journalists

 

  • Cambodia: Charges against journalists must be dropped

    Joint Statement: Civil society organizations call for all baseless charges against journalists to be dropped

    We, the undersigned media institutions and local and international civil society organizations call for charges against two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, Mr. Uon Chhin and Mr. Yeang Sothearin (known as Yeang Sochea Meta), to be dropped.  We also call on the government to take immediate action to cease the harassment, arbitrary detention, threat and intimidation of, as well as discrimination against, the independent media.

    The two former RFA journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence, under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code and with the alleged production of pornography under Article 39 of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. The pair were arrested on 14 November 2017 and held in pre-trial detention for nine months. They were released on bail and placed under judicial supervision on 21 August 2018.

    On 3 October 2019, the Court announced its decision to continue its investigation, despite the fact that there is a lack of credible evidence against the pair required to hold them criminally liable as per the burden of proof standards enshrined in Article 38 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Throughout the case of Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, the pair’s fair trial rights have not been upheld in line with national and international law.

    We hope that the Appeal Court’s hearing on 23 December 2019, on the charges of production of pornography, as well as the hearing on 20 January 2020 on the charges of supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence, will provide justice for the pair and the baseless charges will be dropped. It should be noted that according to the summons the facts of the case are going to be heard for the first time in the Appeal Court, constituting a significant and concerning procedural irregularity. The case against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin is one of many in which criminal charges have been used to silence independent and critical voices.

    We also call for all charges against Mr. Aun Pheap, and Mr. Peter Zsombor, former Cambodia Daily journalists, to be dropped. On 28 August 2017, after conducting interviews with villagers regarding the commune council elections in Pate Commune, O'Yadav District, Ratanakiri Province, both were charged with incitement to commit a felony under Articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code, and summoned to appear at a trial hearing on 25 December 2019. The interviews were conducted in their capacity as journalists for the Cambodia Daily, which has since been forced to close due to a tax requirement. The prosecutions serve to further threaten and intimidate other independent journalists.

    On 19 November 2019 the Mondulkiri Provincial Court of First Instance summonsed Mr. Sath Chanboth, a journalist for Rasmei Kampuchea and Apsara TV, to appear in court on 2 December 2019, where he was questioned under charges of public defamation and incitement to commit a felony. The summons follows a lawsuit filed by Lieutenant Colonel Sophat Serivuthy, a soldier commander in Mondulkiri. We call for the judicial harassment of Sath Chanboth to be ceased.

    In addition to the above cases, we express our concern over the prosecution of Mr. Rath Rott Mony, a translator for Russia Today, and former trade union leader, whose case further threatens the free media.  He was accused of incitement to discriminate, and later sentenced to two years imprisonment and ordered to pay 70 million riels ($17,200) in compensation to plaintiffs for his role in supporting foreign journalists to produce a documentary on sex trafficking in Cambodia. His sentence was upheld in November 2019 by the Court of Appeal at a hearing where none of the plaintiffs or concerned parties were present, undermining the legitimacy of proceedings.

    The harassment of journalists also takes other forms. A number of independent journalists have been denied the identification cards necessary to conduct their work. Additionally, some journalists report harassment from their employers for attempting to respect the principle of independence of the media.

    We notice that a number of positive steps have been taken by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) recently such as the grant of licence to the Voice of America’s bureau in Cambodia, allowing it to buy airtime from two local radio stations to broadcast its daily news programs, a meeting between Information Minister and RFA’s representative, as well as the decision to provide a licence to The Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA) on 09 September 2019, an independent journalists network. Despite these steps, journalists still face numerous barriers to conducting their work professionally and exercising their right to freedom of expression.

    May Titthara, Executive Director of CamboJA, states that “to restore a better space for media, complaints against journalists and intimidations against journalists must be immediately ceased. The prosecution of Yeang Sothearin, Uon Chhin, Aun Pheap and recent criminal complaints against journalists must be dropped. Radio licenses which have been revoked should be renewed.

    Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), adds: “Cases such as these form a pattern of arbitrary and retaliatory prosecutions of critical voices, including those of human rights defenders, journalists, union leaders, community representatives and the political opposition. We emphasise that journalism is not a crime and should not be treated as such. Respecting the right to freedom of expression and ensuring a space in which journalists can conduct their work freely and safely without fear of reprisal are important steps toward building a strong democracy and rule of law.”

    We, the undersigned media institutions and local and international civil society organizations urge the RGC to accept our above requests and take concrete actions to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is respected and to create an environment in which independent media and journalists can perform their important role freely.

    This joint statement is endorsed by:

    1. Cambodian Journalists Alliance (CamboJA)
    2. Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)
    3. Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM)
    4. Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF)
    5. Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
    6. Minority Rights Organization (MIRO)
    7. Ponlok Khmer (PKH)
    8. Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP)
    9. Affiliated Network for Social Accountability (ANSA) Cambodia
    10. Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)
    11. Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA)
    12. Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)
    13. Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL)
    14. Cambodian Tourism Workers Union Federation (CTWUF)
    15. Equitable Cambodia (EC)
    16. Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC)
    17. Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)
    18. Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC)
    19. International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
    20. Article 19
    21. FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    22. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    23. Building Community Voices (BCV)
    24. Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL)
    25. Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
    26. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    27. Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT)
    28. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
    29. Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
    30. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
    31. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    32. Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA)
    33. Amnesty International (AI)
    34. Cambodian Volunteers for Society (CVS)
    35. Cambodian Independent Civil-Servants Association (CICA)
    36. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
    37. Cambodian Youth Network (CYN)

    For more information, please contact:

    Mr. May Titthara, Executive Director of CamboJA
    Tel: +855 17 500 503 or email:
    Ms. Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of CCHR,
    Tel: +855 11 943 213 or email:

     

  • CIVICUS condemns conviction of Reuters journalists on trial in Myanmar

    Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, believes the conviction of two journalists employed by global news agency, Reuters, who have been on trial in Myanmar is a dark day for press freedom in Myanmar. The two journalists have been sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

    Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on December 12, 2017 under the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The reporters, who were facing up to 14 years imprisonment if convicted, were arrested after being handed documents by police officers during a dinner meeting, that turned out to be secret government documents relating to Myanmar’s western Rakhine state and security forces, according to the country’s Information Ministry.

