AFT Blog # 49: Freedom of the Press Threatened

A Disturbing Threat to Freedom of the Press

David Rand, 2014-10-17

The Superior Court of Quebec recently released a judgement requiring that a local Quebec City monthly magazine, Les immigrants de la Capitale[1], pay $7000 to a veiled woman Ahlem Hammedi and her husband Saber Briki as compensation for having published their photo without their permission. In the spring of 2012, the magazine’s editor-in-chief Mihai Claudiu Cristea photographed the couple at the Sainte-Foy flea market in a suburb of Quebec City. The presence of a woman dressed in a niqab, i.e. a full veil covering the entire body except for the eyes, caused a certain commotion among those present at the market. Several days later, Cristea published a short article in his magazine describing the visual “shock and awe” which has occurred at the flea market, accompanied by the photo taken that day.

Having learned that the couple was annoyed by the publication of the article and the accompanying photograph, Cristea offered them the opportunity of responding in the pages of his magazine, but the couple refused and began legal procedures against him in December 2012.

According to the court decision[2] rendered on September 13th 2014, the publication of the photo without permission constituted a violation of the privacy rights of those involved. And yet, Ms. Hammedi was unrecognizable because of her veil and her husband was barely recognizable because of the cap which hid part of his face in the photo. Furthermore, as Cristea asserted in court, the wearing of a full veil constituted an obvious subject of public interest, considering that the debate about religious accommodation had recently dominated news media in Quebec. However, judge Marc Paradis rejected Hammedi’s allegation that the article in question was defamatory and damaged her honour or her reputation.

It must be emphasized that wearing a full veil in a public market is a rather provocative gesture. In the words of Frederic Bastien, “Wearing a religious symbol as ostentatious as the niqab in a public place is exactly the opposite of a private act.”[3] Moreover, according to Djemila Benhabib:

Mihai Claudiu Cristea was merely doing his job as a journalist: informing his readership […] This Romanian immigrant, having moved to Quebec with his family in 2001, realizes that political Islam is a global threat and a subject widely debated in the world. Nation-states are preoccupied by it, intellectuals organize symposia and seminars costing thousands of dollars in order to discuss it, countries like France and Belgium are adopting new laws to ban the wearing of the full veil, journalists travel the world to cover the issue. In Tunisia, a courageous college dean risked his life when he took the initiative to ban the full veil in the classroom. […] [4]

The actions of Mr. Cristea can thus be summed up as the simple exercise of taking note of ostentatious dress and publishing a photo and a brief article about it in his magazine, a rather ordinary deed. Claude Simard and Claude Verreault observe that:

Reading the article reveals no intolerance, but merely a description of the cultural shock of the niqab in a non-Muslim society. As for identifying the people photographed, it is virtually impossible.[5]

Fortunately, the sum of $7000 awarded by the judge is well below the $150000 requested by the complainants. Moreover, the Professional Federation of Quebec Journalists (FPJQ) has announced its support for Mr. Cristea and encourages him to appeal the decision:

FPJQ considers dangerous the decision of the Quebec Superior Court to convict the editor of a Quebec City newspaper for publishing a news photo which the Federation deems to be in the public interest. This decision violates freedom of the press which is a fundamental right in Canada. […]

FPJQ cannot understand why this photo taken in a public place was not considered to be in the public interest. These events occurred in the context of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s public debate on reasonable accommodation and during early stages of a debate about proposed legislation which would eventually become known as the Charter of Values. If a flea market is not a public place, what is? If the wearing of a full veil in public is not a valid subject of public interest, what is? […]

[…] The right to privacy is not absolute; it must be balanced with the public’s right to information.[6]

Indeed, Mihai Claudiu Cristea has expressed his intention to appeal the decision.

This lawsuit against the magazine Les immigrants de la Capitale is part of a disturbing series of SLAPP suits (Strategic lawsuit against public participation) filed by several Muslims or Islamists in an apparent attempt to silence critics of fundamentalism and defenders of secularism. The motivation of each of these lawsuits is frivolous, but the potential consequences are far from trivial. Djemila Benhabib is herself the target of one of these suits, because she publicly criticized the indoctrination of children in a Muslim school in Montreal. Pro-secularists Louise Mailloux, Philippe Magnan, and are being sued by the anti-Charter activist Dalila Awada.

You are invited to offer your financial support[7] to the cause of Mr. Cristea and his magazine, an issue of great importance for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. We also encourage you to support Djemila Benhabib[8], Louise Mailloux[9] and the others who are targets of lawsuits which threaten our freedoms and, by extension, secularism.


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