Freedom of thought, expression and inquiry is under renewed threat from governments which, paradoxically, claim to be fighting to preserve freedom of expression in Europe.
The ongoing case of a Belgian prison teacher issued with a work ban on national security grounds, and other disturbing cases of exclusion and criminalisation that have occurred in France since the Paris massacres, need to be placed at the centre of mainstream debate.
When Belgian prison teacher and human rights defender Luk Vervaet was finally told why he was barred from going to any Belgian prison – and he had had to fight for years for the right to know – it was his activism in support of freedom of expression and association, his solidarity work in defence of prisoners, and his work on Palestine which were held to justify the ban.The security services cited his membership of organisations such as CLEA (Committee for Freedom of Expression and Association), his involvement with the International Parliamentary Union for Palestine, his former membership of the Belgian Workers’ Party (PTB) and his founding of a party Egalité (which he had since left).
Blurring the boundaries
None of the organisations cited was proscribed, none of the activities unlawful, nor has Vervaet ever made any secret of his campaigning activities for victims of injustice in Belgium, Palestine or elsewhere. He had no criminal record and was highly regarded by prison governors. Three years ago the Conseil d’Etat, Belgium’s constitutional court, had ruled the work ban illegal. But the minister refused either to revoke the ban or to offer compensation. And when Vervaet took his case for reparation back to court, the Brussels first-instance court upheld his exclusion, and the destruction of his livelihood, as justified on national security grounds.
How could the first-instance court reach this decision, in the face of the constitutional court’s unequivocal condemnation of the work ban? Its arguments, which are difficult to convey, seem to come straight out of the pages of Kafka. But in a nutshell, the judges reasoned that the higher court was ruling only on the manner of the ban (the failure to inform Vervaet of the reasons or give him a right to be heard), and not on its merits – an interpretation Vervaet and his lawyers roundly reject. That it was the justice minister, of all people, who persuaded the court not to follow the Conseil d’Etat ruling reveals a lack of respect for the rule of law in the ministry which should be doing most to uphold it. An order that Vervaet – who has been unable to work since 2009 owing to the ban – pay six thousand euros in costs for his unsuccessful application, completed the legal mockery.
What were the ‘national security’ grounds which justified destroying a man’s livelihood? According to the court, a ‘vague suspicion’ that ‘the defence of supposed victims of anti-terrorist laws could have led him to cross the line from legitimate defence of justice to the support of ideologies indirectly justifying terrorism’ made it ‘understandable that in the context of the security of the prison regime, [allowing him into prisons] was a risk they could not take.’
The judgment enshrines the blurring of the distinction between peaceful political action against injustice and support for terrorism. Support for Palestine becomes support for terrorism; campaigning against the inhuman treatment of prisoners is seen as support for the prisoners’ crimes. The court meekly accepted this logic, according to which European MPs who support the International Parliamentary Union for Palestine should all be barred from their posts for support of an ideology ‘indirectly justifying terrorism’. Its refusal to uphold the right to express dissenting or unpopular opinions reveals the narrowing limits of free expression.
The contradictions and distortions surrounding free expression multiplied in the febrile atmosphere after the Paris massacres. In the city where in July 2014 a rally to protest the deaths of hundreds in Israel’s invasion of Gaza was banned, the rally in support of freedom of expression was led by some of the most virulent oppressors of press freedom in Egypt, Russia, Turkey and Algeria, a BBC reporter’s clumsy and, according to some, anti-Semitic reference to Palestinian suffering led to calls for his dismissal, and a suburban mayor banned acclaimed anti-jihadist film Timbuktu by Mauretanian director Abderrahmane Sissako because, made by a Muslim, it was bound to support jihad – these were just some of the multiple ironies created by a ‘free speech’ harnessed to the interests of the powerful and used to discipline the powerless.
The ‘right to offend’ in the name of freedom of speech has almost been elevated to a public duty, as media outlets including the Guardian were called cowards for refusing to reproduce Charlie Hebdo’s most provocative and racialised cartoons of the Prophet, and London’s Victoria and Albert museum faced accusations of self-censorship after it withdrew from display a depiction of Mohammed. But as several commentators including Seumas Milne have pointed out, while ‘the right to single out one religion for abuse has been raised to the status of a core liberal value’, there has been little tolerance for freedom of expression for Muslims, in the country which banned the headscarf in schools and the burqa in any public place, whose former president demanded that foreigners ‘melt into the national community’ and attacked halal meat, prayers outside mosques and minarets. According to Amnesty International, in the aftermath of the massacres at least sixty-nine arrests were made in one week in France for speech deemed to ‘defend terrorism’. In addition to the well-publicised prosecution of Dieudonné (who has regularly been prosecuted for anti-Semitic hate speech) for his Facebook message ‘I feel like Charlie Coulibaly’, a drunk and mentally disturbed French-Tunisian man received six months’ imprisonment for shouting support for the attackers as he passed a police station in Bourgoin-Jallieu, south-east France, while a drunk driver who hit another vehicle and expressed similar sentiments when arrested received four years in prison. A Poitiers philosophy teacher was suspended for four months and reported to police for ‘defence of terrorism’ for ‘inappropriate comments’ following the minute’s silence for the victims, and a 15-year-old youth who posted on Facebook an ironic take on one of Charlie Hebdo’s most offensive cartoons  was detained and charged with defending terrorism. Even the Syndicat de la Magistrature (Magistrates’ Association) condemned the government crackdown.
