Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The State of Journalism in Russia

By: Margaret Colbert.

The recent attack on journalist Oleg Kashin was a shocking example of the pressures and threats that journalists have been living with in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but unfortunately not a unique event in the context of recent Russian history. During the period between 1993 and 2009 over 300 journalists were murdered in Russia alone; incidents that have rarely produced prosecutions or convictions by the government. Considering what many critics of the Putin and Medvedev regimes have considered a stance on journalistic freedoms that approached complicity with the attacks on journalists publishing works critical of the government or its partners, President Medvedev’s condemnation of the attack on Kashin was noteworthy, causing some commentators to hope for a change in Russia’s hostile stance towards a free and critical press. Protests in the Moscow streets indicate that a Russian public, long apathetic about concerns relating to the existence of an open press, are now beginning to realize the suppressive environment that these attacks breed, and may be rejecting old attitudes of ambivalence in regards to strong-arm tactics used by the government and its agents to stifle dissent.

It is interesting that often, in states where press freedoms are heavily controlled or suppressed, there will often be little expressed concern on the part of the populace. It is no accident that measures of relative quality of life and measures of international standards of press freedom generally group states in a like manner. That is, if a state scores high on the quality of life index, it is likely to score high on the Press Freedoms Index (compiled by RSF), with the inverse being true as well. While it may not be possible to identify a direct or absolute correlation between an open press and a higher standard of living, in a climate where individuals and groups have a higher relative educational level, as well as a higher level of personal security and wealth, a press that identifies threats to these conditions is more likely to be broadly supported. In states where issues of personal security and income are still major concerns for the general populace, critical dissent can often seem like a secondary concern for those focused on issues of basic survival. A free and open press, in states like Russia, where high levels of corruption and violence have come to be expected from the government, suffers not only from direct government interference and suppression, but also from the general lack of support from a public that feels that democracy and its attendant press freedoms can be legitimately limited in the name of progress or stability.

It is heartening then, that attacks on individuals like Kashin, as well as high profile murders of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya in October of 2006, have seemed to hit a nerve among the Russian public. It is likely that this public disenchantment with the Russian government’s reactions may also have spurred the government to reopen the investigation related to the brutal 2008 attack on Khimkinskaya Pravda’s editor, Mikhail Beketov- though this encouraging development comes on the coattails of Beketov being found guilty of criminal slander against a political figure he criticized on air during a television interview in 2007. While the dichotomy of this response is disappointing, it may be that Russia is, slowly, moving towards a future where journalists and activists may face the clearly conveyed displeasure of the government in its various offices, without the threat to their personal security that has for too long been part and parcel of Moscow’s approach to stifling journalistic enterprise.

Photo: Mikhail Beketov (Agence France-Presse)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Russian Journalist Oleg Kashin Brutally Attacked in Moscow

Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, a well-known journalist for the Russian daily Kommersant, was savagely beaten outside his home at 12:40 AM on November 6 as he returned from dinner with friends. The attack, which Kommersant editor Mikhail Mikhailin insisted was related to Kashin's work, left Kashin with a two broken jaws, a broken leg, a fractured skull, a concussion, blood in the lungs, and several broken fingers, one of which had to be amputated.

Free press organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB), among others, publicly decried the attack and called on the perpetrators to be punished. In a rare move in Russia, President Medvedev also condemned the attack and announced, via his Twitter feed, that he had ordered the interior minister and prosecutor's office to supervise the investigation and bring the attackers to justice. Secretary-General of RWB, Jean-Francois Julliard, said that “We hold [President Medvedev] to his word and we urge the authorities to put all the necessary conditions in place for the police and judicial authorities to be able to work independently and get results.”

Reporters Without Borders - USA Director Clothilde Le Coz called Russia "one of the world’s most dangerous countries for independent journalists." High profile murder cases, such as that of Anna Politcovskaya, remain unsolved years after their commission, despite the identity of the killers being well known to authorities. According to Julliard, "The culture of impunity has prevailed for too long. No crime of violence against journalists has been solved since the start of the past decade."

Ilya Barabanov, deputy editor of the Russian independent weekly The New Times and
2010 Peter Mackler Award winner, told guests at the 2010 Peter Mackler Award Ceremony that "the reality is that independent media outlets are not able to feel safe in Russia." Barabanov, however, further stated that "the enemies of independent press have yet to break down or intimidate those journalists who truly believe in honestly executing their duty before the citizens of their country."

As the events of this past week show, detractors of a free press in Russia have not yet given up trying to shut down those independent voices exemplified by Kashin and Barabanov. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Oleg Kashin and his family." Said Peter Mackler Award Project Director Camille Mackler. "We hope he will make a full and speedy recovery and that Russia will finally reverse its trend and bring the perpetrators of this terrible act to justice."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Text of Remarks by J.S. Tissinayagam During 2010 Peter Mackler Award Ceremony

Ladies and gentlemen it gives me great pleasure to speak a few words this evening on the occasion of the annual Peter Mackler Award.

I have not had the good fortune of a personal acquaintance with veteran journalist Peter Mackler, whose long and dedicated service to his profession, this award commemorates. However, I am greatly indebted to his wife Catherine Antoine, and their two children – Camille and Lauren – for their friendship and support both to my wife and I during a very stressful period in the past.

At this time last year, I was in prison having served precisely 54 days of a 20-year jail term with hard labour, imposed by the Sri Lankan courts after what the International Committee of Jurists, ICJ, said was “a flawed judicial process.”

This year, the Peter Mackler Award recognises a young man for his courage and commitment to ethical journalism – Ilya Barabanov. What is sad however, is that the Novoye Vremya the Moscow weekly of which he is the deputy editor, has been the victim of persistent harassment and intimidation by Russian authorities. What is ironic though is that the threat to the freedom of expression that Ilya and his colleagues confront in Russia is hardly different from what afflicts journalists in Sri Lanka. Though the two countries are vastly different in most respects, they are united by this common evil.

Of the many Sri Lankan journalists killed for their work and their deaths still unaccounted for, Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga’s murder is perhaps foremost. Less known but equally chilling was the brutal gunning down 10 years ago of Mylvaganam Nimalarajan. His murderers are still at large, and Reporters Sans Frontiers issued a statement this week pointing to the impunity protecting his killers.

