Egypt Continues Media Crackdown

Protests in Egypt continued into a seventh day today as thousands of Egyptians demonstrated against widespread corruption, police brutality and poverty in their country.  The Egyptian government has tried hard to censor its citizens — cutting off internet and phone access — and now journalists find themselves a target in the crackdown on freedom of expression.

Demonstrators have used phone cameras to expose police abuses © Demotix / Nour El Refai

Al Jazeera English said that six journalists were detained today at an army checkpoint outside Cairo’s Hilton hotel. The journalists were held only briefly but their cameras and other equipment was confiscated.

Yesterday, the Cairo bureau of the Al Jazeera network was officially shut down by order of Egypt’s Information Ministry, the network said.

Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said:

“This government action against Al Jazeera is just its latest attempt to close down reporting of the protests on the streets and the free flow of information.

“The authorities are clearly trying to intimidate the media and to prevent the truth coming out about abuses by its security forces, as they struggle to maintain their grip on power in the face of unprecedented protests and demands for fundamental change.”

Local and international journalists were assaulted, arrested and their equipment confiscated by security forces throughout recent mass protests against poverty, police abuse and corruption.

The government must not be allowed to put the whole country under an information blackout, and that message needs to be sent to them very clearly by their friends and allies abroad.  You can help send that message by emailing US authorities now and urging them to use their influence to stop these abuses.

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A Theater of Abuses in Post-Election Belarus

Since Sunday’s controversial presidential election in the ex-Soviet republic of Belarus, where incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka pronounced himself the winner, a wave of human rights violations has been hitting opposition voices in the country (like it wasn’t bad enough in the first place). Among the silenced are Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kolyada, the founding couple of Belarus Free Theater who – according to The New York Times – “are now in hiding” after the arrest of their colleagues.

When my colleague phoned the Embassy of Belarus in Washington D.C. for a response on the Times report, she was told that the Embassy doesn’t comment on foreign newspaper content.

Here are other questions that the Belarus government doesn’t want to be asked:

- Why have seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates  been detained along with as many as 500 peaceful demonstrators, opposition activists, human rights defenders and journalists, many of whom were beaten by riot police?

- Why was there no autopsy to investigate the allegedly suicidal death of Aleh Byabebin, founder of the unofficial news website Charter’97, who had just joined the campaign team of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov (Sannikau)?

- And why are candidate Sannikau’s legs broken and why is he not receiving medical care in detention?

Freedom of Expression, Incessantly Suppressed in Latin America

The Inter American Press Association has been calling attention to numerous governmental acts intended to censure and inhibit freedom of expression in Latin America. As political leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela have been leading the efforts in funding media outlets that do little else than disseminate political propaganda, the problem is spreading fast throughout the entire region.

Silence Image

In Ecuador, the federal government seized the newspaper El Telégrafo, after they also confiscated the assets of banker and major shareholder Fernando Aspiazu, who was jailed on charges of fraud and unlawful activity in the now defunct Banco de Progreso he owned.  The authorities redesigned the newspaper and are now using it to spread hard-hitting official advertising campaigns.

In Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner declared the two leading newspapers in the country, El Clarin and La Nacion, as enemies of her government. Since then, she has tried to find ways to control their activities. With this objective in mind she took over the nation’s main supplier of newsprint, alleging that the two leading newspapers illegally conspired with dictators to control the company three decades ago and then used it to drive competing newspapers out of business.

In Brazil, with the blessing of the federal government, at least five states are trying to enact legislation intended to create agencies that would allow the local Executive Power to control and overrule local media’s activities.

In Mexico, it is not the action of the government, but its inaction that is affecting local media. In the past six months 14 journalists have been killed. The headquarters of the Newspaper “El Sur”, in Acapulco, were attacked by drug cartels, all because the reporters and the media dared to denounce the illegal activities and organized crimes in the country.

The examples go on and on.  Authorities in Latin America are trying to suppress freedom of expression.  Without these vital components of democracy, the livelihood of the nations is endangered at its very core. Hundreds, if not thousands of people throughout the region have given money, work and their lives to ensure that their countries may one day enjoy true freedom of expression, uncensored and unadulterated by their governments.  But, with the most recent actions (or inactions) of the regions governments, all pro-democratic efforts may result in vain.  The progress that had been made is being reversed. The days in which one could give an opinion may soon come to an end.  Authorities must stop.  And civil society must act now.

To those of you who are reading this article, realize that you are doing so precisely because some freedom of expression is still possible.  Together we can and we must ensure that oppressive governments do not put an end to our rights.

Why Is Kareem Amer Still in an Egyptian Detention Center?

Kareem Amer

Kareem Amer should never have been in jail in the first place.  Now the Egyptian blogger and prisoner of conscience is wondering why he remains in jail after serving the entirety of his four-year sentence.

Amer, who was jailed for criticizing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Islam on his blog, is being held at a State Security Intelligence (SSI) detention center in Alexandria despite being due for release on Nov. 5. Lawyers from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reported that he has been beaten and abused by State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers.

This isn’t the first time Egyptian officials have held individuals beyond the termination of their sentence.  In fact many who are detained for political activities never even make it to trial.

The State of Emergency, which has been in force in Egypt since 1981, gives the government sweeping powers to detain individuals.  Time and time again, authorities have used these powers arbitrarily and aggressively with the intention of muzzling civil society. The continued detention of Kareem Amer is part of that picture.

But compared to other recent events that seemed to offer hope that the government showed partial signs of liberalization, this new step raises disturbing questions.  What stands out about this case is the high level of interest it has received by US leaders, who have raised concerns about the charges against Amer from the very beginning.  In short, the US government has done just about everything we would want them to do when faced with a human rights violation in an allied state like Egypt.

