Speak Out For Imprisoned Journalists On World Press Freedom Day

Shi Tao, serving a 10 year sentence in China for writing an email.

Sending an e-mail seems harmless enough, but Shi Tao has been in prison for it for over six years.  His crime: working as a journalist and exposing censorship.

In that e-mail, Shi Tao commented on Chinese authorities’ directive to downplay the 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists. When a journalist speaks out for human rights and the lives of others in China he risks his own — even in a digital world of e-mail and the web.

And how appropriate that today, World Press Freedom Day, focuses on media freedom in the digital age.  World Press Freedom Day was established by the United Nations as a tribute to journalists, celebrating the very rights that Shi Tao cannot enjoy: the fundamental human right to freedom of expression.  All over the world, journalists constantly face imprisonment, violence, intimidation, detainment and even torture for reporting on human rights violations.

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Aung San Suu Kyi Speaks to Amnesty International Activists

There is an antidote to the weariness, cynicism and paralysis perpetuated by the heartless churn of our 24-hour news cycle: Just listen to the voices of those who walk the razor’s edge each day as they fight to change the world. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed Amnesty activists by phone at the end of Day 2 of our 50th anniversary conference, graciously acknowledging the role of grassroots activism in her release after 15 years of detention by the military junta and encouraging us not to forget the 2,000-plus political prisoners who remain locked up in Burma.

Her brief address was followed by a riveting speech by Jenni Williams, co-founder of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a group of women who have been jailed, tortured and persecuted for their non-violent demonstrations to demand social justice. Williams recalled one August night when police abducted seven WOZA members. “The phone calls started at 3 a.m. We heard our members had been arrested in suburbs, so we called Amnesty International. By 12 noon, all seven members were delivered back to their homes by the same police officers who had abducted them,” said Williams.

Earlier in the day, I spotted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof listening to similarly harrowing tales at the well-attended panel discussion, “Muzzling the Watchdogs,” featuring Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi. All three had been arrested, imprisoned and persecuted for their work to expose injustice, and each was the subject of Amnesty International urgent actions and/or international letter campaigns demanding their freedom.

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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.

Curbing my enthusiasm over a presidential pardon

Yesterday, on World Press Freedom Day, the Sri Lankan government announced that President Rajapaksa had pardoned J.S. Tissainayagam (often referred to as “Tissa”), a Sri Lankan journalist who had been unjustly convicted under draconian security laws and sentence to 20 years in prison.  His crime?  Writing two articles critical of the government’s war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.  Amnesty International considers Tissa to be a “prisoner of conscience” imprisoned solely for his journalistic activities.  We welcomed his release on bail on Jan. 13 while he was appealing his conviction.  We nonetheless asked the Sri Lankan government to strike down his conviction and free him from all charges against him.

The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders have all publicly welcomed the announced pardon.

So am I jumping for joy over this announcement?  Well, not yet.  For one thing, as the CPJ press release mentions, Tissa’s lawyers were not notified of the pardon prior to the announcement.  There are important details that are still not known.  Will he be able to freely practice his profession and have his freedom of movement restored, including getting his passport back?  Will his safety be assured by the government?  As Amnesty has reported, at least 15 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2006 without anyone being held accountable for these murders.

A commentator on a Sri Lankan website has pointed out that the announcement of the pardon was made by the new External Affairs Minister.  I checked the recent Sri Lankan presidential announcement allocating duties and functions to the various Cabinet Ministries.  Interestingly, the External Affairs Ministry does not appear to have anything to do with pardons.  That belongs to the Ministry of Justice.

I hope the details of Tissa’s pardon are clarified soon.  Then, perhaps, I may feel like celebrating.

Get on the Bus for Human Rights

Chances are, if we’ve met, you’ve heard me talk about Get On The Bus for Human Rights (GOTB)! I’ve got several versions under my belt — the PowerPoint presentation, the 5 minute DVD, and a Twitter-friendly elevator pitch, but basically:

“We are the largest grassroots event organized by Amnesty International USA members. Take action with us on the third Friday in April – that’s today! Speakers a.m. Rallies p.m.”