Equally cruel and mystifying is the disappearance of another Sri Lankan journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. He was last seen on the evening of January 24 this year. Repeated calls by his wife and human rights groups for a fair investigation into his abduction, let alone information as to his whereabouts, have passed unheeded by the police and government authorities.

It is no different in Russia. The brutal slaying of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya of the Novaya Gazeta in October 2006 stands out because of the international publicity it has received. But in the heinousness of the crime compounded by the indifference of the authorities to investigate it, it is no different from numerous other cases. Disregard to principles of accountability and the rule of law have seen attacks on many Russian journalists go unpunished.

To scores of journalists confronting the perils of persecution and censorship, an award like the Peter Mackler, offers solace and encouragement. Such awards open a window of hope illustrating that although authoritarian governments might shun the work and persecute journalists, there is a world outside that appreciates and rewards it. Furthermore, it shines a spotlight on the issues they report on.

These awards are also important because they are given by the community of journalists to other journalists for courageous investigative writing. Such writing is often done in harrowing circumstances, to keep fellow citizens informed about powerful people behaving in unethical and criminal ways.

As much as persecuted journalists value the support and recognition of their fellows in countries such as the US and other democracies – the problem is - will this relationship be able to continue? Some of the emerging trends in US journalism seem to cast a shadow of doubt on this.

There is a school of thought today that says investigative journalism, the journalism that acts as a bulwark against excessive and untrammelled power, is in decline in the US itself.

A reason cited for this decline is the prohibitive cost for long-term tracking of stories with well-trained, experienced staff. Faced with maintaining a costly newsroom in times of contracting advertising budgets, the media has fallen back on the digital – internet, blogs and so on. But unfortunately, revenues generated by the websites of individual media organisations are generally said to be insufficient to fund pools of professionally-trained journalists required for sustained, high-quality investigative journalism.

Excessive costs have also resulted in media institutions cutting back on international reporting by closing or merging their overseas bureaus. This has led to an erosion of interest in international affairs except those that preoccupy American minds: Iraq, Afghanistan and neighbours in the region.

Another constraint on rigorous investigative journalism is privacy suits. In recent years the American judiciary has upheld claims by aggrieved individuals against the media not for defamation or inaccurate reporting, but for violating privacy. Fear of expensive law suites on privacy issues has dissuaded editors from pursuing investigative reporting even if the matter might be in the public interest.

With American journalism facing such constraints there is reasonable fear that investigative reporting by journalists from other countries will figure less prominently in the eyes of the US community of journalists.

Ladies and gentlemen, the reason Ilya and I are here today is because the community of journalists outside our respective countries believed in our work and that governments of our countries had no right to stop us from writing. But if indifference to investigative journalism sets in, in countries where it is most prized, journalists like us battling autocratic regimes for human rights, equity and justice will find it much harder to survive. Please do not let that happen.

Thank you…

Friday, October 29, 2010

Podcast of Ilya Barabanov's Talk At the Columbia Journalism School

On October 25, 2010, Ilya Barabanov, 2010 Winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism, addressed students at the prestigious Columbia University Journalism School. Barabanov discussed the situation of independent press in Russia today, and highlighted the particular challenges faced by his publication, The New Times.

Barabanov, deputy editor of The New Times, received the award at a ceremony held October 22, 2010 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Keynote speaker David E. Hoffman, contributing editor to the Washington Post and Foreign Policy Magazine, and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Dead Hand, called Barabanov "An example of what has gone right with Russia since the collapse of communism."

Listen to the Podcast here.

Photo: Ilya Barabanov (left) and Alexander Osipovich (right) speaking at the Columbia Journalism School.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

2010 Award Ceremony Recap - Ilya Barabanov Receives Peter Mackler Award

As he stood before a packed room of journalists and DC insiders on October 22, 2010, Ilya Barabanov called on his colleagues to speak about not only the most tragic examples of violence against journalists in his native Russia, but to remember all of those who have suffered because they pursued their profession. "Each and every one of these incidents is connected to a very real human tragedy, disastrous for our colleague, his friends and family. Today, standing here at this podium, I would like to call upon you to pay attention to all of these cases." said Barabanov, the deputy editor of the Russian News Weekly The New Times.

Barabanov was awarded the 2010 Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism at a ceremony held at the National Press Club last Friday. Barabanov, who flew in from Moscow for the ceremony, was named this year's winner not only for his work exposing corruption within the Russian government, but also for his courage in defending his profession's right to do so. While introducing Barabanov, Peter Mackler Award Project Director Camille Mackler stated that "By getting up and going to work every day, Ilya shows more courage than any of us will probably be called to display during our life time ... Ilya's work reminds us that the principles of a free press can never be compromised."

During his acceptance speech, Barabanov spoke about the difficulties faced by journalists in Russia, but also noted that for independent media journalists, "our work gives us great pleasure. Being an investigative journalist in a country whose state authorities do everything to prevent such activity, is perhaps more interesting than working in an environment free of such obstacles."

Russia, which recently ranked number 140 on Reporters Without Borders' 2010 Press Freedom Index, is generally viewed as being at a cross roads regarding press freedom. Clothilde Le Coz, Director of Reporters Without Borders - USA, told guests at the ceremony that "in a country where being a reporter too often rhymes with renouncing your freedom, Ilya is part of the young generation of reporters who are fighting back for change." Nonetheless, violence, harassment, and intimidation of journalists whose opinions do not align with the Kremlin continues to be rampant as the perpetrators remain able to act with impunity.

David E. Hoffman, the evening's keynote speaker, also deplored the situation in Russia. "Russia today is not the Soviet Union. It is not an absolute dictatorship. Rather, Russia is at a crossroads. After communism, it did not develop as a full democracy. It has gone backwards in recent years." Hoffman, a contributing editor to the Washington Post and Foreign Policy Magazine, is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Dead Hand, a look at the arms' race during the Cold War. He also served as Moscow Bureau Chief for the Washington Post and spoke of his own friends and experiences when describing the dangers faced by journalists in Russia. Hoffman also praised Barabanov's courage: "Ilya's investigations are a testament to the courage of all journalists in Russia who work against such terrible odds. This kind of work is not glamorous and not easy. There is a great deal of secrecy, threats, and coercion."