    At the time of their arrest, the journalists, who both pleaded “not guilty” to charges, had been investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Inn Din village in Rakhine during a brutal military crackdown in that state against the Rohingya minority that began last August. During the trial, a police captain, admitted in court that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to “trap” the journalists by handing them the classified documents. He was subsequently sentenced to a one-year prison term.

    In recent months, there have been continued attacks on fundamental freedoms in Myanmar with dozens being arrested and charged for peaceful protests or for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

    “We believe the verdict in this trial is a travesty of justice and sends a chilling message to all journalists in the country,” said Clementine de Montjoye, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at CIVICUS:

    “Prosecutions on spurious grounds serve to intimidate local journalists and activists, and this trial is representative of the Myanmar government’s repeated attempts to cover up its actions,” said de Montjove.

    “Given the state-sponsored atrocities being committed in Myanmar today, the government’s crackdown on independent investigations and dissent is hardly surprising”.

    In an End of Mission report issued in July, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said “the democratic space in Myanmar continues to sharply deteriorate”. Her report also highlighted concerns about the use of repressive laws to suppress political dissidents, youth, human rights defenders and activists and the arrest of demonstrators around the country.

    The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society across the globe, has rated civic space in Myanmar as repressed. CIVICUS stands in solidarity with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and all Myanmars who work to promote democracy and the protection of fundamental freedoms.

    ENDS.

    For more information, contact:

    Clementine de Montjoye

     

     

     

  • Civil Society Support Mechanisms: A Directory

    The Civil Society Support Mechanisms: A Directory is a resource for civil society under threat. It lists mechanisms available to assist individuals and organisations based on their specific threat or based on their location. The database is divided into national, regional and global mechanisms and contains information on how to engage each mechanism as well as contact details for each.

    The directory was produced to provide information to the vast network of organisations and mechanisms that support human rights groups in general, and many that support civil society in particular. In order to strengthen and promote their work, civil society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists, activists and others rely on alliances between each other, the sharing of best practices and lessons learned, and constructive engagement with governments and intergovernmental institutions. These networks foster greater connections between ground-level issues and global-level processes, and amplify the voices of civil society in global decision making. This solidarity is especially critical for civil society when it is under threat or attack.

    Download the Directory

     

  • Dire situation for journalists and civil society in Turkey

    CIVICUS speaks to Huseyin Hurmali, President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation about the difficult environment for journalists in Turkey. Worldwide, Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalists. He also speaks about the future of democracy in Turkey after the President’s move to consolidate power following a tightly-contested referendum.

    1. How would you describe the situation in Turkey for journalists and writers?
    Depressing: More than half the journalists who are in prison around the world are in Turkey. Turkey currently has the highest number of journalists in jail worldwide. Concrete information, confirmed by the international press and human rights organisations, indicates that Turkey is not a free country in terms of freedom of the press.

    According to a report released by the Journalists Association of Turkey, 839 journalists appeared in court simply for reporting news in 2016. These numbers are a clear indication that the problematic situation of freedom of the press in Turkey is far worse than many people think. It should be noted that this number may rise at any moment due to ongoing police raids and detentions. After the 15 July 2016 coup, 85% of the journalists and media workers were taken into custody and arrested. The journalists are charged with various charges among them “espionage”, “membership of a terrorist organisation”, “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “attempting to overthrow the current government”. As is mentioned in the report of the Stockholm Center for Freedom, the practices of silencing journalists through the abuse of the criminal justice system and expanding the scope of the definition of terrorism to use it against defendants are among the human rights violations frequently cited in human rights reports as well as in documents from the European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

    In addition to the jailed journalists and writers, there is a significant number of those for whom detention warrants were issued or were forced to flee the country due to the fear of unfair trial. These journalists and writers have to live in exile enduring financial hardships, intimidation of their families back in Turkey, denial of consular services at Turkish embassies and consulates, uncertain legal status in their respective countries, and having to hide their identities in their countries of asylum due to continuous death threats on social media from supporters of President Recep Erdogan.

    There are a few remaining independent and critical media organisations in Turkey, and their staff are working under constant threat of arrest, violence, hate speech, discrimination, profiling, censorship and even death. The court is now the most frequent place of visitation for critical journalists who face criminal cases against them, if they have not been jailed yet. The seizure and closure of 189 media organisations by the government indicates that not only the freedom of media is lost, but also a huge number of employees in this sector including the editorial, administrative and technical staff who have to face unemployment. More than 30% of journalists alone in the media sector have lost their jobs and were denied the right of carrying out their profession in any other institution, due to being blacklisted by the government. Furthermore, some of the journalists and writers who are in jail or in exile have lost all their assets by seizure orders from non-independent courts. Thereby, the victimisation of journalists and writers in Turkey reaches out to their close and extended families, inside and outside of the country.

    2. Please elaborate on some of the persecution tactics being used by the Turkish state against those who don’t agree with what’s going in the country at present.
    President Erdogan and the Turkish government are waging a war against dissent under the disguise of a war on terror, using the coup attempt on July 15, 2016 as a tool. The Turkish state’s persecution of dissenters was already taking place at a gradual speed since the mass protests in June 2013. The violent crushing down of the peaceful protests became a routine after that, until a point where people are afraid to exercise their right of peaceful gathering and mass protests. The government’s use of the police force to suppress dissent became more explicit when a corruption probe was revealed in December 2013, which included the close circle of Erdogan as prime suspects. Erdogan turned this case into a test of loyalty to himself within the security and the judiciary branch, jailing, discharging, or displacing the police officers and the judiciary members who were involved in the corruption probe against his government members (and himself). He became increasingly interventionist on the judiciary system by declaring his opponents as terrorists and criminals without any evidence.

