The struggle for freedom of speech in Tajikistan: Khayrullo Mirsaidov and the question of international responsibility
By JOHN HEATHERSHAW and SAIPIRA FURSTENBERG
Khayrullo Mirsaidov, a well-respected independent journalist in Tajikistan, was arrested on 5 December 2017, after he publically appealed to the country’s president regarding corruption in the northern city of Khujand. On 11 July 2018, Khayrullo was sentenced to 12 years in prison after a court in Khujand convicted him of embezzlement, forging documents and providing false testimony.
Mirsaidov is a well-known and respected journalist. He worked as a regional correspondent for Tajikistan’s Asia-Plus and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, as well as for various development projects funded by western donors. As noted by Michael Andersen, an independent journalist and close friend of Khayrullo, in a meeting at the UK Parliament on 20 June: “Mirsaidov spent all of his life fighting against corruption. The fact that the government is prosecuting someone who has been fighting against corruption his whole life shows how the government and the prosecutors are acting with complete impunity.”
Mirsaidov is an extreme case of a wider problem. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 20 journalists have fled the country within the past year, fearing persecution for their professional activities.
By NAW BETTY HAN, THOMPSON CHAU
Two local reporters accused of breaking Myanmar’s “draconian” secrecy law for their investigation of the Rakhine crisis are now charged by a court. Rights groups said the ruling deals a “hammer blow” to press freedom in the country, is a “black day” for all journalists and reporters working here, and has thrown serious doubt on the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
On Monday, Yangon district judge Ye Lwin decided to allow the Reuters case to proceed to trial, setting a first court date for July 16. Section 253(1) of Myanmar’s Code of Criminal Procedure requires a judge to dismiss charges against accused persons if the evidence presented fails to warrant a conviction. A motion for charges to be dismissed on this basis, submitted by defence lawyers, was effectively rejected by the decision on Monday.
A Turkish court’s June 27 ruling that journalist and writer Mehmet Altan be released after spending nearly two years in prison is a welcome first step for free expression in Turkey, and it should be followed by the release of his brother Ahmet Altan and other unjustly-held journalists, PEN America said in a statement today.
Mehmet Altan and his brother Ahmet, along with Nazli Ilicak, were sentenced to life imprisonment in February 2018 for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through the use of force and violence.
The June 27 decision by the 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice was based on the Turkish Constitutional Court’s January 2018 ruling that Altan’s personal liberty and security and the freedom of the press were being violated by his continued imprisonment while his case is being considered.
Although he was released that evening, Altan must report weekly to the local police to sign in and he is under a travel ban. His co-defendants in the case remain in prison, and their appeal will be heard starting on September 21.
“The detention of these journalists was a violation of their rights from the very start,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “This ruling, while very welcome and a great relief for Mehmet and his family, is only a first step in restoring justice in this case. Press freedom in Turkey remains under grave threat until all imprisoned journalists are released and free to write, speak, and travel.”
The case began in September 2016, when Ahmet and Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak were detained as part of a wave of arrests of thinkers and writers following the failed July coup attempt.
Arrested for allegedly giving “subliminal messages” to announce the coup on a television roundtable discussion show hosted by Ilicak, the Altan brothers and Ilicak were charged with attempting to overthrow the “constitutional order,” “interfering with the work of the national assembly,” and “interfering with the work of the government” through violence or force. The three have been serving time in pre-trial detention since their 2016 arrests. In February 2018, they were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Following the coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and the imposition of a state of emergency, over 180 news outlets have been shut down under laws passed by presidential decree. There are now at least 148 writers, journalists, and media workers in prison, making Turkey the country with the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world. PEN America has campaigned on behalf of a number of those writers incarcerated or otherwise facing restrictions on their freedom of expression or movement, including the Altan brothers, Ahmet Sik, and Zehra Doğan.
Published on PEN America on July 3, 2018
The Egyptian authorities are pushing through new media and cybercrime laws that would give the state near-total control over print, online and broadcast media. Amnesty International is calling on the Egyptian parliament to reject these draconian bills and on the president to return the cybercrime law back to the parliament for amendment.
