A Hypocritical Photo-Op: Why World Leaders At The Paris March Should Be Criticized

by John Haltiwanger

On Sunday, January 11, more than three million people took to the streets of France to send a very simple message to terrorists, "We are not afraid."

The national unity march in Paris today has become the "march of the century" with more than 3.7 million protestors — Arianna Huffington (@ariannahuff) January 11, 2015
French officials now say 1.3 million at #ParisMarch more than crowd who celebrated liberation in 1944 — Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) January 11, 2015

In Paris alone, it's estimated that somewhere between 1.2 and 1.6 million people marched in protest of terrorism and intimidation. Yet, they weren't just marching against something, they were also marching for something: the right to freedom of expression.

#JeSuisCharlie #ParisMarch #Paris — Mark Cottray (@markcottray) January 11, 2015

As George Clooney so eloquently put it during his poignant Golden Globes speech on Sunday night:

And one last thing... Today was an extraordinary day. There were millions of people who marched not just in Paris, but around the world. And they were Christians and Jews and Muslims. They were leaders of countries all over the world. And they didn’t march in protest; they marched in support of the idea that we will not walk in fear. We won’t do it. So, Je Suis Charlie. Thank you.

Clooney's statements were quite apt, but we should expand upon what he said.

Many of the leaders who marched in Paris are enemies of press freedom.

A wide variety of world leaders came together on Sunday to express solidarity with France and the millions of people who came out to march. This was one of the most notable aspects of the entire event.

These leaders included: German chancellor Angela Merkel, British prime minister David Cameron, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy and French president François Hollande.

It's lovely when you can see all European and world leaders shoulders to shoulders supporting France! #JeSuisCharlie — Bistra Blazheva (@BBlazheva) January 11, 2015
Wow, can't ever remember this. World leaders marching with the people #JeSuisCharlie — Ryan (@RyanBush85) January 11, 2015

While it's inspiring to see people in prominent positions join common citizens to support a universal and vital human right, there was also a lot of blatant hypocrisy on display at the Paris unity march.

Many people were quick to accuse these leaders of hijacking a movement of the people and making it a photo-op.

Seems world leaders didn't "lead" #CharlieHebdo marchers in Paris but conducted photo op on empty, guarded street — Borzou Daragahi (@borzou) January 12, 2015

Moreover, many of the leaders present in Paris come from countries that have habitually revealed themselves as enemies of the press and freedom of expression.

My #CharlieHebdo colleagues would have found world leaders paying Free Speech respects hysterical. #JeSuisCharlie — Pat Bagley (@Patbagley) January 13, 2015
World leaders w/ questionable records aside, the unity rally is genuinely an amazing & inspiring sight #JeSuisCharlie — Tom Copley (@tomcopley) January 11, 2015

Jon Stewart captured this notion quite succinctly during his show on Monday evening, stating:

Journalist-punishing Russia was there. Journalist-jailing Turkey was there. Egypt... nuff' said! Palestinian cartoonist-jailing Israel was there... And of course, our greatest ally, Saudi Arabia was there. Although, a little out of breath, having just days ago flogged a blogger.

Indeed, leaders and prominent officials from these countries arguably had no right whatsoever to join a march supporting freedom of expression. Russia has frequently met peaceful political protestors with repression, among other offenses.

Furthermore, Egypt is the world's fourth biggest jailer of journalists, with 16 professional journalists currently behind bars. This includes three Al Jazeera journalists who have already spent over a year in prison for allegedly "spreading false news."

In addition to the countries mentioned by Stewart, leaders from Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Georgia, Tunisia, Palestine, Greece, Ukraine, Mali, UAE and Gabon were also present, among others. All of these places have terrible records in regard to upholding press freedoms and freedom of expression.

In truth, it's hard to find any country in attendance that has an impeccable record surrounding press freedoms.

Correspondingly, just one day after he marched in Paris, British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that he will ban apps like Snapchat and WhatsApp if he wins the next election.

He argues that these types of "encrypted" message services allow unadulterated communication between terrorists. In other words, it's difficult for intelligence services to access these applications and view what people are sending to one another. People are understandably upset about this announcement.

David Cameron. Marching for free speech one day, talking about banning WhatsApp the next. — James Lees (@jamesvsburger) January 13, 2015

This is a prime example of a government attempting to impose upon the public's freedoms under the guise of security. There is only so much liberty that must be sacrificed for the sake of security. Charlie Hebdo understands this, which is why it continuously refuses to be intimidated, even if its actions lead to violence.

The US was largely absent from Paris, and is an enemy to press freedom in its own way.

While many leaders who attended the Paris march are being criticized for their hypocrisy, the US is being chastised for a different reason.

In essence, President Obama is being criticized, somewhat justifiably, for not attending the march whatsoever. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry were not in attendance either.

Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris at the time for a counterterrorism summit, but didn't attend the march. The only US representative at the actual rally was US ambassador to France Jane Hartley.

The reasons behind this are complicated. All the same, it's notable that press secretary John Earnest stated, "we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there," in regard to the march.

The United States is the self-proclaimed beacon of freedom and democracy in the world. Not to mention, it's leading the fight against terrorism in the Middle East at present.

Hence, it's somewhat hypocritical for America not to send a senior leader or public official to march with the other leaders.

With that said, the US probably would have received criticism for publicly joining leaders from countries with such abhorrent human rights records. Regardless of what it does, the US will be criticized in the international arena, this is inevitable.

Yet, this also offers us an opportunity to take a look at America's own record in regard to press freedoms. The United States might espouse principles of freedom, and it certainly has a better record than many oppressive regimes around the world, but it is far from perfect. This was exemplified quite recently in Ferguson, Missouri:

10) The Attorney General of the US, where police in Ferguson have recently detained and assaulted WashPost reporters — Daniel Wickham (@DanielWickham93) January 11, 2015

Likewise, it's significant that in 2014 the US was ranked number 46 out of all countries in Reporters Without Borders' global press freedom rankings.

Hence, regardless of where we are in the world, we must always stay vigilant in the fight to uphold our most fundamental rights and freedoms.