The Case of Sheikh Ali Salman [Bahrain]
Closed Contracts Expression
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In this case, a prominent French satirist and comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala posted a comment on his Facebook page that made reference to both a slogan and symbol for freedom of expression: “Je suis Charlie“. The symbol was created in commemoration of terrorist attacks that had taken place at the offices of a popular and historic french satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. The artist also made reference to a person, Amedy Coulibaly, who was considered to be the terrorist individual responsible for the killing of a policewoman and other jewish individuals in the days following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The High Court of Paris found Dieudonné M’bala M’bala guilty of publicly apologizing for an act of terrorism through online communication.
Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, on January 11, 2015, published the following on his official Facebook page: After this historic march, what do I say…? Legendary. Instant magic equal to the Big Bang that created the universe; to a lesser extent (more locally) comparable to the coronation of Vercingétorix. I finally returned home. You know that tonight as far as I’m concerned I feel like Charlie Coulibaly. <<après cette marche historique, que dis-je …… légendaire ! Instant magique égal au Big Bang qui créa l’Univers ! …. ou dans une moindre mesure (plus locale) comparable au couronnement de Vercingétorix, je rentre enfin chez moi. Sachez que ce soir, je me sens Charlie Coulibaly”.>>
His comment referenced the historical march that took place in response to the tragic events on January 7, 2015: Two men broke into the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and killed eleven people, eight of whom were magazine employees, and wounded eleven others. The attack was attributed to two French jihadists – the Kouachi brothers – and was claimed by the terrorist organization Al Qaeda. The following day, on January 8, 2015, a municipal police woman was shot dead by a man identified as Ahmedy Coulibaly. In the afternoon of January 9, 2015, Coulibaly also took hostages in a Kosher supermarket, all four of whom were Jewish and all of whom he killed.
These events led to the creation of the slogan and logo “I’m Charlie” <<Je Suis Charlie>> by French graphic artist Joaquim Roncin. It was created as both an expression of solidarity with the victims of the attack and to support the movement for freedom of expression. It was the slogan carried throughout the historic march for freedom of expression that mobilized and gathered around 1.5 million demonstrators and represented more than 40 nations.
Dieudonné told the court that he unambiguously condemned the attacks. He explained to the court that the circumstances surrounding his comment were that he had wanted to participate in the demonstration and his lawyers had sent a request to the Minister of the Interior to ask if he could safely join in the procession the Saturday night before the procession was to take place. He made the request as he had pending defamation court cases. He stated that he felt excluded from the event and victimized by the attitude of the authorities, whom he believed were oppressive towards him and his freedom of expression.
On his website, he stated that he meant to convey the message that in the same way Amedy Coulibaly was unfairly considered a terrorist, the lack of response from the Minister of Interior indicated a willingness to exclude his support of the march and was likewise unfair. He also stated that the link he was making between Charlie and Coulibaly should rather be understood as the necessary path to peace and love. He said that he identified with Coulibaly as a fellow black man, and that Coulibaly’s murder of a young policewoman had touched him as she resembled and made him think of his daughter. He stated that by writing “tonight I feel like Charlie Coulibaly“, he intended to convey that he felt he was “a comedian treated like a terrorist.” Being a comedian to whom freedom of expression is denied, he felt like a version of Amedy Coulibaly.
The Court held that Dieudonné M’bala M’bala could not rely on the argument of contempt being directed towards him by the authorities. His request was sent to the Minister of the Interior just a few hours before the start of the march and the magnitude of the march required exceptional mobilization of security devices given the attacks in the preceding days. Therefore, the lack of response cannot be considered, unless otherwise shown, as simply contempt towards M’bala M’bala.
The Court further held that his remarks relating to the event that made comparisons to the “Big Bang” that created the universe do not appear as positive comments but rather as words intended to deride the march, which was a unique moment of support to victims and in defense of democracy and the value of freedoms. The court felt that the punctuation used in the message was intended as a parody of enthusiasm, which accentuated the irony that emerged from his words. More specifically, the court felt that the words “tonight I feel like Charlie Coulibaly“, regardless of the explanations that were given (which the court termed “confusing”) made clear that M’bala M’bala as author was self-identifying with particularly serious terrorist acts, which contributed to trivializing the acts of terror that had taken place. By combining “Charlie” and “Coulibaly” he made a provocative amalgam of the symbol for freedom of expression that came at the cost of the lives of journalists. The court held that whilst such provocation could fall under the category of satire – an artistic form of expression – here, it did not because it came at a time when public opinion was still very fraught and upset by the attacks that had occurred shortly before and while the victims were still being buried.
The Court also took note of the fact that Dieudonné M’bala M’bala had a history of anti-semitism evidenced by his previous convictions and sentencing for public abuse of a group of people because of membership or non-membership of an ethnic group, nation, race or religion, namely “for expressing his condemnation and the contempt he feels towards the Jewish community“« pour l’expression de sa vindicte et du mépris qu’il éprouve à l’égard de la communauté juive » (Court of Appeal of Paris, 28 November 2013, 13/0072)
Finally, the Court held that it should be noted that the Internet is a medium that is used in a massive way to host discussion forums that denounce American and Jewish imperialism to justify “jihad.” The court said that it was one thing, in the context described, to make remarks that deliberately conflate freedom of expression and terrorism, thereby trivializing the terrorism, but it was another thing to then decide to publish them on the Internet to a wide audience that maintains a feeling of hostility towards the Jewish community. It was held that Dieudonné M’bala M’bala could not ignore the impact of his words and was therefore guilty of the offense of apologizing for terrorism and sentenced to a suspended term of two months’ imprisonment.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case contracts expression as it overly limits the scope of free speech with regard to contemporary, topical, and controversial issues and events. The court holds that a satirist and comedian is guilty of apologizing for terrorism because, in commenting on a current event, he made reference to the acts of terrorism with a term that had been popularized and considered to be commemorative of victims of terrorist violence. Further, the court held his comment might have satisfied the criteria for satire – a protected form of artistic expression – but for the fact that “public opinion” at the time was not in favor of such an interpretation. Public opinion at a specific point in time ought not to be the determinant of whether or not an individual may or may not express him or herself. Furthermore, the comedian was found criminally liable. Criminal sanction for expression infringements is generally considered disproportionate.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
as amended by the Act of November 13, 2014:
“the fact of causing directly in acts of terrorism or publicly condoning these acts is punishable by five years imprisonment and seventy-five thousand euros fine. When the acts are committed by electronic means, the penalty is increased to seven years’ imprisonment and a hundred thousand euros fine. “
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