Inter Press Service » Press Freedom Turning the World Downside Up Sat, 23 May 2015 07:31:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Burundi Leader, Stifling Attempted Coup, Cracks Down on Media Wed, 20 May 2015 21:06:38 +0000 Lisa Vives A UN officer receiving Burundian refugees in Tanzania. Credit: UN photo

A UN officer receiving Burundian refugees in Tanzania. Credit: UN photo

By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, May 20 2015 (IPS)

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkuruziza, who narrowly avoided his removal from office by a citizen-backed military coup, has turned against the media that closely reported the day to day protests.

Nkuruziza was out of the country in Tanzania at a meeting of East African leaders when he learned that hundreds of Burundians were cheering his overthrow and thousands were fleeing into exile. Upon his return he quickly regrouped, dismissing the defence and foreign ministers and attacking news outlets.

A press release from the Committee to Protect Journalists recapped: “In recent days, at least five radio stations were attacked during violence over an attempted coup in the capital, Bujumbura, and threats were made against a newspaper which caused it to stop publishing, according to reports.”

“We call on the authorities and the citizens of Burundi to respect the role of journalists and the media during these uncertain times, when a consistent flow of information is vital,” said Sue Valentine, CPJ Africa Program Coordinator. “Attacking news outlets is never a solution, especially when citizens need to know what is happening around them and those in power should be listening to what their people are saying.”

Last Thursday, unidentified individuals fired grenades into the compounds of privately owned stations Bonesha FM, Renaissance Radio and Television, Radio Isanganiro, and the privately owned Burundian station African Public Radio, according to reports. Another report on Thursday said that the offices of African Public Radio had been burned down, with a report saying that it had been hit by a rocket. None of the stations are currently operating.

In Burundi, where Internet penetration was only 1.3 per cent in 2013 according to the International Telecommunications Union, radio is the primary source of news.

Meanwhile, elections are going forward next month despite an outcry from citizens that the president was seeking a third term in office in violation of the constitution.

Requests that the elections be postponed were most recently received from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Previous requests came from the Burundi’s Catholic hierarchy and the U.S. State Department, among others.

President Nkuruziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority, in his first public address, thanked loyalist forces for crushing the attempted coup. He warned demonstrators to end weeks of protests against his bid for a third consecutive term in office.

Nkuruziza, who uses Twitter, then sent the following tweet: “I ask all Burundians to keep calm. The situation is under control.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Press Freedom Groups Denounce NSA Spying on AJ Bureau Chief Tue, 12 May 2015 18:14:45 +0000 Kitty Stapp A slide dated June 2012 from a National Security Agency PowerPoint presentation bears Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan’s photo, name, and a terror watch list identification number, and labels him a “member of Al-Qa’ida” as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. It also notes that he “works for Al Jazeera.” Courtesy of the Intercept

A slide dated June 2012 from a National Security Agency PowerPoint presentation bears Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan’s photo, name, and a terror watch list identification number, and labels him a “member of Al-Qa’ida” as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. It also notes that he “works for Al Jazeera.” Courtesy of the Intercept

By Kitty Stapp
NEW YORK, May 12 2015 (IPS)

Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan doesn’t deny that he’s had contact with terrorist groups. In fact, it would have been rather difficult to do his job otherwise.

But the fact that Zaidan is a respected investigative journalist and the Islamabad bureau chief for Al Jazeera didn’t seem to faze the U.S. National Security Agency, which not only spied on him, but went as far as to brand him a likely member of Al Qaeda and put him on a watch list.“This is the reality under which we live. Government agencies are relatively autonomous and attempts to control them are ludicrous." -- Bob Dietz of CPJ

The revelations emerged late last week as part of the thousands of classified documents leaked by former NSA employee Edward Snowden.

“Given that Pakistan has been consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, the news of Zaidan’s surveillance further adds to the fear, restricting press freedom,” said Furhan Hussain, manager of the Digital Rights and Freedom of Expression programme at Bytes for All, a Pakistani human rights group.

“Equally alarming, in this case, is the fact that by compromising the information of respected journalists, such spying also weakens the safety of their sources and media networks,” he told IPS. “Zaidan’s communications intercept took place through the invasive gathering and analysis of his metadata, a technique which has been frequently responsible for drone-led non-transparent persecution of hundreds of people.

“While it is often claimed that the state of Pakistan has failed to effectively protest against these violations, it may also be important to raise questions about the possible role of the state in facilitating the NSA to access vast amounts of data of those residing within its borders, in the context of its third-party SIGINT partnership.”

Other press freedom groups said the case was just one more in a long-running pattern of civil liberties abuses.

“Given the flood of disclosures over the past two years about the NSA’s vast range of mass and intrusive surveillance techniques and targets, it is unsurprising, but nevertheless shocking, that the intelligence agency thought it appropriate to use its capabilities to spy on an eminent journalist,” Carly Nyst, Legal Director of Privacy International, told IPS.

“This case is illustrative of the grave dangers of allowing security services to exercise immense powers in the absence of proper scrutiny. By placing members of the media, who themselves play an essential accountability role, particularly in areas of conflict, under surveillance, the NSA has undermined the very values it is charged with promoting – security, democracy, and free flow of information.

“Without democratic accountability, spy agencies will continue to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of strategic gain, without sparing a thought to the critical journalistic freedom caught in the cross hairs,” she added.

It’s not the first time the NSA has targeted Al Jazeera. Based on leaked documents, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported in 2009 that it had hacked into the news agency’s internal communication system.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, NSA whistleblower Russell Tice claimed in 2009 that in fact, the agency makes it a point to target journalists and news agencies.

Zaidan was targeted under the ominously titled SKYNET programme, which monitors bulk call records and searches the metadata for particular patterns.

“It’s this kind of big, sweeping data gathering that worries us the most,” Bob Dietz, Asia programme coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told IPS.

“If someone were to track my behavior and all the people I’ve come into contact with over the last 20 years, I imagine I would come up on some sort of chart ranking very high,” he said wryly.

Dietz doesn’t expect the situation to change anytime soon, regardless of who occupies the White House.

“This is the reality under which we live. Government agencies are relatively autonomous and attempts to control them are ludicrous…whether or not there are laws protecting us,” he said.

Thomas Hughes, executive director of the London-based ARTICLE 19, said his group is deeply concerned by the Zaidan spying revelations.

“According to statements from Al Jazeera and colleagues from other networks, Zaidan is a journalist of longstanding professional reputation. Surveillance of journalists has a serious chilling effect on freedom of expression, impeding the crucial role journalists play in uncovering wrongdoing and holding governments to account for their actions,” he told IPS.

“Compromising the confidentially of sources also seriously undermines the ability of journalists to perform their work and potentially endangers the wellbeing and safety of those sources.”

Indeed, as noted by the Intercept, which broke the allegations, Zaidan’s reporting focused on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, including several high-profile interviews with senior Al Qaeda leaders.

In strenuously denying the allegations, he patiently explained, “For us to be able to inform the world, we have to be able to freely contact relevant figures in the public discourse, speak with people on the ground, and gather critical information.

“Any hint of government surveillance that hinders this process is a violation of press freedom and harms the public’s right to know,” he wrote in a response to the Intercept. “To assert that myself, or any journalist, has any affiliation with any group on account of their contact book, phone call logs, or sources is an absurd distortion of the truth and a complete violation of the profession of journalism.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Media Watchdog Unveils Top Ten Worst Censors Fri, 24 Apr 2015 21:11:42 +0000 Valentina Ieri The collapse of autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt broke the state's stranglehold on the local press, but journalists and bloggers must still be careful what they say. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

The collapse of autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt broke the state's stranglehold on the local press, but journalists and bloggers must still be careful what they say. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

By Valentina Ieri

While technology has given millions greater freedom to express themselves, in the world’s 10 most censored countries, this basic right exists only on paper, if at all.

According to a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which will be officially released at U.N. headquarters on Apr. 27, the worst offenders are Eritrea and North Korea, followed by Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, Myanmar and Cuba."Countries that were on our list in previous years continue to be on the list. But the forms of censorship have changed." -- CPJ's Courtney Radsch

Courtney Radsch, the advocacy director of CPJ, told IPS, “These countries use a wide range of traditional tactics of censorship, including jailing of journalists, harassment of journalists, prosecuting local press and independent press.”

According to CPJ’s 2014 prison census, Eritrea is Africa’s leading jailer of journalists, with at least 23 behind bars – none of whom has been tried in court or even charged with a crime. Among the other most censored countries on the list is China with 44, Iran with 30, and 17 jailed journalists in Ethiopia.

In countries where governments jail reporters regularly for critical coverage, many journalists are forced to flee rather than risk arrest, said the report.

Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Felix Horne, told IPS, “If you are a journalist in Ethiopia, you are faced with a stark choice: either you self-censor your writings, you end up in prison, or you are exiled from your country.”

According to the report Journalism is not a Crime, released by HRW in January 2015, over 30 journalists fled Ethiopia in 2014. Six of the last independent publications have shut down and there are at least 19 journalists and bloggers in prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

In both Ethiopia and Eritrea, anti-terrorism laws have been used to effectively silence dissenting voices and to target opposition politicians, journalists, and activists, Horne said.

“This law is the ultimate threat for Ethiopian journalists and its use against bloggers and journalists has led to increased rates of self-censorship amongst what is left of Ethiopia’s independent media scene.”

