Testimony of Maria Burnett, East and Horn of Africa Director, at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
Co-Chairman Hultgren and members of the Commission, thank you for the invitation to testify today.
Thousands of Eritreans, many of them young, flee Eritrea every month. This means Eritrea is losing a significant percentage of its population – by far the largest of any country not wracked by active conflict. UNHCR reported that at the end of 2016 there were 459,000 Eritreans who had claimed asylum worldwide in African states, in the Middle East, in Europe and here in the United States. Eritrea does not release population statistics, but estimations put that at more than 10% of Eritrea’s current population.
Based on Human Rights Watch research, Eritreans’ most predominant impetus for flight is to escape what is known as “national service.” By a proclamation issued in 1995, all Eritreans are subject to 18 months of national service, including six months of military training. Eritrean law requires Eritreans leaving the country to hold an exit permit which the authorities only issue selectively, severely punishing those caught trying to leave without one, including with jail time.
To be clear, limited terms of national conscription do not, in themselves, constitute human rights violations. But it is not limited in Eritrea. The Eritrean government disregards the proclamation’s time limits. Many conscripts are forced to serve indefinitely. Human Rights Watch has interviewed hundreds of Eritreans who were forced to serve a decade or more before they decided to flee -- in one recent case, a man had been in forced national service for over 17 years.
While some fortunate conscripts are assigned to civil service jobs or as teachers, many are placed in military units assigned to work on “development” projects in agriculture and infrastructure. None have a choice about their assignments, the locations or length of their service.
In the past few years, more and more unaccompanied children have fled Eritrea. When interviewed in Europe, they’ve explained they feared being forced into possibly indefinite military service. Many children told us they had observed what had happened to their fathers, older siblings, or other close relatives who had been conscripted and didn’t want to suffer the same fate.
It’s not just the length of time that causes so many conscripts to flee. What happens to them during their years of service is also devastating.
Pay during national service is below subsistence, although the Eritrean government has recently announced increases for some conscripts. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry in 2015 correctly called Eritrea’s national service a form of “enslavement.” During service, commanders subject conscripts to physical abuse, including torture.
An 18-year-old boy, interviewed by Human Rights Watch summed up what many have told us: “We love our country, but when you finish Grade 12, you become a soldier for life. You cannot feed your family and you’re the property of the army. And I did not want that, so I was forced to flee.”
The abuses in national service are long standing and well-documented, and recent interviews reveal that, sadly, nothing has changed in recent years.
National service may be the leading cause of the Eritrean exodus but there are others of significance.
Citizens cannot express their views or question government policies affecting them. There is no legislative representation, no independent press, no independent non-governmental organizations to which citizens can turn. The judiciary is tightly controlled by the government. President Isaias has refused to implement a constitution approved by referendum in 1997 that confers some citizens’ basic rights.
Eritreans who criticize or question government policies during government-called community assemblies, or in more limited fora, have been punished without trial or means of appeal. Suspicion alone may be enough to lead to arrest; often a prisoner is not told what “crime” he or she has committed. Indefinite imprisonment is a usual punishment, sometimes accompanied by physical abuse. Imprisonment can be incommunicado; relatives are not told of the whereabouts of a prisoner, much less allowed to visit.
Relatives of those that speak out are also punished. They are denied government ration cards to buy scarce but essential provisions.
Eritreans are punished for having the “wrong” religious beliefs. Since 2002, the government has “recognized” only four religious groups: Sunni Islam and the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical (Lutheran) churches.
At times, security personnel raid private homes where devotees of unrecognized religions meet for communal prayer. Arrests and imprisonment of attendees usually follow; so, sometimes, does physical abuse. Repudiation of his or her religion is typically the price of a prisoner’s release.
Even adherents and leaders of the “recognized” religions are not necessarily immune from punishment. [as Father Thomas will already have explained to the Commission in detail.]
