By Gulnoza Said
The Committee to Protect Journalists today joined a coalition of 25 other international press freedom organizations to call on Kazakh authorities to drop criminal defamation cases against media outlets Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel and revise the law on dissemination of "false information" often used to silence critical media outlets and journalists.
CPJ has documented how authorities used these repressive laws to raid the newsrooms of Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel, confiscate equipment, detain and question journalists, and block news websites and Facebook pages. The action against Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel came after the outlets reported in 2016 allegations of corruption against a former government minister.
The former minister, Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, and his son, Ilkhalid, filed a defamation complaint claiming the outlets spread false information. Four separate cases are being heard against the outlets. In April 2017, an Almaty court ordered the two outlets and four journalists to pay 50 million Kazakh tenge (US$160,000) in damages, according to local media reports. The three other cases are ongoing.
The joint IFEX letter to Kazakhstan's prosecutor general, Supreme Court, Parliament, and Minister of Information and Communications, called for the law, which levies disproportionate penalties against journalists and media outlets, to be revised and highlighted the threat that such legislation poses to critical reporting and press freedom.
To read the letter, click here.
Reacting to the news that the Malaysian government has tabled a vaguely-defined bill in parliament ostensibly outlawing “fake news”, which could land those found guilty with a 10-year prison term, James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said:
“This bill is an assault on freedom of expression. The vague and broad definition of ‘fake news’, combined with severe punishments and arbitrary arrest powers for police, shows that this is nothing but a blatant attempt to shield the government from peaceful criticism. This bill must be scrapped immediately.
“Malaysia has a long and troubling track record of using its legal books to silence dissent. It is no coincidence that this law has been tabled with general elections just around the corner. We are already seeing how the government is closing the space for public debate ahead of the polls.
“It is deeply disturbing that the Malaysian authorities are using the catch-all term ‘fake news’ as an excuse to crack down on critics. The Bill combines the worst of the cheap propaganda coming from the West and the repressive laws and policies in the East. With both Singapore and the Philippines considering their own ‘fake news’ legislation, we call on all countries in the region to refrain from following this dangerous trend.”
Published on Amnesty International on March 26, 2018
By ELI MEIXLER
Myanmar sought charges Wednesday against two Reuters journalists who stand accused of breaching the state secrets act, in a case that has renewed fears about press freedom in the country.
Reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on Dec. 12 for allegedly “illegally obtaining and possessing…important and secret government documents,” Myanmar’s Ministry of Information quoted police as saying. The reporters had met two police officers for dinner on the outskirts of Yangon, the country’s largest city, where they were handed documents believed to pertain to military operations against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.
Prosecutors filed charges against the two journalists under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, an obscure law dating from 1923, under which they face up to 14 years in prison. Wednesday’s hearing was their second court appearance since being arrested almost one month ago. The reporters had been held incommunicado at an undisclosed location by police for several weeks following their arrest, raising concerns that they had become victims of enforced disappearance. The court extended their custody at an initial hearing on Dec. 27 while their charges were investigated.
The reporters later told relatives that they were detained almost immediately after receiving the documents, Reuters reported. Senior representatives of Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy Party (NLD), whose government does not control the country’s police or military, have suggested that the reporters were set up.
“They arrested us and took action against us because we were trying to reveal the truth,” Wa Lone said following the hearing, which lasted about 30-minutes, according to Reuters.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s arrest and prosecution has been met with wide-ranging condemnation from rights groups and political figures. Human Rights Watch’s Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson said the charges were a “travesty of justice” and called on Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto head of state, to “quickly reform this antiquated colonial law.”
“The prosecution of these two journalist shows both the government’s contempt for freedom of the press and a fundamental failure to understand what journalists’ jobs are all about,” he told TIME. “These two men should be released immediately and unconditionally.”
In November, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded the journalists’ “immediate release or information as to the circumstances around their disappearance,” while E.U. representative to Myanmar Kristian Schmidt warned that their prosecution“amounts to a series intimidation against journalists” in Myanmar. “Journalists should … be able to work in a free and enabling environment without fear of intimidation or undue arrest or prosecution,” he said on Monday.
Former President Bill Clinton also commented on the case in a Twitter post on Tuesday, saying “the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable.”
Reuters president and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement that he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling. “We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom. Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar,” he said.
