On Sunday, at least 1.5 million people marched through Paris in a dramatic display of solidarity after extremists killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and four at a kosher grocery last week. A police officer also was fatally shot.
It was a remarkable rally, and particularly striking was the number of world leaders present. More than 50 nations from all corners of the world were represented, "Charlie, Charlie, freedom of speech!” became the cry of the day.
Despite the laudable show of unity, many observers couldn't help but bristle at the hypocritical presence of some world leaders. Although they were publicly lending their support to free speech at the rally in France, at home they often stifled that very same free speech. As Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, put it:
Reporters without Borders (RWB), a nonprofit that supports free speech, said it was "outraged by the presence of officials from countries that restrict freedom of information."
In particular, RWB took issue with the presence of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Gabonese President Ali Bongo.
These nations scored particularly low on RWB's annual press freedom index. Egypt is ranked 159th out of 180 countries in the index, Turkey 154th, Russia 148th, Algeria 121st, the United Arab Emirates 118th and Gabon 98th. Below are just a few of the criticisms leveled against the nations.
- Last year, an Egyptian court sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to between seven and 10 years in jail on "terrorism" charges.
- Turkey, which was named the world's biggest jailor of journalists in 2012 and 2013, ended 2014 by detaining a number of journalists (including Ekrem Dumanli, editor in chief of Zaman, a leading newspaper with links to the moderate Islamic Gulen movement).
- In Russia, anti-corruption blogger and political activist Alexei Navalny has become a frequent target for the government, and the few remaining independent news outlets are struggling mightily to survive.
- While freedom of speech is enshrined in the Algerian constitution, between 1992 and 2011 the government declared a state of emergency that seriously curtailed the right. RWB noted that a number of journalists were arrested before last year's election.
- Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have claimed that freedom of speech is severely restricted in the United Arab Emirates. Amnesty says that more than 100 peaceful activists and government critics have been detained there since 2011.
- Investigative journalist Jonas Moulenda has been forced to flee Gabon because of death threats.
There were even more guests deemed unsuitable. French newspaper Le Monde pointed to the presence of Hungary's Viktor Orban, the leader of a country that recently proposed taxing the Internet, and Naftali Bennett, Israel's economy minister, who was once quoted as saying, "I’ve killed many Arabs in my life, and there’s no problem with that." On Twitter, there was anger at reports that Saudi officials had attended the march, just days after Saudi Arabia flogged a blogger for blasphemy.
Perhaps the attendance of these world leaders at the Paris march should serve as an important reminder: Free speech is easy to support when it's a vague concept. And, as Teju Cole noted in the New Yorker last week, criticism can be leveled at the United States, too. Despite official support for free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Chelsea Manning is serving 35 years in jail for leaking classified government documents to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks.
Notably, no high-level U.S. official attended the march in Paris. Ambassador Jane Hartley represented the United States.