And yet, we are left with the current situation: Amer, beaten and still detained, not even in a public prison but a notorious SSI detention center. It’s hard not to speculate that certain Egyptian security officials decided to use Amer to send a message that nobody in the US, in the West or even in Egypt is going change Egypt’s record on human rights.

If that is true, it is a reminder that to be effective, human rights work must be based on a single standard. Focusing on favored individual cases never provides a long-term solution and rarely helps the specific individual. If the US government wants Kareem Amer to be released, their best tool is to insist that Egypt release all prisoners of conscience including the imprisoned Muslim Brothers, and – as Amnesty calls for in its statement – “curb the powers of the SSI and ensure that SSI officials who breach the law or are responsible for abusing prisoners are brought to justice.”

Death of POC Fathi al-Jahmi

Fathi Al-Jahmi became an activist for democracy in the 1970s. When he was a provincial governor in 2002, he criticized Muammar al-Gadhafi’s authoritarian regime, calling for free elections, a free press, and the release of political prisoners.  The same year, he was sentenced to five years for speaking out against the government.  He was released in 2004 and arrested again a month later.

Fathi el-JahmiDespite modest improvements in the human rights field in Libya, all forms of public expression, association and assembly are tightly controlled by the authorities. Any form of group activity based on a political ideology opposed to the principles of the al-Fateh Revolution of 1 September 1969, which brought Libya’s leader Colonel Mu‘ammar Al-Gaddafi to power, is criminalized by law.

Despite his deteriorating health, El-Jahmi never ceased his campaign for change, indicating in a 2005 interview with Physicians for Human Rights Dr. Dan Otter that he is “struggling for human rights, for democracy, for this country [and] will call for democracy and transparency in Libya”.

In a statement, Amnesty International said:

Amnesty International is greatly distressed by the news of the death of Libyan opposition leader Fathi el-Jahmi earlier today in an Amman, Jordan, hospital following his recent “release” and transfer from detention at the Tripoli Medical Center in Libya.

An advocate of political reform, he was detained in Libya in March 2004 and held without charge or trial, most recently at the Tripoli Medical Center.  Approximately two weeks ago, he was flown to Jordan for medical treatment.

Amnesty International is still seeking clarification from the Libyan authorities as to the circumstances in which el-Jahmi, who was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, became seriously ill and was transferred to Jordan.

For more information, see Physicians for Human Rights, World Bulletin News, or News24.

Free Roxana Saberi

In a press statement released today, Amnesty International condemned the eight-year eight-year prison sentence imposed by an Iranian Revolutionary Court on Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi who was convicted of “espionage” following a brief closed door trial in Tehran.

Saberi had been arrested on January 31 and held in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison since then. Legal proceedings in Iran’s Revolutionary Courts are severely flawed and fail to meet international standards for fair trials. The evidence against Saberi has not been made public.

The American born, 31-year-old Saberi is the daughter of an Iranian father and Japanese mother and worked for NPR and other news outlets. An interview on NPR with her father can be found here

Amnesty International issued an urgent action on March 16 when Saberi was first detained, mobilizing activists worldwide to send letters to Iranian officials calling on the authorities to release her unless she is to be charged with a recognizable criminal offense. AIUSA recently issued a second urgent action on Friday, April 17, after news that she had been tried in a closed courtroom.

Several dual-national Iranians have been detained in Iran in recent years since the U.S. Congress announced an extra U.S. $75 million funding for “supporting democracy” in Iran, including Dr Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh, Parnaz Azima and Ali Shakeri. Most have been accused of acting against national security, particularly with relation to participation in an alleged “soft revolution” in Iran. The United States also holds five Iranian diplomats arrested in Iraq in 2007. In a meeting with the Swiss President on April 19, President Ahmadinejad called for their release. Some commentators have also suggested that Roxana Saberi’s arrest and trial may also be in part due to internal rivalries in the Iranian system in regard to the election of President Obama in the United States and his recent overtures towards Iran.

Azerbaijani journalist: "They could not handcuff my tongue"

Released Azerbaijani journalist Mirza Sakit Zahidov
Image source (edited)

After three years of prison, famous Azerbaijani satirist and poet Sakit Zahidov (aka Mirza Sakit) is free.

In the words of an Amnesty International USA press release:

…Sakit Zahidov was pardoned under an amnesty act passed in March by the country’s parliament, the Milli Mejlis.

Serious doubt had been cast on Sakit Zahidov’s conviction and imprisonment after the authorities’ failed to clarify ambiguities in the evidence and irregularities in trial procedures. Amnesty International considered him to be a prisoner of conscience.

[…]

Reporters Without Borders has hailed the release:

“This is great news. It is a significant development for press freedom in Azerbaijan, a country ruled by President Aliev with an iron hand. We share the joy of Zahidov’s family, lawyers and support committee, who had been awaiting his release since last month, and we urge the authorities to free the three other journalists still in prison. They include Zahidov’s elder brother Ganimat, who was given a four-year sentence in March 2008.”

In an interview, Mr. Zahidov said:

I was really nervous, when they handcuffed me. But they could not handcuff my tongue. It is clear that it was instruction from the “top.” But the administration had a headache after that during a long period of time.

Talking about his future plans, he added:

I am going to publish my poems. There are also some plans, which can be carried into life through electronic media. I would like to say that it is not a tragedy to get into prison, but release from prison is not happiness, either. However, I feel happy, because I am free today and because I was in jail yesterday

In the words of Reporters Without Borders:

The three other journalists still in prison are Ganimat Zahidov of Azadlig, Eynulla Fatullaiev of Realny Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan and Mushfig Husseynov of Bizim Yol. Azerbaijan was ranked 150th out of 173 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. President Aliev is on the organisation’s list of “Predators of Press Freedom.”