Three years after Charlie tragedy, ‘blaspheming’ journalists still face death

In 2018, writing or talking about religious matters remains "delicate". Graphic: Reporters Without Borders
In 2018, writing or talking about religious matters remains “delicate”. Graphic: Reporters Without Borders/Pacific Media Watch


On the eve of the third anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deplores the fact that dozens of journalists worldwide are still the targets of calls for their execution or are sentenced to death because they are deemed to be guilty of blasphemy or apostasy.

Writing or talking about religious matters continues to be delicate, to the point that you can risk losing your life, RSF said in a statement.

Three years after 12 people were killed at the Paris headquarters of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015, those who censor in the name of God still pose one of the gravest threats to the freedom to inform almost everywhere in the world.

From one continent to the next, calls for the deaths of journalists accused of blasphemy circulate widely on social networks.

In France, anonymous internet users call for more attacks on Charlie Hebdo. In Bangladesh, calls are being made for Shyamal Dutta, the editor of the daily newspaper Bhorer Kagaj, and his staff to be publicly hanged because a December 23 article said a book about the Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) that had been published by a government entity contained “vulgarities”.

In Bangladesh, as in Pakistan, fundamentalist groups and religious extremists tolerated by the authorities threaten journalists and bloggers with complete impunity, when they don’t abduct them or hack them to death*.

It was exactly one year ago, on 7 January 2017, that the Pakistani blogger Samar Abbas disappeared. He was the founder of Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan, a group that posted articles online defending religious freedom. Four other bloggers were abducted around the same time.

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After they went missing, a massive online smear campaign began accusing them of blasphemy, which carries the death penalty in Pakistan. Four of the five bloggers were released after several weeks but none of them dared to identify their abductors.

Explicit threat to family
The threat received by the family of one of the victims was explicit: “You who have blasphemed deserve death. You are out of Islam and should be ready for a painful punishment, which will be remembered by your generations to come.”

In Algeria, Abdou Semmar, the editor of the investigative online newspaper Algériepart and host of “L’Emission Impossible,” a programme on privately-owned Beur TV, has been reduced to hoping that he and his colleagues do not have to pay the highest price for the programme broadcast on December 22, a debate about religious fanaticism that angered radical Islamists.

“Ever since then, we have been subjected to a major campaign of threats and harassment,” he said.

A video accusing them of attacking Islam, that was broadcast on the Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera, served to fuel the outrage.

“The fanatics are using it to attack us, and our families are beginning to be very afraid for our lives.”

“In many parts of the world, reporting the facts is regarded as heretical behaviour,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

“Fanatics do not just harass and threaten cartoonists, subjecting them to extreme violence. They also target journalists who cover religious matters and even just social issues and public affairs. The prohibitions that these extremists try to impose extend far beyond the religious domain”.

“The charge of blasphemy cannot, under any circumstances, justify an exception to the freedom to inform. This is contrary to international law and we therefore call for the repeal of all legislation that restricts the freedom to inform in the name of religion.”

Battle frontline
Charlie Hebdo continues to be at the front line of the unequal battle between fanatical censors and satirical journalists or cartoonists. Just two months ago, the magazine’s front page that showed Tariq Ramadan – a Swiss Islamic scholar accused of sexual assault – declaring himself to be the “6th pillar of Islam” triggered a virulent campaign of insults and death threats on social networks.

The continuing threats against Charlie Hebdo have a cost. A high one.

In its latest issue, the magazine reported that the proceeds from more than one of every two copies that it sells have to be used to pay for protecting its headquarters and the journalists who work there. Freedom of expression “is in the process of becoming a luxury product,” publisher Riss said in an editorial.

“Three years after the tragedy, solidarity with Charlie Hebdo is still a moral obligation,” Deloire added.

“The lives of its employees and the magazine’s economic survival must be defended because Charlie is a symbol that we cannot abandon without accepting defeat at the hands of religious intolerance.”

Seventy countries still have blasphemy laws

It is not just anonymous religious extremists who want blasphemy and apostasy to be punishable by execution or other drastic penalties. No fewer than 71 countries still had laws penalising blasphemy at the start of 2017, according to a report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Only one repeal
Since then, only one of these countries – Denmark in July – has repealed its blasphemy legislation. Some countries envisage reinforcing their laws in order to punish blasphemers more severely.

They include Mauritania. “Any Muslim, man or woman, who mocks or insults Allah or His Messenger (Mohammed), peace be upon him, His angels, His books or one of His Prophets, is punishable by death (…) even in the case of repentance,” says a law approved by the Mauritanian government on November 16.

It was because he repented that the death sentence imposed on the blogger Mohamed Ould Mkheitir for a “blasphemous” post had been commuted to two years in prison just four days earlier. Now repentance is no longer possible. Mkheitir qualified for release on 9 November but his fate is still highly uncertain. The authorities are holding him in a secret location, officially for his own safety.

But friends fear that he is being held to give the supreme court time to reconsider his case and parliament time to make the new law retroactive.

RSF laureates convicted of blasphemy
Blasphemy and apostasy are also punishable by death in Iran. Soheil Arabi, an Iranian photographer and citizen-journalist who was awarded the RSF Press Freedom Prize in 2017, has been held for the past four years for his alleged role in creating a Facebook network that “blasphemed” Islam and criticised the regime.

After being sentenced to three years in prison and 30 lashes, he was retried a few months later and was sentenced to death. The death sentence was eventually overturned and in 2015 he was finally sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.

What with being mistreated and recently going on hunger strike for 52 days, he is now in very poor physical and psychological health.

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, a 2014 RSF Press Freedom laureate, has spent the past five years in prison for “insulting Islam.”

