22 March 2019
French humorist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala is facing charges of encouraging terrorism. Photo: AFP
French humorist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala is facing charges of encouraging terrorism. Photo: AFP

French comedian’s arrest prompts debate on free speech

A French comedian will stand trial after making a joke that appeared to sympathize with Islamist extremists behind the massacre of more than a dozen people in Paris last week.

Dieudonné M’bala M’bala was detained on Wednesday and told he faces charges of encouraging terrorism after he wrote on his Facebook page that  “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly”, raising questions about a double standard in France’s free speech laws, the Financial Times reported.

His remark is a play on the popular slogan of support for the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo — “Je suis Charlie” — where 12 people were killed, and the name of Amedy Coulibaly, who was accused of killing four hostages at a kosher supermarket last week in connection with the attack on the publication’s staff, the newspaper said.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve denounced Dieudonné’s comment, saying it showed “irresponsibility, disrespect and a propensity to fuel hatred and division that is simply unbearable”.

Dieudonné, who has previously been convicted for anti-Semitism, said: “I was only trying to make people laugh, and to laugh at death, since death laughs at us, as Charlie [Hebdo] unfortunately knows.”  He later deleted the controversial Facebook post.

France has condemned the brutal attack on Charlie Hebdo, which gained notoriety for its cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed, with supporters upholding the country’s long tradition of free expression, even the kind that may provoke hatred or cause deep offense.

But Dieudonné’s arrest has prompted questions about whether France’s free speech laws protect all citizens equally, FT said.

“Why does liberty of expression stop at Dieudonné?” author and blogger Nicolas Bourgoin was quoted as saying. He said the case betrayed a “double standard” of free speech in France.

“Why is Dieudonné attacked while Charlie Hebdo makes a front page on religion?” asked French daily Le Monde.

Legal experts cited by FT said prosecutors apparently believe that Dieudonné’s remarks violated the country’s laws against explicitly defending or supporting terrorism.

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