“These proposed laws would increase the Egyptian government`s already broad powers to monitor, censor and block social media and blogs, as well as criminalize content that violates vaguely defined political, social or religious norms,” said Najia Bounaim, Director of Campaigns in North Africa at Amnesty International.
The proposed cybercrime law was submitted to the president on 5 June for ratification. If passed, it will allow investigative authorities and the police to monitor and block websites for vaguely worded offences, such as publishing content that could incite crime or harm national security.
“Over the past year, the Egyptian authorities have blocked hundreds of websites without legal basis. If passed, these laws would legalize this mass censorship and step up the assault on the right to freedom of expression in Egypt, which is already one of the world’s most oppressive environments for media and journalism.”
The other three draft laws on media, initially approved by parliament on 10 June, also seek to increase the mandate of the media regulation body, known as the Supreme Council for the Organization of Media (the Supreme Council), to include the blocking of websites.
Over the past year, the Egyptian authorities have blocked 500 websites including independent news platforms and pages belonging to rights groups. Security agencies have ordered this without legal basis. In May 2017, the daily al-Masry al Youm newspaper published a report it said it had received from a security agency that claimed that the websites were "publishing false information" or "harming national security".
The Egyptian government claims there is a "need to organise digital news platforms" through the new laws. However it is clear these bills are a way to restrict the right to freedom of expression in a way that violates both international standards and the Egyptian Constitution. The proposed laws seek to allow the blocking of news websites, under the pretext of “protecting national security and public decency”.
The proposed media bills give the Supreme Council the right to block websites and file criminal complaints against digital media platforms and individuals on the basis of vaguely worded offences such as "inciting people to violate laws" and "defamation against individuals and religions”. They also prohibit news websites from creating smartphone apps unless they have special permission from the Council, and prohibit websites from selling any advertising spaces if they are not registered with the Council.
The new bills also create a number of bureaucratic and financial hurdles for digital media outlets. Establishing an online video channel on a website now requires a company to have capital of 2,500,000 EGP.
“Every day we receive reports about people from all levels of Egyptian society who have been persecuted for Facebook posts, tweets, art work, and even personal, unpublished writing that has fallen into the hands of the Egyptian authorities,” said Najia Bounaim.
“This grim situation will be made much worse if these restrictions are written into law, giving the Egyptian authorities sweeping new powers to monitor online content. It is not too late for the authorities to withdraw these laws and commit to allowing a safe and open space for freedom of expression and association in Egypt.”
The first law, known as the Law of the Organisation of Press, Media and the Supreme Council of Media, governs the establishment of private media platforms and the behaviour of private and public media. The second law, known as the Law of the National Authority of Press, focuses on the organization of newspapers and news websites run by the state. The third law, known as the Law of the National Authority of Media, focuses on the organization of TV channels and radio stations owned by the state. The Law on Combating Crimes of Information Technology focuses on websites that publish content considered harmful to the national economy or national security.
The Supreme Council was established by presidential decree No. 158 in 2017. Since its establishment it has committed numerous violations against the media, including referring journalists to disciplinary investigations in the Press Syndicate solely for doing their work.
Published on AI on July 2, 2018
A tax on social media use in Uganda, which came into effect on 1 July, is a clear attempt to undermine the right to freedom of expression and must be scrapped, Amnesty International said today.
President Yoweri Museveni announcing the tax in March said it was aimed at platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Viber, to curtail “gossip”, a clear infringement on the right to freedom of expression.
“It is not the place of the Ugandan authorities to determine which discussions taking place on social media platforms are useful. Rather, it is their responsibility to uphold and nurture unfettered enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression, both online and offline,” said Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
“Social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have opened up cheaper avenues of communication and information sharing in Uganda. By making people pay for using these platforms, this tax will render these avenues of communication inaccessible for low income earners, robbing many people of their right to freedom of expression, with a chilling effect on other human rights. This is a clear attempt to silence dissent, in the guise of raising government revenues.”
Amnesty International urges the Ugandan authorities to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the right to freedom of expression without any encumbrances whether it is exercised offline, or online on social media platforms, as guaranteed in Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Uganda has ratified.
Uganda’s parliament in May 2018 passed a new tax targeting what was described as “gossip” on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Viber in a bid to raise revenue for the government. The tax came into force on 1 July 2018.
Published on AI on July 2, 2018
By Victor Muisyo
The EU on Monday night called for “respect for freedom of expression” after an opposition-organized protest was dispersed last weekend my Malian security forces, events that left several people injured.
“The demonstrations must be peaceful and all actors including the police must exercise restraint,” said a spokesman for the European Union in a statement.
“It is important that the 2018 presidential election be held in peaceful, credible, transparent and inclusive conditions in order to strengthen Mali’s stability,” he added.
“The EU will remain fully committed to contribute through, inter alia, the deployment of an election observation mission,” he continued.
The Malian government had declared Sunday “false and slanderous” the statements of the opposition, which had initially reproached it for having used “live bullets” during demonstrations the day before in Bamako before demanding an “investigation”, two months to the presidential election on July 29.
In the aftermath of the clashes that left 25 wounded according to a hospital source, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, was worried the situation in Mali could escalate when he visited the country last week.
Published on Africa news on June 4, 2018
TURKEY: CHARGES AGAINST FILMMAKERS ÇAYAN DEMIREL AND ERTUĞRUL MAVIOĞLU AN AFFRONT TO FREE EXPRESSION
Minister of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey
İsmet İnönü Bulvarı No:32 06100
Emek Ankara, Turkey
Minister of Justice
Kızılay Mahallesi, Milli Müdafa Cd., 06420
Cc: Turkish National Commission for UNESCO
Dear Prof. Dr. Numan Kurtulmuş and Minister Abdulhamit Gül,
We, the undersigned cultural and human rights organizations, call upon the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Batman to drop charges immediately against filmmakers Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu and to cease efforts to criminalize the film and its makers. We also urge the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey and the General Directorate of Cinema to support both filmmakers and to advocate for charges against them to be dropped. The upcoming court proceeding against Demirel and Mavioğlu comes at a time when artists, academics, and journalists in Turkey are being criminalized in alarming numbers for the peaceful exercise of their free speech.
On May 29, Demirel and Mavioğlu will appear in front of the Batman 2nd Assize Court. Both filmmakers stand charged with disseminating propaganda in favor of a terrorist organization under Article 7/2 of Law no. 3713 on Counter-Terrorism for their documentary film Bakur, and face up to five years of imprisonment if found guilty. The feature length documentary, shot in the summer and fall months of 2013, shows the daily life of PKK members in three different camps in southeast Turkey. The timing of both the filming and production of Bakur coincided with the peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK to end a 40-year conflict during which a ceasefire was in place.
As the peace talks unraveled, Bakur was scheduled to premiere at the 34th Istanbul Film Festival on May 5, 2015, but on that day, the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) canceled the screening. The film was subsequently shown in numerous other international and national festivals, but two years later, on December 20, 2017, the filmmakers were accused of disseminating terrorist propaganda and giving “legitimacy to the terrorist organization PKK/KCK’s methods of using force, violence, or threats.” If found guilty, this would be the first time that filmmakers in Turkey would face a prison sentence due to a film, a dangerous precedent for the status of freedom of expression. However, as an attack on peaceful exercise of the right to free expression in Turkey, Bakur is not an isolated case. Numerous journalists, scholars, writers, and artists are currently facing similar criminal prosecutions.
The right to freedom of expression, whether in a film, newspaper, painting, or peaceful protest is an essential part of a functioning democratic society and the development of vibrant cultures. Artistic expression can play a productive role in addressing conflicts, reconciling former enemies, and can contribute to developing trust between individuals and groups that have experienced protracted conflicts. Turkey has affirmed this and made international commitments to uphold these freedoms, having ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The right to freedom of expression is also protected in the Turkish Constitution (Article 26), which states that, “Everyone has the right to express and disseminate his/her thoughts and opinions by speech, in writing or in pictures or through other media, individually or collectively.” Based on these commitments, Turkey can only exclude controversial works from the protections granted to free speech in exceptional and strictly defined circumstances where national security is under threat because the work would constitute “an incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” as expressed in Article 20 of the ICCPR. Further, based on Principle 6 of the Johannesburg Principles, the expression may only be punished as a threat to national security if a government can demonstrate that it is intended or likely to incite violence.
