Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, a taboo-busting humorist for some, a shocking anti-Semite for others, is currently at the center of a spiraling controversy in France over the acceptable limits of free speech. After inventing and encouraging the questionable gesture known as the "quenelle," which some say is an allusion to the Nazi salute, the French comic is now facing a ban on public performances by French Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls.
PARIS — There are plenty of reasons not to start the year with Dieudonné. Plenty of excellent reasons not get dragged into the shady controversies that this authorized agitator and so-called humorist invariably triggers. Since the French Interior Minister Manuel Valls denounced Dieudonné’s “racist and anti-Semitic remarks”, since he announced he intended to ”break this circle of hatred” and explore all legal options to ban his shows, not a single argument has failed to call to put things back into perspective.
“Careful!,” some warn: attacking Dieudonné head-on, as Manuel Valls did, will increase his visibility and ensure him unprecedented publicity just before a tour that was supposed to start on Jan. 9 and take him to 22 French cities over the next few weeks.
Threatening to ban his shows, others say, runs the risk of turning the minstrel provocateur into an outcast and perfect victim to demonstrate that his rhetoric was spot on: “See, I’m the leader of the people opposed to the system, because the ‘system,’ embodied by the Minister of the Interior himself, designated me as public enemy,” he will be able to sneer with ease. There’s nothing better to fuel the conspiracy fantasies, which have been his stock-in-trade.
Worse still, isn’t banning Dieudonné’s performances stepping onto a slippery slope for public liberty, threatening the founding principles of democracy that are freedom of speech and assembly? Isn’t it censoring an artist, muzzling a free thinker, rejecting comedy in the name of public morals, as his lawyers are already pleading? Isn’t it running the risk of next being disavowed by the justice system if the “public disorder,” cited by the Minister of the Interior, does not come to pass?
Others still, all the while denouncing Dieudonné’s anti-Zionist — not to say anti-Semitic — provocations, refuse what they think is a political coup by Valls, a way to restore his republican image after harsh criticism in recent months about the Roma population.
None of these arguments are insignificant. So what do we do? Should we leave Dieudonné, night after night, pour out his hatred towards “Jews”, “kippah city” and the “Zionist conspiracy”? Should we cover our ears when he repeats, over and over again, about the French radio host: “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself, you know, the gas chambers… a pity!”?
Should we also ignore his apology of Pétain, responsible for the Vel" d'Hiv Roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942, but still, according to him, “not as racist” as President François Hollande? Should we turn a blind eye when he brings on stage Robert Faurisson, who denies the existence of Nazi gas chambers; or when he starts singing his song “Shoah nanas” (“ananas” meaning “pineapple”, in French), which makes a mockery of the extermination of Jews by the Nazi regime?
Legal and tax grounds
In short, we let him, with more or less impunity, orchestrate these transgressions, pour this poison over the Internet and federate, in a shared jubilation, the ancient anti-Semitism of the far-right and a new anti-Semitism that plays on a competition between pasts in order to better reject the Shoah, in the name of other tragedies of slavery or colonialism.
Lastly, we let him, in the name of democratic freedom, do his trademark gesture — the infamous “quenelle”, which resembles the Nazi salute and represents, for him, a way to give the finger to “this old whore of a democracy” — by treating these eructations with contempt.
This public composure, if not a concealed indifference, is simply unacceptable. This is why Manuel Valls was right to engage in combat.
On condition that he now carries it out without flinching – and, of course, within the confines of the law. Without even talking about banning his shows, which is evidently a delicate matter, but the desire of which has just been confirmed with a memorandum sent to the prefects of the Ministry of the Interior in cities around France.
It is hard to see what prevents the current legislation from consistently opposing Dieudonné: it can punish, including with a one-year prison sentence, “any racist, anti-Semite or xenophobic act,” as well as challenging the existence of crimes against humanity, starting with the Holocaust. In this regard, the “humorist’s” provocations are not opinions, but crimes.
The same applies to the tax and financial grounds. Dieudonné, already convicted several times since 2007 for verbal abuse and incitement to racial hatred, has craftily engineered his own insolvency in order not to pay the 65,000-euro fine he was ordered to pay. But, as the French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira just pointed out, the fraudulent organization of one’s insolvability is a criminal offense. What are we waiting for?
But, quite rightly, Taubira added that the legal penalty “will not be enough”: against this “snickering barbarism” that is “testing society, its mental health, its ethical solidity and its vigilance,” there is indeed a need for a relentless political fight.
This would show that democracy is not powerless against those who threaten it by flouting the rule of law, its procedures and its fundamental values. It would also point out that, if tolerance is a cardinal virtue, it will not accept the intolerable.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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