World leaders walked for freedom of speech but bar it at home

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was attacked for going to Paris while avoiding Gaza

Daoud Kuttab

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Social media activists have filled cyberspace with comments and arguments justifying the presence of this or that leader at the gathering held in Paris in support of the people of France after the brutal killing, in two separate attacks on journalists, cartoonists, policemen and everyday shoppers in a Jewish supermarket.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was attacked for going to Paris while avoiding Gaza. Arab leaders were criticized for attending the French demonstration while not working to protect freedom of expression in their countries.

The events of last week in France were truly tragic and required a major response

Daoud Kuttab

Arab leaders have many considerations, of course, when they make decisions such as last week’s. When a superpower like France calls for worldwide support, it is incumbent on world leaders to show solidarity by participating.

Multiple messages

His Majesty King Abdullah’s and Queen Rania’s presence in France sent multiple messages. Not only where they present to show public support for the grieving French, but also as a demonstration of moderate Islam. The direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad and the sponsor of the Amman Message of religious dialogue had to make his presence known at such event.

The reaction from the French Muslim community welcoming the presence of the king and queen shows that it was a positive move.

Similarly, Abbas’ presence as a result of the direct invitation from the Elysee Palace (after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence to come) can be clearly explained and justified.

France has been a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights. Only a month ago, the French parliament voted in support of Palestinian statehood and the French representative at the United Nations Security Council voted positively on the Palestine-Jordan resolution calling for a timetable to end the 47-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Dignified presence

Abbas’ dignified presence in Paris boosted the legitimacy of the Palestinian quest for statehood and his presence along world leaders is a huge declaration of international support for the people of Palestine and their legitimate right to a state of their own.
But despite the justifications for the presence of these world leaders in Paris, it is important to remember that the main message of the Paris demonstration was a declaration of support for the freedom of expression.

This freedom should not be a monopoly of Western countries. The world community declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the right of assembly and expression is one that every person and group has the right to enjoy.

World leaders who locked arms in Paris must remember that their commitment to support the right of French journalists and cartoonists to express themselves, even using offensive language and depictions, should apply to their countries as well.

It is inconceivable that after January 11 world leaders will continue to ignore restrictions and violations of freedom of expression around the world.

Violating the rights of journalists

The impunity that we have seen in terms of holding individuals and governments accountable for violating the rights of journalists to express themselves cannot continue anymore.

The leaders who went to Paris to express support for the people of France have automatically made a commitment to their own people and to the world community that these inalienable rights of expression and assembly will also be guaranteed in their countries, just as much as in France.

The events of last week in France were truly tragic and required a major response. But now that the world has spoken in support of freedom of expression, we, the peoples of the world, must hold our own leaders to the same values and insist on having same rights in our countries. Anything short of that would be dishonoring the French cartoonists and others who gave their lives for this freedom. We all now have a joint responsibility to uphold these freedoms for all the peoples of the world.

This article was first published in The Jordan Times on January 15, 2015.


Daoud Kuttab, an award winning Palestinian journalist who resides in Jerusalem and Amman. Mr. Kuttab is the director general of Community Media Network a media NGO that runs a radio station in Amman (al balad radio 92.4fm) a newsweb site ammannet.net and a TV production operation in Palestine Penmedia (penmedia.ps) which is producing the Palestinian version of Sesame street. You can read his blogs on DaoudKuttab.com and find him on Twitter @DaoudKuttab.

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