    The redesigning of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors in 2014 gave way to the total instrumentalisation of legal system for the intimidation and persecution of dissenters. They reinterpreted the trusteeship concept in property law which was meant to prevent a private enterprise from bankruptcy, and appointed trustees as a way of seizing the private media, business, and educational institutions that were owned by the targeted individuals or groups. The ending of the peace process with the Kurdish movement in June 2015 was followed by a collective punishment of the Kurds by a military attack that tore down the Kurdish-majority cities in the southeast of Turkey. Legal actions were taken against peaceful supporters of the Kurdish case in order to silence opposition, as seen in the case of more than 1,000 academics who signed a petition for peace, and had to suffer administrative and legal investigation for criticising the state. People who belonged to the Gulen-inspired Hizmet movement, which became Erdogan’s number one target after the corruption probe in 2013, began to be detained and arrested for being a member of an “armed terror organisation” which was a term that was coined for the movement, in addition to “the parallel state structure” without any trial or a court decision. Critics from all sections were subjected to arbitrary legal harassment, by facing charges such as “insulting the President” “defaming state institutions” or “aiding a terror organisation” when they stood against the wrongful acts of the state; therefore people were forced to exert self-censorship in their social media posts and public conversations. Legal actions were taken against absurdly small incidents, such as liking an anti-Erdogan cartoon on Facebook, as a way of demonstrating the power of authority and the extent of its reach.

    The State of Emergency declared in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016 gave total impunity to the state’s ongoing persecution tactics as well as enabling it to launch a total crackdown against civil society and civil servants. The coup attempt gave the government the pretext to declare the Hizmet movement as an “armed terror organization” by blaming Gulen and his followers for the putsch, and to round up anyone who is even remotely connected to the network as a “coup supporter” and “member of an armed terror organisation.” It is a serious offense in Turkish criminal law, and entails harsh imprisonment conditions. The state of emergency decrees are immune to parliamentary or judicial control, allowing the dismissal of over 138,000 civil servants without any right to appeal, the closure of 149 media outlets, 2 099 schools, dormitories and universities. Under the state of emergency over 50 000 have been arrested (including 13 MPs from pro-Kurdish HDP) and 102 000 detained. Again, the Kurdish opposition and the Hizmet movement became the main target of the executive decrees, while the state is careful to include all sorts of dissidents to create fear among loyalists and opponents alike. The state also uses its embassies and consulates around the world to harass opponents by denying them of regular services, canceling their passports, and threatening to revoke their citizenship status if they are charged with a crime in Turkey and reject to return to the country after three months of notice.

    Turkey’s persecution of dissidents through illegal means has also reached beyond its national borders. Tactics employed include threats, denial of consular services, profiling and abductions. The recent abductions of Turkish nationals from Malaysia in total violation of international law is a case in point. Since October 2016, five Turkish nationals have been illegally detained by Malaysian operatives and handed over to Turkish authorities. These individuals are currently jailed in Turkey, raising serious fear of torture and inhuman treatment. The systematic nature of their abduction leaves little doubt about cooperation between the Turkish and Malaysian governments. There is growing concern that such a pattern could be repeated in other parts of the world where corrupt regimes or clandestine structures would be willing to cooperate with Turkey in order to kidnap Hizmet Movement sympathisers.

    3. Please elaborate on how your organisation was deprived of its status at the UN following pressure from the Turkish government.
    As an international civil society organization dedicated to a culture of peace, human rights and sustainable development, the Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF) promotes diversity and inclusion by creating forums for intellectual and social engagement, generates and shares knowledge with stakeholders, builds partnerships worldwide and develops policy recommendations for positive social change.

    JWF received ECOSOC general consultative status in 2012, becoming the first and only NGO from Turkey to hold this status. Having this important status made the United Nations’ Global Agenda 2030 a priority area for JWF, particularly in terms of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Following the numerous violations of the freedom of speech in Turkey and as a result of the groundless claim of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the UN – namely, that JWF no longer exists, despite the fact that JWF is an NGO registered in New York State – JWF‘s general consultative status with ECOSOC was revoked on 19 April 2017 during the UN ECOSOC meeting. The Turkish government´s dictation for the withdrawal of JWF’s consultative status with ECOSOC was based on the fact that JWF’s operations were ended in Turkey by a post-coup emergency decree on 22 July 2016, which was issued due to its alleged associations with a fictitious terror organisation. We must point out that JWF is a 501(c) non-governmental organisation registered in New York State and has had its headquarters in New York since 2014.

    The Turkish government exploited procedural flaws in the rules and misused its membership status at the relevant UN bodies to extend its massive crackdown on civil society in Turkey to the United Nations platform. The ensuing decision to revoke JWF’s consultative status clearly contradicts the UN’s promotion of active civil society participation in the 2030 Agenda. Apart from Turkey’s increasing tendency towards dictatorship, there is also a growing concern about the intimidation of and reprisals against individuals and organisations that cooperate with the UN system. The withdrawal of JWF’s status clearly violates Article 56 of Resolution 1996/31, which indicates that the NGO concerned “shall be given written reasons for that decision and shall have an opportunity to present its response for appropriate consideration by the Committee”. JWF was neither informed in writing about this arbitrary action, nor was it given a platform to defend its twenty-three years of dedication to peace and the protection of human rights. JWF’s dedication to peace, human rights and sustainable development has been proven by the many activities and projects that have been implemented ever since JWF received general consultative status with ECOSOC in July 2012. JWF’s quadrennial report submitted to the Committee on NGOs in June 2016 is more than enough to indicate that this decision is not fair, given JWF’s activities and performance. The decision is clearly politically driven and secured by the privileged position of member states against NGOs in the ECOSOC system.

