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Arrest of French Comedian Sparks Free Speech Debate


FILE - French comic Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala.

FILE - French comic Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala.

France has arrested a comedian after he made comments that many said were in support of the Islamists who carried out attacks in Paris last week.

The comedian, known as Dieudonné, said in a Monday Facebook post, "Tonight, as far as I'm concerned I feel like Charlie Coulibaly."

The statement, which has since been deleted, combines the name of the Charlie Hebdo magazine where 12 people were killed in last week's attack with the name of Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out a separate attack at a kosher supermarket.

French authorities interpreted this as a statement of support for the attackers. On Wednesday, they said they were holding Dieudonné for being an "apologist for terrorism."

Dieudonné has repeatedly been convicted on charges of anti-Semitism and is reviled by many for popularizing the "quenelle," a hand gesture, which many say resembles a Nazi salute.

The comedian is one of 54 people arrested in France in the past week on charges related to hate speech, anti-Semitism and condoning terrorism.

The crackdown is particularly striking because it comes amid a free speech campaign in support of the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, who were attacked because of their often mocking depictions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

Free Speech Double Standard?

For some, this represents a double standard that protects or even encourages seemingly anti-Muslim or anti-Islam speech, but criminalizes similar comments against other groups.

In a commentary Wednesday, prominent U.S. journalist and author Glenn Greenwald said the celebration of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was as much about approval of their "anti-Muslim messages" as it was for free speech rights.

"The vast bulk of the stirring 'free speech' tributes over the last week have been little more than an attempt to protect and venerate speech that degrades disfavored groups while rendering off-limits speech that does the same to favored groups, all deceitfully masquerading as lofty principles of liberty," said Greenwald in a commentary on The Intercept website.

Others disagree. Charles Asher Small, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism, sees a fundamental distinction between the Hebdo cartoons and Dieudonné's comments.

"I think there is a big difference when people are inciting people to attack their fellow citizens in Paris, as Dieudonné and his crew has clearly done, at least the courts have come to that conclusion, and when cartoonists draw images, in this case of the Prophet Muhammad, in a way that some people don't like," said Asher Small.

"Charlie Hebdo and others are not inciting to attack Muslims. They're not putting them into physical danger, and I think that's the distinction that hate legislation and courts have been making," he continued.

France Not Immune from Free Speech Concerns

International rights groups have long criticized France for having some of the most restrictive hate speech laws in the European Union.

The laws are seen as an attempt to limit racial or religious tensions in a country that has seen occasional attacks against both Muslims and Jews.

Thomas Hughes, the director of Article 19, a London-based rights group that monitors global free speech, tells VOA that France "doesn't necessarily do a great job" in protecting freedom of expression.

"They have criminalized defamation, there's a prohibition of wearing veils, they have broad limitations on racial hatred. There are a number of freedom of expression concerns," said Hughes.

Hughes calls it "disappointing" that French authorities are considering charges against Dieudonné for his Facebook comments, which he says do not meet international standards for hate speech.

"As distasteful, as unpleasant, as offensive as the comments might have been to a great number of people, I don't believe they constitute hate speech," he said. "I don't believe they are imminent cause or threats towards the French public or the French state, and therefore he has the right, as offensive as they are, to say it."

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