It was a moving image: millions of people marching for freedom of speech, rallying in solidarity following the gruesome attack on the headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo publication in Paris. Massive crowds took to the streets affirming that we, the people, have the right to freely express ourselves. The passion of the masses, ignited by this tragedy, was genuine and natural. We all desire to live in peace and to quote Malcolm X, "You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom."
As one of the billions of viewers, I was captivated by the emotionally charged scenes emerging from one of Europe's major cities known for its historic contribution to freedom of speech. With this in mind, one can never forget Voltaire's quote, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it".
It should not escape notice that a handful of the world leaders who were at the march advocating freedom of speech do not uphold this right in their own countries, much less promote it. It made me think of an Oscar-worthy performance, ending when the credits rolled and everyone went home.
In the spirit of the awards season we are in, I felt some of these leaders should be nominated for their performance in front of the camera. As witnessed by the world, they were viewed supporting the political right to communicate one's opinion. Sadly, this is not the role they play once the camera is turned off.
I hereby nominate five foreign leaders for the Best Actor Award, hoping their nomination might serve to highlight the irony of their performance and amend their actions in real life. Can they take it to the next level and disprove the notion that what happens in Paris remains in Paris?
My first nomination is Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority. Front and centre, marching for freedom of speech, it is common knowledge President Abbas has jailed many journalists for expressing themselves. A prime example is the Palestinian journalist from Bethlehem, Mamdouh Hamamreh, sentenced in 2013 to one year in prison for 'insulting' the Palestinian Authority President on Facebook - comparing Abbas's face to a villain on a Syrian TV show. He was found guilty of publishing a photo "harming his excellency the president, disseminating lies, libel and slander and publishing material that spreads seeds of hatred".
The second nomination goes to the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. An incredibly awkward presence in Paris as, according to a report by Elana Beiser Editorial Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), "Turkey was the world's leading jailer of journalists and bloggers in 2013, with more reporters in jail - 40 at last count - than any other country".
Nedim Sener, a leading investigative journalist with the Turkish daily Posta, and recipient of the 2013 International Press Freedom Award, detailed his experience of being jailed without a verdict for an entire year, then released temporarily. "I am still on trial and can be imprisoned for 15 more years" he said. "This is how Turkish justice works - instead of bringing journalist killers to trial, journalists are tried as terrorists".
Dr. Mohammed Ismail Al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to France, deserves the third nomination. His country ordered the lashing of Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi for setting up a website for public debate. Charged with criticising Saudi Arabia's powerful clerics, he was sentenced last May to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison. The blog has since been shut down - silencing Badawi's right of self expression. Ironically, two days before the march, Badawi was taken from prison and flogged in a public square, in front of a mosque. Handcuffed and shackled, face uncovered, eyes shut tight, yet not a sound from his lips, as witnessed by the crowd leaving after midday prayers. Amnesty International called it a "vicious act of cruelty", further stating that Badawi's' only "crime" was to exercise his right to freedom of expression. Despite worldwide condemnation, Saudi Arabia continues punishing this man for his "crime".
The fourth nomination goes to Ben Yamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel. Several months before the historic march in Paris, Hamid Shibab, a driver for the Gaza-based press agency Media 24, was killed when his car, clearly marked as a press vehicle, was struck by an Israel Defense Forces airstrike in Gaza City. A few days later Khaled Hamad, a cameraman for the local Continue Production Films, was similarly struck down by Israeli shelling in Shijaiyah neighborhood. Although the list of journalists killed last year by Israel in Gaza goes on, Prime Minister Netanyahu marched, head held high, oblivious to the irony of his presence.
Last but not least, the final nominee stands out - Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry - marching as if his country had not recently detained five Al Jazeera staff and freelance photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid. In a letter sent from prison to the Daily News Egypt, Abou Zeid protested "I am a photojournalist, not a criminal". He went on to proclaim, "I have been kidnapped and imprisoned for almost 16 months now. My family is unable to negotiate my release. I am an innocent man". Describing the horrific conditions in jail, he went on to recount, "We cook, eat, pray and use the bathroom in this same room. Journalists are being killed, kidnapped, detained, beaten, arrested, threatened and tortured."
In my opinion, Egypt's presence and award winning performance at the solidarity march in Paris was the ultimate display of irony. In 2013 according to the press freedom watchdog, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Egypt was ranked as the third deadliest country for the press and one of the top 10 jailers of journalists in the world.
Having presented five nominees for their acting skills, I am ready to announce the award winner. I must begin by stating that as a Palestinian, I was shocked at being blocked from President Abbas' Facebook page. Listening to his hypocritical speeches giving false hope to refugees, while promising Israel he is not "drowning it with more refuges", I expressed my concerns with questions to my President. No answers were given and I was blocked from sharing my views.
Had I been living in my country, would I now be behind bars? With this thought in mind and having this kind of personal experience with President Abbas, he is my choice as the winner of the Best Actor Award.
To quote the great Nelson Mandela, "There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires." Many of our fellow human beings have been living in the shadows Mandela spoke about, and it is time for a change.
I end this article with the hope that those nominees continue to march - on their own streets - leading the charge for freedom of speech. Stop the torture, stop the arrests, let your people have their rightful say. May you be nominated for Best Humanitarian of the Year.
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