Traditional forms of censorship are going hand in hand with new subtle, modern, and faster strategies such as internet restrictions, regulation of media and press laws, and the limitation of mobile devices.

Radsch underlined, “The situation has gotten worse. We have seen a historical level of imprisonment of journalists and an increasing expansion of censorship (which) developed more sophisticated forms, including pre-publications censorship, restricted access to info content, and content regulations.”

The CPJ report says that in order to avoid an “Arab Spring” in Eritrea, the authorities have strongly limited internet access, with no possibility of gathering independent information.

Radsch highlighted that gathering public information through local internet access – the right to broadband – is recognised by the U.N., as a fundamental human right. But, in Eritrea and North Korea, as well as Cuba, the internet is essentially not permitted.

Access to mobile phones is also restricted.

“There are virtually no phones in Eritrea and there are limited phones in North Korea, where they can get in through smuggling networks from China,” she said, adding that these kind of restrictions are applied not only to reporters, but to the general public more broadly.

According to CPJ, globally, Eritrea has the lowest rate of cell phone users, with just 5.6 percent of the population owning one. In North Korea, only 9.7 percent of the population has cell phones, excluding phones smuggled in from China.

Other countries, including Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam and Azerbaijan, have internet, but its access is strongly limited through the blocking of web content, restrictive access regulations, and persecuting those who violates the rules, added Radsch.

Censorship in the 10 listed countries affect mainly local journalists, apart from the case of Egypt where foreign reporters have been imprisoned, said Radsch. But censorship is also applied to foreign correspondents in other ways, such as denying entry visas to those countries or by deporting them.

The previous two lists of most censored countries compiled by CPJ date back to 2006 and 2012.

Radsch said, “One of the reasons why we cannot publish these lists every year is because censorship tactics have not changed much from year to year. In general, countries that were on our list in previous years continue to be on the list. But the forms of censorship have changed.”

To keep track of government data is difficult due to their lack of transparency, explained Radsch.

Although the international community is aware of human rights violations in repressive countries, concrete action to protect freedom of expression is still lacking.

Horne underlined that in Ethiopia, for instance, despite its dismal human rights record, the country continues to enjoy significant support from Western governments, both in relation to Ethiopia’s progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and its role as a regional peacekeeper.

“But ignoring Ethiopia’s horrendous human rights situation and the internal tensions this is causing may have long-term implications for Western interests in the Horn of Africa,” Horne concluded.

CPJ is also calling on the international community to ensure that anti-terrorist laws are not used illegitimately by states to strengthen censorship even further against the press.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: Burundi – Fragile Peace at Risk Ahead of Elections Fri, 24 Apr 2015 10:59:08 +0000 David Kode

In this column, David Kode, a Policy and Research Officer at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, describes a series of restrictions on freedom in Burundi and, in the run-up to elections in May and June, calls on the international community – including the African Union and donor countries – to support the country by putting pressure on the government to respect democratic ideals and by condemning attacks on civil liberties.

By David Kode

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa is not permitted to get close to an airport, train station or port without authorisation from a judge.  He cannot travel outside of the capital of his native Burundi, Bujumbura. Whenever called upon, he must present himself before judicial authorities.

These are some of the onerous restrictions underlying the bail conditions of one of Burundi’s most prominent human rights activists since he was provisionally released on medical grounds in September last year, after spending more than four months in prison for his human rights work.

David Kode

David Kode

Mbonimpa was arrested and detained on May 15, 2014, and charged with endangering state security and inciting public disobedience. The charges stemmed from views he expressed during an interview with an independent radio station, Radio Public Africaine, in which he stated that members of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, were being armed and sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo for military training.

The arrest and detention of Pierre Claver is symptomatic of a pattern of repression and intimidation of human rights defenders, journalists, dissenters and members of the political opposition in Burundi as it heads towards its much anticipated elections in May and June 2015.

The forthcoming polls will be the third democratic elections organised since the end of the brutal civil war in 2005.  The antagonism of the CNDD-FDD government and its crackdown on civil society and members of opposition formations has increased, particularly as the incumbent, President Pierre Nkurunziza, silences critics and opponents in his bid to run for a third term even after the National Assembly rejected his proposals to extend his term in office.“The international community and Burundi’s donors cannot afford to stand by idly and witness a distortion of the decade-long relative peace that Burundi has enjoyed, which represents the most peaceful decade since independence from Belgium in 1962”

Tensions continue to mount ahead of the polls and even though the president has not publicly stated that he will contest the next elections, the actions of his government and the ruling party clearly suggest he will run for another term.  Members of his party argue that he has technically run the country for one term only as he was not “elected” by the people when he took to power in 2005.

Civil society organisations and religious leaders recently pointed out that Constitution and the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement – which brought an end to the civil war – clearly limit presidential terms to two years.

As the 2015 polls draw closer, state repression has increased, some political parties have been suspended and their members arrested and jailed. The Imbonerakure has embarked on campaigns to intimidate, physically assault and threaten members of the opposition with impunity. They have prevented some political gatherings from taking place under the pretext that they are guaranteeing security at the local level.

Civil society organisations and rival political movements have on several occasions been denied the right to hold public meetings and assemblies, while journalists and activists have been arrested and held under fictitious charges in an attempt to silence them and force them to resort to self-censorship.

Legislation has been used to stifle freedom of expression and restrict the activities of journalists and the independent media.  In June 2013, the government passed a new law which forces journalists to reveal their sources.

The law provides wide-ranging powers to the authorities and sets requirements for journalists to attain certain levels of education and professional expertise, limits issues journalists can cover and imposes fines on those who violate this law.  It prohibits the publication of news items on security issues, defence, public safety and the economy.

The law has been used to target media agencies and journalists, including prominent journalist Bob Rugurika, director of Radio Public Africaine.

The government does not see any major difference between opposition political parties and human rights activists and journalists and has often accused civil society and the media of being mouth pieces for the political opposition, describing them as “enemies of the state”.

In the lead-up to the last elections in 2010, most of the opposition parties decided to boycott the elections and the ruling party won almost unopposed. However, the post-elections period was characterised by political violence and conflict.

Ideally, the upcoming elections could present the perfect opportunity to “jump start” Burundi’s democracy.  For this to happen, the media and civil society need to operate without fear or intimidation from state and non-state actors.  On the contrary, state repression is bound to trigger a violent response from some of the opposition parties and ignite violence similar to that which happened in 2010.

The international community and Burundi’s donors cannot afford to stand by idly and witness a distortion of the decade-long relative peace that Burundi has enjoyed, which represents the most peaceful decade since independence from Belgium in 1962.

It is increasingly clear that the people of Burundi need the support of the international community at this critical juncture. The African Union (AU), with its public commitment to democracy and good governance, must act now by putting pressure on the government of Burundi to respect its democratic ideals to prevent more abuses and further restrictions on fundamental freedoms ahead of the elections.

The African Union should demand that the government stops extra-judicial killings and conducts independent investigations into members of the security forces and Imbonerakure who have committed human rights violations and hold them accountable.

Further, Burundi’s close development partners, particularly Belgium, France and the Netherlands, should condemn the attacks on civil liberties and urge the government to instil an enabling environment in which a free and fair political process can take place while journalists and civil society activists can perform their responsibilities without fear.  (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris    

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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Israeli Forces Target Journalists in West Bank Tue, 07 Apr 2015 10:28:16 +0000 Mel Frykberg Israeli commander who blocked the writer’s entrance to the village of Kafr Qaddoum – as clashes were taking place – for over two hours. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Israeli commander who blocked the writer’s entrance to the village of Kafr Qaddoum – as clashes were taking place – for over two hours. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

By Mel Frykberg
KAFR QADDOUM, West Bank, Apr 7 2015 (IPS)

It is becoming increasingly risky to cover clashes and protests between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters in the West Bank as the number of journalists injured, in what appears to be deliberate targeting by Israeli security forces, continues to rise.

During the last 12 months, Israel’s Foreign Press Association (FPA) has issued numerous protests at the manhandling, harassment and shooting of both members of the foreign media and Palestinian journalists.

“The Foreign Press calls on the Israeli border police (a paramilitary unit) to put an immediate end to a wave of attacks on journalists. In just over a week, border police officers have carried out at least four attacks on journalists working for international media organisations, injuring reporters and damaging expensive equipment. These attacks all appear to have been unprovoked,” was one of many statements released by the FPA last year.The rising trend of Israeli security forces using live ammunition against Palestinian protesters has expanded to include journalists as well.

“A change in policy appears to be the reason for unprecedented aggressive behaviour by the authorities against journalists covering demonstrations in Jerusalem,” read another FPA statement.

The assaults have included shooting rubber-coated metal bullets directly at journalists on a regular basis.

Tear gas canisters, which under Israeli law are meant to be shot from a safe distance in an upward arch so as not to endanger life, have also been shot directly at journalists from close range even when the journalists were out of the line of fire.

The rising trend of Israeli security forces using live ammunition against Palestinian protesters has expanded to include journalists as well.

Palestinian journalists and cameramen working for foreign agencies and local media appear to be bearing the brunt of these attacks, because assaulting and abusing Palestinians, males in particular, is an integral part of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

A colleague of IPS, a cameraman from Palestine TV, was shot in the leg several months ago with a 0.22 inch calibre bullet fired from a Ruger rifle by an Israeli sniper as he filmed a clash in the northern West Bank village of Kafr Qaddoum.