Hoffman concluded by praising Barabanov, telling him to "realize that your articles are part of making history in Russia, making a new society, building a new democracy. All around you it may seem like a dry desert - but you are a green shoot of grass. You are an example of what has gone right with Russia since the collapse of communism."

2009 winner, J. S. Tissainayagam, also spoke at the ceremony, praising the work of the Peter Mackler Award and stating that the existence of such an award provides "solace and encouragement" to journalists who work in difficult situations, and helps shine a spotlight on the situations reporters face world wide. Tissainayagam was unable to personally accept his award last year, as he was serving a twenty-year prison sentence after having been falsely convicted on terrorism charges. After being granted a pardon, Tissainayagam arrived in the United States in June, 2010. This year's Peter Mackler Award Ceremony was Tissainayagam's first public speaking engagement since his release. Le Coz also praised Tissainayagam and his wife, Ronnate, saying that "it is great to see you tonight with your wife Ronnate, still determined to get the word out when it comes to Sri Lanka's sad reality."

Barabanov took advantage of his trip to the United States to meet with government officials and media outlets to speak about the situation of journalists in Russia. He granted interviews to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Barabanov also participated in a Question & Answer session with students at Columbia University's Journalism School.

The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism was founded in 2008 to honor the memory of Peter Mackler, a thirty-year career journalist who passed away June 20, 2008. The award is run jointly by the US branch of Reporters Without Borders and the Global Media Forum, a company founded by Mackler to provide journalism training.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Text of Remarks by Clothilde Le Coz During 2010 Peter Mackler Award Ceremony

Thank you all for being here tonight and joining us on this ceremony to honor Peter Mackler’s legacy. It is a very special event this year.

Tonight, you’ll hear from two very important journalists. I am very honored to have J.S. Tissainayagam speaking tonight. As some of you know, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail in Sri Lanka because of his journalistic work in 2009. This is the reason why he could not received the Peter Mackler Award he was awarded last year. But it is great to see you tonight with your wife Ronnate, still determined to get the word out when it comes to Sri Lankan sad reality. Journalists disappear and media are openly attacked. There is no way to investigate on any of these acts. The media are controlled by the government. Can you imagine that during the latest election, 97% of news program air-time was devoted to the president and his aides ? A voice like Tissa’s is of course not welcome. Especially when it comes to the Tamil minority. But you’ll hear more from him in just a few minutes.

As a journalist myself, I am amazed and impressed by the work of Ilya Barabanov. In a country where being a reporter too often rhymes with renouncing your freedom, Ilya is part of the young generation of reporters who are fighting back for change. No longer than a month ago, armed and masked police officers went on a 3 hour raid to The New Times, to disclose the sources of one of his interview. Of course, they are still looking for them. But The New Times is no exception. In the past year, the same happened to at least 4 newsrooms in Moscow.

Russia is not known for press freedom. Most Russians get their news via TV but have very little chance of hearing independent views on it. Opposition figures and government critics have no access to nationwide stations.

Murders of journalists and human rights activists and physical attacks on them, especially in the Caucasus republics, make Russia one of the world’s most dangerous countries for independent journalists.

For more than 25 years, Reporters Without Borders has been fighting for press freedom. Tonight just shows us how useful that is. As a reporter, it is an honor to be in front of them, standing up and fighting for their own rights everyday. They are not only reporters. They are examples, role models and heroes. Even if they will be too humble to admit it.

Text of Remarks by Ilya Barabanov, 2010 Peter Mackler Award Winner, During This Year's Ceremony

Dear Colleagues,

I would like to begin by giving thanks to the Peter Mackler Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, and the Global Media Forum all of whom took part in awarding me with the prestigious 2010 Peter Mackler Award. I am grateful to the director of the Peter Mackler Award, Camille J. Mackler, as well as the entire Mackler family, to the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard, and also to David Hoffman, who voiced so many kind words today. I would never have received this award if not for my colleagues at The New Times magazine, and I would like to express special thanks to Irena Lesnevskaya, the magazine published and owner, and our Editor-in-Chief, Yevgenia Albats.

The New Times appeared on the Russian media-market four years ago, in February of 2007. Irena Lesnevskaya stated her desire to begin such a project immediately after the murder of Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya back then in an interview.

Naturally, it would have been more satisfying and fulfilling for me and my colleagues to work if Russia had a more developed news media market: only in the face of lively competition can publications grow, develop and progress. However, we have to admit, that all the independent media sources can be counted on the fingers of not two, but even just one hand.

Aside from The New Times, among them is the well-known Novaya Gazeta, the radio station Echo Moskvy, as well as a number of developing internet publications. Unfortunately, just a few days ago the Russian Newsweek ceased publishing, causing the number of political journals to drop even lower.

Often times, The New Times has been mistakenly identified and referred to as an "opposition" publication. Indeed, over the past ten years, an unhelpful notion has developed that any media outlet which allows itself to write about politics, without adjusting its position to that of the Kremlin, is by definition "in opposition." Yet this is incorrect. The position of our magazine is that we simply support the right of citizens to information. This right is guaranteed in the Russian Constitution and, in the United States, as far as I know, it is the First Amendment to the Constitution. We do not take any sides, and attempt to be equally critical of both the representatives of the ruling elite, and to those who call themselves political opponents of the regime in Russia. We are ready to provide a platform for all parties in any discussion, and, whether we are writing a political piece of conducting a financial investigation, we are always interested in both sides of the argument.

Investigative journalism, in particular, is a genre that The New Times specializes in. In our very first issue, we published an investigation of the murder of a Russian special agent, Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was murdered in the fall of 2006. The magazine is constantly publishing articles exposing corruption in various government agencies of Russia. My own most recent investigations are concerned with corruption within the Ministry of Internal Affairs - Russian police - and the Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB.