    4. Given the total clampdown on freedom of expression in the country how is democratic dissent being expressed? Are any creative methods being used?
    The “No” campaign during the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum can be seen as a very creative expression of democratic dissent. Especially, young people’s creative political activism against the referendum shows that free expression will be hard to stamp out in the country.

    Without a doubt, speaking out against Erdogan comes with risks: “No” campaigners have faced alleged government-backed coercion and suppression. In March 2017, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) unveiled a 78-point report regarding irregularities and suppression of 'No' campaigners.

    But still, protesters have plastered photos of jailed artists and politicians who oppose the measure at select transport hubs. Videos of police questioning women who spoke out against the referendum on a ferry have gone viral in social media. Officials have banned a Kurdish song encouraging a “no” vote. (The subtitle to this song reads, "Playing this song in Turkey will land you in jail.") Young women in colorful masks shouting “No!” and university students beating drums and singing songs about freedom were among the thousands who marched on Istiklal Street, a popular thoroughfare in Istanbul, to campaign against boosting President Erdogan’s powers in a constitutional referendum. Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent is nothing new, but the creativity of the young people especially is still giving hope.

    5. What can international civil society do to support freedom of expression in Turkey?
    As the civil society and free and independent media in Turkey have been greatly impaired by the ongoing purge, international delegations of civil society and media organisations visiting Turkey must show solidarity with all victims of state oppression and be their voice indiscriminately. The wide range of civil servants, professionals, in addition many journalists and intellectuals who had to flee Turkey after the coup must be supported in their struggle to find safety and legal protection. The exiled journalists who launched initiatives to report on human rights abuses in Turkey need the help of international civil society in carrying out this high-risk, and mostly high-cost task. The remaining voices of dissent, which have most recently surfaced itself with the 49% (and possibly more) of the referendum voters in Turkey can only be kept alive as long as they feel the support of the international civil society through social media campaigns, as the social media is the major platform where alternative voices can be heard. Where Turkish citizens are silenced with fear, the international community must speak for them.

    6. How do you see the future of democracy in Turkey.
    The constitutional referendum last month unfortunately nailed the coffin of democracy and separation of powers in Turkey, allowing President Erdogan to combine the executive, legislative and judiciary powers. While this has already been the de facto system in Turkey for the last couple of years as Erdogan captured more and more elements of the state, the proposed Constitution will make it permanent as the de jure system. Yet there is still hope, as we have seen that even in an unfair and possibly rigged election, half of the voters stood against this proposal, and denied Erdogan a decisive victory. First and foremost of all, the State of Emergency rule must end as soon as possible, and the Turkish government has to stop the repression of its people and establish the fundamental rights of individuals.

    • Turkey is rated as “repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • HUMAN RIGHTS: ‘People have a great desire for positive stories’

    Saleem VaillancourtCIVICUS speaks with Saleem Vaillancourt, a journalist and media producer who works to promote the rights of Iran’s Bahá’í community and to encourage positive action to realise human rights. Saleem works with the street art for social justice project,Paint the Change.

    Can you tell us how your work began?

    I work closely with the Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker, Maziar Bahari. Maziar’s story is well known. He was jailed in Iran and held in solitary confinement in 2009 after covering the Iran election crisis. He was released after an international campaign and the book he wrote about his ordeal, ‘Then They Came for Me’, was made into a film, ‘Rosewater’, by Jon Stewart. Maziar was no longer simply a journalist; he was also a human rights advocate. Once released, he could talk about all the things going on in Iran that he couldn’t when he was working in Iran.

    Chief among these is the situation of the Bahá’í community, which is the largest religious minority in Iran. They are persecuted by the Iranian government because their beliefs come up against the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam practised by the government. Bahá’ís are routinely arbitrarily detained, held either without charge or under false charges and jailed. They are denied the right to go to university. There is a lot of misinformation and propaganda against them from the state media.

    I’m a Bahá’í and I worked with the Bahá’í community, and also as a journalist and in public communications, and that’s how my path crossed with Maziar. In 2014 he made a documentary, ‘To Light a Candle’, about the story of the Bahá’ís and particularly about the denial of their right to education, and their response, which was to create an informal educational project – an underground university – in which they created opportunities to educate themselves. This is a programme that for 30 years has given thousands of people an education, many of whom have gone on to pursue graduate studies in western universities. It’s a huge success and a major example of constructive resilience, or what Maziar calls peaceful resistance: meeting injustice not with conflict but by building a positive alternative to overcome the situation.

    I joined him for what was meant to be a short time to help promote his film and things grew from there. We created a campaign, ‘Education is not a Crime’, which is a street art and human rights campaign in which we use murals to talk about the story of the Bahá’í in Iran and more broadly to try to address education inequity and uneven access to education in other contexts as well.

    What are the key methods by which you work?

    We create murals, and then the murals have a social media dimension, because we share them online as videos and create local conversations, explaining why we are doing these, and especially relating what we are doing to local stories. For example we painted 20 murals in Harlem in New York, and people in this neighbourhood really saw a parallel in our work between Bahá’ís in Iran and the African-American experience of discrimination and the attempt to overcome discrimination, including in the area of education. We made a documentary about that in 2017, ‘Changing the World One Wall at a Time,’ which has been screened around the world.