But unfortunately, abuses do not stop when people leave Eritrea. Fleeing Eritreans are often victimized by their smugglers especially those trying to reach the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe. Abuses are rampant in Sudan, Egypt and Libya en route and hundreds have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Those who survived have told Human Rights Watch interviewers of horrific stories about the dangers they encountered during their journey but insisted it was worth their escape from oppression. One boy, interviewed in Italy after his three-month journey from Eritrea, told Human Rights Watch: “I fled my country [Eritrea] because of all the problems I had while I was in the army. I don’t want to be a soldier but they beat me and tortured me when I was caught trying to escape. When I finally got out I thought I would be free, but I was beaten and tortured even worse in Sudan and Libya by smugglers. Crossing the sea was terrifying, but I am so relieved to finally be here.”
There are steps that the Eritrean government could take to stem migration, and importantly address the human rights crisis that has wracked the country. Eritrea could end indefinite national service and begin the process of demobilizing conscripts. It could penalize military commanders and security officers who authorize torture and other forms of severe physical punishment. It could unconditionally release political prisoners or bring anyone it considers an offender before a truly independent court of law. It could stop interference with all forms of peaceful religious expression. It could allow establishment of an independent press and non-governmental organizations. It could publicly affirm – and enforce – rights to freedom of expression, opinion, religion, association, and movement.
Unfortunately, the Eritrean government has steadfastly refused to change. In the absence of willingness by the Eritrean government to end its abuses and bring abusers to justice, other countries should investigate and prosecute individuals suspected of committing serious crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with their national laws.
Countries concerned by human rights abuses of Eritreans, and their efforts at migrating should work to undercut the Eritrean government’s public excuses for repression and protect the Eritreans who have fled from being repatriated to suffer further abuse.
With a new Secretary of State confirmation underway we expect to see some change at senior State Department levels [and this could mark the beginning of a new approach on Eritrea.] During Mike Pompeo’s confirmation hearing he said he was a “talent hawk.” If that is the case, we hope he will fill the position for Africa Assistant Secretary quickly and nominate someone who is well versed in issues and challenges related to the Horn of Africa – and not just counterterrorism or security related ones.
In 2002 an international boundary commission was established to demarcate the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The United States was a guarantor of an armistice agreement ending a 1998-2000 border war that established the international commission. While both sides agreed to accept the findings of the international commission as binding, Ethiopia refused to accept the findings when the final decision was to award a key piece of territory to Eritrea. President Isaias uses the border issue – of “no peace, no war” – as the principal excuse for his repressive policies. While both sides have been firmly entrenched in their positions, there may be an opening for reconsideration as Ethiopia’s new prime minister Dr Abiy Ahmed recently expressed his desire to resolve disputes with Eritrea after, in his own words “years of misunderstandings.”
The United States and other countries should urgently take steps to protect the Eritreans who have managed to flee the government’s oppression, should take into consideration the pattern of serious human rights abuses in Eritrea in examining asylum claims, and ensure that no one is returned to a threat of persecution or torture.
Last September, the U.S Departments of Homeland Security and State announced an intent to repatriate about 700 Eritrean individuals. The government should take care to ensure that all of those individuals have a genuine opportunity to advance any claims for protection in light of human rights conditions in Eritrea, if they have not done so already.
By shedding light on what’s happening to Eritreans in Eritrea and in countries of potential asylum, this Commission is performing a welcome and important public service.
Published on HRW on April 19, 2018
By Eunice Wanjiru
The regulation known as the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2017, initially published by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), was signed in mid-March 2018. Before and after the signing many voices have been raised in protest.
Under the new regulations, bloggers, as well as Tanzanians operating online radio and television streaming services, are required to apply for a license and pay an annual fee of over $900 (€750) before they can publish any material online. Online forums and social media users are also affected.
Critics say that this is a staggering amount. They regard the fee as a further bid by President John Magufuli to gag dissident voices.
The new regulation gives the government the right to revoke a permit if a site publishes content that "causes annoyance" or "leads to public disorder." A blogger can also be fined up to $2,200 for publishing such content.
This week two musicians were briefly detained, one of them one of the country's most popular singers, Nassib Abdul, better known as Diamond Platnumz. He and 26-year old Faustina Charles, popularly known as Nandy, was arrested after they posted video clips deemed obscene by the authorities. Abdul had shared a video clip that showed him kissing a girl while Faustina Charles had posted a clip of herself with another musician that was considered indecent. Both were released on bail.
