Earlier this week Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud made a public vow to “modernize” Saudi Arabia signalling key reforms could be on the agenda in the Kingdom.
Since the Crown Prince was appointed as official heir to the throne in June 2017 he has launched a slick PR campaign to improve the country’s image on the world stage.
Just weeks ago the authorities announced that women in the country will finally be granted the right to drive a car. While this is undoubtedly a step forward for Saudi Arabian women, and a testament to the women’s rights activists who campaigned for the right for many years, it is extremely overdue and does not make up for the fact that they face widespread discrimination in other walks of life.
Commentators have hailed the Crown Prince’s promises of reform as signs that change is on the horizon for Saudi Arabia. But it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s worst abusers when it comes to human rights. The months since the Crown Prince’s appointment, have seen no improvements, instead, its already dire rights record has continued to deteriorate.
Here are five crucial things Saudi Arabia’s authorities urgently need to do to prove they are truly committed to reform:
The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has killed and injured thousands of civilians during the Yemen conflict in recent years – many of them children. According to the UN Secretary General’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report 683 children were killed or injured by the Saudi-Arabia led coalition in 2016. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has also used cluster munitions – lethal explosive weapons which are inherently indiscriminate and are widely banned under international law because of the horrific injuries they can cause to civilians.
Published on Amnesty International on October 27, 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 TAISUKE KOMATSU
In contrast to several positive developments in part of the region with respect to democracy, rule of law and human rights, Japan is falling back. Despite consistent concerns from the opposition and civil society on the potential impacts on civil rights, such as freedom of expression, assembly and association, the Abe administration is stubbornly pushing for the adoption of the so-called anti-conspiracy bill without seeking consensus in the Diet. The draft legislation is widely criticized for its broad scope, which leaves worrying room for arbitrary use of the legislation against ordinary people.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joseph Cannataci, recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to share his serious concerns on the bill’s possible negative impacts on human rights. Since the draft law’s definition of an “organized criminal group” is too broad, the U.N. rights expert raised specific concerns in his letter on the potential restrictions on non-governmental organizations, especially on those working in areas of national security.
The draft bill could jeopardize the work of many human rights and environmental NGOs if the authorities use it against NGOs critical of the government in order to surveil, or worse, criminalize their work. Yet among Japanese civil society, many feel that Okinawa, the prefecture encompassing the country’s southernmost islands, is particularly threatened, because environmental and rights groups are energetically fighting against the government’s project to build a new U.S. military base.
Critics fear that a planned new base in Henoko in the northern part of Okinawa Island will lead to environmental destruction and human rights violations as well as the exposure of the islands as a military target. Many Okinawans carry bitter memories of the Battle of Okinawa, during which a quarter of the local population was lost in the last phase of the Pacific War because the islands were forced to serve as the Japan’s final line of defense.
Since the local civil society facilitates protests against the Henoko base construction and demands the maximum possible access to information concerning the military’s activities in order to assess impacts on their rights, the work of Okinawan civil society groups can be arbitrary interpreted as threatening Japan’s national security.
Dozens to hundreds of protesters gather around the Henoko construction site on land and at sea on a daily basis. Among them is Hiroji Yamashiro, the chairperson of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center, who has been a longtime leader of non-violent protests. His personal commitments to peace, human rights and environmental protection for the islands have turned him into a symbol of the resistance in Okinawa. Yet at the same time, he has been targeted by the authorities because of this leadership role.
In late 2016, he was arrested on minor charges multiple times in two months. As requests for bail were repeatedly turned down, he was detained for five months under exceptionally restrictive conditions. He was not allowed to meet anyone except lawyers, supposedly due to “the risk of destruction of evidence.” His wife finally managed to see him in detention for the first time after four and a half months, shortly before his release in March.
The retroactive arrests and prolonged detention were condemned by civil society as arbitrary measures to spread a chilling effect and discourage the protest movement. However, many say that the Yamashiro’s case is just the tip of the iceberg.
Under the Abe administration, media freedom has been struggling. Japan ranks 72nd for press freedom among 180 countries, the lowest for a Group of Seven country, representing a dramatic drop from 11th in 2010 at the time of the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan. Journalists critically covering the Okinawan issues are often portrayed as “anti-Japan” by influential figures, leading to undermining of the country’s media freedom. Two local newspapers, the Ryukyu Shimpo and the Okinawa Times, are the most targeted among the Okinawan media. Due to their critical coverage of the Japanese government’s policies on U.S. military facilities, the newspapers and their reporters are constantly attacked by conservative lawmakers and their allies.
One of the notorious examples is the so-called Hyakuta incident. Naoki Hyakuta, a best-selling writer and close friend of Abe, was invited to a study session in June 2015 organized by junior politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The attendees included then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and Koichi Hagiuda, a special adviser to Abe at that time. Though the study session was to discuss the revision of the Constitution, the participants went further to have a heated debate on how to “punish” media outlets critical of the government. The novelist attacked the two Okinawan newspapers by saying, “The two Okinawan newspapers must be destroyed. I believe if some of the islands in Okinawa [Prefecture] were to be invaded by China, although such a thing should not happen, they will awake from their sleep.” No lawmaker present at the session questioned the remark; many endorsed it. Although this incident sparked outrage within and outside Okinawa, the regression of freedom of expression did not stop.
Last week, another United Nations human rights expert released a report on Japan, sending a serious alert about the country’s bitter reality when it comes to freedom of expression. While the special rapporteur on the freedom of expression, David Kaye, refrained from touching on the draft “anti-conspiracy” bill, he “identified significant worrying signals” that “undermine Japan’s democratic foundations.” In addition to his concerns on the lack of political will to ensure media independence and access to information, Kaye specifically pointed out the situation in Okinawa, saying he found “the availability of space for dissent and access to information for those throughout Japan about the situation there” is restricted. The Japanese government bluntly rejected the U.N. rights expert’s views.
Whenever questions are raised on the situation of freedom of expression, the Abe administration repeats the claim like a broken record that Japan’s Constitution guarantees human rights. However, objective observations by human rights experts are shedding light on the different sides of the country. In describing his detention after being released, Yamashiro revealed the country’s bitter reality: “I was detained for such a long time baselessly. I believe that was intended to intimidate Okinawans.”
In any democratic country, such a high price should not have to be paid for dissent. Pressures within and outside the country are intensifying for the Abe government to make substantial steps to create a society where everyone can embrace the right to freedom of expression without fearing any consequences.
Published on The Japan Times on June 6, 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 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.