Tissa is finally free!

The Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam (often referred to as “Tissa“) is finally free!  As I wrote on this site earlier, Tissa had been sentenced last year to 20 years’ hard labor, after an unfair trial, for criticizing the Sri Lankan government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tigers in a couple magazine articles.  Amnesty International had adopted Tissa as a “prisoner of conscience,” since he was being prosecuted solely for his legitimate journalistic activities.  While the Sri Lankan government had announced on May 3  that President Rajapaksa had decided to pardon Tissa, as of June 9 the pardon still hadn’t been issued.  Nor did we know whether his rights would be fully restored, including the right to leave the country.

Well, his pardon has finally come through and he has gotten his passport back.  As the Committee to Protect Journalists has reported, Tissa arrived in Washington, DC yesterday morning.  Thank you very, very much to all those who wrote on his behalf; I’m sure it helped a lot in getting his freedom restored.

Now’s the time for the Sri Lankan government to take other steps to demonstrate its respect for media freedom and human rights, including determining the fate of the disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the emergency regulations.  I hope I’ll be able to report more good news again soon.

Tissa's pardon – we're still waiting

On May 4, I wrote on this site about the Sri Lankan government’s announced pardon of the journalist J.S. Tissainayagam (often referred to as “Tissa”), who’d been unjustly convicted and sentenced to 20 years’ hard labor just for criticizing the government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.  Amnesty International has adopted Tissa as a “prisoner of conscience” since we believe that he was imprisoned solely for his journalistic activities.  I was reluctant to start celebrating until details of the pardon had been clarified.

Well, it’s now been 37 days since the announcement of the pardon, and the government still hasn’t issued it!  The Sri Lankan Attorney General said in mid-May that Tissa’s lawyers had to withdraw his appeal against his conviction, and then the pardon could be issued in a “couple of days.”  His lawyers reportedly withdrew his appeal on May 31 but the pardon has still not been issued.

Why all the delay?  Please write the Sri Lankan government and ask that the granting of the pardon be expedited.  Let the  government know that the world is still watching and that we won’t rest until Tissa’s rights are fully restored.  Thanks.

License Free Dialogue in Zimbabwe!

Radio Dialogue Zimbabwe road show

Radio Dialogue Zimbabwe road show

On World Press Freedom Day, Amnesty USA is calling attention to fearless journalists fighting every day to tell the stories that matter and remind us how fragile freedom of expression remains. Repression of journalists, including imprisonment, violence and even death, continues frequently in many places around the world. In Zimbabwe, media repression opened significantly in the past year, with the government allowing foreign reporters to return to the country. But the government continues to lock down domestic reporting.

The only daily newspapers, radio and TV stations in Zimbabwe are state run. The Global Political Agreement (GPA), signed by Zimbabwe’s three main political parties in September 2008, provided for “the immediate processing of all applications for registration in terms of the Broadcasting Services Act”. Despite this, repressive legislation restricting the ability of the independent media to operate remains in place. More than a year since it was created, the new government has failed to honour its commitment to issue licences.

Radio Dialogue is a non-profit community radio station consistently denied a licence by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) since it’s foundation in 2001. The station aspires to broadcast to the community of Bulawayo and its surrounding areas, engaging in discussions of political, social, cultural and economic issues affecting the community. Their slogan ‘Giving You a Voice’ expresses their aim to enable all sections of the community to engage as a means of promoting tolerance, understanding and community relations.


Brad Will's Killer is Still at Large

Juan Manuel Martinez, the political activist wrongly accused of killing US video journalist Brad Will, has been released.  Although this is welcome news, his accusation and detention constitute a miscarriage of justice that has ensured that the real perpetrator of Brad Will’s killing is still at large.

Brad Will’s tragic death and the subsequent unwarranted arrest of Juan Martinez have served to highlight Mexico’s human rights abuses and broken criminal justice system.  Brad Will, a video journalist, was filming a confrontation between protesters and local police when he was shot. Juan Martinez had been wrongly detained for his murder since October 2008.  AmnestyInternational believes he was being used as a scapegoat.  Mexican authorities must investigate who really killed Brad Will.

No one has been brought to justice for any of the killings that took place during the 2006 Oaxaca protests. Amnesty International demands an investigation into the abuses committed by the security forces during violent political protests in the Mexican state of Oaxaca in 2006 when Brad Will and at least 17 others, most of them political activists, were killed.

