Since the attack in France that left 17 dead in early January, an unprecedented wave of arrests has been unleashed throughout the country for “advocating terrorism” – defending or publicly praising terrorist actions or organizations – characterized by an unprecedented hostility in a country with such a longtime tradition of defending freedom of expression. Authorities have asked judges and prosecutors to show the utmost rigor and firmness when penalizing these types of crimes.
On January 21, 117 criminal proceedings were already initiated against French citizens accused of threatening terrorist acts, incitement of racial hatred, or for advocating terrorism. With the new law from November 2014, this crime – which only affected freedom of the press before – can impose between 5 and 7 years of imprisonment and fines ranging from 75,000€ to 100,000€. The new law considers the dissemination of messages on the Internet as an aggravating circumstance. Upon studying the impact of the new law, legislators said that they were not intended “to repress abuses to freedom of expression, but to punish acts that are directly originating terrorist acts.”
But the wild witch hunt in France does not seem to respond to this philosophy. The situation is so serious that not only adults are suffering the rigorous application of this law, but several children have also been in trouble for the same reason. In Seine-en-Marne, four teenagers will appear before juvenile court on March 25 for posting the following message on Facebook: “We are not Charlie nor will we ever be, bunch of whores. You reap what you sow.”
On January 14, a 14-year-old girl was charged in Nantes for telling off public transport officials, saying “We are the Kouachi sisters, we're going to take out Kalashnikov rifles!” In the same city, a 16-year-old young man was arrested and was released on charges for having published a cartoon satirizing the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists on his Facebook page. Ironically, the cartoon that brought the adolescent to justice parodies a cover of the magazine itself, published in July 2013, and refers to Egyptian army attacks against the Muslim Brotherhood following the coup. In the image below, we can see the original cover on the left and the drawing published by the young detainee on the right:
On January 8 in Nice, an 8-year-old boy spent several hours at the police station after his school principal reported him allegedly having said, “The French must be killed,” “I stand with the terrorists,” and “The journalists deserved it,” according to the police, though the family's lawyer stated that they boy's words were: “I stand with the terrorists because I am against cartoonists who draw the prophet.”
This severity when enforcing the law has sparked protests within and outside the country. Many denounce the vagueness of the term “advocating terrorism”, which allows for arrests without any actual crime. Below is the opinion of lawyer and blogger Maitre Eolas, in an interview with L'Obs:
Une enquête terroriste prend beaucoup de temps. (…) Ici, après les événements tragiques qui se sont produits, pour de pures raisons de communication, il faut donner l'impression de réagir vite.(…) Et comme il est impossible de démanteler un réseau en claquant des doigts, on tape sur les premiers idiots venus qui, immanquablement après ces faits aussi tragiques soient-ils, insultent des policiers en se référant à l'affaire plutôt qu'en employant des insultes plus habituelles.
A terrorist investigation takes a lot of time (…) In this case, after the tragic events that have occurred, for simple reasons of communication, it is necessary to give the impression of reacting quickly. (…) And since it's impossible to instantly dismantle a network, they first appeal to the idiots who, following these events, however tragic they may be, inevitably insult the police referring to the event instead of using more common insults.
Amnesty International has also commented on the arrests in a statement which reads:
Les traités internationaux sur la prévention du terrorisme prévoient la criminalisation de l’incitation à commettre un acte terroriste. Cependant, une notion comme « l’apologie du terrorisme » risque d’être utilisée pour criminaliser des propos tenus sans l’élément intentionnel nécessaire à la définition d’une infraction et sans qu’ils soient directement susceptibles de provoquer des violences de ce type.
International treaties on terrorism prevention provide for the criminalization of incitement to commit a terrorist act. Nonetheless, there is a risk that a notion like “advocating terrorism” could be used to criminalize statements made without the intentional element required in the definition of a crime, and without them being directly liable to cause such violence.
A popular character who has suffered the rigor of this law is controversial comedian Dieudonné, a known Anti-Semite who will have to appear before an anti-terrorism court for posting a caustic comment on his Facebook page about the January 11th demonstrations, ending with the phrase, “Know that tonight, as far as I'm concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly”, a mix of the demonstration's slogan and the name of the terrorist who murdered four people in a Jewish supermarket. Later, Dieudonné also explained the meaning of his words on Facebook: “They consider me to be an Amedy Coulibaly, though I am no different than Charlie.”
Nevertheless, there are also voices that defend the French government's stern policy. Manbu, for example, left this comment on Numerama's page:
Un peu de prison ne leur fera pas de mal et pourrait même les faire réfléchir à ce vieux précepte: “la liberté (d'expression) des uns s'arrête là où commence celle des autres” ou à l'article 4 de la déclaration des droits de l'homme : ” la liberté (d'expression) consiste à faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas à autrui”.
A bit of prison time won't do them any harm and can even make them reflect on this old precept: “Freedom (of expression) for some ends where it begins for others,” or on Article 4 of the Declaration of Human Rights: “Freedom (of expression) consists of doing anything that does not harm other people.”
A particularly disturbing case is that of Jean-François Chazerans, a philosophy professor at an institute in Poitiers and leftist activist who has been suspended for four months and accused of terrorism advocacy after several parents of students accused him of “disrupting the moment of silence” and “making inappropriate comments in class”, which the professor adamantly denies. Massy Palaiseau left this comment on the Facebook page that was created in support of Chazerans:
Le pauvre…il y a trois mois il aurait montre un exemplaire de Charlie Hebdo a ses eleves il aurait ete suspendu. La c est l inverse. J y comprends plus rien.
Poor man… Three months ago if he had shown a copy of Charlie Hebdo to his students, they would have suspended him. Now it's the reverse. I don't understand anything anymore.
The drift that has apparently taken French institutions suggests that we are witnessing a “tinting” of freedom of expression that could make it lose a lot of freedom. The tweet below from New York Times writer and columnist Kenan Malik points out the incoherence of this whole issue:
Now, someone remind me, what was that march in Paris last week about? Defence of free speech was it? http://t.co/QF9usdNOMk
— Kenan Malik (@kenanmalik) January 21, 2015