My colleague at The New Times, and a very dear friend, Natalia Morari, was conducting for quite some time an investigation of the murder of a high ranked official of the Russian Central Bank - Andrei Kozlov. His death was linked to the struggle he led against "cash pushers" - officials and criminals engaged in money laundering. For her courageous articles, Natalia was expelled from Russia in December 2007. Natalia, who is a citizen of the Republic of Moldova, was denied entry to Russia, which declared her to be a national security threat. Any and all attempts made to challenge this decision through the legal system have been fruitless, but we continue to fight for her return.

Even with the use of such harsh methods, the enemies of independent press have yet to break down or intimidate those journalists who truly believe in honestly executing their duty before the citizens of their country.

But I am not complaining. My colleagues and I derive great pleasure simply from the opportunity to practice investigative journalism in Russia, despite the fact that the nature of our jobs presents certain difficulties. We are not, by any means, in despair, and Natalia Morari, who, for the past three years, has not been permitted to enter Russia, has become one of the most recognizable television reporters in her home country. If any of you follow the happenings of the former Soviet Union, then you are probably aware of Natalia's activity especially in connection with the famous Twitter-revolution which occurred in Chisinau about a year ago, and resulted in the end of the communist rule in Moldova and the commencement of clean and legitimate elections in which democratic parties were able to participate and gain support.

I would like to use this opportunity to take a moment to highlight the situation which has developed in Russia with regards to independent media. The International Press Institute demonstrated that the first nine years of the new millennium 735 journalists were killed. Thirty-five of those were in Russia. Only a month ago, at the request of The New Times, Russia's Glasnost Defense Foundation conducted its own investigation, the results of which, I must admit, shocked us. We discovered that over the past five years in sixty-six of eighty-three regions in Russia (that is almost eighty percent) journalists were either killed or crippled. Over seventy percent of the regions (sixty-one to be exact) journalists were faced with criminal charges. In forty-three regions (fifty percent), censorship is a natural occurrence. Contrary to popular opinion, the most dangerous place for journalists to work, are not the republics of North Caucasus, but the central Russian cities - Moscow and St. Petersburg. Researchers found a complete lack of incidents of government pressure on journalists only in 5 Russian regions.

However, even these numbers are due only to the fact that in such places as Chukotka, the Magadan or Tambov regions any and all independent media were silenced earlier, and hence, in the past ten years, there simply haven't been any journalists who would allow themselves to speak out critically against the local authorities. Unfortunately, the international journalistic community becomes aware of only the most notorious of these tragedies. This, in my opinion, is completely unacceptable. Annual human rights advocacy monitorings gather only dry statistics: The updated number of journalists killed, in jail and fired for their alternative views. But each and every one of these incidents is connection to a very real human tragedy, disastrous for our colleague, his friends and family. Today, standing here at this podium, I would like to call upon you to pay attention to all of these cases.

And lastly... yes, the reality is that independent media outlets are not able to feel safe in Russia. But of course, this is not news for any journalists working in countries with authoritarian regimes. Most importantly, of course, is that our work gives us great pleasure. Being an investigative journalist in a country whose state authorities do everything to prevent such activity, is perhaps more interesting than working in an environment free of such obstacles. Furthermore, just by the rise in our sales we see that our readers need us. Based on ratings from September, The New Times has become the most quoted Russian magazine in the country, surpassing, for the first time even Forbes, which always held a firm first place in this report due to their publications of the ratings of the richest people in Russia. Is is all the more wonderful to realize that by doing your duty, you are helping ordinary citizens who have found themselves in difficult situations as well as our society as a whole. My countrymen will inevitably realize that a normal and comfortable life is impossible in our country without the presence of independent media outlets.

Thank you.

Text of Remarks by David E. Hoffman During 2010 PMA Ceremony

I worked in Russia in the 1990s, and I remember well the violence. In those first years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the rule of law - so essential in a democracy - did not exist. Without enforceable laws and courts that functioned impartially, disputes were settled with coercion and violence.

I know that it became fashionable to say this was ll Boris Yeltsin's fault, that Russian was chaos in the 1990s. But the truth is that the fault was much deeper - many people don't' realize this, but in those first years, the laws of the Soviet Union were changed only gradually. Entrepreneurship was against the law in Soviet times. When the country disappeared, there was the dawn of a new system but a lawless space. It took several years to just pass a law on how private enterprise companies could function. Yeltsin certainly is to blame for this - he didn't build rule of law fast or carefully enough - but it is important to understand that this was a vacuum , a space without rule of law.

At first it was the businessmen who were victims, but soon it became the journalists too. When I look down the lists of the journalists who have died int he line of duty, I see some who were my friends and sources in the 1990s.

Two in particular stand out.

Valery Ivanov was a courageous editor of the Togliatti Review and provided me and my researcher then with a great deal of valuable material about the workings of Aftovaz, a huge auto factory there. Ivanov was gunned down April 29, 2002. His assailants have never been caught.

The other was my friend and colleague Ivan Safronov. Ivan had served in the rocket forces and he helped me with some very important stories, including the one about the 1983 false alarm that opens my book The Dead Hand. Ivan was a tall, strapping fellow and to this day I cannot believe that we know the full story of hi death on March 2, 2007, when he fell from a fourth floor staircase window.

Neither of these cases was adequately investigated.

And this lack of rule of law which I mentioned earlier persists now, almost two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I know that both President Medvedev and then-President Putin have paid lip-service to establishing the rule of law. Remember that Putin promised "diktatura zakon," or dictatorship of law, whatever that means, and Medvedev promised to end "legal nihilism," but the fact is they have not.

Rule of law means that no one is above the law. But we see now that some people in Russia think they are above the law. We see it in the reaction to Ilya's recent article exposing the Moscow riot police and their methods.

Ilya's investigations are a testament to the courage of all journalists in Russia who work against such terrible odds. This kind of work is not glamorous and not easy. There is a great deal of secrecy, threats, and coercion.

And there must be days, many days, when you ask yourself, Ilya, is it worth it? Why do this? Why get up every day and go out to ask these difficult questions and put yourself at risk?

And I am sure that there are days when you must ask, if Russia has been without rule of law for two decades of post-Soviet history, what will the next two decades bring? If this is what Russia inherited after seven decades of Soviet rule, then was it really worth it, all this effort to end the Soviet system? Will things ever change?

