Q: Can France be a leader in regard to freedom of expression when artists / journalists are killed in the countries supported by France?
In a democracy, freedom of expression is a fundamental right which cannot be compromised. Historically, France has taken a leading role in regard to free speech. Dating back to the French Revolution 1789, the Assembly adopted not only the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but also established fundamental human rights including the right to security, equality before the law, and liberty. This very declaration has become the model for modern Constitutions, and since 1881, freedom of expression was made a part of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Not only did this declaration become an example for constitutions all over the world, but also, the 1879 declaration of Human Rights and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights were both signed in Paris. Freedom of opinion and expression is defined in Article 19 as follows: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Nowadays in France, the respect of this right manifests itself in a colorful mix of people and opinions, particularly in spheres of art and media. The unemployment insurance system, which was created in the 1930s to support artists, allows people who have worked an average of 12 hours per week as performing artists over a period of ten months to qualify for monthly payments. Insurances like these allow a life for French citizens that embraces creativity and a respect for different opinions and forms of expression. However, France’s fundamental support for this freedom is not limited to its own country. France is a founding member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Program (UNESCO) and the organization’s host state, meaning it has taken the responsibility to internationally promote its values for peace through education, science, and culture. Furthermore, prominent human rights defenders such as Bahraini citizen Nabeel Rajab and Saudi citizen Loujain AL-Hathlouol were awarded the title of “Honorary Citizen” in Paris to shed light on their situation and raise awareness of how people are imprisoned or persecuted in the world today due to a lack of respect for freedom of expression.
Nonetheless, while France’s outward support of freedom of expression places the nation in a flattering light, in reality, France financially supports Gulf states which directly suppress freedom of opinion, expression and press. This includes the countries of the citizens to which France awarded Honorary Citizenship, such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In a previous ADHRB dispatch on French arms-sale to the Gulf region, we illustrated how France supports these countries by supplying them with weapons to be used in the war in Yemen or against peaceful demonstrators calling for democracy in Bahrain. Leaving aside the law of sovereignty not to interfere in the internal affairs of a state, does France’s position not appear contradictory here? According to the principles that France preaches, should it not side with the demonstrators fighting for their right to free expression?
In Yemen, tanks and aircrafts produced in France are being used to kill innocent civilians. So how does this contribute to the repression of democratic movements fighting precisely for rights such as freedom of opinion and expression fit in with France’s demand for respecting fundamental freedoms and its support for freedom of the press, opinion, and expression? How is it possible that a country like France drastically increased its arms sale to a region where countries like Saudi Arabia have no scruples about the murder of the exiled national journalist Jamal Khashoggi? In 2018, Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and consequently, a universal condemnation of his assassination was spread against Saudi Arabia. Germany was among the European countries who decided to suspend arms sales to Riyadh, which stands as a stark contrast to France’s comparatively minor reaction despite the statement from the UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard who claimed that Khashoggi’s death “constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.”
This is made even more controversial in the light of France’s statement on the United Nations International Day for Combating Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on 2 November 2019, in which France stressed its “commitment to the safety of journalists and the promotion of press freedom throughout the world” as well as France’s participation in the joint statement on Khashoggi’s death. On the one hand, France calls for “the perpetrators of such crimes to be brought to justice” and “for states to work to establish a safe environment for the exercise of the profession of journalist.” However, on the other hand, video footage from The Guardian shows that French President Emmanuel Macron had a hidden but intimate conversation with the Saudi Crown Prince on issues such as Saudi Arabia’s responsibility for the assassination of Khashoggi and the Kingdom’s involvement in the war in Yemen. In fact, this points in the direction of France giving higher priority to strategic and economic relations with Saudi Arabia than to their alleged fight against the international violation of human rights.