    This led to an initiative in Detroit, where we’ve partnered with the City of Detroit and local schools. The city government was already working to encourage school attendance, which is something we care about in terms of access to education. They created a bus route called the ‘GOAL Line’ – GOAL stands for ‘get on and learn’ – but we observed that the bus route had no shelters, so we offered to build some shelters and put artwork on them. The artwork was created in art workshops through a partnership with local students and local artists. The works represent the community in a direct way and create a visual cue in the community around the issue of education. In this activity, we moved from the area of pure awareness-raising to a kind of indirect social action.

    We’re also starting to do a locally orientated street art project in London, producing work with local communities that celebrates local heroes, people who contribute to their community, whether they are known by their community or not. We put them on the side of buildings so they become positive stories that can encourage local young people.

    Another thing we have been doing is producing an oral history video series in the USA, about the Bahá’í community, not only about Iran but also about the work of the community to promote race unity over the past several generations. Again, this is about telling a positive story and something that perhaps helps others in US society to look again at the issue of race – something that is obviously very charged and challenging – and find other ways of addressing it.

    So that’s what I do. It’s a chance for both Maziar and I to talk about issues we think are important, but that are not limited to a focus on the Bahá’í community. Our work is at the intersection of human rights, social action and media. Sometimes it is about raising awareness or fighting instances of violations of human rights, as with the rights of the Bahá’í in Iran, but more and more now it is about finding positive stories and celebrating them through street art or a film or through other media. We want to do this in a way that can help a community see a positive version of themselves and put that at the centre of their own narrative.

    What would you say you do that is different from the conventional work of a human rights organisation?

    Because we are principally a media-driven group, we try to apply our media work to human rights issues and social issues, and we are looking to go beyond human rights awareness-raising to try to contribute to social processes in local communities. The Detroit project is an example of that. So that’s a kind of social action that’s distinct from awareness-raising as a conventional discipline.

    We are trying to do human rights work and social action work together. We see them as different sides of basically the same work. We want to reach audiences that perhaps haven’t been engaged in human rights discussions or social action before, through media and through education workshops. So our focus is not so much on informing policy-makers, but on trying to reach local communities through accessible media and artforms.

    What are the challenges faced when defending the rights of Bahá’í people in Iran?

    I am also involved in IranWire, an independent news website. I know through this that Iranian journalists are targeted. Our site was recently down for a few hours over the course of several days because of a sustained denial of service attack originating from Iran.

    Maziar is continually attacked on Twitter and by Iranian state media, as are other people we work with. Many people who have worked in the public space on the issue of the Bahá’ís are vilified by the Iranian media. When Maziar and others talk to United Nations institutions, they get criticised and there is a lot of disinformation spread about them. It’s clear that the Iranian authorities seek to discredit people through disinformation to try to limit their legitimacy in the international space when they talk about human rights issues happening inside Iran. The Iranian government attempts to control the narrative.

    Turning to your work outside Iran, what would you say the major successes and challenges have been?

    I think the big success we’ve had so far is the initiative to create the murals, especially in Harlem but also around the world: to create a story out of them, and for that story to be something that people respond to, and for us to find a way to relate that story to other situations around the world.

    In the early stage of developing these murals in New York, after we had produced one or two in Harlem, the questions of these parallels between the Bahá’ís and the African-American community started to sit up. It’s not a parallel in terms of scale or severity or even of type, but it’s a parallel in terms of individual experiences and the ideology that has created a situation. African-American people who learned about the project brought that parallel to the fore in our discussions. Here was one community that is struggling identifying with the struggle of another community, that was undergoing the kind of suffering that makes the community more empathetic and more aware of the struggles of another.

    We decided to tell that story as much as we could and in our work in Harlem to work with local artists and local community leaders as much as possible, and to hold educational workshops for young people around the creation of the murals. I think the fact that those murals became possible and were welcomed into the community, that there was the opportunity to see these parallels and to tell that story around the world, and that the story was broadcast inside Iran in Persian on satellite TV and seen by millions of people there, was probably the biggest success.

    I think there’s not so much one major challenge we have been unable to overcome, although there are things that are harder to do than others, but it’s more that nobody is particularly out there asking for anybody to do something positive. I think a lot of people have a great desire, appetite and thirst for encountering positive stories even if they address challenging issues, but it’s not something you see being asked for in market terms, and in terms of what audience there is, and what funding you can get to do projects.

    So it is a challenge to create the audience and explain our reasons for approaching our work as we do, and maintain these projects, because it’s not something that is being asked for in a commercial sense. I don’t necessarily mean commercial in terms of being driven by profit, but even non-profitable works need grants, and while there are grants that are tailored around work that tries to introduce positive narratives, it takes a lot of effort to identify them and to massage an idea into a format that would meet the requirements of a particular grant.

    What more needs to change, and what further support is needed, to enable your work to achieve even more?

    I think there are two levels. At the level of human attitudes, in general the world is in a very difficult place and much of what’s happening is turning people towards conflict. I think what needs to change – in order for the kind of stories we want to produce and tell to be more easily relatable and for people to be able to understand what we are getting at – is that people need to be orientated towards positive stories, towards sharing and finding them, and to seeing the world through the lens of positivity. This is not to deny there are negative things or pretend that everything is fine, but to say that we address a challenge or a difficulty not by more contention but by means of conciliation and friendliness. I think if people’s minds are orientated more that way they would be likelier to seek out or ask for the positive stories we try to tell. I’m not saying we’ve nailed that formula, but that’s our motivation and we’re trying to work in that direction.

    At the structural level I think the kinds of grants, and often the kinds of initiatives that organisations want to support or are asking for, need to change. Again, it is possible to do that in terms of some grants that exist, but there is a lack of a structure and approach that says: this organisation really wants to find positive stories because positive stories change the nature of a society’s view of how to deal with challenging issues.

