Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the press law amendments that President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed into law yesterday because they deal a new series of blows to media freedom in Kazakhstan, especially to investigative journalism and access to state-held information.
As Kazakh press legislation already contained many draconian provisions, hopes were raised by the original announcement that it was to be amended, and again when journalists were consulted about the changes, as this is not customary in Kazakhstan.
But these amendments will just make things worse. After the lower house passed them in late November, RSF joined Kazakh press freedom groups in urging the senate to reject them – but to no avail.
“Far from the announced intentions, this package of amendments obstructs the activities of journalists even more and makes them more vulnerable to pressure,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“We deeply regret that, although media professionals were consulted, their opinions were ignored. The authorities need to understand that journalistic freedom and independence would benefit society as a whole and the country’s development.”
Under one of the most controversial amendments, journalists are required to obtain the permission of persons named in their articles before publishing information involving matters of “personal and family confidentiality.”
Kazakh law already protects the right to privacy and medical confidentiality, among others, and this new form of confidentiality is left undefined, opening the way to the broadest possible interpretation. Investigative journalists fear it could obstruct their reporting, especially coverage of corruption. There is similar concern about a ban on “information violating lawful interests,” which are also not defined.
One of the amendments complicates the right of access to state-held information. The length of the time within which officials must answer journalists’ questions is more than doubled, with the result that by the time journalists get their answer, there is every chance it will no longer be newsworthy. Furthermore, officials are also given the right to classify certain answers.
Under one of the amendments, Internet users are required to identify themselves before posting a comment on a news website, and their information will be stored for three months. This suggests that there could be a further increase in the number of people being jailed because of their online comments, which has already grown sharply in recent years.
The package nonetheless does include a few positive amendments that were the result of the prior consultation with media representatives and NGOs. The right of control over one’s own photographic or video image is restricted during public events and a procedure is established for settling press-related disputes out of court.
Also, the authorities will no longer be able to impose such drastic sanctions as the confiscation of a newspaper issue or the closure of a media outlet in response to minor regulatory violations. It should nonetheless be pointed out that the leading independent media outlets have already been forced to close on the basis of such minor violations.
There have been almost no independent media outlets in Kazakhstan since the simultaneous closure of all the leading national opposition newspapers in December 2012. This dire situation has been compounded by the judicial system’s readiness to cooperate in arrests of outspoken journalists and bloggers.
Kazakhstan is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Published on Reporters Without Borders on December 29, 2017
By Jesselyn Cook
Mexican authorities discovered the charred remains of Salvador Adame’s body this week, more than a month after a group of armed assailants reportedly abducted the veteran TV reporter in the crime-plagued state of Michoacán.
Halfway through the year, Adame’s death brings to seven the 2017 toll of slain press workers in Mexico ― now among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. This grim figure includes at least four reporters who were killed in direct retaliation for their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Adame’s colleague described him to CPJ as a “a frequent critic of municipal officials” who covered regional news and politics as the director of local channel 6TV. His killing follows a worsening trend of targeted threats and violence against media professionals in the drug-torn nation.
Targeting And Silencing Journalists
Months earlier, Miroslava Breach Velducea, a crime reporter for national newspaper La Jornada, was killed outside her home in the northern state of Chihuaha. An unknown gunman shot her eight times in front of one of her children.
Breach Velducea’s death, “in a calculated act of extreme violence, has left the best journalism of Chihuahua severely injured, showing the seriousness of the failure of the state that has bled with the impunity of corrupt leaders and criminals for years,” La Jornada wrote in her obituary. “It’s not the death of one more journalist ― it’s the death of our society, which bit by bit has become accustomed to the assassination of its best people, silencing them in all sorts of ways.”
The attacker reportedly left a note at the scene of Breach Velducea’s killing, that read: “For being a snitch.”
CPJ data reveals that the majority of slain reporters in Mexico in recent decades had focused their news coverage on issues of crime and corruption ― most of whom are believed to have been killed in acts of retaliatory repression by criminals seeking to silence their critics.
And in many ways, they’ve succeeded.
“Fear and self-censorship by journalists remains very, very strong,” Emmanuel Colombié, Latin America director for Reporters Without Borders (or Reporters sans frontières), told HuffPost. Some reporters have fled Mexico and others have quit the industry as a result of targeted threats and violence against members of the Mexican press, he noted.
In the border state of Tamaulipas, for example, “there are very few journalists remaining,” Colombié said. “Any kind of news has to be based on the official statements and press releases from the government.”
On its annual World Press Freedom index, RSF ranks Mexico 147th out of 180 countries, due to its “pervasive corruption accounting for impunity.”
Corruption And Impunity
The kidnappings and assassinations of journalists in Mexico often go unpunished due a thriving cycle of corruption and impunity, according to CPJ.
“Endemic impunity allows criminal gangs, corrupt officials and cartels to silence their critics,” the organization explained in a special report released in May.
High-level corruption and organized crime including raging cartel violence have long tarnished Mexico’s ongoing drug war. But these issues, while rampant and newsworthy, have become particularly dangerous for journalists to report on.
“At the local level in certain states, the cartels can have direct influence on the political institutions,” Colombié explained. “They can directly give orders to the local authorities. In some states, powerful governors use their connections with local organizations to punish journalists investigating any kind of topic that can negatively impact them. It’s a very complex situation.”
State governors are among Mexico’s least reputable public authorities, according to a 2017 report by the International Crisis Group. At least 11 governors have been investigated since 2010 for corruption, including fraud, money laundering, nepotism and links to drug cartels.
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Wake up to the day's most important news.“Obviously, if those responsible for these crimes against journalists aren’t caught and brought to justice, this will only continue,” Colombié said. “If we don’t fight impunity, we won’t solve the problem, but there’s a lack of political will at the highest level to do so.”
Mexican journalist Adela Navarro Bello summarized the haunting plight of her colleagues in a sobering CPJ feature.
“Being a journalist in Mexico means learning to live in the shadow of impunity: the impunity you investigate and report on, and the impunity experienced firsthand,” she wrote. “Those who investigate corruption and impunity risk losing their sense of comfort or, worse, their lives. And after their murders, an incomplete file is the most likely end to an investigation into their deaths.”
Insufficient Response From Mexican Government
After the gruesome, public killing of award-winning drug cartel reporter Javier Valdes sparked international outrage in May, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed for the first time to dedicate “the necessary resources to provide journalists and human rights defenders with the protection they need.”
“Violence against journalists and human rights defenders has opened a deep wound in our society,” he added. “What people expect is results, and a fight against impunity.”
Press freedom advocacy organizations lauded his remarks, but they have observed little real change to date and fear they could be “dutiful statements” ahead of Mexico’s 2018 presidential election.
“We welcome this statement by the president, but the important thing now is to do the follow-up,” said Colombié. “We need to see concrete action and reform to protect journalists.”
Mexico also created a special prosecutor office to investigate crimes against freedom of expression more than a decade ago, but the institution has been largely ineffective in addressing the crisis.
It opened 123 case files between February 2016 and February 2017 including 10 homicides, but it has secured only three convictions.
The agency’s ability to conduct investigations independent of state authority influence is more effective on paper than in practice, according to CPJ, and many journalists are also fearful and hesitant to report crimes against them.
“It’s a tragic reality,” Colombié said. “Journalists are scared, and they don’t trust the authorities to protect them, so they just stop working as journalists and they keep silent.”
Published on the Huffington Post on June 30, 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.