Sheikh Maytham Al Salman met with Dr. Agnes Callamard, Director of Columbia global freedom of expression, and special advisor to the President of Colombia University, Lee Bollinger, to discuss a proposed draft bill by the government of Bahrain that would criminalize “contempt of religions.”
Sheikh Maytham Al Salman is one of some 60 high level global experts that are supporting Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, established in 2014 by President Lee Bollinger to document the development of global norms related to freedom of expression and information. This was Sheikh Maytham’s first visit to Columbia University since his arrest in August.
Sheikh Maytham Al Salman explained to Dr. Callamard that the draft bill would criminalize “any hate or sectarian discourse that undermines national unity, differentiates between individuals or groups on the bases of religion, creed or sect and triggers conflict between individuals or groups.” Bahrain’s cabinet discussed the draft law on August 31 2015, and referred it for further study without publishing the actual full draft of the law. Sh. Maytham Al Salman also stated that in his opinion, the draft bill could open the door to abuses, restricting freedom of expression rather than safeguarding society from incitement of hatred. Sh. Al Salman is of the view that the law could also reinforce an ever-present threat of prosecution towards those who express their religious, political and personnel views and opinions. He said: Blasphemy laws in non democratic countries are very selective and are often misused as a punishment tool to deal with outspoken voices.
Dr. Agnes Callamard first pointed out that the fact that the draft bill has not been published and shared with the Bahrain civil society, the Media and the Bahrain public at large constitutes already a serious limitation and contradicts the fundamental objective of all legal processes: to provide legal certainty. She called on the Government to make the draft law available so that national and international actors can review it and provide much needed suggestions regrading future drafts.
Dr. Callamard has read various Media articles about the law as well as reports from civil society organizations. She has reached the conclusion that the draft law appears to amount to a blasphemy law in disguise and not a law seeking to prohibit incitement to hatred, as per article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Dr Callamard concurred with Sheikh Maytham Al Salman that blasmpameny laws are very problematic. Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and other academic initiatives have well shown that blasphemy laws are more often than not misused against religious groups facing violations of their political, civic, economic and/or social rights, and religious minorities. She pointed out that blasphemy laws seek to protect, and that usually means, enforce, a certain set of belief, rather than protect the believers, without discrimination on the basis of their religion. She insisted that men, women and children that must be protected against incitement to hatred that may result in violence or discrimination, not a particular religious view or belief.
Dr Callamard also pointed out that the most important international UN group of experts, the human rights committee, had issued in 2013 its general comment 34 on the scope and limits to freedom of expression. The Committee reiterated that blasphemy laws violate fundamenetal human rights including article 19 and article 18 of the international covenant of civil and political rights which was endorsed by the Kingdom of Bahrain in 2006. The Committee also stated that: "it would be impermissible for blasphemy laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith."
Dr. Callamard has worked extensively on the issue of countering incitement to hatred for close to 10 years, including as one of the international experts behind the Rabat Plan of Action and the Camden principles. She recognises Incitement to violence and discrimination is a real problem and indeed a human rights emergency in many parts of the world. But it must be addressed through appropriate legislative and policy measures, coupled with a strong involvement of civil society, along the lines of the recommendation of the rabat plan of action. The Bahrain draft law which has been described in the Media is far more likely to restrict and violate the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and religion, than it is to tackle effectively incitement to hatred that may lead to violence, discrimination or hostility.
Dr Callamard thus concurred with Sheikh Al Salman's views that the Bahraini anti hatred law will not address incidents and patterns of incitement to hatred. Instead, it may seriously stifle freedom of expression and information, and restrict open public debates, free of fears, both of which constitute essential conditions for dialogue between the opposition and the Government.
She also strongly endorsed Sheikh Al Salman recommendation that the Bahrain Government invites the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Dr. David Kaye, to undertake a mission in Bahrain and issue recommendations to strengthen the protection of freedom of expression and information in Bahrain.
Dr. Callamard thanked Sheikh Al Salman for his work to protect freedom of expression and religion in Bahrain and the region, and reiterated that she and Columbia Global Freedom of Expression stand prepared to support him.