Amnesty International is also concerned about Juan Manuel’s safety, and urges the Mexican authorities to ensure his safety and offer him appropriate compensation for the unnecessary suffering he has experienced as a result of his wrongful imprisonment by the authorities.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise March for Education, Member Jailed

Women of Zimbabwe Arise take to the streets in Zimbabwe.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise take to the streets in Zimbabwe.

UPDATE January 25th: Today a delegation of 200 women and men marched again in Bulawayo to deliver the WOZA report regarding the collapse of the education system in the country. Once the ministry of education official had attended and received the report, members began to disperse. As they dispersed, seven riot police officers ran out of the police drill hall and started to beat the peacefully dispersing activists, innocent bystanders and vendors. One member who tried to avoid arrest by walking into the passport office was followed and beaten, after being beaten she was then told to ‘run’ to the drill hall whilst being beaten all the way there. It was finally determined that a total of eleven WOZA members were arrested, however they were released within hours without charge or explanation.

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) took to the streets recently demanding education reform in Zimbabwe. In a report published by the organization, WOZA calls for teachers to quit demanding extra money from parents to supplement their income, the Education Ministry must improve the quality of the curriculum including the addition of human rights education, the examination system must be re-vamped and no increase in school fees in 2010.

Over 800 WOZA members marched in Bulawayo on January 13th, singing and chanting the WOZA MOYA! slogan. The demonstration proceeded without violence or arrests but they were not able to deliver their report at the government complex as police dispersed the demonstrators upon arrival. On January 18th-MLK Day, the members of WOZA marched to the Education Ministry offices in Harare and were dispersed, this time by riot police. One WOZA member, a journalist and a bystander were arrested. The demonstration was broken up before WOZA members were able to deliver the report to education minister David Coltart.


Who Really Killed Brad Will?

Brad Will ©AI

Brad Will ©AI

This week is the anniversary of the death of Brad Will, a US video journalist who was shot and killed in Mexico on October 27, 2006. When he was killed, Bradley Roland Will was in Oaxaca City, in southern Mexico, filming a clash between members of a local protest movement (Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca, APPO) and supporters and officials of the local governing party. Three years later, Amnesty International believes that the truth about Brad Will’s death has still not come out. Juan Manuel Martínez, an APPO sympathizer, has been detained pending trial since October 2008 for Will’s murder. However, experts from Physicians for Human Rights and the National Human Rights Commission have concluded that Will was not shot at close range, and Martinez is said to have been standing right next to him when the shooting happened. Amnesty International believes the evidence against Martinez is flawed and he is a being used as a scapegoat.

The tragedy and injustice of Brad Will’s death and Juan Manuel Martínez’s unfounded prosecution are part of the failure to investigate and hold to account those responsible for widespread human rights violations committed in Oaxaca in 2006 and 2007.


Sri Lankan journalist at risk

I heard some very disturbing news last night.  Dileesha Abeysundera, a Sri Lankan journalist and media rights activist, is in danger.  Several unidentified people traveling in white vans tried to break into her compound in Colombo (Sri Lanka’s capital city) at 11:45 P.M. on Sept. 28.  While they didn’t succeed and Dileesha wasn’t harmed, I’m very worried for her.   The use of white vans was particularly chilling; they’ve been used in many abductions and enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka since 2006. 

Dileesha had organized a meeting on Sept. 28 calling for the abolition of the Press Council Act, a law which restricts freedom of expression in Sri Lanka by prohibiting publication of materials relating to economic policy, government documents and other topics.  The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly defended the Act.  It’s thought that she was threatened that evening because of her work in organizing the meeting that day.

Over 14 media workers have been killed since 2006 with no one brought to justice in any of these cases.  For more information on how freedom of expression has been under attack in Sri Lanka, please see our report, “Sri Lanka:  Silencing dissent.”

Please write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka and ask him to ensure Dileesha’s safety and to investigate the attempted intimidation of her.  Please also ask him to investigate the attacks, including killings, of other Sri Lankan journalists and media workers.  His address is:  Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka; email:  prsec@presidentsoffice.lk.  Thanks for your consideration.

Angola Releases POC Fernando Lelo

Journalist Fernando Lelo was released from prison on August 21st. Lelo spent nearly 2 years in prison, convicted by the Cabinda Military Court for crimes against the security of the State. Amnesty International considered Lelo a Prisoner of Conscience; convicted for his non-violent expression of criticism and opinion against the government of Angola. On appeal, the Supreme Military Court released Fernando and acquitted him of all charges, ordering his immediate release.