The case has also renewed concerns about the state of press freedom in Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government has employed colonial-era legislation, previously wielded by the country’s notorious military junta, to silence critics and intimidate journalists. Last month, Myanmar released two foreign journalists and their two local staffers, who had served two months in prison under the 1934 Aircraft Act for filming with a drone in Naypyitaw, the country’s capital.
Published on TIME on January 10, 2018
By Dicta Asiimwe, Eric Oduor, Christopher Kidanka and Fred Oluoch
In Kenya, although freedom of the media is guaranteed in the Constitution, there are several Acts of Parliament that duplicate the roles of different agencies.
For example, while the Media Act 2013 gives the Media Council of Kenya powers to regulate the industry with an established independent complaints commission to handle complaints against journalists, the Kenya Information and Communication Amendment Act establishes a tribunal that has the powers to impose fines on journalists and media houses, who are found guilty.
In addition, some clauses in the National Security Service Act 2014, and the Media Authority Act 2013 clearly limit press freedom and freedom of expression. Article 12 of the Act states that a person who publishes, broadcasts or causes to be published or distributed, through print, digital or electronic means, insulting, threatening, or inciting material or images of dead or injured persons which are likely to cause fear and alarm to the general public or disturb public peace is liable to a fine not exceeding $48,543 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or both.
Human Rights Watch and Article 19 which defends freedom of expression and information recently produced a report detailing how Kenyan authorities have committed a range of abuses against journalists reporting on sensitive issues.
The two organisations documented 16 incidents of direct death threats against journalists and bloggers across the country in recent years, and cases in which police arbitrarily arrested, detained and later released without charge at least 14 journalists and bloggers.
In Uganda, freedom of expression and the press is constitutionally guaranteed under Article 29 which in section 1(b) states that "freedom of speech and expression shall include freedom of the press and other media." These are operationalised under the Press and Journalism Act and Electronic Media Act.
However, Uganda has criminal defamation on the law books, even while the African Court on Human and People's Rights has previously ruled that imprisonment over defamation violates freedom of expression.
The legal regime is replete with restrictions including criminal defamation and sedition that remain on the law books, notably the Penal Code Act.
Laws like the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 holds journalists criminally liable if they are found communicating with a terrorist or terrorist organisation. Journalists could also fall foul of the law for among others "promoting terrorism" purely because of their work.
This law, in addition to others like the Offensive Communications which was passed under the Computer Misuse Act are used by police to harass journalists and editors. Other laws that are a threat to the media include the Anti-Pornography Act, which carry penalties for publishers.
Since the scuffle in parliament late September over the age limit for the president that was broadcast live, the Uganda Communications Commission has closed a radio station in Kanungu district in the western part of the country, which was considered against the age-limit amendment, citing minimum broadcasting standards.
Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ)-Uganda says UCC cites minimum broadcasting standards but does not follow due process, and that it over-steps its mandate when it asks media houses to suspend staff.
In Tanzania, the Media Services Act 2016 that was signed by President John Magufuli early this year, gives the government more powers to interrogate journalists.
Section 60 gives the Information Minister the power to implement the Media Services Act 2016 without further consultation with lawyers and other media stakeholders.
Section 55 of the Act also gives the minister full powers to ban any publication or newspaper that prints information thought to affect the national security and public health.
Section 52 and 50 (2) provides a penalty of three to five years in prison or a fine of between $2,250 and $7,500 for intentionally publishing information that threatens national security, public safety, public order, the country's economic interests, public morality or public health, or that injures the reputation, rights and freedom of other persons.
Furthermore, the law warns anyone who imports media material or publishes it, could be jailed for between five and 10 years, or pay a fine of between $3,600 and $9,000.
Published on All Africa on October 28, 2017.
A group of independent human rights experts today called on the Government of India to create a safer environment for independent voices, after Indian journalist and human rights defender Gauri Lankesh was killed earlier this month.
“The Indian authorities should unequivocally condemn the killing of Gauri Lankesh, investigate it, bring all the perpetrators – including the masterminds – to account, and take seriously the safety of journalists,” said the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, on summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, and on the situation of human rights defender, Michel Forst.
They called the murder of Ms. Lankesh, who was shot dead outside of her home on 5 September a “terrible and painful tragedy” and a “vicious attack” on the freedom of the press.