Palestinian journalists in the line of fire. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Palestinian journalists in the line of fire. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

On a previous occasion, as he left the village, Israeli soldiers pulled his vehicle over, dragged him out and assaulted him.

Another IPS colleague, a cameraman from Reuters, was shot twice in both legs with a metal bullet with a 0.5 mm rubber coating at one Friday protest. The previous week he had been targeted directly with a tear gas canister.

“We are very concerned about the marked increase in the number of Palestinian journalists being deliberately targeted by the Israeli security forces,” said Reporters Without Borders in a statement  on the increase in violence by Israeli security forces against Palestinian journalists released last year.

“We reiterate our call to the Israeli authorities, especially the military, to respect the physical integrity of journalists covering demonstrations and we remind them that the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on 28 March recognising the importance of media coverage of protests and condemning any attacks or violence against the journalists covering them.”

The situation was even worse during the Gaza war from July to August last year, when 17 Palestinian journalists were killed by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) even when they were not in the proximity of the fighting.

IPS has witnessed numerous attacks on journalists over the years and has also been harassed by Israeli soldiers when trying to cover clashes.

Last Friday, I was held up for over two hours in the sun by Israeli soldiers as I tried to enter Kafr Qaddoum where major clashes were taking place.

During this time other members of the media, ambulances and other protesters were refused entrance.

With Israeli government press accreditation, an accreditation denied to most Palestinian journalists, I was able to contact the IDF spokesman who coordinated my entrance, but only after several hours of standing in the sun.

I was neither assaulted nor was any of my equipment confiscated from me, another privilege of being white and Western.

Another Palestinian colleague and cameraman came in for very different treatment a month ago when he had had his camera confiscated by an Israeli soldier outside the Jelazon refugee camp, near Ramallah.

When he tried to retrieve his expensive piece of equipment he was warned to back off and knew better than to pursue the issue.

However, when I took the matter up with the commanding officer the camera was returned to its owner after the officer had taken me aside on a charm offensive while ordering the Palestinian journalists to stand back.

On another occasion, I was accompanying a Palestinian ambulance which was trying to reach Jelazon camp to help Palestinian youths injured during clashes with the IDF.

Several military jeeps blocked the roads leading to the camp and refused to move when asked by the ambulance driver.

After I got out and spoke to the soldiers, showing them my credentials yet again, the jeep moved to the side and allowed the ambulance to continue.

The Israelis still appear to be sensitive to a certain degree to how they are portrayed in the Western media.

This has become apparent to me when covering violent clashes. As soon as it has been established that I am Australian, white and a woman, the aggression of the Israeli soldiers has abated and they have tried to get me on side by asking me if I am alright and warning me to take care,

However, I know that I too could easily fall prey to Israeli ammunition if I am not exceedingly careful so, on this basis, I choose to stay well away from the frontlines of clashes.

Edited by Phil Harris  

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Lawyers, Rights Groups Rally Around Author of ‘Blood Diamonds’, Facing Jail Tue, 31 Mar 2015 23:09:18 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Mar 31 2015 (IPS)

The Southern Africa Litigation Centre, Amnesty International and over a dozen other human rights organisations including the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights have signed an open letter demanding justice for crusading Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, whose exposés have offended several military officials and other higher-ups.

In their letter, published this week in a Malawian newspaper, the group praised Marques for “his long history of holding the Angolan government to account for human rights abuses and corruption through his insightful, thoughtful and well regarded journalistic investigations” and noted that “for his efforts, he has been arrested and detained multiple times in Angola.”

In the latest effort to silence Marques, legal action was launched by a group of generals over his book ‘Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola’, first published in Portugal in 2011.

The book cites a litany of human rights violations – including killings, torture and forced evictions – that took place in Lunda Norte in northeastern Angola where diamond excavations were taking place. Military officials, diamond miners and private security contractors – named in the book – first attempted to sue Marques for defamation in Portugal but their case was dismissed.

After the book appeared, the author filed a charge with the Angolan Attorney General on Nov. 14, 2011. He called on the authorities to investigate the moral responsibility of the generals for serious abuses. After hearing victims’ testimonies in 2012, the Attorney General set the case aside. New charges were then filed against Marques.

If convicted, he faces up to nine years in prison and damages of 1.2 million dollars on the charge.

“Mr Marques is the recipient of numerous prestigious international awards for his work. He is an equal opportunity human rights defender, working to expose violations no matter who is the accused or accuser,” the open letter writers noted.

Angola, the fourth-biggest diamond producing country by value, has been relaxing restrictions on exploration and development after producers, including South African giant De Beers, cut back operations during the global financial crisis. The move is worrying environmentalists as well as local people and the rise in numbers of anti-government protests is an irritant to the authorities who are keen to make an example of Marques with a successful prosecution.

In his speech as joint winner of the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expressions in Journalism award last week, one of several international honours he has received, Marques said that the trial would make him stronger.

“It will show Angolans there is nothing to fear and challenge them to hold the authorities to account,” he said in a press interview.

Seven journalists have been murdered in Angola since 1992 and many others intimidated or imprisoned, according to The Guardian newspaper. This month, two activists, Marcos Mavungo and Arao Bula Tempo, were arrested in Angola’s northern oil-producing province Cabinda, hours before an anti-government protest was due to take place. They have been jailed on charges of sedition.

Previous demonstrations have been broken up using what Human Rights Watch call “excessive force” and last year a female student was hospitalised after a beating by police for taking part in a march.

Other signers to the open letter include Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the UK-based Media Legal Defence Initiative.

Edited by Phil Harris    

*The book – Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola – is not yet available in English.

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Winners Announced for Free Expression Prize Tue, 24 Mar 2015 00:01:29 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Mar 24 2015 (IPS)

At home she was subjected to death threats for defending women in northeastern Kenya who are vulnerable to rape, female circumcision and murder. This month, Amran Abdundi Amram was cheered as a hero as she collected the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for Campaigning.

The 15th annual freedom prize was presented this month by the U.K.-based international organisation that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression. The award honours outstanding individuals in four categories: Journalism, arts, campaigning and digital activism.

Abdundi, who heads up Frontier Indigenous Network (FIN), has been setting up shelters along the border between Kenya and Somalia – an area where militant groups pose a growing threat to local communities. In addition to the shelters, FIN maps out conflict areas, targets the illegal arms trade and has set up radio listening groups.

In thanking the judges, Abdundi acknowledged the efforts of local women with whom she had worked for over a decade. “This award goes to marginalised women of northern Kenya … for fighting outdated cultural practices that deny them the right to own property, that expose them to dangerous practices like FGM, and threaten them with sexual exploitation.”

Other women FIN defends include “conflict concubines” who were abducted by armed youths at the height of armed violence in northern Kenya and acted as comfort women for armed militias. “When these women came back from conflict zones with children born out of wedlock, they were rejected by their families. This award is for them.”

Lastly, she thanked the women who used loud speakers to block their attackers. “We documented the abuses along the border,” she said.

“The women of northern Kenya will now know that their struggles and their efforts to fight for their rights are being recognised internationally,” she said. “You are a true partner of the women of northern Kenya.”

Also recognised by the Index was Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais. Marques was singled out for his courageous work exposing corruption in government and business in Angola.

Among his investigative pieces was an expose of the ruling family of Pres. Jose Eduardo dos Santos whose daughter Isabel controls over a billion dollars in assets obtained through her father, according to Marques. In 2011, he wrote a book called “Blood Diamonds: Torture and Corruption in Angola,” which recounts 500 cases of torture and 100 killings that took place over 18 months in a diamond-mining district in Angola. According to the book, the torture and killings were carried out by guards from a private security firm and by members of the Angolan Armed Forces.

Next week, Marques is scheduled to appear before a court on defamation and criminal libel charges filed by nine Angolan generals and the private security firm used by the President.

Letters protesting his prosecution have been sent to the African Commission and the U.N. by Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch and 14 other human rights and free speech groups.

Accepting his award, Marques dedicated it to “my fellow Ethiopian colleagues Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemo and the Zone 9 bloggers. They are all in jail, currently serving some of the harshest sentences in Africa for the crime of exercising their right to freedom of expression.” Alemu, he added, has been denied adequate health care although in “desperate” need.

Other winners for 2015 were Mouad “El Haqed” Belghouat, a rapper from Morocco; Safa Al Ahmad, a Saudi journalist, and the Hungarian freedom of information website Atlatszo.

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Pro-Democracy Activists at U.S. Event Jailed in DR Congo Tue, 17 Mar 2015 18:25:38 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Mar 17 2015 (IPS)

Journalists, activists, hip hop artists and a United States diplomat were rounded up by police at a pro-democracy event on Sunday in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sponsored in part by the U.S. government. Security forces charged them with threatening stability, according to a government spokesperson.

The diplomat, Kevin Sturr, “Was among a group of people believed to be in the process of bringing an attack against state security”, said Congo’s Information Minister Lambert Mende. Sturr, who works with the USAID’s democracy and good governance program in Congo, was returned to the U.S. Embassy late Sunday night, Mende said on Monday.

The activists included members of Burkina Faso’s Balai Citoyen and Senegal’s Y’en a Marre movements. Both have led large-scale protests in recent years against presidents attempting to extend their time in office.

