Blasphemy Laws and Censorship by States and Non-State Actors: Examining Global Threats to Freedom of Expression
Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing that will examine blasphemy laws, state censorship, actions by non-state actors, and other threats to freedom of expression around the world.
The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental human right provided for in several international human rights declarations and treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). According to Article 19 of the ICCPR, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
Yet despite adherence to these agreements by most of the world’s nations, violations of the right to freedom of expression, including threats to the media, persist. According to Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom of the Press report, “press freedom declined [globally] to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015 as political, criminal, and terrorist forces sought to co-opt or silence the media in their broader struggle for power.” In the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015, the State Department observed that in many countries, “governments cracked down on the fundamental freedoms of expression and association by jailing reporters for writing critical stories, or sharply restricting or closing non-governmental organizations for promoting supposedly ‘foreign ideologies’ such as universal human rights.”
The role of non-state actors in curbing free speech continues to grow. In 2015, Islamist gunmen stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, murdering twelve after the magazine published cartoons of Muhammad. In Bangladesh, more than 20 secular and atheist writers, members of religious minorities, and activists have been killed for expressing views considered contrary to extremists strains of Islamic theology since 2013, while in Mexico, 15 journalists are suspected to have been killed by criminal groups since 2010.
Finally, freedom of expression around the globe continues to be curtailed by the existence and enforcement of “anti-blasphemy” laws. These laws generally criminalize speech or expression considered offensive towards religious belief, and have been used to justify the intimidation, detention, or killing of religious minorities and others critical of a dominant religious belief system, by governments and non-state actors. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2012 “22% of the world’s countries or territories had anti-blasphemy laws or policies.” These laws are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, and in some countries, like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, violators may be sentenced to death. Serious efforts have also been made at the international level, most notably by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, to ban the “defamation of religion” in international law. These efforts, which would effectively create a global anti-blasphemy law, have been heavily criticized by human rights groups and repeatedly blocked by Western governments at the United Nations.
This hearing will examine these issues, while seeking to provide concrete recommendations for how U.S. policy makers can most effectively encourage the protection of freedom of expression around the globe.
This hearing will be open to members of Congress, congressional staff, the interested public and the media. For any questions, please contact Isaac Six (for Rep. Pitts) at 202-225-2411 or Isaac.Six@mail.house.gov, or Stephanie Mellini (for Rep. McGovern) at 202-225-3599 or Stephanie.Mellini@mail.house.gov
David N. Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, U.S. Department of State
Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Chairman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
Ms. Vanessa Tucker, Vice President for Analysis, Freedom House
Ms. Nina Shea, Director, Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom
Dr. Karin Karlekar, Director of Free Expression Programs, PEN America
Dr. Courtney C. Radsch, Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists
Dr. Wael Aleji, Co-Founder, Syrian Christians for Peace