    So much of what civil society does is about countering things that are negative. This is important work, but I also think that civil society should be going towards what it wants to see in the future. If there could be a harmonious sense across civil society about what the future ought to be, how human rights ought to be respected and what the nature of society should be in order to realise those ideals, then I think we could move towards shared civil society agendas that make it possible to work for these goals more easily.

    In the civil society space, the media space and the human rights space – and partly because we are all too busy but also because there is no clearing house or central organising system – I don’t know who in civil society would want to work in the same way. But I’d love to know more about who’s out there and what they’re doing, in order to more easily find the appropriate partners.

    Civic space in Iran is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Paint the Change through itswebsite.

     

  • Joint letter to new Ethiopian Prime Minister on recent arrests of journalists and human rights defenders

    In a letter to the Ethiopian Prime Minister-designate, a coalition of over 40 civil society organisations express their concern regarding the recent arrests of journalists and human rights defenders

    To: Prime Minister-Designate, Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali 
    Cc: Abadula Gemeda, Speaker of the House of Peoples’ Representative
                                               
    Your Excellencies, 

    The undersigned international, regional and national human rights and development organisations write to express our grave concern over the recent arrest of 11 Ethiopian journalists, bloggers and political opposition leaders amid a new crackdown on fundamental freedoms. Such measures undermine the Ethiopian government's international human rights obligations as well as recent political commitments to initiate an era of widespread democratic political reform. As you assume your position as Prime Minister, we urge the Ethiopian Government to immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders, political activists and journalists, including the 11 individuals detained this week. 

    On 25 March 2018, Ethiopian police and security forces arrested journalists Eskinder Nega and Temesgen Desalegn, Zone9 bloggers Mahlet Fantahun, Befekadu Hailu, blogger Zelalem Workaggnhu  and political activists Andualem Arage, Addisu Getinet, Yidnekachewu Addis, Sintayehu Chekol, Tefera Tesfaye and Woynshet Molla.

    The arrests were carried out while the defenders were attending a private meeting in Addis Ababa at the home of journalist Temesgen Desalegn. The private gathering was held in recognition of the recent release of thousands of political prisoners amidst ongoing and widespread protests against political marginalisation and land grabbing in the Oromia and Amhara regions which began in late 2015. The eleven are currently being held at Gotera-Pepsi Police Station in Addis Ababa.

    Days earlier on 8 March, authorities arrested Seyoum Teshome, a prominent blogger and university lecturer. Teshome, who is a frequent contributor to Ethiothinkthank.com and was detained for three months under the previous State of Emergency, is currently being held in the notorious Maekelawi Prison in Addis Ababa. 

    While the authorities have not publicly indicated if charges will be brought against the defenders, under the February reinstatement of the national State of Emergency, groups and individuals must seek permission from the Command Post to host public gatherings.

    Prior to their release in February, several of the defenders had previously been imprisoned for periods ranging from two to seven years in relation to their legitimate work as journalists, bloggers and political activists. Eskinder Nega and the Zone9 Bloggers are recipients of international awards celebrating their contribution to independent journalism and human rights. 

    The arrests follow the declaration of a national State of Emergency on 16 February by the Cabinet for a period of six months. The State of Emergency includes a number of draconian and overbroad provisions. Among other worrying violations of fundamental democratic freedoms, the State of Emergency imposes a blanket ban on all protests, the dissemination of any publication deemed to “incite and sow discord” including those who criticise the State of Emergency, and allows for warrantless arrest.

    Such measures are contrary to international human rights law and the Ethiopian Constitution and are counter-productive to peace and security. The invocation of the State of Emergency criminalises dissent and persecutes human rights defenders, protesters and journalists.

    We urge the government of Ethiopia to: (i) immediately release all human rights defenders, political opponents and journalists detained for exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly; (ii) end all forms of harassment against journalists and all citizens with critical views on national matters and; (iii) review and amend the State of Emergency to ensure that any limitations on fundamental rights are in line with  international human rights obligations.

    Sincerely,

    Access Now
    African Law Foundation (Nigeria)
    ARTICLE 19
    Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
    Asia Democracy Network (ADN)
    Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    Asian Legal Resource Center (ALRC)
    Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
    The Article 20 Network
    Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN)
    Bytes4All Pakistan 
    Caucasus Civil Initiatives Center 
    Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)
    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation 
    Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
    Commonwealth Human Right Initiative (CHRI)
    DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
    End Impunity
    Endorois Welfare Council (Kenya)
    Ethiopia Human Rights Project (EHRP)
    Freedom House
    Front Line Defenders
    Karapatan (Philippines) 
    Global Participe (Republic of the Congo)
    Greenpeace Africa 
    International Civil Society Centre 
    International Service for Human Rights
    JOINT - Ligas de ONGs em Mocambique (Mozambique)
    Odhikar (Bangladesh)
    OutRight Action International
    Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum
    PEN International
    Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
    Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
    Sengwer Indigenous Peoples Programme 
    Uganda National NGO Forum (UNNGOF)
    West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI)
    West African Human Rights Defenders' Network (WAHRDN)
    World Movement for Democracy 
    World Organization Against Torture 
    Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) 

     

  • Nigerian president Buhari must ensure release of journalist Jones Abiri

    President Muhammadu Buhari
    Aso Villa, Yakubu Gowon Crescent, 
    The Three Arms Zone, Asokoro, 
    Abuja, FTC, Nigeria

    Dear President Muhammadu Buhari,

    We at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organization that champions press freedom internationally, and 18 other organizations, are writing to call for the release of journalist Jones Abiri, who has been held by Nigeria's Department of State Security (DSS) for nearly two years, and to call for DSS to be held accountable for its attacks against journalists in Nigeria.

