The goal is a crackdown on violence and extremism online. But if the French president’s record is anything to go by, anyone who values civil liberties should be very concerned, writes Branko Marcetic.
This time next week Jacinda Ardern will be preparing to leave for Paris to co-chair with French president Emmanuel Macron a G7 meeting on preventing acts of terrorism from being broadcast online. The two plan to ask world leaders and tech executives to agree to a pledge now dubbed the “Christchurch Call”. In response to free speech concerns, the prime minister insisted the meeting would have a narrow remit.
“This isn’t about freedom of expression,” she said. “This is about preventing violent extremism and terrorism online.”
Ardern’s words may be reassuring for some. But the fact that she’s teaming up with Macron? Not so much.
We should ask ourselves how we would feel if this exact same situation played out except with Ardern teaming up with Vladimir Putin, or China’s Xi Jinping, or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. For those who think this comparison is overheated, let’s have a brief review of what Macron’s done while in power.
Early on, Macron made permanent the extraordinary powers France had in place during its two-year long state of emergency in the wake of the 2015 Paris terror attacks. The new law allowed authorities to close places of worship supposedly putting out radical ideas (no proof needed from the investigators), carry out stop-and-search measures in more places, put individuals suspected of terrorist links under a form of house arrest for as long as a year (even if they haven’t been accused of a crime), and much else.
The law caused an uproar in France, not just out of concern for civil liberties, but that the new powers would be used to target and harass law-abiding Muslims, some of whom had already seen their lives upended under the emergency powers for appearing suspicious or being reported by colleagues. “Imagine a fascist-like group rises to power. All the legal instruments would be in place to commit abuses,” said one official from a union representing judges.
Of course, in language that may now sound familiar to Kiwis, Macron assured the public this would allow authorities to “deal with terrorist threats while preserving citizens’ rights”. Yet in May 2018, a UN human rights expert determined after a nine-day visit to the country that Muslims “have been the community primarily subject to exceptional measures both during the state of emergency and the new law,” being treated as a “suspect community”.
Macron and his government appear particularly hostile toward journalism. Last year, Macron backed a bill that allowed parties and politicians to complain about false or “implausible” news during an election campaign, kicking it over to a judge who would have 48 hours to decide whether to remove it. Early this year, on the orders of the French public prosecutor (who was chosen by Macron after he rejected three others), police demanded to search without a warrant the office of online news outlet Mediapart, which had just published scandalous and politically damaging stories about two of Macron’s former security guards.
Macron has now struck a six-month-long partnership with Facebook to take on online hate speech, including embedding regulators inside the company. It appears that one kind of speech Macron will target in this way is criticism of Israel, with Macron charging shortly after that “anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of anti-Semitism”.
All of this has been escalated by the rise of the gilets jaunes protest movement that opposes Macron, a hodge-podge of different ideologies united in their anger at the president and the political establishment he represents. Macron’s government plans to punish protesters who attend “unauthorised protests” and wear face masks, and even ban “troublemakers” from protesting. This is on top of the brutal and heavy-handed measures authorities have already taken to deal with demonstrators, which UN human rights experts have denounced. The protests have seen more than 80 journalists arrested, detained or attacked by authorities while doing their jobs, something the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders called “chilling”. It was partly because of this “unprecedented level of violence” toward journalists during the protests that France continues to sit startlingly low (for a Western country) in the World Press Freedom Index.
Partly in reaction to the protests, Macron invited some of the country’s leading media outlets to the Élysée Palace earlier this year, where he appeared to suggest the French government needed to take a stronger hand in the news business. Expressing his worries about “the state of information and the truth”, he urged the re-establishment of “levels of confidence” and a “hierarchy of who is speaking,” and suggested the state should establish financing bodies to fund the news and “make sure that it is neutral”. The comments elicited alarm from French journalists, one of whom accused Macron of “imagining what looks like a partial nationalisation of the press”.
This is the man Ardern is teaming up with to figure out a way to regulate online spaces. Concerns over this shouldn’t be limited to the New Zealand right – with Macron at the helm, there are legitimate worries the outcome could threaten free speech, including for that of the liberals and left that are backing such measures right now. This would be obvious to us if it was a non-Western, nakedly authoritarian leader in question; but just because Macron runs a major Western country and says that he’s a centrist shouldn’t make us forget about what he’s actually done in power.
The fact is, leaders throughout history have used terrorism as a justification to push through otherwise unpopular measures that curtail political freedoms, measures that are then often aimed at political dissent more broadly. The George W Bush administration, for instance, used the September 11 attacks to put in place a host of measures, including a system of mass surveillance, long desired by the US government’s national security state, measures which were then turned on Muslims and other marginalised communities. And it’s not always in response to Islamic terrorism: many of those post-September 11 measures appeared in an earlier bill proposed after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing committed by white supremacist Timothy McVeigh.
It also pays to keep in mind that Macron has very different motivations than Ardern in leading these efforts. While Ardern is responding to racist violence, Macron is reacting to a grass-roots protest movement that has done irreparable damage to his image and presidency, and one that’s been fed and sustained by social media (even if its role in shaping such movements is overblown these days).
Ardern should be careful that Macron and any other embattled leaders in the G7 don’t use this meeting as an opportunity to push measures that harm not just journalism, but all of our civil liberties. But more importantly, the New Zealand public needs to hold her to account and make sure she doesn’t.