The round up was an unpleasant surprise for U.S. officials. “This event is one of many activities the U.S. government supports that involve youth and civil society as part of our broader commitment to encourage a range of voices to be heard,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki complained that U.S. authorities had not been officially informed about why Sturr was detained. “Our ambassador in Kinshasa has raised this at the highest levels with the DRC government,” Psaki said.

Congolese government officials and ruling coalition parties were invited to the event and some attended, the Embassy said, describing the youth groups involved as well-regarded and non-partisan.

According to the Minister, the Congo’s intelligence services believed the news conference — billed as an exchange between African civil society organizations — was in fact a project organized by “instructors in insurrection”.

“There are the three Senegalese and the Burkinabe and their Congolese accomplices who continue to be questioned,” Mende added. “Each will have his fate… Either they will be released or put at the disposition of the public prosecutor.”

Foreign activists arrested included Fadel Barro, a member of the Senegalese collective of journalists and hip-hop artists “Y’en a Marre”, which helped organize protests against former President Abdoulaye Wade’s bid for a third term in 2012.

The group had gathered to support “Filimbi” – a Congolese movement that aims for greater youth participation in politics, when they were rounded up.

Proposed changes in Congo’s electoral law have sparked mass protests against what many view as an attempt by President Joseph Kabila to prolong his time in power. Human Rights Watch reported that at least 40 people were killed in Kinshasa and the eastern city of Goma at protests so far this year.

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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Jailed Journalist’s Family Looks to Iran’s New Year with Hope Thu, 12 Mar 2015 20:28:34 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey Iranian-American Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran Bureau Chief, has been detained in Iran since July 22, 2014. Credit:

Iranian-American Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran Bureau Chief, has been detained in Iran since July 22, 2014. Credit:

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, Mar 12 2015 (IPS)

The lawyer for Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American Washington Post reporter detained in Tehran since Jul. 22, 2014, has officially requested temporary bail for her client during Nowruz, the beginning of the Persian calendar year when some prisoners have customarily been granted furlough requests.

“This time of year, with his birthday and Nowruz [Mar. 21] coming up, we are certainly hopeful that the folks in government will see that there is really no justifiable reason for Jason to be in prison,” said Jason’s brother, Ali, in an interview here Wednesday with IPS.“[The Rouhani government] would like to see him free, but they have shown to be completely unwilling to spend any of their political capital on this case or any of the other horrendous violations going on in the country." -- Hadi Ghaemi

Rezaian, who spoke at the National Press Club’s event today naming Jason as a recipient of its John Abuchon press freedom award, said his family has not been officially informed of the charge his brother is facing.

The Iranian judiciary, which does not recognise dual citizenship, hasn’t publicly announced charges. But Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Sept. 17 that Rezaian, whom he described as a “fair reporter,” is aware of the charge during an interview with National Public Radio (NPR).

Mohammad Larijani, a top advisor to Iran’s supreme leader and the head of the judiciary’s human rights council, was also unspecific but told Euronews Nov. 11 that Rezaian was “involved in activities beyond journalism.”

The influential politician added that he expected Rezaian to be released soon: “My hope is that before going to the court process, the prosecutor could be content to drop the case to see that maybe the accusations are not quite substantial.”

Four months later, Rezaian is facing trial in the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary court, which operates separately from criminal and civil courts and handles cases categorized by the judiciary as pertaining to national security issues.

Human rights groups say the court tries people for ideological and political reasons and that case outcomes are often predetermined with harsh sentences.

“Jason is not only a credentialed journalist engaging in journalist activities, he’s also a reporter for the Washington Post and it should be understood that his job requires him to speak to people and understand what is going on in Iran and portray the life and the activities of the people there,” Ali Rezaian told IPS. “He has done this fairly for more than a decade.”

Longest-held Western journalist

Born to an Iranian father and American mother, Jason Rezaian, who covered Iran for IPS until 2012, will likely spend his 39th birthday in Iran’s notorious Evin prison on Mar. 15.

Rezaian moved to Iran, where press freedom is severely limited, in 2008, and became the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief in 2012.

No other journalist working with a Western news outlet has been held as long as Rezaian, who has been detained for more than 230 days.

Ali Rezaian told IPS that his brother loved his life in Iran and would often encourage foreigners to see the country for themselves.

“He always said: ‘You should come and see it; it’s a wonderful place.’ And if people would say things that were not right about Iran he would say: ‘You don’t understand; come and see it.'”

Extending beyond the common Western news themes of the nuclear programme and political infighting, Rezaian’s journalistic portfolio is heavily focused on the social and cultural aspects of life in Iran.

“You know, you look at the work that he did with the Post and he spent a lot of time showing people a different side of Iran than we are regularly exposed to here in America,” said Rezaian.

“It’s just his nature to communicate with all sorts of people and its part of being a journalist, to ask questions, to try and reach out to people on both sides of the discussion to promote understanding,” he said.

Since being detained, Rezaian reportedly struggled to get several health conditions treated in a timely manner and has lost 50 pounds. But he may be suffering most from the isolation and lack of human contact, according to his brother, who said Jason spent five months in solitary confinement before being moved to a cell with another prisoner.

Initially seeking to personally request her son’s release from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rezaian’s Istanbul-based mother Mary was only allowed to see her son in Evin prison twice in December.

“I need a head doctor, because this is going on way too long,” Jason Rezaian told his mother after showing her he had not been tortured during a videotaped meeting, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Since then, his family abroad has been unable to speak to Jason and the frequency and amount of contact with his wife, reporter Yeganeh Salehi who was detained with Rezaian and released on bail in October, has dramatically decreased.


The National Press Club released a letter today signed by prominent American journalists addressed to Iranian judicial chief Sadegh Larijani expressing “grave concern” over Rezaian’s detention and what it called “the ongoing disregard for the legal protections assured its citizens by the Iranian constitution.”

Boxing star Muhammad Ali also issued a statement through the club. “To my knowledge Jason is a man of peace and great faith, a man whose dedication and respect for the Iranian people is evident in his work. I support his family, friends and colleagues in their efforts to obtain his release,” he said

In addition to his family’s stepped up efforts and calls by the U.S. government, his editors, and journalistic institutions for Rezaian’s release, an online support petition has received more than 235,000 signatures from around the world.

The hashtag “#FreeJason” continues to be circulated on social media including Twitter and Facebook.

But while some of the conditions of Rezaian’s custody have improved, he remains incarcerated while he and his family agonise over his fate.

His story is meanwhile competing for media coverage with the intensive talks over Iran’s nuclear programme aimed at reaching a final agreement by the end of June.

“This case has been a headache in the Iranian government’s foreign policy dealings with the outside world,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “But due to the sensitive time of the negotiations its probably not getting the attention it should.

“[The Rouhani government] would like to see him free but they have shown to be completely unwilling to spend any of their political capital on this case or any of the other horrendous violations going on in the country,” he said.

“Iran needs to feel more heat to release him,” added Ghaemi.

A State Department official told IPS, “We are doing everything we can to secure the release of Jason Rezaian and the other U.S. citizens detained and missing in Iran.”

The cases of American citizens were being kept separate from the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, added the official.

“Nowruz is a wonderful time for the higher-ups in government to take a hard look at the evidence that some people say they have to decide if that’s really deserving of time in prison, let alone nearly eight months, and if not make it clear to those in power that Jason should be acquitted,” said Ali Rezaian.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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200 Million Fewer Women than Men Online Tue, 10 Mar 2015 15:14:35 +0000 Lyndal Rowlands British actor and U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson (left) speaking at the United Nations in September 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

British actor and U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson (left) speaking at the United Nations in September 2014. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

By Lyndal Rowlands

Two hundred million fewer women have access to the internet than men, according to a report released Monday.

The report published by No Ceilings also said an estimated 300 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone, with these gaps primarily concentrated in developing countries.

Women’s participation and safety online was a popular topic on the first day of the 59th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations.

The 2015 CSW also coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing+20), the historic agenda for women’s empowerment. Women’s participation in media and new communication technologies is covered under Section J of the Platform.

Discussions at the CSW covered both the positive and negative impact of information communication technology on progress towards gender equality.

Jan Moolman, Senior Coordinator of the Association for Progressive Communications spoke about how women have achieved empowerment by using the internet.

She said new media helped individuals to construct and represent themselves online. She also said new media offered women “opportunities for movement building” and the opportunity to leap over many kinds of barriers.”

Moolman added that threats against women online needed to be treated as a freedom of information issue, because they were used to try to silence women when they spoke up on gender equality.

“If we have 52% of the population unable to express themselves freely that is a freedom of expression issue,” Moolman said.

U.N. Women (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) are also increasingly using new media with their campaigns. For example through social media campaigns such as HeForShe, infographics and a new monitor of countries which have committed to step-it-up for gender equality.

Speaking about the HeForShe campaign at Facebook Headquarters in London yesterday, U.N. Women Global Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson spoke about how she herself had received threats after speaking out on gender equality.

“The minute I stepped up and talked about women’s rights I was immediately threatened, I mean, within less than 12 hours I was receiving threats.”

A website was set up with a countdown threatening to release nude photographs of the British actor. Watson said that she knew the website was a hoax, but that the experience helped her friends and family see the need for progress on gender equality.