"We can say that the freedom of expression in this country is progressively being shut down, constricted and seriously limited,” said Tanzanian political analyst Jenerali Ulimwengu. There is a lot of uncertainty in Tanzania at the moment about what the government may be planning to do next to further reduce press freedom and freedom of expression.
Some media organizations have in the past been shut down for lengthy periods of time. In 2017 alone, at least four newspapers were suspended and shut down. The Swahili daily Tanzania Daima was suspended for 90 days after being accused of spreading "false information" in a story about anti-retroviral drug use for people with HIV. A local newspaper, Nipashe, decided to suspend weekend publication for three months after publishing material that apparently did not go down well with President Magufuli.
Some journalists have been arrested and others have been reported missing. The editor of a popular discussion platform, Jamii Forums, was detained and tried for publishing content related to corruption in Tanzania.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the latest blow to free speech in Tanzania. "If Tanzanian authorities were aiming at killing online information, they would not go about it any differently," said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa desk.
"At RSF, we are deeply concerned by the path Tanzania has taken since President Magufuli took office in 2015. Many radios have been shut down, investigative journalist Azori Gwanda has been missing for five months and forum editors as well as journalists are regularly subject to criminal proceedings. So, this new regulation is a step further in a context of significant deterioration of press freedom in Tanzania," Froger said.
Alternative modes of expression
Fifty-eight-year-old President Magufuli took power in October 2015 and has slowly been tightening the laws that govern press freedom in the country, enabling police and government officials to increase their actions against media houses.
"I would like to tell media owners: Be careful... If you think you have that kind of freedom, [it is] not to that extent," Magufuli said at a public event in March. This comment followed one made in January this year when the president said that the days of newspapers acting unethically were "numbered."
"If you allow traditional media to thrive, be it newspapers, radio or television stations, you allow people to speak out openly and to air their views. You can respond to those views, you can challenge their arguments with counter arguments, but you do not just shut down spaces and hope people will just shut up," said Ulimwengu.
The Tanzanian political analyst said people always seek alternative ways to express themselves, and these could be more damaging.
"The more the authorities clamp down on legitimate voices which seek to express themselves and air their grievances, this will necessarily lead more and more people into clandestine, underground and less transparent modes of expression," Ulimwengu told DW.
Less support for Magufuli
Magufuli, nicknamed 'the Bulldozer' for his strict leadership style, has dismissed dozens of senior public officials over allegations of corruption and inefficiency since he was elected in late 2015. First welcomed, his authoritarian style is attracting increasing criticism.
"Everybody was pretty much behind Magufuli when he took these measures," Ulimwengu said. "But I have a feeling that fewer people are inclined to support him because he has now tainted that anti-corruption, anti-tax evasion stance with the clamping down on freedom of expression. And people are asking themselves, if you're really doing something good for the people, why do you want to hide it?" he added.
Under Magufuli's rule, numerous opposition members have been arrested or jailed, and people have been detained for perceived "insults" to the president.
Tundu Lissu, leader of the opposition Party for Democracy and Progress CHADEMA, was attacked on his way home after attending a parliamentary meeting last September. He was severely injured. Lissu is considered to be one of the most vocal critics of President Magufuli.
Opposition not being heard
"Opposition has been minimized. Members of the opposition feel like they are being harassed by the government on frivolous charges," Ulimwengu told DW.
"Some of them have gone completely quiet. You do not expect to hear voices strong enough, rising out of the opposition to say this is not right, this is not fair, this is anti-democracy."
Ulimwengu added that this leads to a generalized feeling that spaces are being shut down and that it is Magufuli's agenda to do so.
Magufuli has banned opposition parties from holding rallies and mobilization.
Human rights activists have been pressuring Magufuli to govern in a less authoritarian manner.
The United States, the European Union and several Western embassies last month voiced concern over politics-related violence and allegations of human rights abuses in Tanzania.
Published on DW on April 17, 2018
With Argentina in the global spotlight as it holds the G20 presidency this year, its government must commit to tackle human rights challenges and play a leading role in addressing other key regional and global issues, said Amnesty International during its Secretary General’s visit to the country.