“We urge the authorities in India to take active steps to reverse a political climate that in recent years have become increasingly polarized and hostile, especially to the media and those exercising the freedom of expression,” the Special Rapporteurs said, adding that they are in contact with the Government regarding the situation.
According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Ms. Lankesh was known as a “rationalist,” a term used in India for people who stand against the use of religion in politics.
OHCHR confirmed that her killing is the fourth in the last three years of activists who had opposed the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in politics.
“Governments have a responsibility to build a safe environment for independent voices, including those of journalists critical of the authorities,” they said.
UN Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.
Published on the UN News Centre on September 13, 2017.
During a recent visit to Bangladesh to revisit my years there as a student, a colleague suggested I meet Sultana Kamal, much admired for decades of work on justice as a human rights defender.
But Kamal was not making many public appearances, because of threats from militants.
The story that emerged is a tale of authorities who, while attempting to appease some hardline religious groups, ended up compromising basic human rights principles.
In May, prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, which has long claimed a commitment to secularism, caved to the extremist group Hefazat-e Islami’s demands to remove a statue representing “Lady Justice” in front of the Supreme Court in Dhaka because it was deemed to be an un-Islamic religious object.
On May 28, Kamal argued during a television debate that by this logic no mosques should be permitted on the court premises. That prompted the Hefazat spokesman to call for Kamal’s arrest, and threaten that if she came out on the streets they “would break every bone in her body.” Kamal has said that after the threat was made, abusive postings appeared on Facebook, including doctored images of her being lynched.
While Kamal has since received police protection, the government has yet to publicly condemn the threats. On June 18, a lawyer served legal notice seeking her arrest “for hurting religious sentiments of the Muslim majority in the country;” however, Kamal has not been arrested.
These threats and claims of hurt sentiments are not new. They follow several lethal attacks by extremist groups on bloggers and activists for promoting secularism. Rather than condemn the attacks and arrest those responsible, officials responded by warning that “hurting religious sentiments is a crime.”
All this is happening against a background of increasing attacks on free speech by the state. Over the past two years, the government has cracked down on media and civil society.
The authorities restored “Lady Justice” to another part of the Supreme Court complex. But Bangladesh is on a dangerous course. The government needs to do much more to protect rights activists like Kamal and promote an environment where they can carry out their work free from threats and attacks. Appeasing religious extremists and silencing dissent will only lead to more violence.
Published on HRW on June 22, 2017.
Press freedom and human rights advocates, journalists and social media users have condemned a demand by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to shut Al Jazeera network and other media outlets in Qatar.
The Arab states reportedly issued a 13-point list on Friday, demanding the closure of all news outlets that it funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby Al Jadeed, Mekameleen and Middle East Eye.
"We are really worried about the implication and consequences of such requirements if they will ever be implemented," said Alexandra El Khazen, head of Middle East and North Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organisation promoting press freedom.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Paris, Khazen said: "We are against any kind of censorship and measures that could threaten the diversity in the Arab media landscape and pluralism, for instance.
"The Arabic media landscape should make room and accept the broadest range of viewpoints instead of adopting repressive measures against alternative viewpoints that are found to be critical of some governments."
Khazen also expressed concern over the impact of the demands on the employees of the mentioned media outlets.
"Some of them may come under pressure to resign or to choose to do so to be aligned with the policy of their country, so we are currently investigating this," she said.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, called the Saudi-led bloc's demand "absurd".
"This is just an attempted expansion of the cowardly censorship they have inflicted on their own citizens, but it will fail," she said.
Tim Dawson, president of the UK's National Union of Journalists, expressed his "absolute horror" in reaction to what he called a "monstrous request" and urged the Saudi government to withdraw the demands.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also condemned "the use of news outlets as a bargaining chip" and "urged all countries involved in this dispute to stop holding media hostage" to political differences.
"The Gulf region needs a vibrant free press and news outlets based there must be allowed to report freely," said Joel Simon, the executive director of CPJ.
Meanwhile, The Guardian criticised the efforts to silence Al Jazeera as "wrong" and "ridiculous".
"The attack on Al Jazeera is part of an assault on free speech to subvert the impact of old and new media in the Arab world. It should be condemned and resisted," the UK-based newspaper said in an editorial.
