Enraged protesters have been taking to the streets in different cities across France in opposition to a security bill that would curtail the French people’s right to freedom of expression and set restrictions on a free press.
A draft global security bill was tabled for debate at the National Assembly in October last year by legislators affiliated with the ruling La République en Marche Party (Republic on the Move) led by French President Emmanuel Macron. The controversial bill, already endorsed by the National Assembly, allows for “mass ground and air surveillance” to monitor people’s day-to-day actions in the streets, and it bans documenting police activities, particularly during protests.
The draft bill’s Article 24 would originally have set a fine of €45,000 and a year behind bars for “disseminating by any means or medium whatsoever, with the aim of harming their physical or psychological integrity, the image of the face or any other identifying element of an officer of the national police or member of the national gendarmerie when engaged in a police operation.”
The law commission in the French Senate has since introduced some cosmetic changes to the article in order not to penalise the “dissemination” of police photographs or footage with intent to harm, but rather to penalise “causing the identification” of police officers with intent to harm.”
As the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters without Borders) campaign group put it, “causing an action that is not a crime is itself a crime if done with a particular intent.” In France, a beacon of liberty, people may thus be subject to charges for their “intent” should it be interpreted, or more precisely misinterpreted, as a means of causing “harm”.
French legislators have fallen short of providing a loud-and-clear reply to the question of how people can stand trial for their “intent”. Above all, how can journalists covering protests in France feel protected within such a broad definition of intent? France, one of the 31 signatories to a joint declaration on Egypt’s human-rights situation, has thus “marched” towards the endorsement of a controversial bill that pays no attention to critics who have shared legitimate concerns over privacy and their right to expose police brutality.
The world today is a small village, and nothing can take place in any of its corners without its being echoed in another. The dossier of human rights has been used for decades by the “civilised” West to tarnish the image of countries deemed less civilised and less tolerant of the basic human rights of their respective peoples in what the West has long coded as the “Third World”.
Are human rights indivisible, or are they tailored to serve a particular end? In other words, if impoverished children in Niger are sweating over bits and pieces in order to extract the uranium needed to keep French nuclear power plants alive, could one grouse about the “breach” of the basic human rights of those helpless children, or is the term only employed when their “freedom of expression” is impinged on?
Above all, do not “Third World” countries have the right to raise questions when freedoms long advocated by the Western powers as “untouchable” are violated on the other side of the planet? The international rights group Amnesty International has revealed that (French) people protesting against the global security bill in France have been “arrested and detained on spurious grounds.” It has added that the bill “could prevent journalists from reporting on police violence, an extremely dangerous precedent to set.” It concludes by saying that “these dangerous practices pose a grave threat to the rights of people in France.”
Such wording could have been stereotypically connected with “Third World” nations that have usually been put on the defencive if they have taken action like that being taken in France.
During the tempestuous protests staged by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) Movement in France a year ago, activists documented and posted on social media footage of French police officers beating protesters, some of whom were black, in clashes between the two sides. Under the new law, posting footage or commentary on such platforms as Facebook, Twitter and the like may be punishable if the “intent” implies physical harm to the perpetrator.
Amidst the unprecedented wave of terror and lawlessness afflicting many countries, like those within the “Arab Spring” ring of fire or in the many war-hit and disease-stricken nations in Africa, there has been a crying need for some governments to take action to ensure that the majorities of their populations remain safe. Unfortunately, when they have acted to maintain a minimum level of protection for their peoples, or to regulate issues like the freedom of assembly to match the rule of law, an instant charge has been levelled against them, describing their acts as “dictatorial” and branding their laws as “draconian”.
However, harbouring such disgusting beliefs as white supremacy and Islamophobia and giving space for their proponents to speak their minds coupled with shameful actions against minorities should be spotlighted along with any violation of basic human rights anywhere in the world. Lording it over poor and impoverished countries is in breach of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as far as all humans being born equal is concerned.
If it is the right of France to enact laws deemed necessary to maintain law and order and hold accountable any violators in that department, the right of other countries to take action to protect their peoples against existential threats needs to be respected alike.
It is time the “First World” considered the dangers and unprecedented challenges engulfing countries in the Middle East and Africa. Instead of stigmatising these countries as less tolerant and less humane, the former colonial powers, the main reason behind depriving many countries in these regions of their basic right to good living conditions, are morally obliged to stop criticising the human-rights situation in these nations.
The living conditions in these countries could have been better had they been given the chance to use their own resources fairly and equally in the past.
*The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly