Human Rights First condemned the Syrian government’s use of chemical gas that killed over 70 civilians this week and urges the U.S. government to work with the international community to immediately address the gross violations of human rights and the commission of war crimes occurring in Syria. Following last night's U.S. missile strike against a Syrian airfield in response to the recent gas attack, the organization cautions that any use of force should comply with all applicable domestic and international law and must be situated within a broader strategy for resolving the conflict in Syria.
"While the United States has taken decisive action to uphold the prohibition against chemical weapons, we must remember that the Sarin gas attack on April 4 was but one egregious and unlawful attack in a conflict that has been ongoing for over six years and that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians," said Human Rights First's Rob Berschinski. "Any engagement in Syria should be founded in international and domestic law and must address the root of the conflict, as well as the human rights abuses that have been perpetrated against civilians. It must also provide for the protection of the refugees created by this violence."
The use of Sarin gas is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a direct violation of an agreement, brokered by Russia and the United States with the Syrian government in 2013, that Syria would destroy all its stocks of chemical weapons and refrain from their further use in the conflict. That agreement came after a chemical weapons attack against civilians in Ghouta in August 2013. U.S. military strikes at the time were averted by this diplomatic agreement. Since then, the Syrian government has persisted in its use of prohibited chemicals against civilians and, in doing so, contributed to the erosion of the international norm absolutely prohibiting the use of chemical weapons.
This week's Sarin gas attack is one of many incidents in which the Syrian government has exacted a devastating toll on civilians in the region. In addition to the chemical attacks, many thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed by airstrikes and other fighting. The conflict has created nearly five million refugees and over seven million internally displaced persons.
In light of this week's attack, the Trump Administration should take immediate steps to ensure that its response complies with domestic and international law, and should initiate robust efforts to bring an end to all mass killings of civilians in Syria, whether by chemical or conventional weapons.
Human Rights First urges the Trump Administration to:
In addition to renewing efforts to reach and enforce cessation of hostilities agreements, the United States and its allies should press for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the U.N. Security Council. Investigations and eventual prosecutions by the ICC would put responsible officials and military personnel on notice that they will be held accountable for international crimes they commit.
Even if the Security Council does not agree to a referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC, the United States and its allies should continue and intensify efforts to identify individuals responsible for mass atrocities and crimes against humanity and explore ways to apply targeted sanctions on these individuals, such as through measures proposed in bills currently under consideration by Congress.
"The continuing humanitarian crisis in Syria should be sufficient reason for the administration to renew strong, sustained diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis," noted Berschinski.
Published on Human Rights First's website on April 7, 2017.
SYRIA CRISIS: UN HUMANITARIAN CHIEF WELCOMES DONOR PLEDGES OF $6 BILLION TO HELP PEOPLE IN NEED IN 2017
Protecting refugees and assuring the safety of countries that receive them are complementary goals, a senior United Nations official today said in a special security forum that discussed denying safe havens to people who finance or commit terrorist acts, or to terrorists who try to abuse the asylum system.
“Our collective experience gained over many years has taught us that security and protection need to go hand in hand – one is not possible without the other,” Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee in New York.
There are some 21.7 million refugees around the world, some of whom are in Europe or trying to seek refuge there. While many have been welcomed with compassion, Mr. Türk said, others have faced national measures such as push-backs at borders, detention, and restricting access.
“The impact of such measures is simply the diversion of refugee movements along other routes and the aggravation of already precarious situations in regions embroiled in conflict,” said Mr. Türk, noting the threat from smugglers and trafficking, xenophobia and violence.
In contrast, Mr. Türk highlighted measures in line with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Measures such as biometric registration and background screening, ensure an orderly processing of refugees while also protecting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
“When asylum-seekers and refugees are promptly registered and have their status determined in a fair and efficient manner, States can be more confident of who is on their territory,” said Mr. Türk.
The 15-member Committee was established in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States, and works to criminalize the financing of terrorism and cut safe havens to terrorists, among others. Today's briefing focused on “ Denying safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts, or provide safe havens, and preventing terrorists from abusing the asylum system, in conformity with international law .”
One of the issues also discussed at the meeting was information sharing and need for cooperation between law enforcement and judicial authorities.
“The ability of States to assist one another quickly and successfully is an absolute necessity also for eliminating and preventing the creation of terrorists' safe havens,” said Mauro Miedico, the acting chief of the Terrorism Prevention Branch at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime(UNODC).
He urged Governments to further strengthen technology and abilities, particularly those in vulnerable regions with weak governance and criminal justice systems.
Published on the UN News Centre's website on April 5, 2017.
By Ole Solvang
Dozens of people showed symptoms consistent with exposure to chemicals after aircraft attacked Khan Sheikhoun, a town in northern Syria, witnesses told us. While we are continuing to investigate, early reports suggest dozens were killed. Khan Sheikhoun is controlled by armed groups fighting against Syrian government forces.
International law prohibits chemical attacks. With 192 member states, the Chemical Weapons Convention is one of the strongest weapon bans in international law. Syria joined the convention and gave up its chemical weapons program in 2013 after a chemical weapons attack, likely carried out by government forces, killed hundreds in a suburb of Damascus.
But that hasn’t meant that Syrian government forces have stopped carrying out chemical attacks. Instead, chemical attacks have become a regular occurrence in Syria. Human Rights Watch has documented Syrian government helicopters dropping canisters filled with chlorine in dozens of cases. We issued reports on these attacks in May 2014, April 2015, June 2015, and September 2016. In our latest report, we documented that Syrian government forces conducted coordinated chemical attacks in November and December 2016 during the final stages of the battle for Aleppo.
We have also documented that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has used chemical weapons both in Syria and in Iraq.
While the United Nations Security Council has condemned chemical attacks in Syria on several occasions, Russia and China have used their vetoes to block sanctions on the Syrian government. Those responsible for past chemical attacks might have taken the lack of consequences as a green light to conduct more attacks.
Syrian government forces conducted coordinated chemical attacks in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo during the final month of the battle for the city.
The continued use of chemical attacks in Syria by government forces and armed groups threatens to undermine the very strong ban against chemical weapons in international law, which may encourage their use by others.
The Security Council, including Russia and China, should condemn this latest attack and support steps to hold those responsible to account.
Published on HRW's website on April 4, 2017.
By Hamza Mohamed
The country's former president silenced its media, but with a new government journalists are returning to work."Unbelievable really. Never thought I will see this happen. Guys: chop-chop. Faster, please," Biram Sait Jobe tells a group of builders who are working on the expansion of the rooms that house Taranga FM.
The radio station went off air early last month after it finally got a permit to carry out maintenance and expansion work on its crumbling building. For close to five years, the station had sought such a permit from the government of the former president of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, but with no luck.
"The only thing we expected from Jammeh was to be arrested for just doing our work," explains Jobe, a senior presenter at the community radio station based in the town of Sinchu Alhagie. "You expected to be jailed anytime and anywhere. Forget getting a permit to expand a radio station."
In fact, after the station was founded in 2008, Jammeh's government shut it down five times. The last time soldiers raided Taranga was in January.
Jammeh came to power through a military coup in 1994 and slowly silenced the country's once vibrant media. One by one, stations went off air and some of The Gambia's best and most vocal journalists either went into exile or left the industry.
Radio Taranga's owner and founder was one of those forced into exile. But the station defied the odds and continued to broadcast.
"Since I started working at this station in 2008, nine of my colleagues left. Some went abroad to get away from Jammeh and others left journalism. Until last month, my wife and parents also wanted me to leave journalism," explains 34-year-old Jobe.
Those media houses that remained on air stopped broadcasting news bulletins and focused instead on sports and non-political music for fear of being raided by the security forces.
In a country where many cannot afford televisions and the newspapers are mostly in English, a language that isn't widely spoken, and do not reach the rural areas where most of the population resides, it was radio stations that suffered the most.
'They burnt down my house'
Taranga was different. It broadcast news bulletins in three local languages: Wolof, which is spoken by the majority of Gambians, Manika and Fula. It also translated the English-language newspapers for its listeners. The station quickly became popular - and it attracted the ire of those in power.
"When we started doing this, they came to our place and shut us down," says Jobe. "They took us off air for six straight months. That was in 2010."
But when it returned to the airwaves later that year, Radio Taranga continued where it had left off.
The government responded, taking it off air for a year and a half.
Its insistence on broadcasting news and current affairs brought the station trouble. Only state TV and radio were allowed to broadcast news and even they were not out of the reach of the president's long arm.
The state TV station, which is housed in the same building as the country's information ministry, is the country's only television channel.
"All the staff and journalists you see here were victims of Jammeh, one way or another," explains Ebrima Sillah, the director general of The Gambia Radio & Television Service, in his spacious office a few doors away from the state TV's main studios.
One of the country's most experienced journalists, Sillah experienced first hand the dangers of pursuing the profession in Jammeh's Gambia.
"They burnt down my house and I was lucky to escape with my life," he says slowly.
"They sent me warning letters to stop me from working. I used to get constant phone calls threatening me," adds Sillah, who returned from exile in Senegal a month ago after the country's new government asked him to transform the state broadcaster.
"During Jammeh's time, the state media was nothing but his mouthpiece. We are now trying to change that. We want to inform the public so that they can make informed choices on important matters in our country."
'This is a new Gambia'
For the first time in more than 20 years, the tiny West African country's media is abuzz. Journalists are returning from exile and the new government has been vocal in assuring them of their support.
"The days where the government told the media how to report are long gone. This is a new Gambia and freedom of the press is going to be protected," says Malik Jones, the deputy permanent secretary at the information ministry.
"We have repealed the repressive media commission bill which was used to suppress the media. The freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the media is a priority for us."
Since the new government took office in January there has been a flurry of interest in opening new media houses.
"There is a significant interest to establish private media houses," Jones says. "We have received applications requesting broadcast licences. There have been four requests for TV stations and three for radio stations."
Even the country's journalists' union has praised the new government. "They have been very open and welcoming to our ideas," explains Emil Toure, the general secretary of the Gambian Press Union. "They have agreed to our demands to repeal all the laws that held our country's media back."
Jobe is still coming to terms with his new found freedom.
"I sometimes have to tell myself this is not a dream. That this is real. That Jammeh is gone and I can work freely," he says, smiling.
Published on Al Jazeera's website on April 3, 2017.
By Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria
One evening in the early days of Syria’s uprising, Mohsen al-Masri’s band of activists slipped through the Damascus streets and waited for the coast to clear. Then they crouched, opened their bags and let out a stream of color.
Thousands of ping-pong balls, painted green, pink, blue and yellow, bounced past policemen, who scrambled to stop them. Residents would find balls tucked in nooks and crannies for months. Each was marked with a single word: “Freedom.”
The punishment for Masri’s acts of peaceful protest would begin a journey into hell, unusual not because of what he saw, but because he survived.
In a series of interviews, he described how he was tortured and interrogated over a two-year period in four detention facilities before arriving in a hospital at the heart of a nationwide system of brutality.
The hospital, known as 601, is not the only site of torture in Syria. But after it was seen in a cache of photographs showing thousands of skeletal corpses, it became one of the most notorious.
Inside the facility, about a half-mile from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s palace, sick prisoners are tortured as they lie shackled to beds crammed with dying men, according to Masri and former detainees and military personnel who worked there. Corpses have been piled in bathrooms, outhouses and anywhere else they will fit, then meticulously documented and trucked away for mass burial.
In interviews across Lebanon, Turkey and Europe, more than a dozen survivors and army defectors described horrors in Syrian military hospitals across the country for which war crimes lawyers say they have struggled to find a modern parallel.
The former detainees come from all walks of life. Elite, working-class, leftist and Islamist, their only connection to one another was involvement in Syria’s 2011 uprising. Some were its instigators. Others said they had simply commented on the Facebook statuses of friends who supported protests.
Investigators say that testimony and documentation from Syria’s military hospitals offer some of the most concrete evidence to date of crimes against humanity that could one day see senior government figures tried in court.
“We were swept into a system that was ready for us. Even the hospitals were slaughterhouses,” Masri said in an interview last month.
Medicine has been used as a weapon of war since the earliest days of the uprising, when pro-government doctors performed amputations on protesters for minor injuries.
Military hospitals across Syria have long set aside wards for prisoners. But since 2011, these have been packed with men left starving and broken by the conditions they have already endured.
More than 100,000 people have been arrested or forcibly disappeared in Syria since the country’s revolt began, according to a list compiled by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group. During that time, international aid groups have gotten access to only a handful of prisons with the government’s permission, none of which the detainees interviewed by The Washington Post spent time in.
Masri’s ordeal began in the spring of 2012 when he was arrested on his way to a conference in Turkey. Repeatedly tortured as he was transferred from jail to jail, he arrived at Sednaya, one of the most feared.
In a report published in February, Amnesty International said torture and forced starvation are systematic at the prison. But Masri said that prisoners learned to stay silent when guards asked who needed to go to the hospital.
“It didn’t matter what they did to us; we had to pretend we were fine. People rarely came back from those trips,” he said.
After months of starvation, Masri’s name was added to the weekly transfer list. As darkness fell on an evening in May 2012, he was chained to another man and taken to trucks outside. Attaching a number to Masri’s body, a guard told him to forget his name. Then he was blindfolded.
Everyone gets the “welcome” party, Masri said — a savage beating involving guards and medical staffers wearing white coats over military uniforms. In Hospital 601, the weakest man was pushed to the floor and brutalized first. In the nearby Tishreen Military Hospital, a former technician at the facility, Mohammed al-Hammoud, said he had seen prisoners dragged down steps by the hair.
“Everything was about control,” said Somar Mustafa, a physics student from Damascus who was sent to Hospital 601 at the end of 2012. Inside, he saw detainees chained to their beds and packed so tightly that they sat with their knees jutting into their rib cages.
Bathroom breaks were so rare that prisoners would defecate where they sat, remaining in the same spot for days. “We were blindfolded with that smell all around us. You can’t shake the memory of it, even when you leave,” Mustafa said.
At least five branches of the Syrian security forces have operated wards inside Hospital 601 since 2011, according to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, a body set up to monitor the conflict. “Detainees, including children, have been beaten, burned with cigarettes, and subjected to torture that exploits preexisting injuries,” it said in a 2013 report. The commission concluded that many patients had been tortured to death inside the facility.
The Harasta Military Hospital, also in Damascus, moved its ward from the first floor to the seventh to prevent detainees from escaping, a defector said. “It was the only floor without an elevator, and we knew they couldn’t jump out the window.”
Investigators say the abuses could become central pillars in any eventual case for prosecution of the hospitals’ doctors, as well as senior figures in the Syrian government.
In 601, Masri and Mustafa said, they saw high-ranking officers from the security branches accompanying doctors on their rounds. Sometimes the teams would pause by a prisoner to discuss his treatment. Other times the men would beat him.
The doctors were helped by service staffers in blue uniforms, many of them former supporters of the revolt who had been co-
opted by their jailers. “Our best men had been broken by torture. If they didn’t beat us, they risked a worse fate themselves,” Masri said.
The guards went by nicknames to avoid identification. Four survivors said the most famous was known as Azrael, or the Angel of Death. They described him as a thickset man from Assad’s coastal stronghold of Latakia who carried a stick laced with razor blades. They said he selected prisoners, most of them deathly ill, for a fate he called “justice.” The detainees called it execution.
Masri recalled Azrael taking a lighter to a plastic bag and melting it drop by drop onto a prisoner’s face until he died, apparently of a heart attack. Other prisoners said he used an iron rod to smash their bedmates’ skulls.
Many died where they lay, slumped against their bedmates until morning came. For Mustafa in the winter of 2012, that meant sharing a bed until sunrise the next day with three corpses.
As the uprising outside morphed into a war, former prisoners say, their interrogators became obsessed with the notion of accomplices, torturing prisoners to extract the names of new suspects to arrest.
Documents signed by senior government and security officials acknowledged the upsurge in deaths, at times complaining that the bodies were building up.
“It’s impossible to interrogate, torture and kill tens of thousands of detainees without a system in place,” said Scott Gilmore, a staff attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability. “Before the revolution, the regime was not generating thousands of dead bodies. Then all of a sudden it was. So what did you do with them?”
A December 2012 order signed by the head of Syria’s military intelligence department instructed every security branch to send their dead to a military hospital’s morgue. The document, obtained by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a Europe-based investigative unit, said that each body should be examined and logged.
A trove of these photographs was published around the world in 2014, after being smuggled out of Syria by a military police defector known only by his code-name, Caesar. Most were taken inside Hospital 601. Skeletal bodies of children as young as 11 bore signs of torture, with eyes gouged out and limbs drilled through and burned. Following Syrian government protocol, Caesar had methodically documented the deaths of some 11,000 people.
“You have to realize that these were just the photographs taken by a single man during a single period, and even then, they were only a fraction of what he’d actually recorded,” said Nadim Houry, who examined the photographs for Human Rights Watch.
Assad recently described the images as “fake news,” suggesting they had been doctored to suit the aims of human rights groups.
But defectors describe hauling numbered bodies into transparent bags in Hospital 601 and nearby military hospitals in Tishreen and Harasta. Investigators from the United Nations and private law firms have collected similar testimony from the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Daraa.
By late 2012, the system had buckled, and the December order berated individual military departments for failing to register their dead on time.
Those who survive are funneled back to nearby jails, Masri said. Others, like Mustafa, are released to a Damascus court packed with prisoners and dismissed from custody on the spot, after a judge acknowledges that they had been forced to make false confessions under torture. The young man said he remembers falling into the arms of his sobbing parents.
Masri’s discharge from 601 sent him back to Sednaya. Another year of torture followed, with nights spent packed next to other men in the darkness. He felt forgotten.
In the winter of 2014, he dreamed he was taking a hot shower, its stream stripping back two years of dirt and leaving him clean. He woke to find a guard in his cell. “He told me it was time to go,” Masri said. “I cannot describe that feeling. It was too much, too big. Indescribable.”
Back home in Damascus, he said, he remembers closing the bathroom door to stand alone for a moment, shutting his eyes to finally feel at peace. When he opened them, he saw a sheet-white, rawboned man staring back from the mirror.
“I started screaming,” Masri said. He did not recognize himself.
Published on the Washington Post's website on April 2, 2017.
By José Miguel Vivanco
On March 29, the Venezuelan Supreme Court effectively shut down Congress, the only key government institution that remained independent of executive control, making the incredible announcement that it would assume all legislative powers itself or choose some other institution to delegate them to. This ruling is the end of Maduro administration’s façade of democracy.
This was not an isolated event that occurred out of the blue. Over the years the Maduro administration has steadily and very deliberately rolled back checks on its own power while running roughshod over Venezuelans’ fundamental human rights.
Holding periodic, free, and fair elections. The National Electoral Council—with its majority of government supporters—has deliberately stalled a recall referendum on President Nicolás Maduro. It has not organized municipal and state governor elections that, under the Constitution, were supposed to take place in 2016.
Separation of powers. None of Venezuela’s government institutions have maintained any ability to act as a check on executive power. Former president Hugo Chávez took over the Supreme Court in 2004, and both Chávez and Maduro have re-packed it since then, destroying its watchdog function. Since Venezuelans overwhelmingly gave the opposition a majority in the National Assembly in 2015, President Maduro has used the court to undermine it. After months in which the court nullified every law that threatened the government’s interests, it declared that Congress was in contempt of the court’s decisions and took over all legislative functions, effectively shutting down the legislature.
Repression of Political Opponents and Critics. The Venezuelan Penal Forum, a non-profit group that provides legal counsel to detainees, counts more than 100 political prisoners, including Leopoldo López , an opposition leader who has been behind bars for over three years. Some political prisoners were arrested on the basis of information provided by anonymous “patriotic” informants. The government has been using its intelligence services to detain and prosecute political opponents and critics.
But the Supreme Court ruled that opposition legislators’ support for the ongoing debate at the Organization of American States (OAS) on the Venezuela crisis may constitute treason and warned that the lawmakers responsible would not have parliamentary immunity.
Respect for freedom of expression. Very few independent media outlets remain. Security forces have detained and interrogated journalists and confiscated their equipment. International journalists have been stopped from entering the country to cover the crisis, or detained for doing so. News channels have been forced off the air. The government has adopted measures to restrict international funding of non-profit organizations whose work exposes abuses—on the unsubstantiated grounds that they undermine Venezuelan democracy. Ordinary citizens who criticized the government have been criminally prosecuted. The media have reported that hundreds of people were fired from government jobs for supporting the recall referendum.
Respect for other civil and political rights. Venezuelan security forces have repeatedly used brutal force against bystanders and demonstrators at anti-government protests. In some cases, they have used torture. A series of police and military raids in 2015 in low-income and immigrant communities has led to widespread allegations of abuse: extrajudicial executions, mass detentions, arbitrary deportations and evictions, and the bulldozing of homes.
Respect for economic, social, and cultural rights. Venezuela is facing a dramatic humanitarian crisis. Severe shortages of medicine, medical supplies, and food have undermined the ability of many Venezuelans to get adequate nutrition and health care. The government has denied that the crisis exists, failed to alleviate the shortages, and made only limited efforts to obtain readily available international humanitarian assistance.
For years, Venezuela has been run by a government with a deplorable human rights record that has taken advantage of a tremendous concentration of power to gradually erode human rights guarantees and checks on its own power. The latest Supreme Court ruling is a turning point. Faced with something that looks more and more like a full-fledged dictatorship, the international community should react—strong and decisive multilateral pressure on the Maduro administration is more important and urgent than ever.
Published on HRW's website on March 31, 2017.
Can’t Stay. Can’t Go. Refused asylum seekers who cannot be returned’ (Catherine Blanchard and Sarah Joy for the British Red Cross, February 2017) examines the situation of persons who have been refused asylum in the UK, but cannot return to their country of origin, some because they are stateless. Many such persons live in hardship for extended periods of time, with minimal or no support, and suffer severe mental health conditions and other challenges. The British Red Cross concludes that ‘it is inhumane to keep them living in destitution for years’ and advocates for the government to grant such persons discretionary leave to remain in the UK, with the right to work and access higher education. Asylum Aid’s Legal Policy Officer, Cynthia Orchard, provided input for the research.
By José Adán Silva
During the 161st session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an empty chair across from the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanzas, sums up the Nicaraguan government’s relationship with this issue in the country: absence.
At the Mar. 15-22 meeting of the IACHR, an independent Organisation of American States (OAS) body, only Cuba, the United States and Nicaragua were absent from the debate in the review and complaints session, which in the case of Nicaragua dealt with freedom of expression.
It was the third time this Central American country abstained from participating, which according to experts on freedom of expression and journalism conveys a “disregard” by the government towards the media and journalists, ever since leftist President Daniel Ortega returned to power in 2007, after governing the country in the 1980s.
Adrián Uriarte, the dean of the social sciences department in the University of Commercial Sciences, said “freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and goes beyond the media.”
The academic explained to IPS a set of indicators he created to determine the degree of freedom of expression in a country.
The first “refers to the exercise of this right in different social areas: home, community, media, school, church, and now social networks,” while the second “has to do with the exercise of this right in public spaces: protests, demonstrations, marches,” he said.
The third involves “a citizen’s right to demand accountability from the government and the powers-that-be, including the media.”
The fourth relates to “the right to seek and access public information; and the fifth indicator has to do with the exercise of this right in writing, by radio or television, which of course is directly linked to freedom of the press.”
