Sunday’s massive rally may have been intended to demonstrate political unity, but, with 40 world leaders marching, it highlighted some bitter divisions as well, from American partisan politics, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the French political establishment’s agonized reaction to the growing power of the far right. But there was also this: For an event held to support freedom of expression, there were an awful lot of leaders in attendance who curtail that very freedom in their own countries.
Reporters Without Borders highlighted a list of free-speech “predators” who traveled to Paris for the event, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which was the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2012 and 2013, and President Ali Bongo of Gabon, a country where press criticism of the government is discouraged by expansive libel laws and physical attacks against journalists.
Also in attendance were the foreign ministers of Egypt, Russia, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates—all of which rank near the bottom of RWB’s press freedom index. The ambassador from Saudi Arabia, where a blogger just began a sentence of 1,000 lashes for blasphemy, was also in attendance.
The past three years have been the deadliest for journalists around the world since the Committee to Project Journalists began keeping records in 1992. More than 200 were arrested last year, including both local reporters and an increasing number of foreign correspondents.
Condemnation is usually swift and universal when the perpetrators of attacks on the media are nonstate actors like the Paris gunmen or the ISIS fighters who beheaded two American reporters in the Syrian desert last year. But it’s much rarer for governments to be held accountable for either attacks on or intimidation of the press, or creating an atmosphere that makes such attacks more likely. It’s unfortunate that a rally decrying extreme intolerance gave feel-good cover to some governments that are among the leading perpetrators of it.