“Argentina continues to face a number of urgent challenges, which particularly affect the country’s most vulnerable communities. Argentina’s presidency of the G20 entails a focus on economic development and trade, but this can never be separated from human rights. When this has happened, it has resulted in many millions being left behind, fuelling the potential for social and political unrest,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
At a meeting with President Mauricio Macri and other members of his cabinet, Salil Shetty discussed the organization’s views on the challenges and opportunities with regard to the human rights context in the country, and the key role that Argentina plays in relation to other global and regional issues.
The Secretary General welcomed Argentina’s generosity towards migrants and refugees and fleeing a human rights crisis in Venezuela, but he also emphasized the need for regional leaders, including Argentina, to work towards a real solution in Venezuela which puts human rights at its centre.
President Macri’s initiative to open up a congressional debate on abortion is an important step toward fulfilling Argentina’s international obligation on human rights. Half a million women undergo abortions every year in the country and over 3,000 Argentinian women have paid with their lives for the criminalization of abortion. Besides, public opinion is increasingly clear: in a recent survey commissioned by Amnesty International, 59% of people interviewed were in favour of decriminalizing abortion.
“In the era of #NiUnaMenos, #MeToo and the huge momentum for women’s rights across the world, but also at a time when women’s rights are being rolled back across the Americas, Argentina could send a powerful signal by taking the historic step of decriminalizing abortion, setting an important example to its neighbours and bringing the country in line with some of its important economic partners in other parts of the world,” said Salil Shetty.
Amnesty International also called on President Macri to address pressing human rights challenges, including the rights of Indigenous people. In a visit to Salinas Grandes in the Jujuy province, the Secretary General listened to the concerns of Indigenous people communities about the potential impact of the rapidly growing of lithium mining on their livelihoods, their water supply, and the environment. In this changing context, their voices have not been heard.
Argentina is obliged to seek the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities. This is not just window dressing, or a tick-box exercise. It is about respect for the people who have a historic claim to the land and an ancient wisdom about the sustainable exploitation of the land.
“Full consultation and ensuring that Indigenous peoples benefit from the lithium extraction will show that Argentina is serious about the message of fairness and sustainability that it wants to put at the heart of its G20 presidency.”
Finally, Amnesty International’s Secretary General expressed concern to President Macri over troubling signs of the erosion of the rights to protest and freedom of expression in Argentina. Heavy handed police action in dealing with protests, including arbitrary arrests and excessive force, has been on the rise as a result of the nation’s prioritization of security issues.
While the government has spoken about the importance of dialogue with civil society, many human rights defenders and civil society organizations are reporting increasing stigmatization and smear campaigns.
“At a time when many governments are justifying rollbacks on civic freedoms in the name of security, Argentina should demonstrate to the region and the entire world how to get the balance right between protecting the rights of its people as a whole and fully respecting the right to peaceful protest. To do so, the State must ensure security forces are trained in a sensitive manner, and issue clear guidelines for the use of force by law enforcement officials, in line with international standards,” said Salil Shetty.
Published on Amnesty International on April 12, 2018
Turkish authorities have detained and prosecuted large numbers of people in recent weeks over social media posts criticizing Turkey’s military operation in the northwest Syrian district of Afrin, Human Rights Watch said today. The crackdown violates the right to peaceful expression.According to the Turkish Interior Ministry, authorities detained 648 people between January 20 and February 26, 2018, over social media posts criticizing Turkey’s military operations in Afrin. Authorities held another 197 people for expressing criticism in other forms, including street protests or expressing solidarity with protesters on social media. The Interior Ministry has indicated that more criminal investigations have been opened since the end of February.
“Detaining and prosecuting people for tweets calling for peace is a new low for Turkey’s government,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Turkish authorities should respect people’s right to peacefully criticize any aspect of government policy, including military operations, and drop these absurd cases.”
This most recent social media crackdown has targeted a wide range of people, affecting journalists; human rights activists; politicians, including four members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish HDP opposition party; members of nongovernmental organizations; academics; construction workers; physicians; and high school and university students.
Human Rights Watch has examined in detail five cases of criminal investigations and prosecutions over tweets related to Afrin, involving a journalist, a politician, a documentary maker, an LGBT activist, and a member of a human rights organization, as well as one conviction of a physician for an earlier case of nonviolent speech on social media. Human Rights Watch examined interrogation protocols, indictments, and court rulings, and interviewed three people who are under criminal investigation for sharing nonviolent content on social media, as well as 10 human rights lawyers working on social media cases.
