Paris rally drew states with poor free-speech records

While they joined hands in support of press freedom, not all of the world leaders at the Paris rally on Sunday can boast of a stellar record on human rights and free expression.

March included leaders from nations with questionable stances on freedom of expression

French President Francois Hollande is surrounded by heads of state including, from left to right: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Some rights groups have noted that many international representatives at the Paris rally represented nations with poor records on free expression. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Global outrage erupted last week over the public flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was punished by his own government for allegedly insulting Islam.

The first 50 of Badawi's 1,000 lashes the remainder to be meted out in 19 weekly instalments occurred mere days before the Saudi foreign minister marched in Paris with other world leaders following the deadly attacks in Paris at the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store.

According to a report in The Guardian, one protester in Paris held a sign declaring "I am Raif Badawi, the Saudi journalist who was flogged." She was among several critics pointing to an apparently hypocritical display by the conservative kingdom, which is ranked 164th out of 180 countries on the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by the lobby group Reporters Without Borders.

The non-profit, as well as Democracy Now, singled out several governments with representatives at the French unity march. As crowds rallied for what French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described as a demonstration for the French values of "freedom and tolerance," some world leaders showed solidarity with the country targeted by extremists.

The presence of states with less than stellar records on free expression nevertheless angered free-press campaigners such as The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill, who said their inclusion turned the rally into a "circus of hypocrisy."

Here's a look at participants in the Paris march representing some of the worst-ranked nations on the Press Freedom Index:


Representative: Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa
Bahrain's Minister for Foreign Affairs Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, shown speaking at the United Nations headquarters in New York, represented his country at a Paris rally on Sunday. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Overview: Bahrain ranks second in the world for highest number of imprisoned journalists per capita, according to 2012 figures from the World Bank. Media members covering the 2012 Arab uprisings were reportedly jailed, beaten and tortured. Writer Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested in October 2014 for posting remarks on Twitter that were deemed critical of the ministries of interior and defence

Press Freedom Index ranking: 163


Representative: Prime Minister Boiko Borissov

Overview: The South East Europe Media Organization has documented several threats and physical attacks against Bulgarian journalists in recent years, as well as instances of intimidation from high-ranking officials. In April 2013, reporter Boris Mitov was summoned to the Sofia city prosecutor's office and threatened with five years in prison for publishing a story about political corruption.

Critics — including EU officials — have also complained about media concentration in Bulgaria. Two companies control most of the country's journalistic outlets, and are suspected of having close ties to the political elite. Several years ago, the German conglomerate Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung sold off all its Bulgarian holdings, saying "the close intertwining of oligarchs and political power" was "poisoning the market."

Press Freedom Index ranking: 100


Representative: Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry

Overview: Journalists have been arrested and tried for having links to the Muslim Brotherhood after the leadership's ouster. In the latter half of 2013, five journalists were killed and at least 80 detained.

Egypt charged a Canadian-Egyptian Al-Jazeera journalist and two of his co-workers with spreading false news and being sympathetic toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohamed Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Egyptian Baher Mohamed was sentenced to 10 amid widespread international condemnation. They are now awaiting a retrial.

Egypt has reportedly used "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and torture" against imprisoned journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Press Freedom Index ranking: 159


Representative: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
Prime Minister Boiko Borissov of Bulgaria participated in Sunday's unity walk through the streets of Paris. However, his country ranks last among EU nations on the Press Freedom Index. (Sebastien Pirlet/Reuters)

Overview: Russia has criminalized defamation and detains journalists because of what they publish. The country imprisoned Sergei Reznik for insulting state officials after he investigated widespread corruption.

In 2012, Russia sentenced three members of the band Pussy Riot to two years in prison for "hooliganism driven by religious hatred," after they preformed a so-called punk prayer against President Vladimir Putin at an Orthodox cathedral. One member was released on a suspended sentence months later, and the remaining two were granted amnesty a few months before they were due to be released.

Press Freedom Index ranking: 148


Representative: Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu

Overview: Turkey has jailed dozens of journalists they consider threats to national security, and Reporters Without Borders considers the nation "one of the world's biggest prisons for journalists." At the end of 2013, about 60 journalists remained imprisoned and frequently spend months behind bars before going to trial.

Turkish laws enable restricting press freedom. Journalists can be jailed for six months to two years for denigration of the Turkish nation, or for six months to three years for inflaming hatred and hostility among peoples, according to Freedom House.

Government pressure forced dozens of journalists to resign or be fired over their coverage of the 2013-14 Gezi Park protests, which opposed the construction of a new shopping mall where the park stands, according to Freedom House.

Press Freedom Index ranking: 154

United Arab Emirates

Representative: Sheikh Abdallah ben Zayed al-Nahyan

Overview: Compared to other Gulf nations, the UAE appears to endorse freedom of expression, especially since it has become a media hub with multiple local and English-language newspapers. But as in many other Arab countries, this freedom is restricted when it comes to work that appears to insult or discredit the ruling royals or the nation as a whole.

While the country's media law was rewritten in the last decade, it still contains prohibitions on reporting that "causes damage to the national economy" or maligns "a public official" or anyone "assigned to perform a public job," and states firmly that "no criticism shall be made against the head of state or rulers of the Emirates."

Press Freedom Index ranking: 118


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?