The idea was simple: Take your activism to the next level. Members of local AIUSA chapter Group 133 from Somerville, MA were working on the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who is best remembered as an environmental defender. He was among the leaders of peaceful protests against the environmental exploitation by oil companies and physical abuse by security forces in the Niger Delta region.

According to GOTB historians, one group member wanted to hop on a bus down to New York City to visit the Nigerian Consulate. After all, why not hand deliver our letters and call attention to our concerns in person?

Thirty people rode down to NYC that first year in support of human rights. Since New York City is relatively close to Boston and hosts diplomatic offices for practically every nation in the world, it’s been easy to continue our annual human rights pilgrimage. We now estimate around 1,000 people participate, taking peaceful action on behalf of three or more cases in one day.

As we approach our 15th anniversary, we can celebrate many successes including: calling attention to femicides in Guatemala, highlighting the failure of Guatemalan authorities to adequately investigate murders of over 1,900 young women; helping to secure the release of Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, Ethopia’s most prominent human rights defender; and successfully lobbying TIAA CREF to adopt socially responsible investment policies.

Here’s the line-up of what we’ll be supporting today during GOTB 2010:

  1. Calling for the release of Sri Lankan journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam who was recently sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for commentary that was often critical of the Sri Lankan government; one of the last columns published before his arrest was titled “Child soldiers: What the govt. report did not report.”
  2. Keeping the pressure on the Myanmar government to release Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and all Burmese political prisoners. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 20 years, in detention or under house arrest. She continues to be held under house arrest without charge or trial.
  3. Demanding that Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen be released from prison immediately.  He was handed a 6-year prison term after a secret trial that found him guilty of ‘subversion’ for producing a documentary giving voice to Tibetan grievances under Chinese rule.
  4. Calling upon the Democratic Republic of Congo to support women’s rights defenders who have come under severe threat.

Visit our Twitter page and our website, where you’ll find all the updates on today’s events.

Sri Lankan journalist granted bail

Great news!  The detained Sri Lankan journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam, was granted bail today by the court in Sri Lanka.  He is appealing the 20-year sentence he received last August under Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, all for publishing two magazine articles critical of the government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tigers.  Amnesty International considers him to be a “prisoner of conscience,” imprisoned solely for his legitimate journalistic activities, and calls for his immediate, unconditional release.  Last May, President Obama singled him out for praise as an emblematic example of journalists unjustly imprisoned for exercising their profession.  Today, the court granted his application to be released on bail while his appeal against the 20-year sentence is pending.

While it’s great that he won’t be in prison while his appeal is pending, he should never have been charged or tried in the first place.  We’ll keep working on his behalf until he’s free of the unjust charges brought against him.  Please join our campaign and call for his immediate, unconditional release.

2009 Summer Solidarity Action

© Private

© Private

So, we’re halfway through July, and most people who haven’t already taken a summer vacation are planning one, or at least expect to enjoy some time at the beach, the pool, or a neighbor’s barbecue. I myself just got back from a 6-day trip which involved a good amount of sun and sand. It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy, right?

For some people, maybe. But for prisoners of conscience or those who defend human rights in many countries, summer brings no relief from the potential danger and sense of isolation they may face. By simply sending a postcard, however, you can help support these women and men. Take part in our 2009 Summer Solidarity Action and let them know they’re not forgotten.

(And if you participated last year, you’ll want to see the update on the 2008 cases.)

Journalists Risking their Lives

This Sunday, May 3rd, is World Press Freedom Day and you can help push back against governments worldwide who violate fundamental rights to free speech and expression.  Some of the journalists currently languishing in detention include:

  • Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, who was sentenced last week to eight years in prison on charges of espionage after a flawed trial.
  • Gambian journalist Ebrima Manneh who continues to be detained despite a court’s ruling in June 2008 that his rights had been violated by the Gambian government and should be released.
  • Sri Lankan writer J.S. Tissainayagam who was imprisoned in 2008 for writing two articles that criticized the government’s military offensive against the opposition group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Here in the U.S. we often take for granted our ability to speak out against the policies of our government.  The type of content on this blog alone would surely be censored in some countries and could even land writers in prison.  We hope you’ll join us this weekend in taking action to protect journalists worldwide!