Al Jazeera's reaction
"We are stunned by the demand to close Al Jazeera," Giles Trendle, the acting managing director of Al Jazeera English, said.
"Of course there has been talk about it in the past but it is still a great shock and surprise to actually see it in writing. It's as absurd as it would be for Germany to demand Britain close the BBC."
Trendle said Al Jazeera is going to continue its "editorial mission of covering the world news in a fair and balanced way".
"We call on all governments to respect media freedom. We hope other media organisations will support our call to defend media freedom," he added.
Trendle said the roots of the demand to close Al Jazeera go back to 2011 and the Arab Spring.
"At that time, Al Jazeera was covering the dreams and the aspirations of a new generation of people. We provided the platform for the voice of the man and the woman in the Arab streets. We were covering those protests and we were providing a diversity of viewpoints. We were really the voice of the voiceless. I think there are some regimes in the region that don't appreciate that diversity of views. I think that's the reason for what's going on here."
Yaser Abuhilalah, director of Al Jazeera Arabic, called the demand to shut Al Jazeera a crime violating freedom of speech.
"I am against demands to close any media outlet, because it is a crime, a violation of basic human rights to freedom of speech," Abuhilalah told Sputnik.
"If Al Jazeera violated something, anyone could sue it - in a Qatari court or in [a court of] any other country, it is the legitimate right of every person harmed by the media. But the demand to close [Al Jazeera] is a crime."
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed relations with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of supporting "terrorism". Qatar has denied the allegation.
Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani has said that Al Jazeera Media Network is an "internal affair" and there will be no discussion about the fate of the Doha-based broadcaster amid the Gulf crisis.
To stem the flow of negative reactions Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain took steps to curb their citizens from expressing opinions that opposed their policies.
The UAE announced that any objections to the UAE's strict measures against the government of Qatar or expression of sympathy with Qatar would be a crime punishable by a prison sentence of 3-15 years and a fine of no less than $136,000 (500,000AED), whether on a social media platform or via any written or spoken medium.
The criminalisation of sympathy with Qatar was implemented in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain with slight differences in the length of prison sentences and size of fines.
Khazen said the decision to punish citizens is a "huge violation of freedom of speech and information that could have serious implications".
Al Jazeera reporters have often come under fire, with Egypt imprisoning Arabic reporter Mahmoud Hussein, who has been in jail for 185 days for "disseminating false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities in order to defame the state's reputation".
Al Jazeera's Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy spent 437 days in jail before being released. Peter Greste spent more than a year in prison in Egypt.
Published on Al Jazeera on June 23, 2017.
Recent legislative amendment requires activists and journalists reporting on government corruption to file public declarations of their personal assets, Human Rights Watch said today. The new requirement is vague and could be used to deter or punish investigative journalists and partners of anti-corruption nongovernmental groups for doing their job.
Under the new amendment, activists and journalists working with independent organizations involved in anti-corruption work, as well as members of public councils, must publicly declare their personal assets – even though they do not receive public funding – in the same manner as state officials. President Petro Poroshenko, who signed the amendment on March 27, 2017, should initiate urgent steps to annul the new measure, which is an unjustified interference with freedom of expression and other rights protected by Ukraine’s human rights obligations.
“This new requirement is a slap in the face of Ukraine’s anti-corruption activists and its international partners who have been calling for a more transparent government,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The requirement conflates state officials, who have a responsibility to divulge their assets because they enjoy certain privileges of office and their work is funded by tax payers, with private citizens who report on issues of public interest.”
Under the amendment, activists, journalists, and others who fail to file asset declarations would face criminal charges and up to two years in prison, the same penalties government officials face.
The new measure is a part of package of amendments to Ukraine’s 2014 law on preventing corruption and a 2006 law on military duty and service.
The original amendments, introduced by President Poroshenko on March 10, proposed exempting military personnel engaged in active duty in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine from publicly declaring their personal assets. They did not include the amendment affecting independent groups and journalists, which was later introduced by a member of parliament.
Parliament adopted the measure by a large majority on March 23. The following day, some members tried to introduce a measure to annul the vote results, but the parliament did not let it come to vote.
Following the Maidan mass protests in 2013-2014, Ukraine’s political leadership pledged ambitious anti-corruption reforms to create a more transparent government. One of the key reforms has required Ukraine’s state officials to publicly declare their assets annually through an online filing system.