Ilya, and to all of us, I want to say, yes. It is worth it, and here is why.

What the Soviet Union lacked was a functioning civil society. Civil society is the glue, or the sinews, that connect the rulers and the ruled in a democracy. In the Soviet Union, the Communist Part and it extinguished any other organization or person - there was no oxygen for others.

Now since the Soviet collapse, there have been some new green shoots of grass growing up - there has been a change. There is some oxygen. Russia today is not the Soviet Union. It is not an absolute dictatorship. Rather, Russia is at a crossroads. After communism, it did not develop as a full democracy. It has gone backwards in recent years.

But I think we should not entirely despair about the press in Russia today. The New Times has 50,000 readers and about 300,000 visitors a month to its web site. The magazine is distributed in all the major cities of Russia, and winds up on the desk of Putin and Medvedev.

In fact there is a fair measure of press independence today in the non-government media - print, radio, Internet and some television. Some do their best to expose the government while others are openly analytical or carry angry opinions.

These are tender green shoots of civil society. They have not been extinguished. Now they are small; they are often struggling - the New Times has difficulty gaining advertising - and they are easily intimidated. But fortunately they are surviving.

Meanwhile, the big media, such as state television, commands a huge audience. The big media are controlled by the state and don't make waves.

When the small independent press makes noise, it is often ignored by the authorities. Scandals can be uncovered, but no one reacts. The powers either ignore it or intimidate it.

There is no link - no glue - no sinews - between the rulers and the ruled.

But this is not so much the fault of journalism. It is bigger than just journalism. Much bigger.

The rulers have sucked up the oxygen for free politics.

They have failed to build a rule of law.

Moreover, there is a certain passivity among your readers today. People are focused on personal freedoms and standard of living. They do not protests against the authorities. My good friend Masha Lipman has written, "the atomization and passivity of Russian society makes matters worse.. even the advanced and critically-minded audiences of alternative news outlets do not take action and do not seem to mind that the government keeps them from participating in national affairs."

This is not a healthy situation. It is not good to have rulers who are not accountable to the ruled. It is not good to have a people who are indifferent to these kind of rulers.

But the situation is not hopeless.

When society changes - and I think it will - they will need you, Ilya. That is why you should get up every morning eager to continue your work. To use some stale words from another era, you are the vanguard, you are a pioneer! Everyone else will come. You need to be there for the day when civil society and rule of law will be created.

I cannot say how long it will take, but inevitably the courage of your work will feed a feeling among people that something must be done.

So realize that your articles are part of making history in Russia, making a new society, building a new democracy. All around you it may seem like a dry desert - but you are a green shoot of grass. You are an example of what has gone right with Russia since the collapse of communism.

Don't give up!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Russian Journalist Receives Peter Mackler Award

Russian Journalist Receives Peter Mackler Award (AFP)

WASHINGTON — Russian journalist Ilya Barabanov praised the dozens of colleagues who have lost their lives over the past decade as he accepted the Peter Mackler Award for courageous journalism.

"Today standing here at this podium I would like to call upon you to pay attention to all of these cases," Barabanov, deputy editor of Novoye Vremya (New Times), said in an acceptance speech at the National Press Club.

"It is the reality of Russia now that independent media outlets are not able to feel safe," he said. "But that's not really news to any journalist working in countries with authoritarian regimes." Read more...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Peter Mackler Award Winner to Speak at Columbia School of Journalism

Ilya Barabanov, 25, winner of the 2010 Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism, will speak at a Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism on Monday October 25, 2010 at 5:30 PM. Details of the event can be found on the school's website. The event is open to the public, RSVP is requested.

Barabanov was named this year's winner of the Peter Mackler Award on August 22, 2010 and will be formally awarded at a ceremony October 22, 2010 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Barabanov joined The New Times in January 2007 as a political correspondent and investigative journalist. He is currently the deputy and political editor for the weekly magazine. Barabanov has also authored several investigative pieces on corruption and other questionable practices within Russian government agencies. As a result, Barabanov has been the target of attempted extortion plots.

In April, 2010, Barabanov contributed to a story alleging corrupt practices and forced labor of migrant workers within OMON, an elite police force. The story, “The Slaves of OMON,” created a scandal within the Moscow police force and prompted a libel suit against The New Times. To date, two attempted searches have been conducted in The New Times’ editorial offices in a bid to identify the article’s sources. The second search, a raid by hooded men carrying weapons, came on September 2, 2010. Barabanov has denounced the raids as illegal.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Invitation to 2010 Peter Mackler Award Ceremony

Reporters Without Borders / Global Media Forum

October 22, 2010
6.00 PM

Join us for the presentation of this year's
Recipient : Ilya Barabanov

Guest Speaker: J. S. Tissainayagam, 2009 Peter Mackler Award winner
Keynote Speaker: David Hoffman, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Author: The Dead Hand
National Press Club - 529 14th Street, N. W.
Washington DC

Cocktail reception to follow with Silent Auction to benefit the Peter Mackler Award
Tickets: $25 ($10 with student ID)
Available at the door or in advance at
More Information:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Peter Mackler Award Announces 2010 Speakers

NEW YORK, September 21, 2010 - The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism announced today the speakers for the 2010 award ceremony, honoring Ilya Barabanov, deputy editor of the Russian opposition weekly The New Times. The ceremony will take place October 22, 2010 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
  • J.S. Tissainayagam (Guest Speaker)
    J. S. Tissainayagam, Sri Lanka, is the 2009 winner of the Peter Mackler Award. He was announced as the Award's first recipient on August 31, 2009, the same day he was convicted on terrorism charges relating to his work as a journalist. Tissainayagam was pardoned by the Sri Lankan government on May 3, 2010. He is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. This will be Tissainayagam's first public speaking engagement since his pardon and arriving in the United States last August.

  • David Hoffman (Keynote Speaker)
    David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor at the Washington Post and Foreign Policy magazine. For The Post, he covered the White House during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and was subsequently diplomatic correspondent andJerusalem correspondent. From 1995 to 2001, he served as Moscow bureau chief, and later as foreign editor and assistant managing editor for foreign news. He is the author of The Dead Hand and The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia. He lives in Maryland.

