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Slap: Journal Editor Speaks Up For Silenced French Physicians

Slap: Journal Editor Speaks Up For Silenced French Physicians

Picture of William Heisel

antidote, free speech, censorship, France, physician, William Heisel, reporting on health

It's not often that Antidote will ask you to run out and buy a copy of Liver International. But please do.

One of the most moving arguments for fighting to protect free speech – especially when it comes to public health concerns – appears in the journal's current issue.

It's a must read for anyone who cares about health writing and a free press. In a piece titled "The power of one and saving private Braillon," the journal's editor, Samuel S. Lee, starts with a quote from Bishop Hugh Latimer, which he apparently to his fellow Bishop Nicholas Ridley before they were put to death by burning for heresy in 1555. In case you have forgotten some of your British history, they were burned for advocating Protestant reforms to the Roman Catholic Church. Even as the torches were being prepared, Latimer apparently turned to Ridley and said:

Be of good cheer, Master Ridley. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out!

It is a quote often invoked for far lesser causes. Here, Lee uses it to underscore the history-changing example set by one street vendor in Tunisia.

Who could have predicted at the beginning of the year that a single brave but irreversible act of protest by a disenfranchised and desperate young man in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, would trigger a chain of events that would lead to the overthrow of longstanding despotic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and foment mass protests in a host of other countries in the region. This so-called "Arab Spring" was clearly ignited by the tragic self-immolation of that one individual, and it is likely that the ‘domino effect' has yet to end: several other autocratic regimes in that (or other) part(s) of the world may also see their final days in the months to come.

As Lee's piece was going to press in early December – it first appeared online Dec. 7 – the protests and government crackdowns in Syria had yet to reach the intensity that has been seen in the past week.

But just as a reader in the U.S. or another democracy may start to feel a little satisfied in contrasting the freedoms enjoyed "here" with the violence and oppression experienced "there," Lee surprises. He writes about two physicians who have been punished for speaking their minds. Not five centuries ago. Not in a country with no freely elected representatives. But recently, in France. (Antidote added the links in the quote below.)

Dr. Alan Braillon (rhymes with ‘Ryan') has been sacked by the regional hospital board of Amiens. Subsequently his firing was upheld by the National Management Centre (equivalent to the Department of Health), despite the fact that 70% of the health officials voted against his dismissal. He was not given the opportunity to be present nor to defend himself at this appeal meeting. Normally, the recommendation by vote of his peers would be adopted, but in his case, the National Management Centre decided that they must be rid of his outspoken views. Braillon has published or spoken publicly on several topics including hepatitis vaccination policy, the power of the tobacco lobby and the need to ban benfluorex in France (details in http://braillon.net/alain/). His boss, Professor Gérard Dubois, is being sued for libel by the French tobacconist's union for saying during a television interview that tobacco had killed two persons for every tobacconist in France.

Lee, knowing his audience of hepatologists (liver specialists), writes that they may wonder why he is focused on whistleblowers in France. He writes that Braillon was also a hepatologist who "produced many important papers that advanced our knowledge of cardiovascular complications of cirrhosis".

The indirect and more important reason is that we as part of the global medical/scientific community must always strive to support and protect those individuals amongst us who risk their careers, and in some cases even their lives, to beneficially change the world, either by direct actions or by drawing attention to wrongdoing.

Antidote could not agree more. You do not have to agree with everything that Braillon and Dubois say to care about their right to say it. No more than you have to be a Protestant to wince when you read about the Oxford Martyrs. No more than you have to be Tunisian to be struck by Bouazizi's suicide. Whether you are a liver doctor or just a believer in basic human dignity, you should do what you can to speak out when people like Braillon and Dubois are silenced.

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