Anti-corruption legislative reforms were among the conditions the Ukrainian government agreed to fulfill to meet requirements for visa-free travel by Ukrainians to the European Union.
Several of Ukraine’s international partners immediately condemned the new legislation. The Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, said on Twitter: “E-declarations should target corruption in public administration – not hamper work of civil society.”
The United Kingdom embassy in Kyiv stated on Twitter that the law was a “serious step back [and…] could limit NGOs capacity, expose them to pressure & affect reform.” The United States embassy in Kyiv also noted on Twitter that “[m]embers of civil society play vital role for transparency; targeting them is a step backwards.”
Independent groups and journalists are essential to Ukraine’s anti-corruption reform and should not be intimidated or punished for their work, Human Rights Watch said.
The amendments targeting anti-corruption activists and journalists are incompatible with respect for several human rights – such as freedom of expression and the right to privacy – protected by international treaties to which Ukraine is a party, as well as in its own constitution. For example, Ukraine is a party to both the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which require any interference with either freedom of expression or right to privacy to have a legitimate aim and to be necessary and proportionate to achieve that aim.
In this case, laws that are designed to – or in practice have – a chilling effect on members of civil society and on media reporting on abuse of state power and public office are not a justified interference with freedom of expression standards under international law. Insofar as public officials are already required to comply with the measures that would now extend to private journalists and activists, the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, have repeatedly held that public officials may be subject to greater scrutiny than others. Restrictions that prevent such scrutiny are in general not compatible with freedom of expressions standards. Likewise, even if the interference into the personal finances of journalists and activists had a legitimate aim, to base that interference simply on the work they do is not justified as either necessary or proportionate.
President Poroshenko promised to facilitate the creation of a working group to amend the signed law to exclude the new measure against activists. However, creating a working group could take time, and, meanwhile, the new amendment could have an immediate chilling effect on activists and journalists, Human Rights Watch said.
“No one is fooled by the true purpose of this amendment,” Cooper said. “President Poroshenko should urge parliament to immediately annul it. Such measures have no place in a reform-minded government.”
Published on HRW's website on April 5, 2017.
By Tom Miles
Nineteen U.S. states have introduced bills that would curb freedom of expression and the right to protest since Donald Trump's election as president, an "alarming and undemocratic" trend, U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday.
Concerns for free speech in the United States have risen in part because of the Republican Trump's antagonistic relations with prominent U.S. media, which he has branded "the enemy of the American people" as it has reported on policy missteps and dysfunction in his administration.
The push for stricter laws on expression has come as Trump's liberal foes have pursued public protest against his policies on issues ranging from immigration to abortion and climate change.
Maina Kiai and David Kaye, independent U.N. experts on freedom of peaceful assembly and expression respectively, said in a statement that the state bills were incompatible with international human rights law.
"The trend also threatens to jeopardize one of the United States’ constitutional pillars: free speech," they said in a statement, calling for action to reverse such legislation.
“From the Black Lives Matter movement, to the environmental and Native American movements in opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline, and the Women’s Marches, individuals and organizations across (American) society have mobilized in peaceful protests,” Kiai and Kaye said.
They said it was their fundamental right to do so, but that bills in Republican-governed states like Indiana, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Missouri sought to stop them exercising that right.
The civil rights movement known as Black Lives Matter has been fueled by a series of shootings of unarmed black men by white U.S. police officers that triggered national protests.
The U.N. experts' statement came a day after they criticized Russia's treatment of peaceful protesters who took to the streets following allegations of corruption against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
The U.S. State Department had also criticized Russia's handling of those protests, calling them an affront to democratic values.
Supporters of the U.S. state legislative action say it sums up the frustration some people feel about protests that get in the way of daily lives, and reflects a wish to maintain public safety. Free speech advocates say the bills are worrying, seeing them as opening the way to criminalizing peaceful protests.
The U.N. experts said several bills proposed in Colorado, North Dakota and Oklahoma targeted opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and would have "a chilling effect on environmental protesters".
Last month dozens of armed U.S. law enforcement officers swept through a protest camp near the site of the pipeline, clearing the gathering that for months served as a base of opposition to the multi-billion-dollar project.