About the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism

The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism was founded in June, 2008 to honor the memory of Peter Mackler, a Brooklyn-born thirty-five year veteran journalist who championed ethical journalism, freedom of expression. Mackler helped transform the news agency Agence France Press (AFP) into the international competitor that it is today. Mackler also founded the Global Media Forum, which has helped to train journalists and non-profit organizations to use the media as a tool for social change, and Project Plato, which teaches journalism as a life skill to disadvantaged teenagers.

The Peter Mackler award rewards journalists who fight courageously and ethically to report the news in countries where freedom of the press is either not guaranteed or not recognized. The Award is administered jointly by Global Media Forum and Reporters Without Borders. The Award ceremony will take place on October 22, 2010 at 6PM at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, 529 14th St. N.W, 13th Fl.; Washington, DC 20045. The ceremony will be followed by a networking hour. There will be a silent auction.

Camille J. Mackler
Project Director, Peter Mackler Award
Global Media Forum
Tel: +1-917-655-3548

Friday, September 3, 2010

2010 PMA Winner's Offices Raided Again

The editorial offices of Russian opposition news magazine The New Times was again raided yesterday by police officers. Deputy Editor, and 2010 Peter Mackler Award recipient, Ilya Barabanov stated that "about five, some in masks and some armed, came to the office to carry out what they called 'investigative actions'." Reporters Without Borders condemned the raid. The organization stated that it "reiterates its support of the New Times and all of its staff, who have a record of doing major investigative stories on subjects of great public interest, the very essence of quality journalism."

The magazine alerted several news organizations as the raid began, and Russian police colonel Stanlislav Pashkovsky was recorded as saying "we suggest that you voluntarily -- voluntarily -- give us the recordings of your interviews with the present and former OMON staff that took place prior to the publication of the article. If you refuse to do so, we will put this in writing now." The magazine also posted video of the raid on its website. The New Times' Editor in Chief Yevgenia Albats told the press she expects more raids and characterized the action as intidimidation of the independent press.

The New Time's deputy editor Ilya Barabanov was named winner of the 2010 Peter Mackler Award on August 22, 2010. He will receive the award at a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on October 22, 2010.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Peter Mackler Award In The News

A few stories regarding this year's Peter Mackler Award. Check back here often as this list will be updated as stories are published:

Le Monde (French/Francais)
Terra (Spanish/Espanol)
Express (French/Francais)
EVZ.RO (Romanian/Romani)
Le Figaro (French/Francais)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ilya Barabanov Named 2010 Winner of Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism

NEW YORK, Aug. 22, 2010 - Global Media Forum and the US branch of Reporters Without Borders are pleased to announce that Russian journalist Ilya Barabanov, targeted by his government for exposing official corruption, has been selected as the 2010 winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. Barabanov will be awarded the prize at a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on October 22, 2010. Last year’s winner, Sri Lankan journalist and editor J.S. Tissainayagam, will speak at the presentation.

Ilya Barabanov is deputy editor of The New Times, an opposition news weekly in Russia which has been the target of an attempted illegal search and a lawsuit by the Russian government. Barabanov, 24, has decried the aborted search & seizure of the New Times editorial offices . He charged that the search, carried out in connection with a case filed against the New Times by the Russian interior minister’s OMON security forces, violated Articles 41 and 49 of the Russian Media Law. The New Times had previously published an article citing unnamed OMON sources and describing corrupt practices within OMON. Camille J. Mackler, Project Director for the Peter Mackler Award, said that “Barabanov, a young journalist, has displayed enormous courage in standing up for journalistic independence and the Russian people’s right to free and balanced news. These character traits are what the Peter Mackler Award seeks to encourage and reward.”

The plight of journalists in Russia continues to be a concern of the international community. Barabanov’s nomination comes amid growing accusations of internet censorship and government intimidation of journalists. In addition, the murders of journalists Natalia Estemirova and Anna Politkovskaya, remain unsolved. "We are delighted to know this award goes to Ilya Barabanov", Jean-François Julliard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders said. "Being a journalist in Russia is one of the toughest jobs around. Russian journalists need to be supported and recognized worldwide for the work they do. Ilya's talent, courage and persistence are essential to Russian journalism." Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 153rd out of 175 countries in their 2009 Press Freedom Index.

About the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism

The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism was founded in June, 2008 to honor the memory of Peter Mackler, a Brooklyn-born thirty-five year veteran journalist who championed ethical journalism, freedom of expression. Mackler helped transform the news agency Agence France Press (AFP) into the international competitor that it is today. Mackler also founded the Global Media Forum, which has helped to train journalists and non-profit organizations to use the media as a tool for social change, and Project Plato, which teaches journalism as a life skill to disadvantaged teenagers.

The Peter Mackler award rewards journalists who fight courageously and ethically to report the news in countries where freedom of the press is either not guaranteed or not recognized. The Award is administered jointly by Global Media Forum and Reporters Without Borders. The Award ceremony will take place on October 22, 2010 at 6PM at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, 529 14th St. N.W, 13th Fl.; Washington, DC 20045. The ceremony will be followed by a networking hour. There will be a silent auction.

Camille J. Mackler
Project Director, Peter Mackler Award
Global Media Forum
Tel: +1-917-655-3548

Monday, June 28, 2010

Peter Mackler Award Welcomes First Recipient to the United States

The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism is thrilled to welcome the first recipient of the Award, J. S. Tissainayagam, to the United States. Mr. Tissainayagam, known to his friends as "Tissa", arrived in the United States on June 19th, 2010, only days after his pardon by the Sri Lankan Government became official. Camille Mackler, director of the Peter Mackler Award, stated that "we are delighted that Tissa is finally a free man and has been reunited with his wife. However, we urge the Sri Lankan government to ensure that all journalists are able to report without fear, and hope that one day Tissa will be able to return to Sri Lanka and freely continue his work as a journalist."

