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!

Help Release Laura Ling and Euna Lee

On Tuesday, we heard from T. Kumar about what U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee face in their 12 year sentence in a North Korean labor camp. They got the maximum sentence of 10 years of hard labor for hostile acts and an additional two years for illegal entry, according to analysts. But exactly what hostile acts they committed remains unclear.

The two women, both of whom were investigating human rights abuses of North Korean women for the California-based Current TV media venture in San Francisco, were arrested on March 17 near North Korea’s border with China. They were held separately and in solitary confinement with limited access to either lawyers or their families. Their trial lasted five days in Pyongyang’s Central Court, the top court in North Korea. Outside observers were not permitted.

“The North Korean government seems to be using these two journalists as pawns in its dangerous game of escalating tensions with the international community,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director, in a statement. “This sentence was harsher than many observers expected, and completely out of line with any of the accusations that Pyongyang has levelled against them.” But this shouldn’t betoo surprising — the 2009 Freedom of the Press Index, published by Freedom House on May 1, gave North Korea the worst rating. North Korea acquired this rating because “independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, and citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited.” And appropriately, or perhaps ironically, their sentencing came just four days after the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Crackdown, an event journalists are still imprisoned for mentioning.

Take action now to help release Laura Ling and Euna Lee!

Bloggers are Journalists too

Shi Tai

Shi Tao

As some people have alluded to in the comments to this post by the Editors, bloggers are most definitely in need of press freedom just as much as “regular” journalists. Just take a look at Shi Tao, a blogger who’s been in prison in China since 2004 for sending an email.

Every time I read a blog, or post to one, I think about how lucky I am to be able to say what I want in those posts and comments, and how glad I am that those other bloggers whose thought-provoking words I read have not been silenced or jailed by their governments. But there are so many bloggers and other journalists who are not free to share their ideas with us, whose ability to shine the light on human rights abuses has been cut off.

On this day, I not only want to remember Shi Tao and the others and hope they are soon freed–I want to do something to make that happen!

Outspoken Journalist Killed in Sri Lanka

Yesterday morning, a brave Sri Lankan journalist paid the ultimate price for freedom of expression.  Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, was shot by unidentified gunmen  while on his way to work.  He died a few hours later of his injuries.  The Sunday Leader newspaper is known in Sri Lanka for its articles exposing political corruption in privatization deals and for drawing attention to human rights abuses in connection with the recent upsurge in fighting between the government and the opposition Tamil Tigers.

This isn’t the first time that the Sunday Leader and its staff have come under attack.  In 2006, Mr. Wickramatunga was threatened with arrest over an article critical of the president.  In 2007, the printing presses of the Leader group of publications were attacked by 10 armed men who threatened employees and set fire to some of the equipment.

Mr. Wickramatunga’s murder occurred just two days after the privately owned MVC/MTV television studios were ransacked by a gang of thugs.  MVC/MTV had also been critical of the government.

At least 14 journalists or other media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka over the past three years.  More than 20 journalists have left the country due to death threats.  Others have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured and disappeared while in custody of the security forces.

The Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has publicly condemned the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga and directed the Police to investigate his killing.  However, the Police have yet to find the killers of any of the other murdered journalists.  What hope is there that they’ll be any more effective in this case?  Will we see more assassinations like this in the days to come?

Please take a few minutes out of your day to email President Rajapaksa ([email protected] or [email protected]) and Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya ([email protected] ). Tell them an independent investigation into Mr. Wickramatunga’s murder and the other attacks on journalists is urgently needed now.  His killers must be found and tried.  Otherwise, I may have more stories like this one to report in future.

* This report comes from Amnesty’s country specialist on Sri Lanka, Jim McDonald.