After examining the cases, Human Rights Watch believes that some of the police raids and criminal investigations are being used as a form of punishment rather than out of genuine belief that criminal behavior has occurred. Even if a case does not go to trial or ends in acquittal, people labeled as terrorism suspects face adverse consequences due to police investigations and criminal proceedings, including possible loss of employment and social exclusion.
On February 7, Harlem Désir, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative on media freedom, criticized the detention of hundreds of social media users for their opposition to the Afrin operation as “unacceptable.” The European Parliament condemned Turkish authorities’ repression of dissenting views on the military incursion in a resolution on February 8.
In addition to police action over social media posts relating to the Afrin operation, the police have targeted people and groups for publishing statements and organizing news conferences to protest the offensive. They include 11 senior members of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), including its chairman, Raşit Tükel; Mithat Can, the 73-year-old head of the Hatay branch of the Human Rights Association (IHD); and senior members of the rights group People’s Houses, including its co-chair, Dilşat Aktaş, all of whom are currently under criminal investigation.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized the arbitrary use of overbroad antiterrorism legislation in Turkey to punish nonviolent activities, including critical writing and online activism, in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch research has also found that investigations and prosecutions for terrorism-related offenses in Turkey often lack concrete evidence and fail to adhere to due process.
The criminalization of peaceful speech on the internet has a chilling effect on social media use and has led to increased self-censorship. According to a 2017 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the use of Facebook and Twitter in Turkey have both declined, possibly due to fears of government surveillance. Some of those Human Rights Watch interviewed said that people in Turkey now think twice before posting or reacting to online content criticizing the government.
According to transparency reports published by Twitter, Turkey was the world leader in requests to remove accounts or content – so-called “take down” requests – between 2014 and mid-2017. According to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House, internet freedom in Turkey has steadily deteriorated, with its Freedom Net Overall Score slipping by 21 points, from 45 in 2011 to 66 in 2017, with the higher score meaning more violations.
“There is no justification for Turkish authorities using the criminal justice system against peaceful critics,” Williamson said. “The Turkish government needs to tolerate dissenting views in society, even if they are sharply opposed to its own.”
Activists Prosecuted for Social Media Posts
Nurcan Baysal, a journalist and human rights activist, is on bail awaiting trial on charges of “inciting hatred and enmity among the population” for posting a number of tweets criticizing the Turkish military incursion into Afrin on her personal Twitter account. If convicted, she faces up to three years in jail. None of the eight tweets listed in the indictment, seen by Human Rights Watch, promote or incite violence. On the contrary, the posts criticize war and the use of violence. Baysal, who spent three days in police custody, described the late-night raid on her house when she was detained:
Despite the fact that I was visible from the outside – I was watching TV at the time – they tried to break in the door without ringing the doorbell. About 20 policemen entered my house wearing masks and trained their automatic rifles on me.
Mehmet Türkmen, deputy head of the Labor Party of Turkey (EMEP), a leftist political party with no seats in Parliament, was detained at the airport in Gaziantep by anti-terror police on January 28 over a January 20 Facebook post in which he stated his opposition to the Afrin offensive. His post, illustrated with a photograph of a street demonstration in the city of Afrin and of a TV screen showing Turkish coverage of the military operation, does not promote violence in any way. The post ends with: “Everyone in Turkey and the region who is on the side of friendship between peoples and peace has to say ‘No’ to this war.” He was arrested on January 31, facing charges of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization.” He remained in detention pending trial as of March 26.
Ali Erol, a well-known LGBT rights activist, was among 16 people detained in Ankara on February 2 for their online criticism of the Afrin military operation. Erol is co-founder of the Ankara-based LBGT rights group Kaos GL. The police questioned Erol about one tweet and two retweets, none of which promoted violence. The tweet, posted on his timeline on January 21, shows a picture of a poster reading “Shame on you,” hung in an olive tree, a reference to the official Turkish name of the Afrin offensive, “Operation Olive Branch.” Above the picture Erol had listed the hashtags: “NOToWarInAfrin,” “NoToWar,” and “Olive.” He is being investigated for “propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “inciting hatred and enmity among the population.” He was conditionally released after five days in police custody. The Fifth Ankara Peace Court imposed a travel ban and required him to sign in at his local police station every Monday. One of Erol’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch that during the time Erol spent in police custody, the police took no action to collect additional evidence:
There was no reason for Ali Erol to remain in police custody for five days. This leads me to believe that the custody itself is used to intimidate and punish people for criticizing the military operation in Afrin.