Tissainayagam was met in the United States by his wife, Ronnate Tissainayagam, who accepted the Peter Mackler Award on her husband's behalf last fall. Tissainayagam thanked everyone who helped secure his release in different ways and would like to ask all those who worked hard on his case to extend their support to find journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, who disappeared on January 25, 2010.

Clothilde Le Coz, Director of Reporters Without Borders - USA, stated that "we are happy to know Tissa is safe. We urge now the President Mahinda Rajapakse to ensure that he will be able to live a normal life and especially resume working as a journalist in Sri Lanka."

Tissainayagam was named as the first recipient of the first Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism on August 31, 2009, the same day he was convicted to twenty years hard labor on terrorism charges. He was previously hailed by US President Barack Obama as an "emblematic example" of journalists who are persecuted for their craft. His wife, Ronnate Tissainayagam, accepted the Award on his behalf at a ceremony held October 2, 2009 in Washington, DC. On January 11, 2010, Tissainayagam was granted bail and released from the hard labor camp where he was being held. On May 3, 2010, World Press Freedom Day, the Sri Lankan government announced that it would grant Tissainayagam a full pardon. That pardon became official in late June, 2010, and Tissainayagam departed Sri Lanka shortly thereafter.

The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism was founded in June, 2008 to honor the memory of Peter Mackler, a thirty-five year veteran journalist who championed ethical journalism and freedom of expression, and who helped transform the news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) into the global competitor it is today. The Peter Mackler Award rewards journalists who fight courageously and ethically to report the news in countries where freedom of the press is either not guaranteed or not recognized. The award program is co-sponsored by Global Media Forum (GMF), a media training organization founded by Peter Mackler, and the US branch of the press freedom watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Violence in Thailand Leaves Two Journalists Dead, Five Injured

After the worst riots in Thailand's modern history, the clean up in Bangkok is well on the way with Thailand's stock exchange due to re-open on Monday. However, after two journalists were killed and five injured, questions remain over whether journalists were targeted during the violence.

"International Law clearly states that journalists cannot be military targets" stated Reporters Without Borders earlier this week. "The confusion reigning in some parts of Bangkok do not suffice to explain the shooting injuries sustained by several Thai and foreign journalists since April."

The two journalists Hiroyuki Muramoto and Fabio Polenghi were both killed as they attempted to cover the protests by the United Front of Democracy (UDD) against Dictatorship, more commonly known as "Red Shirts." The group opposes the current Thai government, who it considers to have taken power illegitimately with support from the military and the judiciary.

The Bangkok Post reported that protesters, angry at bias coverage by local media, directly attacked the offices of news broadcasters. Media watchdogs have stated that the censorship of pro-UDD media has played a large part in the escalation of violence over the past week. Reporters Without Borders had previously claimed that censorship may result in radicalizing some elements of the movement and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, censorship "exacerbated an already fragile political situation."

The UN and ASEAN have both expressed concern over the situation in the country and stated a need to resume talks to find a political solution. However, red shirt leaders plan on resuming protests next month unless their demand for a dissolution of government is met.

Photo Credit: Thiti Wannamontha

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Newsweek Iraq correspondent sentenced in absentia

On Sunday, Tehran's Revolutionary Court handed down a sentence of 13 years in prison and extended lashing to Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari for a range of anti-state offenses including "propagation against the regime," "insulting the President (Ahmadinejad)," and "insulting the Supreme Leader (Ayotollah Khameni)"

"We condemn the conviction of Manziar Bahari," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the Committee to Protect Journalists North Africa and Middle East Program coordinator. "Bahari's trial bears no resemblance to a legal process."

Bahari was arrested in June 2009 in the wake of President Ahmadinejad's re-election, which had sparked waves of angry protest by opposition supporters. Bahari was held for 118 days and charged, amongst other things, with spying for the United States, although these charges were not mentioned at the trial.

"None of those charges made any more or less sense than the ones I was sentenced for so why leave them out?" commented Bahari in response to his conviction.

Iran has been described by watchdogs as the "world's worst jailer of journalists." Reporters Without Borders have featured both President Ahmadinejad and Ayotollah Khameni in their "Predators of Press Freedom" campaign. The Press Freedom organization has advocated greater international intervention in the situation in Iran for some time. "The United Nations High Commissioner cannot remain silent any longer. A special UN rapporteur must be sent to Iran as a matter of urgency."

Since his release in October, Bahari has been a major voice of the "Our Society Will Be A Free Society" petition to release Iranian journalists and has appealed extensively against the conditions faced by journalists in the country. In an interview with the Associated Press, Bahari said that the recent convictions against himself and other Iranian journalists are an attempt by the Iranian government to prevent critical reports or protests on the anniversary of President Ahmadinejad's re-election

"They want to scare as many people as possible in order to prevent people from coming to the streets."

Photo Credit: Iranian Fars News Agency

Monday, May 3, 2010

J.S. Tissainayagam Granted Presidential Pardon

J. S. Tissainayagam, first recipient of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism, was granted a pardon by Sir Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa earlier today.

"We wholeheartedly welcome the news of a presidential pardon for Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, who received the first Peter Mackler Award on October 2, 2009," said Camille Mackler, director of the award.

Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued the pardon on May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day.

A reporter for the local North Eastern Monthly Magazine and the Sunday Times and editor of the Outreachsl website, Tissainayagam was freed on bail in January pending an appeal against a 20-year jail sentence on charges of supporting terrorism and inciting racial hatred.

"As journalists around the world are subjected to unprecedented pressures, we urge Sri Lanka to allow Tissainayagam to return to his profession freely" she added.

Tissainayagam was still in prison when he received the Peter Mackler Award for journalistic courage and integrity. His wife, Ronnate Tissainayagam, accepted the award on his behalf.

You can read Reporters Without Borders statement on Tissainayagam's pardon here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cameroonian Editor Dies in Prison

The BBC have reported that a Cameroonian journalist died in prison last Friday after allegedly being denied proper medical treatment during his incarceration. The 38 year old was known to have prior health problems, MSF had described him as having "high blood pressure and asthma."

Germain C. Ngota Ngota, editor of the Cameroon Express bi-monthly private newspaper, was arrested along with two colleagues, on March 10th and charged with "imitating the signature of a member of government," an offense carrying a sentence of up to 15 years.

