I might disapprove of what you say, but I'll defend your right to say it... #JeSuisCharlie

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 journalists were killed last year in direct reprisals for their work. The most dangerous country was, unsurprisingly, Syria. Just over a week into 2015, and the CPJ’s figure is already at five. The most dangerous country? France.

The attack on staff at French magazine Charlie Hebdo was an assault on freedom of expression not just in Paris but everywhere. It brings the threat of extremism closer to home for me - both physically and because defending the right to free expression - to criticise, to challenge, to mock those with power and influence - is what we do every day at Amnesty.

Freedom of expression is a right that needs defending now as much as ever; it is the cornerstone of democracy, a vital foundation for tolerant societies. It's depressing then that we so frequently hear of arrests, threats against and attacks on people who stand up to those who wish them silent, from Mexico to Ukraine to Iraq.

Often the threat comes from the authorities. Today, for example, Saudia Arabian blogger and prisoner of conscience Raif Badawi was flogged in public in front of the al-Jafali mosque in the city of Jeddah. He received the first 50 lashes of the 1,000 to which he has been sentenced. His punishment also includes ten years in jail and a fine of a million riyals (£175,000). His ‘crime’? Creating an online forum for public debate and ‘insulting Islam’.

Or take the Al Jazeera three – journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed – also prisoners of conscience, sentenced in Egypt last year for ‘broadcasting false news’ and ‘aiding the Muslim Brotherhood’. There are nine other media workers behind bars in Egypt, the fourth highest jailer of journalists in the world (coming behind China, Ethiopia and Burma).

But this week in Paris, the danger came not from a state trying to force censorship, but from armed men reportedly claiming links with al Qaida in Yemen. Such groups appear to be an increasing threat to journalists: US reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff were among many murdered at the hands of the Islamic State in Syria last year, while British photographer John Cantlie, kidnapped in November, is still being held captive and forced to present grim video dispatches.

At Amnesty’s Media Awards in November, al Jazeera journalist Sue Turton, who was sentenced in absentia with Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed – summed up the new world order for journalists. When she and her camera crew were covering the IS advance in northern Iraq last year they decided not to put ‘Press’ or ‘TV’ on their vehicles. “It used to give us some sort of protection,” she told an audience of over 300 fellow journalists. “Now it could make us a target.”

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo were certainly aware they were a target. Much of the discussion after yesterday’s attack has centred on whether it was right to publish drawings depicting the Prophet Mohammed, whether they were too offensive or provocative. It's true that freedom of expression is not an absolute right. It is entirely correct that there are certain, very limited, circumstances where free speech can be restricted - “hate speech” or incitement to discrimination for example. But there is no right not to be offended.

When Voltaire's biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall summed up her subject's views towards the work of another writer with the expression “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, she might have meant the death bit figuratively. The sad truth is that these days journalists and those tasked with helping and protecting them are all too often paying with their lives.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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