In some French schools the atmosphere was like a witch-hunt. When an eight-year-old boy replied to his teacher’s question ‘Are you Charlie?’ with ‘No, they insult my religion, I’m with the terrorists’, the head was summoned, and asked the boy the same question three times in front of the class. The child and his father were reported to police, who questioned them for two hours on suspicion of defending terrorism. Another apologist for terrorism’ was a thirteen-year-old French Muslim child in the southern Loire region who blurted out in a classroom debate that the perpetrators of the Paris massacres ‘were right’, who found himself excluded from school, held in police custody for twenty-four hours and taken to court under the counter-terrorism laws. At least forty children were reported to police for their classroom responses, out of some 200 ‘incidents’ in French schools reported to the education ministry.
Policing the classroom
As some French teachers have observed, such extreme punitive reactions to children’s fumbling attempts to articulate their sense of unfairness teach them nothing, other than to keep their mouths shut. Children who say something provocative in a classroom are not dangerous demagogues seeking to manipulate idealism and strong emotions in the cause of violence. Treating the juvenile testing of boundaries as dangerous, to be punished under laws designed against terrorist violence, shows a serious failure of understanding, as well as potentially ruining educational and career prospects for life.
One teacher, trying to understand the hostility of her teenage black and Muslim French-born students to the minute’s silence imposed in all public offices and schools for the massacre’s victims, mused on how the education system had failed on its promise of equality and entrenched social exclusion. Her students questioned the double standards which saw ugly and hate-filled anti-Semitic mockery rightly condemned, while ugly and hate-filled anti-Islamic mockery was held up as glorious examples of secular free speech in a society which excluded them.
A society which seeks to integrate its minorities must listen to them. But angry young Muslims are not listened to, only monitored, for words which suggest support for terrorism. In the aftermath of the massacres, French politicians announced new counter-terror measures including the adoption of the PREVENT programme pioneered in the UK, as well as even tougher penalties for online ‘defence of terrorism’. British educationalists believe the PREVENT strategy has further stigmatised Muslim communities, while the fear of surveillance has stifled classroom debate. Teachers, afraid to allow young people to test the boundaries in open discussion of difficult subjects, are failing to teach them to think – leaving them vulnerable to emotion-led responses to injustice, including violence. ‘Strong language and strong views are much better aired within facilitated educational processes that are set against multiple perspectives, than in private spaces where no challenge or learning is encouraged’, argue Ted Cantle and Paul Thomas. ‘PREVENT has not … encouraged open political debate and education about the sort of domestic and international political issues that may anger some young Muslims and attract them towards more radical groups.’
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill currently going through the UK parliament seeks to make this monitoring and reporting compulsory, with sanctions for failure to comply, which will further entrench alienation and anger. In some areas an Orwellian surveillance mentality has already taken hold: in September 2014, Lancaster University Students’ Union president Laura Clayson found police photographing two posters displayed in her office, against fracking and Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Challenged, they said she was potentially committing a public order offence.
Enforcing the new orthodoxies
When education is redefined, in the words of Howard Hotson of the Council for the Defence of British Universities, as ‘a paid-for service to acquire the skills needed to advance the UK’s prosperity’, there is no room for thought, debate or dissent. It is not just ‘extremist’ speakers or political ideas which are banned from schools and campuses, either: no radical, non-orthodox economics which questions free-market theories is taught in British universities (or in those of many other countries). Liberal democracies are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with thinking, questioning citizens who inquire into or expose corrupt links between politicians and global corporations, sweetheart tax deals and foreign policy priorities which lead to complicity with torture and renditions. With Chelsea Manning serving thirty-five years and Edward Snowden in exile for believing the world had a right to know what our security services were doing, exposure of the burgeoning security state is itself now ferociously punished under the guise of indirect support for terrorism.
Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, warned two years ago that the defence of national security must not be used as grounds for harassing journalists who investigate sensitive subjects such as human rights abuses. In the UK, investigative journalists are deemed a threat to GCHQ information security on a par with terrorists or hackers, their confidential communications with sources are intercepted by police and security services with no requirement of judicial authorisation. In the UK, state surveillance and harassment of journalists who reveal government wrongdoing, such as British state complicity with rendition and torture, led Society of Editors’ head Bob Satchwell to protest that ‘Journalism is not a crime and should not be treated as such’.
We need to fight for the freedom of expression that allows marginalised voices to be heard, that helps young people to learn to think, and that listens to unwelcome truths rather than seeking to suppress them.
See Mohamed Ouachen’s filmed interview (in French) with Luk Vervaet about his case here.