I think it was just a wake up call that this is a real thing that’s really happening now, women are receiving threats in all sorts of different forms, she said.

Watson also said that the threats helped convince her of the importance of campaigning for gender equality.

If anything, if they were trying to put me off, it did the opposite.

No Ceilings is an initiative, supported by the Clinton Foundation, which has compiled thousands of data points on gender equality across a range of areas, including access to information and communication technologies.

Women You Should Have Heard of

Another way women’s positive contributions to science and technology was highlighted on International Women’s Day yesterday was through the hashtag #womenyoushouldhaveheardof. The hashtag challenged the assumption that Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields are not suited to women and girls by raising awareness about some of the women who have made historic contributions to science and technology.

Follow Lyndal Rowlands on Twitter @LyndalRowlands

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin


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Bridging the Gender Inequality Gap in the Media Mon, 09 Mar 2015 23:40:31 +0000 Valentina Ieri By Valentina Ieri

Despite the vast number of media outlets and news sources worldwide, women and girls are still not getting enough attention in the news.

That is why the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), the largest study on gender and media, launched a new fundraising campaign on March 5th to improve gender equality.

Every five years since 1995, the GMMP has picked a single day of the year to analyse global media coverage with respect to gender.

Through such analysis, GMMP has discovered great disparities between women and men in news coverage. The organization claims that “even though women make up more than half the world’s population, less than a quarter of what we see, hear or read in the media are the voices of women.”

GMMP’s investigations show that the ways women and men are represented in news stories highlights gender discrimination and stereotypes. The organisation brings its results directly to governments, and tries to persuade them to change policy.

The fundraising campaign invites people to contribute $10, and to invite 10 friends to do the same, in order to raise enough money to launch another monitoring day. It is organized through social media and calls on users to reach out to their friends and networks using Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

The idea of a one-day study of gender representation in the world’s news media was developed at the 1994 international conference “Women Empowering Communication”, in Bangkok. In 1995 volunteers from 71 countries monitored the news in newspapers, on television and radio, and collected over 50 000 media records.

GMMP continues to re-examine the selected indicators of gender in the news media, comparing female presence with male visibility, gender bias and stereotypes in news content.

On the last monitoring day, in 2010, results showed that only 24 per cent of news subjects on television are female. Men are usually portrayed as experts in their field. On the internet, 16 per cent of female news subjects were addressed as victims in contrast to 5 per cent of male news subjects.

GMMP involves grassroots organisations, university students, researchers and experts working on a voluntary basis.

GMMP explains that women and girls become second-class citizens when their concerns are not reflected in the news, saying that their activity “challenges media organizations and professional journalists to implement editorial policies that are fair, more balanced, and more gender friendly.”

The project is run by the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), an international non-governmental organisation that promotes social justice.

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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Prominent Lawyer Defending the Poor Gunned Down in Mozambique Wed, 04 Mar 2015 20:53:50 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Mar 4 2015 (IPS)

As billions pour into Mozambique from foreign investors scooping up fields of coal and natural gas, the signs of newfound wealth are impossible to miss.

Expensive European-style bars and restaurants line the streets of central Maputo. The latest Toyota Pradas, Range Rovers and Jaguars drive down streets named Julius Nyerere, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung, former socialist leaders who might have heart failure at the wealth gap found here today.

The World Bank called Mozambique’s transition from a post-conflict country to one of Africa’s “frontier economies” nothing short of impressive. “The country has become a world-class destination for mining and natural gas development,” the Bank wrote.

Yet, according to the Bank, this rapid expansion over the past 20 years barely moved the needle for the poor. “The geographical distribution of poverty remains largely unchanged,” the Bank wrote in October last year. Per capita income is 593 dollars, less than one-third of the sub-Saharan average.

In 2014, Mozambique ranked near the bottom – 178 out of 187 countries – in the U.N.’s Human Development index.

Malnutrition has worsened significantly; life expectancy at birth is just 50 years. Malaria remains the most common cause of death, especially among children.

With signs of great wealth amidst nationwide poverty, resentment has been growing in backwater regions that have not shared in the bounty.

This week, a prominent lawyer exploring the case to decentralise power and create autonomy for those peripheral regions was cut down in cold blood on the streets of the capital, Maputo. Gilles Cistac, 54, was shot by four men in a car while riding a cab to work, police said.

A spokesman for the former rebel group Renamo said Cistac had been killed because of his views on decentralisation.

“He was killed for having expressed his opinions regarding the most contentious political issues in the country,” Renamo spokesman António Muchanga told Reuters Tuesday.

Cistac, a professor of law at the national Eduardo Mondlane University, recently told local media that the creation of autonomous regions would be allowed under the constitution. Renamo, similarly, has proposed that Mozambique be divided into two countries.

But Frelimo, the ruling party, has repeatedly rejected calls for regional autonomy, although President Filipe Nyusi agreed to debate decentralisation in parliament after Renamo parliamentarians refused to take up their seats following elections in October 2014.

Regarding the murder of Cistec, Presidential Spokesman Antonio Gaspar said, “We condemn the attack and demand that the perpetrators are caught and brought to justice. The government has instructed the interior ministry to hunt and arrest those who assassinated Cistac so that they can be severely punished.”

Meanwhile, U.S. oil major Anadarko and Italy’s Eni are developing some of the world’s biggest untapped natural gas reserves in the north of the country – a Renamo stronghold, which the group has proposed to rename the Republic of Central and Northern Mozambique.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Burundi-Watchers See Erosion of Human Rights and Civic Freedoms Wed, 04 Mar 2015 20:50:18 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, Mar 4 2015 (IPS)

The bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s when Burundi was widely considered a police state may be making a comeback.

Some 300,000 people lost their lives in the country’s civil war from the 1990s to 2003, which broke out following the death of the country’s first democratically elected president.

Human rights defenders and journalists are now routinely smeared as enemies of the state.

According to a recent report by an East African rights group: “Human rights defenders in Burundi are operating in one of the most restrictive and hostile environments in East Africa as evidenced by an alarming pattern of harassment, intimidation, threats and legislative reforms.” Public gatherings have been banned, members of the opposition are attacked. Violence is escalating in the run up to the June 2015 elections, the East and Horn of Africa defenders project observed.

Even group jogging, a popular Burundian hobby that officials now say leads to uprisings, has been banned.

A tiny dot wedged between Tanzania to the south and east, and Rwanda to the north, the DRC to the west, Burundi was once a battleground between Hutus and Tutsis, much like Rwanda. The current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was a Hutu rebel leader.

The most contentious issue to date is whether the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, will try for a third term – an apparent violation of the constitution.

A prominent rights activist, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, fears that a militarized youth wing of the ruling party is responsible for extrajudicial killings including beheadings.

An international spotlight was drawn to Burundi in September with the murder of three Italian nuns at their convent in Bujumbura. A radio journalist, Bob Rugurika, broadcast the purposed confession of a man claiming to be one of the killers.

Authorities detained Rugurika and then charged him with complicity in the murders and disclosing confidential information about the case.

His release last month prompted huge rallies of support. Hundreds of people crammed into dozens of cars and motorbikes followed Mr Rugurika after being released from prison some 30 miles away, the AFP news agency reported.

“I have no words to thank the Burundian population,” Mr Rugurika said in a radio broadcast. “Thanks to your support, your commitment… I’m free at last.”

A spotlight has again been drawn to Burundi with the late night prison breakout this week of the president’s political rival, Hussein Radjabu. A former ally of the current president, he was regarded as Burundi’s most powerful man until his arrest in 2007.

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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U.N. Member States Accused of Cherry-Picking Human Rights Mon, 02 Mar 2015 21:38:24 +0000 Thalif Deen Protestors gather outside the White House to demonstrate against torture on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Charles Davis/IPS

Protestors gather outside the White House to demonstrate against torture on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Charles Davis/IPS

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has criticised member states for ‘cherry-picking’ human rights – advocating some and openly violating others – perhaps to suit their own national or political interests.

Despite ratifying the U.N. charter reaffirming their faith in fundamental human rights, there are some member states who, “with alarming regularity”, are disregarding and violating human rights, “sometimes to a shocking degree,” he said.

“One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views." -- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Addressing the opening session of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) Monday, Zeid faulted member states for claiming “exceptional circumstances” for their convoluted decisions.

“They pick and choose between rights,” he pointed out, without identifying any member state by name.

“One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status.

“Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views,” he noted.  “A third State will comprehensively violate the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”

Asked for her response, Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS, “Prince Zeid has hit the nail on the head.”

If every government that professed a commitment to human rights followed through consistently, she added, “we’d have a much different – and better – world.”

In an ironic twist apparently proving Zeid’s contention, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at the “appalling human rights record” of several nations, blasting Syria and North Korea while singling out human rights violations in Crimea and by separatists in Ukraine.

But he did not condemn the devastation caused by Israel’s 50-day aerial bombardments of Palestinians in Gaza last year nor the rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas.

The death toll in the Gaza bombings was 1,976 Palestinians, including 1,417 civilians and 459 children, according to figures released by the United Nations, compared with the killing of 66 Israelis, including two soldiers.

The Palestinians have accused Israel of war crimes and are pushing for action by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague: a move strongly opposed by the United States.

Kerry told the HRC the United States believes that it can continue to make progress and help the U.N. body fulfill its mandate to make the world a better and safer place.