In Missouri a bill proposed a seven-year prison term for "unlawful obstruction of traffic", while the Minnesota bill would criminalize peaceful protesters for participating in demonstrations that subsequently turned violent.
The U.N. experts said there was no such thing as a violent protest, only violent protesters. "One person’s decision to resort to violence does not strip other protesters of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly," Kaye and Kiai said.
Published on Reuters' website on March 31, 2017.
Kyrgyzstan’s General Prosecutor has brought a series of cases against two prominent local media outlets that have been critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said today.
The outlets are accused of discrediting the honor and dignity of the president and spreading false information. The actions violate standards on freedom of expression, and the authorities should promptly drop the lawsuits.
“Kyrgyzstan’s authorities should understand the role of independent media and what it means to respect freedom of expression and drop these lawsuits,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kyrgyzstan has a dynamic media landscape, which should be allowed to flourish, and laws that allow these kinds of prosecutions should be repealed.”
The General Prosecutor’s Office filed three lawsuits – two on March 6, 2017, and one on March 13 – against Zanoza, a local online media outlet and its founder, Idinov Narynbek. The office filed two suits on March 6 against Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In both cases the suits alleged “biased coverage of unchecked, false information that deliberately affected the honor and dignity of the head of state” and requested both media outlets to pay compensation totaling 32 million soms (US$462,855). Local courts ordered the bank accounts of both outlets frozen.
The coverage on which the General Prosecutor’s office based its cases was articles reporting comments by Omurbek Tekebaev, a leader of the opposition party Ata Meken, who was detained on February 26 on fraud and corruption charges, and on coverage of a press conference held by his lawyers. Tekebaev and his lawyers have accused President Almazbek Atambaev of involvement in smuggling illegal goods in a plane that crashed on January 16 near Bishkek. At least 37 people were killed in the crash and 23 homes destroyed. Other media outlets also reported on Tekebaev’s lawyers’ press conference and have not faced prosecution.
Article 4 of the law on “Guarantees of the activities of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic” obliges the prosecutor general to take legal action on behalf of the president if disseminated information has defamed the president’s honor and dignity. Laws that provide for offenses and penalties for those who criticize public figures, including figures such as the president, on the basis that it is considered insulting, are not compatible with freedom of expression standards under international law, and in particular with article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Kyrgyzstan is a party.
On March 7, local courts in Bishkek ruled in the General Prosecutor’s office’s favor, ordering the articles that allegedly defamed the dignity and honor of the president immediately be removed from the media outlets’ websites. The outlets complied.
On March 22, Azattyk and Zanoza were informed that on March 14, the court had also ordered that their bank accounts were to be frozen. Representatives of the outlets told Human Rights Watch that this court order can lead to the closure of their offices as they would not be able to pay rent and staff salaries.
A lawyer from the Media Policy Institute, a local nongovernmental organization working on media policy and legislation who represents both media outlets, filed an appeal, contending that the courts' decisions are unfounded. He told Human Rights Watch that the pressure on these media outlets is selective and that the amount of compensation is disproportionate.
Dina Maslova, the chief editor of Zanoza, told Human Rights Watch that “authorities have chosen these two media outlets because of their critical stance about the government and their actions are connected to the upcoming presidential elections,” scheduled for November. She said that the “authorities are using the political situation to remove political opponents and critics.”
Venera Djumataeva, director of Azattyk, told Human Rights Watch that the media outlet did not breach any law as the journalists were simply doing their work. She believes the reason Azattyk was targeted is because it is popular among the local population and conducts serious, journalistic investigations into corruption.
The UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees Kyrgyzstan’s compliance with the ICCPR, has previously warned Kyrgyzstan about bringing libel suits against journalists critical of the government and expressed its concerns about the kinds of laws protecting the president against insult in Kyrgyz law that are being invoked for these lawsuits.
“Kyrgyzstan should uphold media freedom at all times, and particularly during election seasons,” Williamson said. “Invoking inappropriate ‘insult’ laws and targeting critical media sends the wrong message to the country’s international partners at a time when respect for international human rights standards is paramount”.
Published on HRW website on March 27, 2017.
A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Various jurisdictions have enacted statutes to prevent discrimination based on a person's race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances sexual orientation.
Source: Cornell University Law School