Sibel Tekin, a documentary filmmaker, was detained on February 2 in a morning raid on her Ankara home on accusations of terrorism propaganda. The police questioned Tekin about four tweets and five retweets, made from the shared Twitter account of a citizen journalist video collective she has occasionally been involved in. The tweets, none of which promoted violence, for the most part reported on police repression of peaceful protests against the Afrin offensive and on detentions of protesters. Other tweets included critical analyses of the military incursion. Tekin did not write any of the Twitter posts she was questioned over. She was released under judicial supervision on February 5.
Kutay Meriç, an executive member of People’s Houses (Halk Evleri), a human rights group, was detained on February 13 during a police raid on his home in Antalya over several of his Facebook posts criticizing the military operation in Afrin, none of which promote or praise violence. Seven days later the First Antalya Peace Court ordered his pretrial detention on charges of “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” He was later released pending trial on February 28.
Others subject to criminal investigation over social media posts on Afrin include at least four members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Turkish media reported that the head prosecutor in Ankara has announced criminal investigations against the four for their social media posts criticizing the Afrin operation. On March 7, the Ankara head prosecutor sent applications to the Justice Ministry to investigate three more of the party’s parliament members for “terrorism propaganda” via their social media accounts.
Social Media Crackdown
Turkey has a long tradition of misusing the criminal justice system and overbroad terrorism laws to prosecute journalists, activists, and other government critics. Prosecutors have repeatedly applied articles of the law such as, “inciting hatred and enmity among the population,” and “spreading terrorist propaganda” to intimidate and silence peaceful dissent both on- and offline.
Due to sustained government attacks on independent and critical media, Turkish citizens have increasingly taken to social media to get and share information, which in turn has prompted increased online surveillance and censorship by the authorities.
The recent detention and prosecution of online critics intensifies a crackdown on freedom of speech online that has been going on for several years. Internet censorship also has an extended history in Turkey. Human Rights Watch has documented the arbitrary and disproportionate blocking of entire websites in violation of the right to freedom of speech and the right to access information online. Following the start of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin on January 20, peaceful speech on social media has become the main target for arbitrary terrorism charges and criminal investigations.
The northwest Syrian district of Afrin is under the control of the Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and their armed forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the Turkish government regards as a terrorist organization. On March 18, the Turkish government claimed that it had taken control of Afrin city.
Human Rights Watch interviews with lawyers suggest that people who make critical statements on social media are increasingly being investigated for an alleged “membership of an armed terrorist organization,” rather than association or propaganda offenses, with the evidence cited against them consisting of nothing but their opinions expressed on social media, shared use of hashtags, or the fact that they are part of the same civil society group. Suspects under investigation on charges of membership in armed organizations are more frequently placed in pretrial detention, due to the gravity of the charge, and face longer sentences if found guilty.
A prominent human rights defender and medical doctor, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, was sentenced by the 2nd Kocaeli Heavy Penalty Court to two years and six months in prison on February 21 for social media posts about the Kurdish issue and the breakdown of the peace process in 2015. He has appealed the verdict.
The evidence cited against him consisted of several posts promoting an end to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and demanding peace on his social media accounts in 2016. None of them advertised or encouraged violence. The one tweet cited in the detailed ruling, seen by Human Rights Watch, consisted of a link to a news article published on the Turkish online news website T24 illustrated with a photograph of three armed PKK militants and headlined: “PKK: If the government takes a step forward, peace will come in one month.” The judge listed the headline and the photograph, both editorial choices made by T24, as reasons for a terrorism propaganda conviction. The detailed ruling also falsely identifies Gergerlioğlu as the author of the article.