This country “has good grades in the first indicators, in terms of freedom of expression, mostly because in Nicaragua internet use is not yet regulated, and as a result, social networks have become the main new public spaces where citizens exercise their right to freedom of expression,” said Uriarte.
“But journalists and the media are ironically the group that exercises freedom of expression the least in Nicaragua. I would say actually that this is the area where self-censorship is practiced the most,” said the academic.
In Uriarte’s view, the government of Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who became vice president in January, “has a sectarian vision of freedom of the press.”
“There are public policies aimed at promoting technological development and access to information and advertising for public and private media outlets, but which have ties, according to investigative reporting, to the current administration,” he said.
“On balance, we can say that in Nicaragua those who suffer a lack of freedom of expression are private media outlets not influenced by the state,” said Uriarte.
“The most visible form has been denial of this right,” he said.
This “can be measured by the lack of access to information, zero interviews, zero advertising from the state, control over tax exemptions, and control of social and labour institutions to exert administrative pressure on owners of media outlets.”
“It is also seen in the cancelation of private spaces in local newscasts, removal of technical equipment from local radio stations, which has naturally led to the closure of private spaces of opinion due to a lack of economic sustainability for many journalists.”
Newspaper and radio reporter Juan Rodríguez has experienced firsthand the consequences of being considered an “opposition journalist”.
“In 2007 I was communications and press officer for the Executive Secretariat of the National System for Disaster Prevention and Care, when the Sandinista government came into power and they cancelled my contract with no legal justification. They fired me because they suspected that I belonged to the right-wing media,” he told IPS.
Since then, Rodríguez has got around a series of barriers and a lack of institutional support to make radio programmes, while complaining about political harassment for having headed the independent Association of Journalists of Nicaragua.
Journalist Luis Galeano, director of the local radio and television programme Café con Voz, put it like this: “As a journalist I always work thinking whether tomorrow we are going to be able to go on the air.” His programme, broadcast by a local TV station and a network of community radios, is not yet considered “opposition”, but Galeano is worried that any day now the authorities will apply pressure to remove it from the air.
“I don’t know whether the government will all of a sudden get annoyed with what I say or do in my programme and order its closure, or whether business people are going to request that my programme be shut down, or whether they will pressure the few business people that support the media to stop backing us. The truth is that I live in constant worry about whether or not I will remain on the air,” he said.
Dozens of journalists have complained about the same sense of uncertainty, to Nicaraguan human rights lawyer Juan Carlos Arce with the non-governmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre.
Freedom of expression, according to the United Nations, is based on “the freedom to seek, receive and impart information.” In the current situation this right is not guaranteed for individual citizens, collectives or independent journalists, due to a secretive government policy,” Arce told IPS.
According to the activist, the 2007 policy is based on the strict control of public information and manifests itself as a gag order for civil servants.
For Arce, the problem of freedom of expression is exacerbated by government control of the media. This, in his opinion, “runs counter to the government’s obligation to promote pluralism and independence in the media.”
In this Central American nation of 6.2 million people, in 2007 there was only one TV channel and one radio station in the hands of the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) , another state-owned station and two other pro-government stations, as well as several others close to the government.
In 2017, according to Arce, more than 80 per cent of the radio stations, TV channels, print media and on-line programmes are under the control of the FSLN, controlled by family members, political operators and like-minded journalists, although some occasionally declare themselves publicly as independent.
“As an advocate, the biggest problem is the lack of information of the institutions and the fact that that many people avoid speaking out because they fear retaliation from the government,” he said.
Arce said the absence of the government in the continental forums to debate on freedom of expression is shown not only by the empty chairs during the 161st session of the IACHR, but also in the countless pronouncements of international bodies on violations of human rights and other universal rights.
To illustrate, Arce mentioned U.N. criticisms in its Universal Periodic Review on Nicaragua in 2014, and other reports issued since 2008 by the U.S. State Department, the European Parliament, the OAS, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the Inter American Press Association, Freedom House, and Amnesty International, among others.
Published on IPS' website on March 31, 2017.