“But for that to happen, we have to get serious about addressing roadblocks to our own progress. And the most obvious roadblock, I have to say to you, is self-inflicted,” he said.

“I’m talking, of course, about HRC’s deeply concerning record on Israel,” Kerry added.

“No one in this room can deny that there is an unbalanced focus on one democratic country,” he said, as he openly advocated the cause of Israel, one of the closest political and military allies of the United States.

And no other nation, he said, has an entire agenda item set aside to deal with it. Year after year, there are five or six separate resolutions on Israel, he told delegates.

This year, he said, there was a resolution sponsored by Syrian President Bashar al Assad concerning the Golan (which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war).

“How, I ask, is that a sensible priority at the very moment when refugees from Syria are flooding into the Golan to escape Assad’s murderous rule and receive treatment from Israeli physicians in Israeli hospitals?”

Kerry referred to the Council’s “obsession” with Israel, which, he argued, “actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organisation.”

Zeid told the HRC the only real measure of a Government’s worth is not its place in the “solemn ballet of grand diplomacy” but the “extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.”

Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law, Zeid said, adding that such logic is abundant around the world today.

“I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before. I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me,” he noted.

“And so it goes, on and on, as we spiral into aggregating crises,” Zeid declared.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Reporting on Violence in Mexico Brings Its Own Perils Fri, 27 Feb 2015 22:46:19 +0000 Lyndal Rowlands Mexican journalists silently march in Mexico City in 2010, protesting violence and intimidation against the press. Credit: Knight Foundation / CC BY-SA 2.0

Mexican journalists silently march in Mexico City in 2010, protesting violence and intimidation against the press. Credit: Knight Foundation / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Lyndal Rowlands

Organised criminals in Mexico are forcing the media to stop reporting on crime, by turning their violence against journalists.

With the Mexican state offering journalists little protection, the resultant drop in freedom of information has contributed to a heightened sense of insecurity in the country."People are saying 'we are not going to cover certain areas', fearing revenge and not trusting that the state is going to be able to protect them.” -- Claire San Filippo

Claire San Filippo, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Americas desk, told IPS that journalists in Mexico are self-censoring due to threats and violence, but also because violence against journalists is rarely punished by the state.

“It is of tremendous concern for information freedom because people are saying ‘we are not going to cover certain areas’, fearing revenge and not trusting that the state is going to be able to protect them.”

San Filippo says that the state bears the primary duty under international law to protect journalists.

“The state obviously has a responsibility to protect the journalist, and to make sure that they can guarantee their security,” she said.

“There is a mechanism to actually protect human rights defenders and journalists and unfortunately, the mechanism hasn’t been working in a very efficient manner and hasn’t really helped the situation overall.”

The first two months of 2015 have already seen marked violence and intimidation towards journalists, including kidnappings and threats.

Reporting for Journalism in the Americas Mariana Muñoz wrote last week, “An increase in organized crime-related violence has terrorized the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas over the past week. Conflicts between rival cartel factions in the neighboring border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros have left dozens dead, escalating the present danger for journalists practicing in the region.​”

The newspaper El Mañana reported on a gunfight that killed nine people. Although they did not name any cartel individuals involved, their editor, Juárez Torres, was kidnapped and warned “We are going to kill you.”

Torres later “fled the country, half of the staff did not return to work the following day, and at least four journalists at the publication immediately announced their resignation,” Muñoz reported.

El Mañana has since avoided reporting on violent crime in Tamaulipas.

Speaking about Torres’ kidnapping and other similar incidents, San Filippo said, “When you look at the beginning of this year, it’s obviously dramatic and extremely preoccupying because we have journalists who say ‘we are not going to cover the issues of insecurity, violence and it’s consequences on people’ or we’re actually going to leave the country to go to the United States because we feel so unsecure.”

She says that Reporters Without Borders calls on the Mexican government to take the threats against journalists seriously and “not try to either diminish them or try to discredit the journalists by saying that they are actually not journalists and saying they are not related.”

She said the state should also provide timely and effective protection to journalists and their families when the journalists request it and importantly, must hold perpetrators of violence against journalists accountable.

San Filippo said this was important so that “journalists can feel secure and feel that they can carry out their job without risking their lives or lives and physical integrity of their loved ones.”

“This is the only way that you can make sure that you can ensure that there is no self-censorship and journalists don’t feel that they have to go to another country to feel safe.”

Home of organised crime

According to In Sight Crime, a foundation that studies organised crime in the Americas, “Mexico is home to the (Western) hemisphere’s largest, most sophisticated and violent organized criminal gangs.”

“They traffic in illegal drugs, contraband, arms and humans, and launder their proceeds through regional moneychangers, banks and local economic projects. They have penetrated the police and border patrols on nearly every level, in some cases starting with recruits for these units. They play political and social roles in some areas, operating as the de facto security forces.”

Steve Killelea, executive chair of the Institute for Economics and Peace, wrote last year that since “the start of the calamitous drug war in 2007” Mexico has dropped 45 places on the International Peace Index – down to 133 of 162 countries on the most recent (2013) index.

Killelea says that although Mexico does well in terms of development indicators such as life expectancy and youth empowerment, its poor overall rating in peace is partly due to the consequences of violence against journalists and poor freedom of information.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Human Rights in Asia and the Pacific: A “Regressive” Trend, Says Amnesty International Wed, 25 Feb 2015 23:03:11 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida

The cradle of some of the world’s most ancient civilizations, home to four out of the planet’s six billion people, and a battleground for the earth’s remaining resources, Asia and the Pacific are poised to play a defining role in international affairs in the coming decade.

But what does the future look like for those working behind the scenes in these rising economies, fighting to safeguard basic rights and ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and power in a region where 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day?

In its flagship annual report, the State of the World’s Human Rights, released Wednesday, Amnesty International (AI) slams the overall trend in the region as being “regressive”, pinpointing among other issues a poor track record on media freedom, rising violence against ethnic and religious minorities, and state repression of activists and civil society organisations.

The presence of armed groups and continuing conflict in countries like Pakistan, particularly in its northern tribal belt known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as well as in Myanmar and Thailand, constitute a major obstacle to millions of people trying to live normal lives.

Much of the region’s sprawling population is constantly on the move, with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) counting 3.5 million refugees, 1.9 million internally displaced people (IDPs), and 1.4 million stateless people, mostly hailing from Afghanistan and Myanmar.

UNHCR has documented a host of challenges facing these homeless, sometimes stateless, people in the Asia-Pacific region including sexual violence towards vulnerable women and girls and a lack of access to formal job markets pushing thousands into informal, bonded or other exploitative forms of labor.

Intolerance towards religious minorities remains a thorny issue in several countries in Asia; Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have allowed for the continued prosecution of Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis and Christians, while hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka have operated with impunity, leading to attacks – sometimes deadly – on Muslim communities.

Meanwhile, ethnic Tibetans in China have encountered an iron fist in their efforts to practice their rights to freedom of assembly, speech, and political association. Since 2009, about 130 people have set themselves aflame in protest of the Chinese government’s authoritarian rule in the plateau.

A dark forecast for women and girls

Despite all the conventions ratified and millions of demonstrators in the streets, violence against women and girls continues unchecked across Asia and the Pacific, says the AI report.

In the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea, home to seven million people, an estimated 75 percent of women and girls experience some form of gender-based or domestic violence, largely due to the age-old practice of persecuting women in the predominantly rural country for practicing ‘sorcery’.

In the first six months of 2014, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission had recorded 4,154 cases of violence against women, according to the AI report, while India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported an average of 24,923 rapes per year.

A 2013 U.N. Women study involving 10,000 men throughout Asia and the Pacific found that nearly half of all respondents admitted to using physical or sexual abuse against a partner.

According to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), two out of every five girls in South Asia could wind up as child brides, with the highest prevalence in Bangladesh (66 percent), tailed closely by India (47 percent), Nepal (41 percent) and Afghanistan (39 percent).

“In East Asia and the Pacific,” the organisation said, “the prevalence of child marriage is 18 percent, with 9.2 million women aged 20-24 married as children in 2010.”

Holding the State accountable

Amnesty’s report presents a cross-section of government responses to activism, including in China – where rights defender Cao Shunli passed away in a hospital early last year after being refused proper medical treatment – and in North Korea, where “there appeared to be no independent civil society organisations, newspapers or political parties [and] North Koreans were liable to be searched by the authorities and could be punished for reading, watching or listening to foreign media materials.”

Imposition of martial law in Thailand saw the detention of several activists and the banning of gatherings of more than five people, while the re-introduction of “colonial-era sedition legislation” in Malaysia allowed the government to crack down on dissidents, AI says.

Citizens of both Myanmar and Sri Lanka faced a virtually zero-tolerance policy when it came to organised protest, with rights defenders and activists of all stripes detained, threatened, attacked or jailed.

Throughout the region media outlets had a bad year in 2014, with over 200 journalists jailed and at least a dozen murdered according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Amnesty’s report also found torture and other forms of ill treatment to be a continuing reality in the region, naming and shaming such countries as China, North Korea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka for their poor track record.

An earlier Amnesty International report, ‘Torture in 2014: 30 years of broken promises’, found that 23 Asia-Pacific states were still practicing torture, three decades after the U.N. adopted its 1984 Convention Against Torture.

The report found evidence of torture and ill treatment ranging “from North Korea’s brutal labour camps, to Australia’s offshore processing centres for asylum seekers or Japan’s death rows – where prisoners are kept in isolation, sometimes for decades.”

In Pakistan the army, state intelligence agencies and the police all stand accused of resorting to torture, while prisoners detained by both the policy and military in Thailand allege they have experienced torture and other forms of ill treatment while in custody.

In that same vein, governments’ continued reliance on the death penalty across Asia and the Pacific demonstrates a grave violation of rights at the most basic level.

Amnesty International reported that 500 people were at risk of execution in Pakistan, while China, Japan and Vietnam also carried on with the use of capital punishment.

Perhaps the only positive trend was a rise in youth activism across the region, which is home to 640 million people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the United Nations. The future of the region now lies with these young people, who will have to carve out the spaces in which to build a more tolerant, less violent society.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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OPINION: Can the Violence in Honduras Be Stopped? Sun, 22 Feb 2015 17:57:50 +0000 LisaHaugaard, Sarah Kinosian, and William Hartung For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Credit: daviditzi/Flickr

For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Credit: daviditzi/Flickr

By Lisa Haugaard, Sarah Kinosian, and William Hartung
WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb 22 2015 (IPS)

Honduras is one of the most violent nations in the world. The situation in the country’s second largest city, San Pedro Sula, demonstrates the depth of the problem.

For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Its murder rate in 2014 was an astonishing 171 per 100,000. The city, which is caught in the crossfire between vicious criminal gangs, has been the largest source of the 18,000 Honduran children who have fled to the United States in recent years.

The vast majority of killings in Honduras are carried out with impunity. For example, 97 percent of the murders in San Pedro Sula go unsolved.

Corruption within and abuses by the civilian police undermine its effectiveness. A controversial new internal security force, the Military Police of Public Order (Policia Militar del Orden Publico, or PMOP), does not carry out investigations needed to deter crime and is facing a series of allegations of abuses in the short time it has been deployed. There are currently 3,000 PMOP soldiers deployed throughout the country, but this number is expected to grow to 5,000 this year. The national police feel that the government is starving them for funds and trying to replace them with PMOP."The vast majority of killings in Honduras are carried out with impunity."

The rise of PMOP is part of a larger trend toward the militarization of government and civil society. The military is now in charge of most aspects of public security in Honduras. But the signs of militarization are everywhere. Each Saturday, for example, 25,000 kids receive military training as part of the “Guardians of the Homeland” program, which the government says is designed to keep youths age 5-23 from joining the street gangs that control entire sections of the country’s most violent cities.

But putting more guns on the street is unlikely to sustainably stem the tide of violence in Honduras. What would make a difference is an end to the climate of impunity that allows murderers to kill people with no fear of consequences.

“This country needs to strengthen its capacity and will to carry out criminal investigations. This is the key to everything,” said an expert on violence in Honduras who spent years working in justice agencies there, and who spoke on condition of anonymity for reasons of personal safety.

The Three-Fold Challenge

The Honduran government faces three key challenges: It must reform a corrupt and abusive police force, strengthen criminal investigations, and ensure an impartial and independent judiciary.

Police reform appears to be stalled. There was some hope after the surge of civilian pressure for reform that followed the 2011 killing of the son of the rector for the Autonomous National University of Honduras and a friend. The Commission for the Reform of Public Security produced a series of proposals to improve the safety of the Honduran citizenry, including recommendations for improving police training, disciplinary procedures, and the structure of pubic security institutions.

Unfortunately, the Honduran Congress dissolved the commission in January 2014, during the lame duck period before President Juan Orlando Hernandez took office. Few of its recommendations have been carried out.

“They could have purged and trained the police during this time. But instead they put 5,000 military police on the street who don’t know what a chain of custody is,” lamented the expert on violence.

The Honduran government claims that over 2,000 police officers have been purged since May 2012, but there is little public information that would allow for an independent assessment of the reasons for the dismissals. And even when police are removed, they are not prosecuted; some are even allowed to return to the force. This is no way to instill accountability.

Meanwhile, the independence of the Honduran justice system is under attack. Since November 2013, the Judiciary Council has dismissed 29 judges and suspended 28 without an appropriate process, according to a member of the Association of Judges for Democracy. “This means that judges feel intimidated. They feel if they rule against well-connected people, against politicians, they can be dismissed.”

In an attempt to improve investigations and prosecutions, special units have been created to investigate specific types of crimes. For example, the Special Victims Task Force was created in 2011 to tackle crimes against vulnerable groups such as journalists, human rights advocates, and the LGBT community. This approach has been funded by the United States. It has promise, but the results are unclear so far. So is the question of whether the success of these specialized efforts can lead to broader improvements in the judicial system.

Protecting the Protectors

Providing security for justice operators is a particularly daunting problem. From 2010 to December 2014, 86 legal professionals were killed, according to information received by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Although the state provides some protection, the funding allocated for this purpose is inadequate. “In a country with the highest levels of violence and impunity in the region,” noted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “the State necessarily has a special obligation to protect, so that its justice sector operators can carry out their work to fight impunity without becoming victims in the very cases they are investigating.”

To try and target the problems driving the endemic violence in Honduras, the government, joined by the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador, has released its Alliance for Prosperity plan, which is designed to increase investment in infrastructure and encourage foreign investment. The Obama administration has announced that it will ask Congress for $1 billion to help fund the initiative, but details about the security strategy are scarce.

It remains to be seen exactly how this money will be spent. Looking at San Pedro Sula, it is clear that a dramatic change in political will would be needed for any initiative of this kind to be successful. International donors should not support a militarized security strategy, which would intensify abuses and fail to provide sustainable citizen security.

Funding for well-designed, community-based violence prevention programs could be helpful, but only if there is a government willing to reform the police, push for justice, and invest in the education, jobs, violence prevention, health, child protection, and community development programs needed to protect its poorest citizens.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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Threats, Deaths, Impunity – No Hope for Free Press in Pakistan Fri, 20 Feb 2015 14:47:31 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai Journalists in Pakistan protest against the killing of their colleagues. Credit: Rahat Dar/IPS

Journalists in Pakistan protest against the killing of their colleagues. Credit: Rahat Dar/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Feb 20 2015 (IPS)

It is no surprise that most Pakistani journalists work under tremendous stress; caught between crime lords in its biggest cities, militant groups across its tribal belt and rival political parties throughout the country, censorship, intimidation and death seem almost to come with the territory.

But while many have become accustomed to working with a degree of fear and uncertainty, none could have been prepared for the number of tragedies that unfolded in 2014, the worst year ever for the media in Pakistan.

All told, last year saw the deaths of 14 journalists, media assistants and bloggers, while dozens more were injured, kidnapped or intimidated.

Reports by rights groups here point to a culture of impunity that is rendering impossible the notion of a free press, which activists and experts say is crucial to development and peace in a country mired in poverty and conflict.

Deaths, attacks, violence

“Pakistan’s media community is effectively under siege. Journalists, in particular those covering national security issues or human rights, are targeted from all sides in a disturbing pattern of abuses carried out to silence their reporting." -- David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director
A report released last month by the Pakistan-based Freedom Network (FN) documents numerous assassinations and attacks including the Jan. 1 shooting of Shan Dahar, a reporter with Abb Takk Television in Larkana, a city in the southern Sindh Province.

The local media initially reported that stray bullets fired during New Year’s Day celebrations hit Dahar, but subsequent investigations suggest that the killing was planned.

At the time of his death, the reporter had been working on a story about Pakistan’s sprawling black market for unregulated drugs; some believe that those with vested interests in the industry had a hand in his death.

Other documented deaths include the Jan. 17 killing of Waqas Aziz Khan, Ashraf Arain and Muhammad Khalid in a suburb of Karachi when gunmen opened fire on a media van used for live transmissions by Express TV.

While none of those killed were journalists – one was a security guard, one a driver and the other a technician for Express TV – activists here say their deaths represent the deadly climate for anyone involved, however remotely, with the press.

The FN report tracks patterns and challenges ahead for the industry in Pakistan, including trends such as the invocation of laws on blasphemy and treason to intimidate media houses, and the use of crippling fines and blanket bans on coverage that have forced many outlets to practice self-censorship in an effort to stay afloat.

In what the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) called a “chilling” example of these laws, last November one of the country’s Anti-Terrorism Courts sentenced four citizens to 26 years each in prison, plus a 12,800-dollar fine apiece, for airing a “contentious” television programme, supposedly in violation of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Climate of impunity

Other incidents that have media workers here on edge include the April 2014 assault on Hamid Mir, a senior reporter for Geo TV, who was fired at by gunmen on motorcycles while on his way from the airport to his office in Karachi.

Though he survived the attack, and his since undergone a successful operation, his assailants are still at large, and the threat to his life is still very much alive.

Mazhar Abbas, a former president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, tells IPS that the government’s inability to ensure freedom of expression has put reporters in an extremely difficult situation.

“The problem is that nobody knows who is killing the journalists,” he says. A complete dearth of official information on the perpetrators, combined with a lack of proper investigations, means that far too many journalists continue to operate within a climate of uncertainty and impunity, experts say.

In the northern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), journalists suffer constant threats and attacks from the Taliban and other militant groups that have operated on the border of Afghanistan since fleeing the U.S. invasion of their country in 2001.

Since the War on Terror began, 12 journalists in FATA have lost their lives, while scores of others have fled to Peshawar, capital of the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

For others, being out of reach of terrorist groups does not necessarily guarantee security. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of journalists in Pakistan experience threats, harassment and violence, sometimes even at the hands of the intelligence services.

The rights group’s recent report, ‘A Bullet has Been Chosen for You’, presents 34 cases in which journalists have been killed in retaliation for their work since 2008; only one of the perpetrators has been booked for the crime. The report blasts the authorities for failing to stem the bloody wave of violence against media workers, which activists say constitutes a grave violation of human rights.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that 56 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992. This figure, however, includes only those cases in which there was a clear motive for the death; activists here believe the true number of murders could be much higher.

Even those who aren’t killed exist in a kind of grey space, where they constantly fear reprisals for investigations or exposures that implicate any number of political actors.

“Pakistan’s media community is effectively under siege,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director, when the report was released last year. “Journalists, in particular those covering national security issues or human rights, are targeted from all sides in a disturbing pattern of abuses carried out to silence their reporting.

“The constant threat puts journalists in an impossible position, where virtually any sensitive story leaves them at risk of violence from one side or another,” he added.

In a country that is ranked 126th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), just a few places ahead of nations like Myanmar, Afghanistan and North Korea, experts say that a free press is essential to educating the public and exposing fraud, theft and rights violations on a massive scale.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Sri Lanka Gets Temporary Reprieve Over U.N. Report on War Crimes Charges Tue, 17 Feb 2015 03:36:31 +0000 Thalif Deen The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Raad Al Hussein (right), opening the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council September 8, 2014. Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva/ Eric Bridiers;

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Raad Al Hussein (right), opening the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council September 8, 2014. Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva/ Eric Bridiers;

By Thalif Deen

The 47-member Human Rights Council (HRC), responding to a request by the newly-elected government in Colombo, has deferred the release of a key U.N. report on human rights violations and war crimes charges against the Sri Lankan armed forces and Tamil separatists who fought a devastating decades-long battle which ended in 2009.

The request to the Geneva-based HRC came via the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who sought the postponement of the long-awaited report, originally due in March, until September this year.

“This has been a difficult decision,” Zeid said Monday."A delay is only justifiable if more time will lead to a stronger report and to a concrete commitment by the new Sri Lankan authorities to actively pursue accountability."

“There are good arguments for sticking to the original timetable, and there are also strong arguments for deferring the report’s consideration a bit longer, given the changing context in Sri Lanka, and the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report.”

But he pointed out that the deferral of the report was “for one time only,” and guaranteed it would be published by September.

Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director told IPS the decision to delay, until September, the release of a key report into widespread human rights violations during the conflict in Sri Lanka must not allow the perpetrators of horrific crimes during the country’s armed conflict to escape punishment.

“Sri Lankan victims of human rights violations deserve truth and justice,” he said.

Survivors of torture, including sexual abuse, people whose family members were killed or forcibly disappeared have waited a long time for this report.

“A delay is only justifiable if more time will lead to a stronger report and to a concrete commitment by the new Sri Lankan authorities to actively pursue accountability. This includes by cooperating with the U.N. to investigate conflict-era abuses and bring perpetrators to justice,” he added.

Bennett warned the Human Rights Council to be vigilant and “ensure that all those coming forward to give testimony are protected from any potential threats from those who do not want justice to prevail.”

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which was unseated after national elections last month, refused to cooperate with the three member U.N.Panel of Inquiry comprising Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Silvia Cartwright, former Governor-General and High Court judge of New Zealand, and judge of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia and Asma Jahangir, former President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association and of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

But the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena sought the postponement of the report’s release and has offered to set up a “domestic mechanism” not only to probe war crimes charges but also stall any possibility of an international war crimes tribunal.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the High Commissioner told IPS Zeid had also spoken by telephone with Sri Lanka’s new Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who is expected to attend the next regular session of the Human Rights Council which begins March 2.

Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS he was pleased with Zeid’s statement.

“It’s very clear this approach will take away any chance the new government can say they haven’t had enough time to start a serious justice effort. By September we will all be able to judge the sufficiency of their efforts,” he added.

In a statement released Monday, Zeid said he has received clear commitments from the new Government of Sri Lanka indicating it is prepared to cooperate “on a whole range of important human rights issues – which the previous Government had absolutely refused to do – and I need to engage with them to ensure those commitments translate into reality.”

He also pointed out that the “three distinguished experts who were appointed by his predecessor Navi Pillay to advise the investigation, had informed him that, in their unanimous view, a one-off temporary deferral would be the best option to allow space for the new Government to show its willingness to cooperate on human rights issues.”

“Taking all this into account, I have therefore decided, on balance, to request more time to allow for a stronger and more comprehensive report,” Zeid said.

“I am acutely aware that many victims of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, including those who have bravely come forward to provide information to the inquiry team, might see this is as the first step towards shelving, or diluting, a report they have long feared they would never see.”

“I fully understand those fears and deep anxieties, given the history of failed or obstructed domestic human rights inquiries in Sri Lanka, and the importance of this international investigation being carried out by my team at the UN Human Rights Office.”

He said there should be no misunderstanding because “I give my personal, absolute and unshakable commitment the report will be published by September.”

Like his predecessors, he said, he believes that one of the most important duties of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is to act as a strong voice on behalf of victims.

“I want this report to have the maximum possible impact in ensuring a genuine and credible process of accountability and reconciliation in which the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations are finally respected,” he declared.

The U.N. inquiry was the result of a resolution adopted by the HRC back in March last year which requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka”

The HRC requested Zeid’s office “to establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations, and of the crimes perpetrated, with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability,” with assistance from relevant experts.

The resolution requested the Office to present a comprehensive report at its 28th session in March 2015.

The author can be contacted at

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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“Drastic Decline” Seen in World Press Freedom Fri, 13 Feb 2015 00:44:26 +0000 Leila Lemghalef Source: Reporters Without Borders

Source: Reporters Without Borders

By Leila Lemghalef

A leading advocacy group warns of a “worldwide deterioration in freedom of information” last year.

Out of the 180 countries being surveyed, two-thirds have slipped in standards compared to last year, according to the Reporters Without Borders’  World Press Freedom Index 2015. The best have become less near-perfect, and the worst have gotten even worse.“We live in a world where there is much more data available. But how we can trust that data, the source of that data, and how we might understand that data, is subject to all kinds of forces." -- Charlie Beckett

Finland and Eritrea remain at first and last place, respectively. Norway and Denmark are in 2nd and 3rd place, while Turkmenistan and North Korea are second runner-up and runner-up to Eritrea, respectively.

In an interview with IPS, the U.S. Director of Reporters Without Borders, Delphine Halgand, brought up several cases, including China “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”, and Azerbaijan, which has “managed to eliminate almost all traces of pluralism”.

Since 2002, Reporters Without Borders has been publishing the Index to measure the degree of press freedom. The Index is not a measure of the quality of media.

“It’s a way for anybody to be aware of how press freedom, journalists, are attacked, in many countries. Sometimes they don’t have any idea. Like, ‘we love to go to Turkey, we love to go to Vietnam, but we don’t have the idea that there’re so many news providers that are targeted in these beautiful countries.’ So it’s a way to highlight this very important issue,” said Halgand.

She said that this year, for the first time, a lot of the data has been made public in order to improve the transparency and methodology used in the Index, which uses qualitative and quantitative criteria.

The 2015 Index trends are grouped into seven causes:

Measuring up

Press freedom and how to measure it is a very complex question today, said Halgand.

“Press freedom in Sudan isn’t the same thing as press freedom in Italy. So that’s why we try to work around these seven criteria of pluralism, media independence, self-censorship, legislative frameworks, transparency, infrastructure, abuses.

“It’s a complex issue definitely and that’s why we need to use many criteria to try to be as precise as possible. But even if we try to put this complicated issue into criteria, of course the situation is always unique in each country,” she told IPS.

Charlie Beckett is professor at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the department of media and communications, and is also the director of Polis, which is the LSE’s journalism think tank.

“Whilst at some levels it’s very complicated,” he told IPS, “at some levels it’s very simple.

“If you look at journalists that have been put in jail, if you look at journalists who have been hurt physically, then it’s quite crude but that’s quite a good measure of basic journalistic freedom. And I know personally, I’ll start to worry about the more subtle things, such as disinformation, I’ll worry about them, but my life isn’t being threatened if I’m a journalist.

“So first give me my basic freedoms and you know, then we can talk about the more sophisticated problems.”

The more sophisticated problems include surges in data.

“I think it’s increasingly difficult to measure media freedom because increasingly media has become so complex,” Beckett told IPS.

“We live in a world where there is much more data available. But how we can trust that data, the source of that data, and how we might understand that data, is subject to all kinds of forces.

He explained that it is no longer straightforwardly about censorship, or laws, or even about the physical manifestation of violence against journalists.

There’s also the “chilling climate” wherein if one journalist gets killed, the other 99 are much more likely to do as they’re told, he said.

“Even where the press is publishing something, you don’t know under what circumstances. Are they being intimidated, are they being bribed, are they being pressurized?”

Another point is that “there’s no point in having free journalists if people aren’t free to share the information, for example, themselves”, as Beckett said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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