Gergerlioğlu was the subject of an intense smear campaign by pro-government media during the criminal investigation and trial, and was dismissed from his job at the Izmit Seka State Hospital before his conviction. Gergerlioğlu told Human Rights Watch: “I have always promoted peace. During the peace process I was praised by the government for saying this, and now I was turned into a criminal for still saying the exact same things.”
Published on HRW on March 27, 2018
By Sam Jones
Amnesty International has warned that an “exponential increase” in prosecutions under a controversial Spanish anti-terrorism law is having a chilling effect on satire and dissent and is pushing social media users, musicians and journalists towards self-censorship.
The charity is calling for the law to be repealed, arguing that recent high-profile cases brought under article 578 of Spain’s criminal code have highlighted the danger the legislation poses to freedom of speech and international human rights law.
Under the article, those found guilty of “glorifying terrorism”, justifying terrorist acts or “humiliating the victims of terrorist crimes or their relatives” can be jailed, fined and banned from holding public sector jobs.
Over the past two years, the legislation has been used with increasing frequency. In 2016, a judge eventually shelved an investigation into two puppeteers who were suspected of glorifying terrorism during a performance in Madrid.
Two musicians – César Strawberry, lead singer of the group Def Con Dos, and the rapper Valtonyc – have given prison sentences following prosecutions under article 578.
Strawberry was sentenced to a year in prison in January last year for tweeting jokes about Eta and giving the king “a cake-bomb” for his birthday, while Valtonyc recently had his three-and-a-half year prison sentence upheld after being convicted of distributing songs online that threatened a politician with violence, glorified terrorism and insulted the crown.
A film-maker and a journalist are also among those charged under the legislation.
Perhaps the most notorious case, however, is that of Cassandra Vera, a student who was given a suspended jail sentence and banned from doing a publicly-funded job for seven years for tweeting jokes about the 1973 assassination of a Spanish prime minister.
Vera’s conviction was quashed and her sentence overturned at the beginning of March after Spain’s supreme court ruled that while her behaviour may have been morally reprehensible, it had not merited the punishment imposed by a lower court.
In a report published on Tuesday – entitled Tweet … if you dare: how counter-terrorism laws restrict freedom of expression in Spain – Amnesty detects an “exponential increase” in the use of article 578.
It says that while only three people were charged under the article in 2011, the figure rose to 39 in 2017, with almost 70 people convicted over the past two years.
The report also notes that the legislation is overwhelmingly being used in relation to the apparent glorification of domestic terrorist groups – such as the Basque separatists Eta or the far-left Grapo – rather than foreign ones.
According to Amnesty, this has led to “increasing self-censorship and a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression” in Spain.
“Sending rappers to jail for song lyrics and outlawing political satire demonstrates how narrow the boundaries of acceptable online speech have become in Spain,” said Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty International Spain.
“People should not face criminal prosecution simply for saying, tweeting or singing something that might be distasteful or shocking. Spain’s broad and vaguely worded law is resulting in the silencing of free speech and the crushing of artistic expression.”
Vera expressed similar views after her sentence was overturned. She pointed to the recent censorship of a work at a Madrid art fair and the seizure, on a judge’s orders, of Fariña, a book about drug-trafficking in Galicia, as proof that something was seriously wrong with free speech in Spain.
“People shouldn’t have to be afraid of expressing their opinions,” she told the Guardian. “What happened with Valtonyc and Fariña and the art exhibition showed that freedom of expression is under serious attack. I think freedom of expression has been dealt an almost fatal blow in Spain.”
Amnesty wants to see article 578 repealed, and says the situation in Spain is emblematic of “a disturbing trend” of European countries using national security arguments to limit freedom of expression and restrict rights.
“Governments should uphold the rights of victims of terrorism, rather than stifling free speech in their name,” said said Eda Seyhan, Amnesty’s campaigner on counter-terrorism.
“Spain’s draconian law must be repealed and all charges brought against anyone solely for peacefully expressing themselves must be dropped.”
Kartik Raj, western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the Spanish government needs “urgently to reform the overly broad definition of the glorification of terrorism”.
“The raft of ill conceived prosecutions of people on charges of glorifying terrorism or insulting the King, in some instances merely for having made jokes on social media, beggar belief,” he said.
Published on The Guardian on March 12, 2018
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.