Thursday, January 15, 2015

Paris isn’t Burning

Paris is Burning is the “iconic documentary from 1990 that offers an intimate portrait of the Harlem drag balls, where rival fashion “houses” compete for trophies and cash prizes in categories like “face,” “femme queen realness” and "voguing." Winner of a Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Paris is Burning celebrates how one group of New Yorkers, for whom racism, poverty, and homophobia are all too real, create a world of sustenance and joy.” It is an honest, funny and powerful story of survival, community and honesty. The events in Paris France last week tell a different but parallel story about the integrity and value of Press and Speech Freedom. It’s something that wouldn’t happen in the United States today because these freedoms are no longer cherished, but instead are assumed.

Last week two masked gunman forced their way into the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people and wounded 11 more. In the days following gunmen took hostages and more people died and were wounded in terrorist attacks. The gunman were shouting "Allahu Akbar", Arabic for "God is great." “Hatred for Charlie Hebdo '​s cartoons, which made jokes about Islamic leaders as well as Muhammad, is considered to be the principal motive for the massacre.” It was a horrible and tragic attack and propelled more than 2 million citizens and 40 world leaders to march in solidarity chanting “Je suis Charlie” (French for "I am Charlie").

This is the new issue of the satricial magazine.
It show a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed
holding a sign saying "Je suis Charlie."
 The caption says "All is forgiven" in French

The outpouring of support for the right to satirize warms the hearts of First Amendment zealots like myself. The problem is that it’s authentic in concept and not true in practice. In France itself days later the country has cracked down on "hate speech" and jailed a comedian. The problem with one group deciding what another group can and cannot say is censorship, the antithesis of supporting Charlie. France isn't alone. Less than a month ago U.S. theatres pulled The Interview from the schedule, forcing Sony to withdraw the film altogether based on threats from North Korea. In Paris people died for the right to satirize and in the U.S. at the first sign of trouble self-censorship kicked in.

Much has been made in the political world that only the U.S. Ambassador to France was at the rally – while world leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were able to attend safely. President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary-of-State Kerry were nowhere to be found. The White House acknowledged the next day it made a mistake by not having “a higher profile” delegate attend. 

How does this happen?
  • This Administration issued a subpoena to New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his confidential source. After a 7 year fight government lawyers said this week they wouldn’t call him.
  • This Administration issued a warrant against Fox News reporter James Rosen which identified him as a criminal co-conspirator and charged him with violating the Espionage Act for writing a story about North Korea’s nuclear program with confidential information he received. The Government followed the reporter, tapped his phone and email – both personal and business.
  • The Administration subpoenaed telephone records of 20 Associated Press Reporters in a zest to find out who was leaking information to reporters.
To date, seven Americans working for the U.S. Government or government contractors with security clearances have faced criminal charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 because of alleged leaks to members of the press or online outlets during the Obama Administration's tenure. 

This Administration has guidelines about how information can be shared with journalists. Not a law persay, but fixed rules that if they are violated criminal charges could result. 

A Government that prosecutes professional journalists to prevent information from being released to its people does not practice what it preaches. This is state run propaganda which results in self-censorship and cautious reporting. It’s no wonder that there was no presence by American officials at a rally extolling the value of Freedom of Speech. Paris Isn’t Burning, the U.S. Constitution is.

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