The publication on 19 September 2012 by the French satirical weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo of a set of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed and the recent distribution of an older American video newly dubbed into Arabic, Innocence of Muslims, both sparked violent protests and discussions as to whether they should be prohibited.
ARTICLE 19, an international freedom of expression organisation, deplores all violent attacks against embassies, their employees and other individuals. We call on all those that feel offended by these publications to use peaceful means to express their opinion.
At the same time, the question as to whether the cartoons and the video should be prohibited by the authorities has to be assessed under the international framework on freedom of expression, namely under Article 19 and Article 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as Article 4 of the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
The cartoons and the video clearly criticise and mock religious ideas and beliefs and they can be considered by some as derogatory or blasphemous to Islam. Still, under international human rights law, these are not valid grounds for banning or censoring them.
Under Article 19 of the ICCPR, the right to freedom of expression can be limited under very narrow circumstances, including when limitations are “necessary in a democratic society” to protect the rights of others, and public order”, amongst other grounds. However, this protection does not extend to the protection of religion or religious beliefs as such, but only to individuals and groups who would be targeted for their race, ethnicity or religion. Under the same standards, religions and belief systems should not be exempt from debate, commentary or even sharp criticism, whether internal or external.
The UN Human Rights Council rejected the concept of defamation of religions in a resolution on discrimination of persons based on religion or belief, which was adopted without a vote at the Council’s sixteenth session on12 April 2011 (A/HRC/RES/16/18). The UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of religion or belief and racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance have also repeatedly condemned laws on “defamation of religions” as discriminatory in their impact, however they are framed.
Moreover, the international and regional human rights bodies have repeatedly stated that the right to freedom of expression is applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society.”
Hence, any attempts to ban the cartoons and the video on the grounds of blasphemy or “defamation of Islam” should be rejected.
The second consideration is whether the publication of the cartoons and the distribution of the video amounted to advocacy inciting to violence, discrimination or hostility, prohibited under Article 20(2) of the ICCPR.
ARTICLE 19 believes that under these provisions, the cartoons and the video cannot be censored or banned outside a proper judicial process that would thoroughly examine whether the threshold for incitement has been met. ARTICLE 19 has proposed a robust and thorough test for such assessment. This test proposes that the consideration should be given to:
- The intent of the speaker or publisher to incite to discrimination, hostility or violence
- The content of the publication in terms of the action advocated
- The position of the author over the audience
- The imminence of the advocated action occurring
- The likelihood of discrimination, hostility or violence occurring as result of the publication
- The broader societal context of the publication.
Prior to a thorough process examining whether these conditions have been met – a process that should also include contribution and participation of those affected – any attempt to censor these publications should be firmly resisted.
ARTICLE 19 also calls on the media, and particularly editors to make use of their editorial responsibility wisely and to be alert to the danger of negative stereotyping of individuals and groups based on their religion or ethnicity. We also urge religious leaders, civil society and other actors to continue to deplore the violence that resulted from such publications and call for restraint and non-violent response among their communities.
ARTICLE 19 is also concerned about the attempts of the French government to ban protests due to be held on Saturday against the publication of the cartoons. People have the right to peacefully protest against the cartoons and such peaceful protest can be an important instrument to express their rejection of them. We recall that peaceful protest can also serve as important stand in the maintenance of intercultural dialogue and demonstration of minority identities.
The French and other governments have, therefore, the obligation to allow and facilitate such protests as long as they remain peaceful and employ measures that will prevent outbreaks of violence.