Amnesty International spoke to Fernando since his release, who thanked AI for all the work done on his behalf and encouraged us to continue to work for the release of other prisoners of conscience. In addition to Amnesty International speaking with Lelo once during his incarceration, he said that he knew of the continuing work Amnesty International was doing on his behalf while he was in prison through his lawyer and friends. Amnesty International USA also called attention to his case in its letter to Secretary of State Clinton prior to her visit to Angola in July. Thank you to everyone who took action on his behalf.

Angola, Meet Secretary Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Angola today on the latest stop of her seven nation tour. Our Country Specialist Jen Ziemke contributed these comments regarding issues Secretary Clinton will hopefully address in her meetings with President dos Santos.

Since 2001, Amnesty International has documented thousands of families forcibly evicted from various neighborhoods in the Angolan capital of Luanda in order to make room for public and private housing projects. These forced evictions were typically carried out without due process of law, including prior notification or consultation and the ability to dispute the evictions in a court of law. Nearly all of the evictions were accompanied by excessive use of force. Officials specifically targeted poor families who had little access to the means of securing their tenure. Angola is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and should honor its obligations to ensure its citizen’s rights to an adequate standard of living are protected.

President Jose Eduardo dos Santos previously scheduled presidential elections for late 2009, but recent reports indicate these elections will be delayed again until at least 2010. Secretary Clinton must ensure that the US will be carefully monitoring the upcoming election process and demand that the elections to be held as soon as possible. Furthermore, President dos Santos must give all candidates and eligible parties equal access to media and campaigning and organizational resources, without fear of intimidation.

Whenever they take place, the elections will be the first presidential elections since 1992’s failed attempt that led to escalating violence and a resumption of civil war. The likelihood of violence is not as high as during that time, and it should be noted that in September 2008, legislative elections remained free from violence and were considered “generally credible.” Those elections, however, were marred by state-run media affording undue advantage to the incumbent party. Indeed the incumbent MPLA won over 80% of the vote.

Furthermore, reports that the freedom and security of human rights defenders, associations, and journalists is not being protected under the current leadership in Angola is of great concern. This is a good example of where Secretary Clinton can relay the message that, in order for the upcoming presidential elections to be considered valid in the eyes of the world, the treatment of journalists, advocates, student groups, human rights defenders and other members of civil society must improve.

The release of journalists like José Fernando Lelo from prison could also help bolster Angola’s human rights reputation. Lelo’s work is an example of a critical voice from civil society being silenced by the authorities. On September 19, 2008, Lelo was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment by a military court in Cabinda, Angola, after being convicted of crimes against the security of the state. Amnesty International believes his arrest and conviction were politically motivated, his trial unfair, and thereby we consider him a prisoner of conscience and call for is unconditional release from prison.

Humanitarian organizations operating in Angola also face uphill battles because their ability to operate is being infringed. In April 2008, the Director General of the Technical Unit for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, a government department, announced that the government would soon stop the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) “without a social impact”. In July he accused several NGOs of inciting violence and threatened to ban them: the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy (Associação de Justiça, Paz e Democracia, AJPD); Mãos Livres; the Open Society Foundation (Fundação Open Society); and SOS-Habitat. These organizations have been doing critical work in the area of civil society, forced evictions, and human rights and should not be subject to government intimidation.

Secretary Clinton has the opportunity to help change Angola’s future by correcting its human rights past. We’ll be watching…

Another Birthday in Prison

Saturday marks the 41st birthday of Chinese journalist and poet Shi Tao. It will be the fifth birthday he celebrates in prison. He is serving serving a 10-year prison term for sending an e-mail summarizing a memo advising journalists on how to handle the 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananman Square crackdown.

Chinese authorities have not lessened their restrictions on Internet freedom since Shi Tao was arrested on November 24, 2004. This was particularly apparent on the days immediately before and after June 4 of this year, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananman Square crackdown. The government blocked foreign news Web sites like CNN and the BBC and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook in anticipation of the day. Controls over other media outlets, including newspapers and magazines, have also intensified in recent years.

While prison conditions have improved slightly for Shi Tao in the past two years, freedom may still be as much as five years away. An appeal to review Shi Tao’s case was rejected last year. His mother’s request for medical parole for Shi Tao–because of a stomach condition that has worsened as a result of a poor prison diet–was also rejected. Don’t let Shi Tao spend any more birthdays in jail!