This consequently means that statements by French officials, including those made before the United Nations, cannot be taken seriously if they are nothing more than empty words that are not followed by direct actions. Moreover, cultural diplomacy such as the joint visit by French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the Louvre in Paris, during which the President used a famous painting to attempt to send the Saudi Crown Prince the hidden message that “freedom guides the people“, is not enough given the seriousness of the human rights violations committed daily by Saudi officials. Although Khashoggi’s death attracted significant international attention, there are at least sixteen journalists imprisoned by the government, evidence that the promotion of the freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia remains a dead letter. Among those who are in prison are Saleh-al-Shehi, a journalist who serves a five years sentence for criticizing the royal court; Nadhir alMajid, a writer sentenced to seven years in prison for writing articles and having contacts with correspondents from news agencies such as AFP and Reuters; Alaa Brinji, a journalist of local newspapers who serves a seven years sentence; Wajdi al-Ghazzawi; Marwan al-Mureisi; and Raif Badawi.
Not only in Saudi Arabia, but also in the UAE are peaceful dissenters, journalists, and outspoken human right defenders such as Ahmed Mansoor, Nasser bint Ghaith, and Mohammed al-Roken arbitrarily detained. Further opportunities of cultural diplomacy have been made possible for France, such as the opening of The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which would have provided the perfect opportunity for France to perform its leadership role concerning freedom of opinion, expression, and press. Of even greater significance is France’s involvement in the project, whereby French museums agreed to loan artworks to The Louvre Abu Dhabi over the following thirty years. The French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen stated that “at a time when culture is under attack… this is our joint response” which suggested that France would use its partnership in order to promote culture, art, and an accompanying message of freedom of opinion and expression in the Middle East. However, the loaning of traditionally famous and prestigious works by Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh is not a criticism against the UAE’s infringements of freedom of expression. Furthermore, the partnership between the two countries on the project reached a scope of 1.1 Billion USD, and hence, the criticism published by Reuters in 2007 that France would “sacrifice cultural standards for profit” describes the nature of this deal quite well.
Furthermore, the French government failed to comment on worker’s labour rights, which were allegedly violated during the construction of The Louvre Abu Dhabi, and two Swiss journalists were arrested and interrogated for fifty hours for filming Pakistani migrant workers involved in its construction. This proves the UAE’s desire to whitewash evidence of its violation of human rights, as well as its lack of respect for free expression and transparent journalism. Despite its alleged values, France has made no attempt to prohibit these actions, even though UNESCO partnered with Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) in April 2018 in order to co-found the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI). The initiative claims to advocate for “transparency” in journalism and works to combat disinformation, and is also partnered with Agence France Presse (AFP), suggesting that the French government and businesses hold these values to equally high esteem. However, France continues to allow the suppression of free expression and journalism not only in Saudi Arabia and the UAE but also in Bahrain.
In May 2011, Nazeeha Saeed, a Bahraini correspondent for France 24, was violently beaten and tortured while in police custody. Over the following years, she has been targeted by authorities, subjected to travel bans, and fined. Such practices are commonplace under Bahrain’s Press Law, highlighting the ineffectiveness of the Bahraini Journalists Association which allegedly also stands for “accuracy, credibility and transparency” in journalism. The Journalism Trust Initiative is yet to bring attention to this discrepancy and the French government continues to provide support to Bahrain despite its clear contempt for supposed French values. Prominent human rights defenders, such as Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who publicly spoke out against Bahrain’s stance on free expression, remain imprisoned. Meanwhile, the French government does little to change their desperate situation or combat the systemic issues surrounding freedom of opinion, expression, and press in Bahrain. Consequently, Bahrain is permitted to maintain the dissolution of independent media and the repression of civil society.
In summary, it is not enough that France has historically contributed to the establishment of the core freedoms of opinion, expression, and press. The French government, led by Emmanuel Macron, must stand up for these values and not only partake in cultural partnerships and agreements, but also take concrete measures that are authentically in line with their proclaimed values. Finally, the sale of arms to countries in the Gulf region, such as Bahrain which uses riot material produced in France to suppress movements fighting for fundamental human rights including freedom of expression, is unacceptable and must be condemned in the strongest terms. There is likewise no ethical excuse for the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are demonstrably used against civilians in the war in Yemen.
France must immediately start to act in accordance with the values that they claim to represent: Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité!