Friday, November 14, 2014
By Naser Miftari In advance of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer tomorrow, it’s important to take a moment and reflect on the dozens of journalists, editors and human rights activists imprisoned; whether held indefinitely pending charges or handed harsh penalties for exercising their right to free expression. The most recent prison census, by the Committee to Protect Journalists in December 2013, showed 211 journalists in jail around the world, some of whom have been detained for many years. This figure is disturbingly high, but it seems likely that the number of journalists imprisoned in 2014 will surpass it. Crackdowns throughout the past year by countries such as Iran, Ethiopia, Burma and Egypt have caused international uproar for their harsh treatment of journalists, particularly as the authoritarian regimes at fault continue to wax poetic about their commitment to human rights and respect for press freedom. This year, PEN International is spotlighting five writers in prison around the world and advocating for their freedom. Below, CJFE highlights five more cases of individuals imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression.
#FreeAJStaff (Egypt)Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy and his two fellow Al Jazeera English colleagues–Australian correspondent Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed—have been imprisoned in Egypt since December 29, 2013. Following a trial that flouted all acceptable standards of fair process, the trio was convicted in June 2014 on charges related to terrorism and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Fahmy and Greste were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Mohamed was handed a 10-year sentence. Their appeal has been set for January 1, 2015, by which time they will have spent more than a year behind bars. Most recently, Fahmy’s lawyers filed a petition for his release on health grounds. He is in desperate need of treatment for both his longstanding shoulder injury and hepatitis C. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government has indicated that it has no intention of reining in its policy of equating free speech with terrorism. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi recruited 17 editors of Egyptian media outlets to sign a joint statement pledging unconditional support for his government and banning criticism of state institutions. In response, more than 500 Egyptian journalists released their own joint statement of opposition stating “standing up to terrorism with a shackled media and sealed lips means offering the nation to extremism as an easy prey and turning public opinion into a blind creature unaware of the direction from which it is being hit or how to deal with it.”
Zone 9 bloggers (Ethiopia)In Ethiopia, seven bloggers and three journalists who contribute to the popular social activist blog Zone 9 have been charged with terrorism for writing about political and human rights repression in their country. The group, is made up of editor Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, freelance journalists Tesfalem Waldyes and Edom Kassaye, and bloggers Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret, Befekadu Hailu and Soliana Shimelis (being charged in absentia). They were all arrested on April 25-26 and held for more than 80 days without charge, well beyond the maximum period allowed under Ethiopian law. On July 17, the Zone 9 bloggers were officially charged under the country’s seriously flawed Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (652/2009) for having connections to outlawed terrorist organizations. In reality, it’s clear the group is being persecuted for its social and political commentary The persecution of the Zone 9 bloggers is clearly part of a broader strategy to curtail dissent in Ethiopia as the country is set to hold national elections in May 2015. On November 4, the trial was delayed for the 11th time; the defendants have now been in pre-trial detention for more than six months.
Bi Mon Te Nay staff (Burma)In Burma, three journalists and two publishers from the weekly independent news journal Bi Mon Te Nay were sentenced on October 16 to two years in prison on anti-state charges. Reporter Kyaw Zaw Hein, editors Win Tin and Aung Thant, and publishers Yin Min Tun and Kyaw Min Khaing were found to be in violation of Burma’s Penal Code's Article 505(b), an anti-state provision that broadly bars defamation of the state and statements that could “alarm the public…[or induce them to] commit an offence against the state”. The charges stemmed from a July 7 front page story in Bi Mon Te Nay that unknowingly published false statements from activist group Movement for Democracy Current Force which claimed that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of Burmese ethnic groups had formed an interim government to replace President Thein Sein's administration. While the story did disseminate false information, the punishment is vastly disproportionate to the offense. While the Bi Mon Te Nay journalists filed an appeal, arguing that the presiding judge had disregarded the provisions of Burma’s new Media Law, it was rejected by a district court on October 28.
Jason Rezaian (Iran)With at least 35 journalists behind bars in Iran, the country remains one of the most dangerous places for journalists to do their jobs. Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American correspondent for the Washington Post and his wife Yeganeh Salehi, also a journalist, were arrested on July 22, 2014. Two months later, on October 6, Salehi was released on bail. Rezaian continues to be detained without charge and Iranian authorities refused to offer an explanation for his imprisonment. Observers have speculated that Rezaian’s arrest was spearheaded by hardliners in the Iranian regime dissatisfied with President Hassan Rouhani’s more progressive policies, and that he is being used as a pawn in their struggle to gain influence. According to a US based lawyer, Mohammad Saleh Nikbakht, who is trying to win the right to represent Rezaian, the journalist’s case is being investigated as a security matter. As such, legal representation is not allowed before the case is transferred to court for trial. Nikbakht has noted that he has no knowledge of any specific charges leveled against Rezaian, nor does he know whether interrogations of Rezaian are ongoing. Since Rezaian’s arrest, Iranian officials have doggedly refused to announce any charges or justifications for his detention. Meanwhile, his family has raised concerns about his health due to high blood pressure, shocking weight loss and a lack of access to prescription drugs.
Mazen Darwish and SCM colleagues (Syria)Mazen Darwish, director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) was arrested with his colleagues Hani Al-Zitani and Hussein Ghareer during a raid on the group’s Damascus office on February 16, 2012 by Syrian Air Force Intelligence. The three men are facing trial before the Anti-Terrorism Court on charges of “publicizing terrorist acts” under the country’s 2012 Anti-Terrorism Law. These charges are in retribution for their legitimate work monitoring and publishing information about human rights abuses in Syria. The Syrian Anti-Terrorism Court was due to issue its verdict on November 5, 2014 but it was postponed for the fourth time since March. Former detainees report witnessing security forces torturing Darwish and his colleagues. Despite these credible reports, there has been no investigation into the abuses. Numerous UN agencies have spoken out against their detention and decried it as illegitimate and clearly linked to their human rights activities. However, despite international calls for their release, Darwish and his colleagues remain unjustly imprisoned.
The above cases represent a tiny fraction of the number of writers currently imprisoned for their work. CJFE joins PEN International in calling on governments around the world to free all unjustly imprisoned journalists, authors, human rights defenders, and free speech advocates.
Naser Miftari holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Master’s in Journalism from Temple University in Philadelphia.
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