting other human beings if they do not eradicate their cultural differences.”
Farida Nekzad, who has been repeatedly attacked and threatened because of her journalistic and activist for women rights work, presented a different perspective in terms of social reality in Afghanistan. “I am saddened by what happened with “Charlie Hebdo.” Freedom of expression is not something that one can impose limitations on. As journalists, however, we are obliged to respect religious people, their faith and sensitivity. As a journalist in a country like Afghanistan, I cannot afford to create additional hazards and challenges for all these people”, she said pointing out that there was a number of attacks on mosques and Muslims following the “Charlie Hebdo” events.
According to Annabel Hernandez nothing can justify the killings of people, which is unfortunately commonplace in her native country Mexico. Annabel left Mexico because of a series of death threats and assassination attempts against her and her family connected to her investigations on drug cartels. “In my country the problems are different from whether to mock a religion or not. Every day people become victims of drug cartels – they are killed, abducted, beheaded. Therefore, our main issue is the reporting on cartels, their killings and attacks against women. You just say whatever you want, because the freedom that we have as a journalist or editor is also a huge responsibility. First of all, we need to be tolerant,” says the investigative journalist.
Tolerance is also essential for Khalid Albaih, named “the cartoonist of the Arab Spring”, whose satirical works are shared online worldwide and the repainted on the walls of cities such as Cairo, Beirut and Tunis. Khalid is Sudanese by nationality, but lives in Doha as a political exile.
“We have to accept that we share the same world, but we come from different countries. As activists and journalists we risk our lives every day because we want our message to reach the people. However, we have a problem with tolerance. You cannot divide people to those that are “Charlie” and the others that are savages. In the Middle East we face death every day. Muslims are the biggest victims of terrorism – people die every day in Syria and other Arab countries along Europe’s coasts as well. We must therefore ask ourselves: what do we want: to insult 1.6 billion people, or to unite people? The mission of the cartoon is not to mock, but rather tell the truth and raise awareness.”
The terrorist state
The grim reality in countries such as Afghanistan, Mexico, Sudan and Bahrain is that, in their efforts to inform the public, journalists are mainly opposed by the public authorities. These four countries took respectively 122nd, 148th, 174th and 163rd place in the annual Index of the Freedom of Speech by “Reporters Without Borders”. Murders, kidnappings, prosecution and imprisoning are just some of the risks to which journalists are exposed in their everyday work. What does it mean to work in such conditions and what is the motivation to continue despite the risks and fear?
“After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan now has over 50 TV channels, 10 news agencies, 50 newspapers and 100 radio programs. We can say that freedom of speech is under development – we are talking publicly about issues that were taboo in the past 3 or 4 decades of constant war “, explains Farida Nezhad.
However, she stresses that the situation got worse again since 2007. Attacks and pressure on journalists are common in her country, including in the form of censorship and denial of access to information. “2014 was the worst for us for many years – we lost four journalists (according to Reporters Without Borders the victims were 3, still, the organization specified explicitly that it uses only verified by its sources information), two of which women. One of them was my student”, said the journalist. According to her, a substantial problem in Afghanistan is that the state does not investigate crimes against journalists.
Farida Nezhad is adamant that the live of Afghan female journalists is much more difficult than that of their male colleagues. “Men can travel, make inquiries. In contrast, women are banned from access to certain topics in the newsrooms. Another problem raises from the fact that because of its low levels of education, the society does not respect the desire of women to work as journalists. They are pressured by their families, their neighbors”, she said.
“Over the past 10 years, over one hundred thousand people were kidnapped, tortured and killed in Mexico. Over 25 thousand are missing. Over 100 journalists are killed – sometimes tortured and thrown around in pieces on the streets. The risk is for everyone – not just for journalists”, said Anabel Hernandez.
For over 10 years now she investigates the main culprit for this – the drug cartels. She has strong evidence that their strength comes from tight links with the authorities. “In my last book, “Narcoland”, you can find the names not only of drug lords, but also government officials and politicians associated with them. The mafia is the state itself”, she said.
That is why, after the publication of her book, Hernandez began receiving threats from the authorities. Since 2010 she is having bodyguards. Some of her sources were killed or disappeared. In 2013, however, after 11 armed members of the federal police threatened her neighbors and invaded her home, she was forced to take the most difficult decision in her life and leave the country. And to this day she continues to investigate organized crime.
“Nothing can stop me, because this is the freedom of speech. The mafia and the corruption practices have their real names and we have to say them loud. However journalists should stop being so arrogant and show that freedom of expression is not so important for our own sake, but rather because of the public’s right to be informed and to know the truth. This is what we do it for”, says the journalist.
According to Ali Abdulemam, more than half of the journalists in Bahrain have been subjected to persecution, imprisonment, or were forced to leave the country. Since 2011 two journalists have died. In 1998 he started the independent website Bahrain Online, providing a platform for the views of the young generation. His media is one of the most popular in the small Arab country with an average of seventy thousand visitors daily. In 2002 Abdulemam was arrested and tried on five different charges of insult against the regime. During the time spent in prison, he became a victim of violence, sexual abuse, his family was under constant threats. “They forced me to admit guilt under torture. I did not know what I was signing. The court did not accept my plead that I had confessed forcibly. The people who tortured me were in the room during the process”, the journalist said.
After the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, political repression against journalists regained momentum. Ali Abdulemam was forced into hiding for two years because he was threatened by immediate arrest and possible execution. He managed to leave Bahrain in 2013 and found refuge in London. Soon after that he found out that his citizenship was revoked, along with 72 Bahraini journalists who were forced into exile for life.
But his motivation is stronger than fear: “I continue to do my job, because I do not want my son to live my life. I want him to live in peace without the fear that my generation and previous generations experience. I do not want the future of my country to be such – so I will not stop to and I am glad to do so.”