Bakur does not incite discrimination, hostility, or violence, but rather documents an attempt to reach a peace agreement after a decades-long conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government. Its purpose, as stated in the film’s own trailer, is “to invite its viewers to reflect on a war that has been continuing for decades and give an insightful look on its main subject, the PKK.” Such creative work is clearly and unequivocally protected in accordance with Turkey’s domestic and international commitments. Turkey must uphold its domestic and international commitments to protect freedom of expression and ensure that artists are free to create without fear.
Adil Soz – International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Albanian Media Institute
Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Bytes for All
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
Committee for Relevant Art (CORA)
City of Asylum – Pittsburgh
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Documentarist İstanbul Belgesel Günleri
European Documentary Network (EDN)
European Grassroots Antiracist Movement – EGAM
Federation of European Film and TV Directors (FERA)
Independent Journalism Center – Moldova
Index on Censorship
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
International Press Institute (IPI)
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Institute of Southern Africa
National Union of Somali Journalists
Pacific Island News Association
P24 (Platform for Independent Journalism)
Reporters Without Borders
South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)
South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression
The Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute
The Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP)
The International Exile Film Festival – Sweden
VdÜ e.V. – Die Literaturübersetzer
Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State
VS – Verband Deutscher Schriftstellerinnen und Schriftsteller
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)
TAKE ACTIONHelp PEN America and the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) raise awareness about this case and tweet your support for the directors of Bakur as they prepare to defend artistic freedom in Turkey. Use the button below or create your own tweet including hashtags #DefendBakur #SinemaYargılanamaz and #KeepFilmsOutOfCourt, and please tag @AtRiskArtists and @PENamerican so that we might amplify your message.
Published on PEN on May 28, 2018
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.
Senegal: Right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression must be respected amid crackdown on dissent
The Senegalese authorities must protect the right to peaceful protest and ensure the security forces refrain from using excessive force as anti-government demonstrations are planned today in the capital Dakar, Amnesty International said.
Activists and opposition parties are due to hold a demonstration outside Parliament against proposed changes to the Electoral Code and Constitution that, if passed, would require all candidates standing in next year’s presidential election to collect the signatures of one per cent of the registered voters in seven regions of the country before being validated. The authorities announced that the protest had been unauthorized on several grounds including a 2011 decree banning all assemblies in the city centre areas.
“Peaceful opposition protests in Senegal have previously been arbitrarily banned and met with unnecessary, excessive force by the police. The authorities must remember that peaceful protest and freedom of expression are human rights that must be respected,” said François Patuel, Amnesty International West Africa researcher.
“That means anyone protesting in a peaceful manner must be allowed to do so without the threat of violent retribution from the security forces. A heavy-handed crackdown on demonstrations would only serve to fuel political tensions.”
The proposal has sparked a fierce public debate with some opposition and activist groups, including the prominent youth movement Y’en a Marre (Fed-up), considering the revision a violation of the Constitution.
Amnesty International has previously documented several cases where security forces have used unnecessary and excessive force to arbitrarily ban and disperse peaceful assemblies in Senegal. In June 2017, security forces shot and injured two women, and beat several others, during a protest in the city of Touba against the ill-treatment of a 14-year-old boy by members of a religious association, often described as the “religious police”.
In July 2017, security forces used tear gas and batons to repress a peaceful demonstration organized by former President and opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade.
The authorities also continue to curtail freedom of expression and target artists, journalists, human rights defenders and political activists who express dissent. On 17 April 2018, Barthélémy Dias, opposition leader and mayor of Mermoz-Sacré-Cœur, a neighbourhood of Dakar, was sentenced to six months in prison for “contempt of court” and a fine of CFA 100 000 (approximately EUR 150) after he criticized the decision of the court to sentence opposition leader and Mayor of Dakar Khalifa Sall. Sall’s sentence of five years in prison and a fine of 5 million CFA (7600 EUR) for charges of fraud of public funds raised questions about the independence of the judiciary.
Published on Amnesty International on April 18, 2018
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
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