Dispatches: France, a Country of Freedom of Expression – For Some

hrw.org: “The [French] Republic is freedom of expression,” said President Francois Hollande on January 7 in reaction to the horrific attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead.

But is it really?

A wave of cases opened by the French judiciary over the past several days against people for allegedly “glorifying terrorism,” some of whom have already been summarily sentenced to imprisonment, shows the contradictions in France’s approach to the right to express opinions that offend, shock, or disturb.

The murders, which were undoubtedly a brutal assault on freedom of expression, shocked France to the core. Millions marched is solidarity with the victims and expressed their refusal to be silenced by violence, and the government stood strongly in defence of freedom of expression.

But on January 12, the Minister of Justice instructed prosecutors to adopt a “systematic, adapted and individualized” response, using the criminal law, to racist, anti-Semitic speech and speech “glorifying” terrorism. The instruction explicitly referred to the attacks of January 7 to 9 on Charlie Hebdo, police officers and people shopping in a kosher supermarket.

French law allows for people to be sentenced to up to five years in prison if they commit the broadly worded offenses of “inciting” or “glorifying” terrorism. A new counterterrorism law adopted in November 2014 increased the sentence to seven years if either offense is committed online. Many countries in Europe, including theUnited Kingdom and Spain, have similarly broad laws criminalising the glorification of terrorism.

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