THURSDAY lunchtime, and on the radio a distraught woman is being interviewed. She is the wife of the Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who has been convicted of blasphemy under Saudi law and sentenced to 1,000 lashes, to be delivered weekly in public over a period of months. Mrs Badawi is clearly distressed by the horror of her husband’s suffering; and as a parting shot, she asks how on earth the Saudi ambassador in France could take part in last week’s great Paris march for freedom of expression, while such extreme oppressive measures are still being meted out at home.
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Mrs Badawi’s interview, though, is only the most extreme example of a chorus of ridicule, and even of revulsion, which has been sweeping round the globe since a group of more than 40 world leaders decided, last week, to join the Paris demonstration in response to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine. And it’s certainly true that as a piece of gesture politics, the presence of the world leaders at the march has in some cases backfired spectacularly.
At best, it was unwise for so many leaders of the self-defined “free world” to march alongside those – from Turkey, Egypt, and Russia, among many others – whose record on the threatening and imprisonment of journalists places them close to the bottom of the world index on press freedom.
And at worst, the mass display of hypocrisy involved in the presence of so many leaders with a questionable record on human rights has cast a sharp and unforgiving light on the distinctly patchy and conditional support for freedom of expression even in many countries which pride themselves on their liberal values. In France, for example, more than 50 people have been arrested since last week for verbally “defending terrorism,” in the kind of move that makes it very difficult even to seek to explain events like the Charlie Hebdo massacre, without fear of prosecution.
And here in Britain – well, the Charlie Hebdo demonstration was barely over before the Prime Minister and Home Secretary were once again demanding “new powers” for police and security services to intrude into personal communications; this despite the fact that security forces in Britain already have far more powers than in most European countries, and that recent failures have clearly been due to inadequate resourcing and implementation of existing procedures, rather than to a lack of adequate legislation.
Nor would the British government’s constant demand for “more powers” be quite so worrying, if it did not have such a questionable record in defining all forms of political dissent as an incipient threat to the state. The British security services operate a register of “domestic insurgents” which apparently includes people who have done nothing more than attend an anti-cuts demo, or join an anti-fracking campaign. Even more seriously, we are still waiting for any redress against those decision-makers who, back in the 1990s, encouraged undercover members of the Metropolitan Police not only to infiltrate perfectly legal political campaigns in the UK, but to seduce women involved in those campaigns into long-term relationships, and even to have children with them, while maintaining a lying secrecy that would eventually wreck their lives. This is not the behaviour of a civil police force, but of the security apparatus of a state deeply intolerant of dissent.
And to descend from tragedy to near-comedy, last week in Scotland a man was sentenced to community service for walking into a meeting room in a Glasgow hotel, and shouting “no public sector cuts” at the Prime Minister. Indeed, if the Scottish Government is as keen on freedom of expression as it claims to be, it might like to consider repealing the ridiculous piece of Scottish law under which this prosecution took place, which apparently – in a country full of gun-toting lairds, noisy hard men and openly scaremongering politicians – makes it a criminal offence to cause any “fear or alarm” at all; small wonder that the UK now ranks among the most repressive western countries when it comes to freedom of speech, far behind the Nordic countries, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand.
Despite all their fine talk, in other words, it’s clear not only that most of our politicians have a very partial commitment to freedom of expression, but that most voters have now been pretty well schooled to agree with them that civil liberties matter not a jot, when matters of taste and security are at issue. On the positive side, though, this much can be said: that even if the hypocrisy of our leaders in posing as champions of free speech is often breathtaking, the fact that they still feel the need to strike the pose is significant. Much of the commentary on last Sunday’s march has suggested – implicitly or explicitly – that the presence of the world leaders soured the occasion, and that it would have been better without them.
Yet in the end, the interplay of values around those leaders is perhaps not quite so simple. Hypocrisy is well defined, after all, as the debt that vice pays to virtue; and in a world where many are proudly and even militantly amoral, it suggests there are some positive values with which the powerful still like to be associated, including the defence of the real human freedoms of expression and association without which it becomes impossible to pursue real equality, security or dignity for ordinary citizens.
The sight of world leaders marching for free speech is at best an ambiguous one, in other words. Yet in years to come, their presence on that day may prove to be a powerful weapon in the hands of those who strive to make them live up to the fine words they have spoken.
For in coming to Paris to march in memory of the dead of Charlie Hebdo, they recognised a benchmark for freedom of speech that none of them can claim to have reached, but that they will increasingly struggle to ignore, as those whom they try to silence, both across borders and within them, join the struggle to make them – at last – live out the meaning of the creed they have so publicly embraced, in front of a watching world.
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