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Charlie Hebdo 'Set the Tone': The Year in Questionable Allies and Freedom of Speech

The case of the imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, who was awarded the European Union's top human rights award this month, was just one of many that made headlines in 2015 and provoked a debate about the importance of free speech.

by Sally Hayden
Dec 25 2015, 6:13pm

Photo by Patrick Seeger/EPA

A diminutive Saudi woman named Ensaf Haidar made a powerful speech and received a standing ovation before the European Parliament this month. Her husband, the imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, had just received the Sakharov Prize, the European Union's top human rights award.

Badawi came to international attention in January, when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for allegedly insulting religious authorities after he set up the "Liberal Saudi Network," a now-defunct website that was meant to provide a forum for public debate. Badawi was also ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riyals ($266,000).

The first 50 lashes were publicly inflicted outside of a mosque following Friday prayers in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. According to eyewitnesses, Badawi didn't cry out, though his distraught wife later said that his "weak" body would be unable to take any more whippings.

Badawi's was just one of the many cases that made headlines this year and provoked a debate about the importance of free speech.

This was a year that started with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, when brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi stormed the controversial satirical magazine's Paris headquarters and murdered 12 people, claiming that they were avenging the publication's regular lampooning of the Prophet Muhammad.

More than a million people marched in Paris in protest the following Sunday, including 40 heads of state. UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were just some of the leaders gathered in an expression of solidarity.

But many of those leaders also stand accused of cracking down on freedom of speech in their own countries, or allying themselves with nations that are doing the same.

In January, Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was sent to prison for six months after he posted a tweet that was deemed to be insulting toward the Gulf state's government. After his release, he told VICE News that he spent the period in solitary confinement in a small room listening to Bob Marley songs.

Rajab said that he was going to be more careful in the future, but insisted that "criticism is part of a human rights defender's work and activity — so that will continue and the struggle will continue and the work will continue."

Another notable release took place in February, when Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was finally let out of Egyptian prison. 

"It is weird," he told VICE News shortly after his deportation. "Every journalist gets this — you spend your whole life trying not to be the news."

In August, VICE also found itself the focus of news after three VICE News journalists were arrested while reporting on clashes between the government and the Kurdish PKK in southeastern Turkey. While the two British journalists — Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury — were released after 11 days, Iraqi journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool remains in prison awaiting trial.

Related: 100 Days in Prison and a Lawyer Shot Dead: Turkey Still Won't Let Our Journalist Go

Other journalists were imprisoned in Indonesia, in Egypt, in China, and many other countries across the world.

In November, VICE News met Malaysian cartoonist Zunar, who was arrested in February after posting tweets suggesting that Malaysian judges were being bribed by politicians, and is now risking 43 years in prison.

At least two members of the citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently were murdered this year. Founded in April 2014, it posts updates and information from within Islamic State-controlled territory.

In a report released this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists identified 199 journalists in prison as a direct result of their work.

"2015 has been an incredibly different one for freedom of press and journalists around the world," said Courtney Radsch, advocacy advisor for the CPJ. "Unfortunately, the killings at Charlie Hebdo that started off the year set the tone for the rest of the year."

She noted that the past few years have been the deadliest on record for journalists.

In 2015, Radsch said, "we saw the general blowback against journalists that comes amid fears against terrorism and the continued use of anti-state charges being used to justify jailing journalists and increasing censorship online." The extension of oppressive laws into the online space, she added, was a major concern.

Radsch also said that she was disappointed to see key US and EU allies — including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Turkey — topping the global list of jailers, and questioned "the continuing acceptance of having these special relationships with these countries."

There were high points too, however, such as the release of Ethiopia's Zone 9 bloggers. Radsch pointed to that as an example of international pressure working, and she believed that US President Barack Obama's visit to Ethiopia played a large role in securing their release. 

"It's important for countries to realize the power that they have," she said.

Despite heated debate and publicity around certain cases, many more of them went under the radar around the world. The imprisonment of local journalists and activists tends not to attract the same amount of attention from an international audience, plus those persecuted domestically don't have another government willing to appeal on their behalf.

Related: Leaving My Friend Rasool Behind and Why He Must Be Freed from Turkish Prison

In Strasbourg, Vice President of the European Parliament Ulrike Lunacek told a group of reporters that several EU member states had been opposed to Badawi getting the Sakharov Prize because of their economic ties with Saudi Arabia.

Badawi started a hunger strike in early December after being moved to a new, more isolated prison. "The pressure of the European Parliament has contributed to getting people out of prison, and I hope it will with Raif Badawi too," Lunacek said.

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was established in 1988 in honor of Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. Since then notable recipients have included Malala Yousafzai, Aung San Suu Kyi, Kofi Annan and the staff of the United Nations, and the Arab Spring.

Last year imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus was a finalist. She was released from prison earlier this month.

In a speech in the parliament's chamber, Haidar appealed again. 

"Raif isn't a criminal, he's not a rapist, a highway man, a drug trafficker," she said. "My husband simply expressed his views and set them out on paper. He's dreaming of a better world, that's all… He spoke out clearly and that's what angered the religious leaders."

"I have never criticized Saudi Arabia," she went on. "I have tried to lend clarity.… What I'm doing is telling my story."