    We were disappointed that, after repeated requests during CPJ's visit to Nigeria in April 2018, we were not permitted to visit Abiri in detention. In a meeting with CPJ on April 24, 2018, Garba Shehu, your presidential spokesperson, confirmed that Abiri remained in DSS custody and said he would be charged in court on allegations of being a militant. Yet after almost two years behind bars, Abiri has not seen a courtroom, nor has his family been given any information about his health and well-being.

    The DSS operates under Nigeria's coordinator of national security, which reports directly to you, according to the 1986 National Security Agencies Act. During a visit to State House in April, Garba Shehu also told CPJ that you would be made personally aware of Abiri's ongoing detention. We therefore call for your swift action to ensure Abiri's release and that those responsible for his prolonged and illegal detention are held accountable.

    In February and March 2018, the DSS also arrested Tony Ezimakor, the Abuja bureau chief of the privately owned Daily Independent newspaper. CPJ documented Ezimakor's week-long detention without charge or court appearance, during which the DSS threatened the journalist with terrorism charges for his reporting.

    Over the last two years, CPJ has repeatedly tried to contact Lawal Musa Daura, director general of the DSS, and Gbeteng Bassi, director of operations of the DSS, without success. Nigerian journalists have similarly told CPJ, with dismay, that they are unable to reach the DSS for comment, regarding the arrest of their colleagues or otherwise. During the same April 2018 meeting with CPJ, Garba Shehu confirmed that the DSS has not designated anyone responsible for communicating with the Nigerian public. We urge you to improve accountability and make the DSS accessible to the press. This includes the appointment of a DSS spokesperson.

    Your action to ensure the safety of journalists and the promotion of open dialogue through the press is made even more important because Nigeria will hold elections in February 2019. Around the world, CPJ has documented how attacks on journalists have escalated during election periods and other political processes. It is in this context that we urge you to take decisive action to ensure that journalists are free to report on matters of public concern, and that a culture of self-censorship does not cloud public decision-making processes. As part of this, Abiri should be released without delay.

    Sincerely,

    Joel Simon
    Executive Director
    Committee to Protect Journalists

    Shu'aibu Usman Leman
    National Secretary
    Nigerian Union of Journalists

    Wade H. McMullen, Jr.
    Managing Attorney
    Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

    Elizabeth Chyrum
    Director
    Human Rights Concern - Eritrea

    David Kode
    Head of Advocacy and Campaigns 
    CIVICUS

    Edmund YaKani
    Executive Director
    Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, South Sudan

    Zohrab Ismayil 
    Programmes Director
    Caucasus Civil Initiatives Center (CCIC)

    Yared Hailemariam
    Director
    Association For Human Rights In Ethiopia (AHRE)

    Dina Meza
    Directora Ejecutiva 
    Asociación por la Democracia y los Derechos Humanos
    ASOPODEHU-Honduras

    Melanie Sonhaye Kombate
    Programs and Advocacy Director
    West African Human Rights Defenders Network (ROADDH/WAHRDN)

    Rahman Gharib
    Chairman
    Metro Center for Journalists Rights & Advocacy

    Alphonsus B.M. Gbanie
    Executive Secretary
    Human Rights Defenders Network- Sierra Leone

    Yemisi Ransome-Kuti
    Founding Executive Director and Board Member, 
    Nigeria Network of NGOs

    Osai Ojigho
    Director
    Amnesty International - Nigeria

    Cristina Palabay
    Secretary General 
    Karapatan - Philippines

    Adilur Khan
    Secretary General
    Odhikar - Bangladesh

    Carles Torner
    Executive Director
    PEN International

    Folu Agoi
    President
    PEN Nigeria

    Sulemana Braimah
    Executive Director
    Media Foundation for West Africa

     

  • Outcomes & Reflections from 39th Session of UN Human Rights Council

    This session, the Council adopted landmark resolutions on several country situations, further enhancing its contribution to the protection of human rights. 

    On Myanmar, we welcome the creation of the independent investigative mechanism, which is an important step towards accountability for the horrific crimes committed in Myanmar, as elaborated in the Fact Finding Mission’s report to this session. The overwhelming support for the resolution, notwithstanding China’s shameful blocking of consensus, was a clear message to victims and survivors that the international community stands with them in their fight for justice. 

    On Yemen, the Council demonstrated that principled action is possible, and has sent a strong message to victims of human rights violations in Yemen that accountability is a priority for the international community, by voting in favor of renewing the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts to continue international investigations into violations committed by all parties to the conflict. 

    Furthermore, we welcome the leadership by a group of States on the landmark resolution on Venezuela, and consider it as an important step for the Council applying objective criteria to address country situations that warrant its attention. The resolution, adopted with support from all regions, sends a strong message of support to the Venezuelan people. By opening up a space for dialogue at the Council, the resolution brings scrutiny to the tragic human rights and humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country.  

    While we welcome the renewal of the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi, to continue its critical investigation and work towards accountability, we regret, however, that the Council failed to respond more strongly to Burundi's record of non-cooperation and attacks against the UN human rights system. 

    We also welcome the Council’s adoption of the resolution on Syria, which among other things condemns all violations and abuses of international human rights law and all violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict.

    However, on other country situations including China, Sudan, Cambodia and the Philippines, the Council failed to take appropriate action. 

    On Sudan, we are deeply concerned about the weak resolution that envisions an end to the Independent Expert’s mandate once an OHCHR office is set up; a "deal" Sudan has already indicated it does not feel bound by, and which is an abdication of the Council’s responsibility to human rights victims in Sudan while grave violations are ongoing. At a minimum, States should ensure the planned country office monitors and publicly reports on the human rights situation across Sudan, and that the High Commissioner is mandated to report to the Council on the Office’s findings.  

    We also regret the lack of concerted Council action on the Philippines, in spite of the need to establish independent international and national investigations into extrajudicial killings in the government's 'war on drugs', and to monitor and respond to the government's moves toward authoritarianism. 