Arrested for criticising and mocking the religious police on his online discussion forum, called the “Liberal Saudi Network,” he was sentenced to ten years in prison, 1000 lashes, a fine of 1 million riyals and a ban on leaving the country for ten years after his release. As in other cases, the sentence is out of all proportion to the alleged offence.

Blasphemy charge used to censor critics
Far from protecting what is sacred, these laws are mostly used in practice to stifle dissent, harass journalists and prevent any form of criticism of the system of government and those in power.

Vague concepts serve as tools for persecuting dissident or minority views, as in the case of Sudanese journalist Shamael al-Nur last February.

For writing in a column in the independent newspaper Al-Tayyar that, “Islamic regimes are preoccupied with matters of virtue, women’s dress, appearance, more than health and education issues,” she was threatened with violence and with prosecution for apostasy, a charge punishable by death under the Sharia law in force in Sudan since 1983.

In a December 2013 report entitled “Blasphemy: Information sacrificed on altar of religion,” RSF examined the impact of the use of blasphemy charges against journalists worldwide, in particular the danger that they pose when used to restrict freedom of expression.

The Auckland-based Pacific Media Centre and its Pacific Media Watch freedom project collaborate with Reporters Without Borders (RSF). This is republished from RSF.

Full RSF report


  1. Nice article but you tip-toed around the issue.

    There aren’t a lot of Hindus, Jews, Christians or Buddhists stoning people to death for apostasy are there? 😉

    The problem is Islam.

      • They machine gun French cartoonists and it’s Israel’s fault?

        They throw gays off high buildings and it’s Israel’s fault?

        The lack of civil rights and democracy in virtually ALL Muslim dominated states is Israel’s fault?

        Too many on the Left have painted themselves into a corner on this issue. Maybe it’s about time you faced up to the facts Sam?

      • Israeli policy towards Palestine is pretty damn racist, yes. Zionism is the term for Jewish (as in culture) nationalism. If you consider nationalism to be inherently racist for some insane reason, then it is.

        If not, then meh. A large portion of Israel is middle eastern Jewish origin, same ethnicity genetically as Palestinians.

        As for Zionism it includes Ethiopian Jews,Indian Jews,European Jews,north African,Persian and Arab Jews. Jews of almost every race. So could be considered prejudice religious movement. But patriotism is ok. Nationalism is not. The shortest definition being: Nationalism for Jews.

        At its most basic form, it means to achieve a sovereign Jewish-majority state, preferably in the area known as the land of Israel/Palestine/Levant.

        That’s pretty much it. Other sub-branches of Zionism just have a different spin on how to achieve this or what to do with it once its accomplished. It’s as racist as modern nationalism (which is an extremely broad term) in general is: potentially, not automatically.

        To go into a little more detail, I would say that racism is the idea that some races are broadly “better” and/or should receive more rights and privileges than others, while nationalism is the idea that international borders should roughly correspond to majority national (that is, some combination of historical, cultural, ethno-linguistic, and/or “biological” identities) populations, and (this part is really incidental to any ideas about race at all, but that’s how history works) that state apparatuses should be the dominant, or really even sole, holders of power within those borders.

        I also think that criticism leveled at Israel also apply to Muslim countries like Iran or Pakistan. They enshrine the religious identity of the state and dominance of the founding majority. Pakistan has problems with shias and balochis and Iran has issues with kurds and is very adamant about shia nature of the state.

        Thus, like I said, racism and nationalism go together like coke & hookers, but (also like coke & hookers) the presence of one does not require the presence of the other.

        All bibi (Netanyahu) <<< is doing is nationalist politics with half the skill of Hitter and screwing up because he's in denial. This stuff is really important because Isreal has implemented the wrong form of nationalist socialism because they think it might add up to peace. According to Bibi peace and security is thriving and after annexation of The West Bank every one will want to relocate there and to Jerusalem (SARCASM) #Bibi #Utopia #PostTruthWorld #Orwellian #Dystopia – The BIG problems are in Bibi's head not in Palestine. Every knows it. That's why they want to expand Isreals boarders.

        A two state solution is the final opportunity to turn the country around from becoming a Socialist Dystopia. If executed well people like Lorde will have a reason to travel to and/or live and work in Isreal & have a chance at happiness. If not people will never want to live in that place.

  2. I do not agree with any of the Blasphemy persecutions/ threats of violence from any country or religious group. Having said that I wonder that the author didn’t comment on the stupidity of a magazine printing pictures of Mahomet with a bomb for a turban, or Mahomet engaged in sexual relations with an animal.If we have a N.Z magazine that has Judas involved in a sex act with Jesus Christ I would have thought that this would be completely unwise, and I would not be surprised if threats or an act of violence was directed against the perpertrator. The author seems only concerned with the sins of Islam.France is drawing up a law that makes criticism of zionism making you guilty of anti-semiticism.Various U.S. states are doing likewise. Already holocaust denial is a crime in France, and several other European states.So freedom of speech is of maximum importance to the Western narrative, except when it conflicts with their blind support for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people by the Israeli Zionist war criminals!!!

    • I am not answerable for what Russia and China did or do regarding religion. However, as a former Christian , and part of the Western Alliance, I have a certain responsibility for what the West does in the name of religion, like it or not.So in this context I am less concerned with what Wahhabi fanatics,Saudi Arabia,followers of the Caliph, Isis etc do in the name of religion, even though it disgusts me, and I concentrate on the Great Crime of the Western Christian Churches and Zionist sympathizers in their aiding and abetting the vile ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian People!!!

    • “Didn’t work out too well”?

      China is the world’s number 2 economy.

      And the Russian oligarchy remains firmly embedded in power – with an unholy alliance with the Russian Orthodox church.

      The seem to have survived the turbulence of the 20th century very nicely, thank you, Andy.

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