Sherif Mansour and Jason Stern, Middle East and North Africa Team at Committee to Protect Journalists
The attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on January 7 was condemned by rulers across the Middle East as a criminal and cowardly act that was counter to Islamic values. Many leaders also attended the solidarity march in Paris on January 11 in support of freedom of speech. But in a region where at least 72 journalists are in jail, the statements of support appear hypocritical.
Many of the governments who criticized the attack, in which 12 people including eight journalists were killed, use the same reasons of fighting blasphemy that the gunmen cited as a way to censor their own citizens. Their outburst of support in the past week has little to do with freedom of speech. Rather, it's about bolstering their credentials in fighting terrorism, an excuse used widely to silence critical voices across the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia condemned the attack as incompatible with Islam. However, it said nothing about Saudi blogger Raif Badawi who was lashed in public on Friday for blasphemy after setting up an online forum to discuss liberal values. Similarly, Mauritania condemned the attack but said nothing about blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, who was sentenced to death for insulting Prophet Muhammad on December 24, 2014.
This tactic of censoring voices through charges of apostasy and defamation of religion has been used repeatedly in the region. Take for example Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's premier Islamic institution in Cairo. It condemned the Paris attack as "criminal." But we shouldn't forget that it had previously banned the sale of books by Egyptian writer Farag Fouda, who was killed in 1992 by an extremist group that cited a fatwa by one of al-Azhar's scholars to kill him on apostasy grounds.
The widespread regional criminalization of apostasy and defamation of religion form part of a larger prohibition against speech considered insulting, especially when it comes to the leaders. Bahrain last year increased the penalty for insulting the king to seven years' imprisonment, a provision it has used generously to jail critical voices in the country. And in Iran, more than a third of the 30 journalists imprisoned there are charged with insulting the Supreme Leader.
In 2009, Egypt and Saudi Arabia introduced in the Arab League (which also condemned Wednesday's attack) a pan-Arab regulatory framework for satellite television stations that forbids content that would have a "negative influence on social peace and national unity and public order and decency," and makes defaming "leaders or national and religious symbols" out of bounds.
In December 2013 a Gulf Cooperation Council security agreement went into force that, among other provisions, bans media in member states from criticizing other member states. Meanwhile, on January 7, 2015, the GCC condemned the Paris attack.
Beyond the failure of Middle Eastern governments to stand up for freedom of expression in their condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo attack, governments across the region are amending anti-terrorism laws in a way that blurs the line between terrorism and criticism of those in power.
Take for example, Egypt's charge of aiding terrorism leveled against Al-Jazeera journalists and the trial of members of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedomof Expression before Syria's terrorism court.
In 2014, the Saudi government issued a new anti-terrorism law and accompanying regulations that Human Rights Watch said will "criminalize virtually any expression or association critical of the government and its understanding of Islam."
Even countries who were traditionally more open, such as Jordan, have made amendments to laws to expand the definition of terrorism to include "acts that would subject the kingdom to hostile acts, or harm its relations with a foreign country." Jordanian Information Minister Mohammad al-Momani told The Associated Press that the law could be used against media outlets.
It is time to call on rulers in the Middle East to end their hypocrisy in condemning extremists committing terror abroad in the name of fighting blasphemy while censoring citizens at home for the same reason. If these governments truly want to show solidarity with the victims in Paris they must defend the freedom of the press and expression denied to their own citizens.
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