    In addition, we regret the Council’s weak response to the deepening human rights and the rule of law crisis in Cambodia, failing to change its approach even when faced with clear findings by the Special Rapporteur demonstrating that the exclusive focus on technical assistance and capacity building in the country, is failing.

    We share the concerns that many raised during the session, including the High Commissioner, about China’s human rights record, specifically noting serious violations of the rights of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province. It is regrettable that States did not make a concrete and collective call for action by China to cease the internment of estimates ranging up to 1 million individuals from these communities. 

    On thematic resolutions, we welcome the adoption of the resolution on equal participation in political and public affairs but would have preferred a stronger endorsement and implementation of the guidelines.

    The resolution on safety of journalists, adopted by consensus, sets out a clear roadmap of practical actions to end impunity for attacks. Journalism is not a crime - yet too many States in this room simply imprison those that criticize them. This must end, starting with the implementation of this resolution. 

    We welcome the adoption by consensus of the resolution on preventable maternal mortality and morbidity and human rights in humanitarian settings. Women and girls affected by conflict have been denied accountability for too long. The implementation of this resolution will ensure that their rights, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights, are respected, protected and fulfilled. 

    Finally, the Council’s first interactive dialogue on acts of reprisals and intimidation was an important step to ensure accountability for this shameful practice, and we urge more States to have the courage and conviction to stand up for human rights defenders and call out countries that attack and intimidate them.

    Signatories:
    The African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS)
    Amnesty International 
    Article 19
    Center for Reproductive Rights
    CIVICUS
    DefendDefenders
    FIDH
    Forum Asia 
    Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF)
    Human Rights Watch 
    International Commission of Jurists
    International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

     

  • Supreme Court set to rule on Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar

     

    • Myanmar’s Supreme Court is set to rule on an appeal by two jailed Reuters journalists on 23 April 
    • Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been jailed since December 2017, and convicted of violating a state secrets act in September 2018
    • The case highlights the increasing crackdown on press freedom in Myanmar

    The Myanmar Supreme Court must order the release of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, global civil society alliance CIVICUS and the Asia Democracy Network (ADN) said today. The two journalists, who have been jailed since 2017, are set to go before the country’s highest court on 23 April. The court will rule upon their appeal, which was submitted on grounds that lower court rulings involved errors in judicial procedure.

    In December 2017, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were handed several documents during a dinner meeting that turned out to be secret government materials relating to Myanmar’s western Rakhine state and security forces.  They were then arrested  and charged under the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act and in September 2018, they were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for “illegal possession of official documents.”

    During the trial, a police captain, admitted in court that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to “trap” the journalists by handing them the classified documents. He was subsequently sentenced to a one-year prison term.  

    At the time of their arrest, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Inn Din village in Rakhine during a brutal military crackdown against the Rohingya minority that began in August 2017. 

    An appeal by the two journalists to a lower court earlier this year on substantive grounds was rejected on the basis that lawyers failed to prove that the pair were innocent.

    “Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have spent 16 months in prison on spurious charges. The Supreme Court must take this opportunity to address this travesty of justice,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher. “No journalist should be in prison for doing their job. Their arrest and conviction have sadly created a chilling effect on the media in Myanmar.”

    A UN Human Rights Council Resolution adopted at the Council’s 40th Session called on Myanmar to immediately and unconditionally release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, as well as other journalists, human rights defenders and activists detained under various restrictive laws.

    “This case highlights the bleak situation for freedom of expression and press freedom in Myanmar. Overly broad, vague, and abusive laws have been systematically used to prosecute dozens of activists and journalists for the peaceful activism,” said Ichal Supriadi, Secretary-General from the Asia Democracy Network.

    In March 2019, in the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar raised concerns about “a decreasing space for the expression of views that are critical” of the government and the “increasing self-censorship by journalists, as well as continued wielding of problematic laws by the government against those who speak out.” 

    CIVICUS and ADN call on the Supreme Court to order the immediate release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and reiterate calls for the authorities in Myanmar to take immediate steps to ensure that journalists can do their jobs. 

    TheCIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates the space for civil society in Myanmar asrepressed.

    For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

    josef.benedict[at]civicus.org

     

  • The deterioration of civic space in Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras

    37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
    Statement during the High Commissioner's country briefings

    CIVICUS is extremely concerned about the spate of attacks against HRDs journalists and peaceful protestors that has taken place across Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras. 

    We remain gravely alarmed by the striking inattention given to the disturbing increase of killings of HRDs since the signing of the Peace Agreement by the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group. Local partners report that 106 defenders were killed and 310 attacks on media workers and journalists took place during 2017. In addition, arbitrary detentions, attacks and judicial harassment are also on the rise.

    Moreover, CIVICUS is concerned about the situation in Honduras.  Honduras has been placed   on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List because of the violence surrounding the November 2017 contested presidential elections. Protests were met with excessive police force and more than 20 protesters were killed, with many others injured or detained. Additionally, reports show increasing attacks against HRDs who denounce the repression of protests.  There has also been an increase in violations of the right to freedom of expression, including smear campaigns, threats, harassment and physical attacks against media workers and activists expressing dissent on the media.

    Finally, Mr President, CIVICUS is extremely concerned by the continuing violence against local communities involved in land rights struggles in Guatemala. These violations are perpetrated by state security forces or by private security working under the orders of private corporations. The authorities have not taken any action to protect these communities. During one such event in late November 2017, a Maya community that had been evicted from their land and were camping on the side of a road was attacked by security guards that opened fire, killing one community member and injuring another.

    In all three cases, CIVICUS calls on the authorities to stop the use of violence against activists, media workers and peaceful demonstrators, to conduct investigations on threats and attacks, and ensure perpetrators of unlawful killings are brought to justice without further delays.