"We hold them (Cameroonian authorities) responsible for his death," said CPJ Africa Program Co-ordinator Tom Rhodes. The press freedom organization had previously sent an open letter that asserted that Ngota was held in response to his discovery of possible corruption surrounding a purchase made by a state-run oil company. Ngota's investigation cast a shadow of doubt over the progress of Operation Sparrowhawk, an ongoing drive by the Cameroonian government to stamp out corruption.

In February, Cameroon's Minister of Communications, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, defended Operation Sparrowhawk from accusations in the French press that indicated that the anti corruption initiative was selective. In an interview on Cameroon Radio and Television(CRTV), the minister told reporters that the measures taken by government were not selective and urged journalists not to allow "destabilization forces" within their ranks.

According to Pana, the Senegal based African news agency, Bakary also denied that Ngota did not receive adequate medical attention in a press conference held after news of his death broke out. While he recognized that Ngota's medical file confirmed that he was ill, he was treated by prison doctors and did not display symptoms that suggested that he required emergency attention. However, Bakary did concede that the conditions at the prison needed to be improved and called for an investigation into Ngota's death.

The Cameroon Journalists Trade Union has urged the government to set up an independent commission to investigate Ngota's death. RSF have also called for an investigation "so that the dead man's colleagues, who are extremely fragile, physically and psychologically, do not end up succumbing to the same dreadful prison conditions."

Photo Credit: Le Jour

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Trial After Trial for Yemeni Journalist

The Committee to Protect Journalists have reported that Yemeni editor Mohamed al-Maqalih has had fresh charges brought against him for articles criticizing the government. The CPJ states that this is the latest of a series of allegations which "constitute a pattern of judicial harassment."

Al-Maqalih, editor of Al-Eshteraki, the website of the opposition Yemeni Socialist Party, was summoned by the country's Press and Publications Court in response to an article written in 2005 which criticized President Ali Abdallah Saleh's plans to seek re-election in 2006 despite promises made that he would not do so. Article 103 of Yemen's Press and Publications Law prohibits journalists from criticizing the head of state and Hael Salem, al-Maqaleh's lawyer, told the CPJ that his client could be facing up to two years in prison if convicted.

Al-Maqalih is also currently standing trial before a state security court. He has been accused of supporting Shi'ite Zaidi rebels, the minority insurgent group has been fighting against the Sunni government since 2004.

This news comes less than one month since AFP reported that Al-Maqalih was released from custody for "health and humanitarian reasons." The journalist was abducted in September and was held incommunicado until January 31st when he was finally given permission to speak to his family. Al-Maqalih asserts that he was tortured during his confinement, however, his complaints have not been addressed in either of his trials.

Freedom House's 2009 edition of Freedom of the Press, considers the press in Yemen to be "not free." The report reveals that the country's Ministry of Information influences most of the news in Yemen through strict licensing laws, control of printing presses and the ability to manipulate advertising subsidies. Additionally, the Yemeni parliament is currently considering a draft media law to replace Article 103 which has been described by the Union of Yemeni Journalists as "worse than the law currently in force."

"What is happening in Yemen now is very serious...The international community must intercede as a matter of urgency," Reporters Without Borders said.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Friday, April 2, 2010

Honduras "world's most dangerous country for journalists"

Reporters Without Borders have described Honduras as "the world's most dangerous country for journalists in the first quarter of 2010" after a spate of attacks last month left five journalists dead, one wounded and one in exile.

"We are unable to provide you with protection," local police told José Alemán according to the press freedom group. Alemán, a correspondent for Tiempo, a Honduran daily newspaper, had reported violations of freedom of expression and human rights since the country's political stability was shaken by a military coup d'etat in June 2009. Reporters Without Borders reports that Alemán fled Honduras after gunmen opened fire on his home and chased him through the streets of San Marcos.

Alemán was fortunate to escape. Joseph Hernandez Ochoa, David Meza, Nahúm Palacios Arteaga, José Bayardo Mairena and Manuel Juarez were all murdered in March.

“There can be no doubt that we face one of the most tragic moments in the history of the Latin American press” declared Alejandro Aguirre, President of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA). Peter Kent, the Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs (Americas) also condemned the violence and added "Canada calls on the Honduran authorities to promptly and thoroughly investigate these crimes and prosecute those responsible."

Despite censure of the violence by many groups in the human rights community, this Huffington Post article indicates that the situation on Honduras may not garner the mainstream media attention it warrants. Also Telesur, a South American news agency, has criticized IAPA for overlooking the Honduran issue in favor of "aggression directed at journalists from right wing media.”

Aguirre has previously stated that there is “a siege against the press" in countries allied with the politics of Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez even though Honduras and Mexico, the two countries which have seen the most journalists killed this year, are governed by conservative administrations.

However, former Honduran Human Rights Ombudsman, Leo Valladares suggests the injuries and threats received by Karol Cabrera, a journalist known to be in favor of the coup, affirms that there are "dark forces" at work at both extremes of the political spectrum.

Photo Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Seventh Anniversary of the "Black Spring" Marked by Protest

On Monday, the Cuban opposition movement "The Ladies in White"(pictured right) began a week of protest to mark the seventh year anniversary of the "Black Spring," a media crackdown where 75 journalists and librarians were imprisoned between March 18th-20th in 2003. The Committee to Protect Journalists(CPJ) states that 22 of these individuals still remain imprisoned for their dissident opinions

Reuters reports that the movement, which was awarded the 2005 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, initiated a mostly silent protest, the only words spoken was the phrase "Zapata lives!"

"Zapata" refers to Orlando Zapata Tomoyo, a member of Cuba's Republican Alternative Movement and one of Amnesty International "Prisoners of Conscience" who died in prison on February 23rd after a 85 day hunger strike. This course of action was in protest to poor prison conditions.

"All of the journalists are suffering from medical problems that have emerged or worsened during their..incarcerations," a two year old CPJ report said.

Cuban officials have always asserted that those imprisoned are agents of the United States seeking to destabilize the country. The dissidents were convicted under Law 88 and Article 91, laws enacted by the Cuban government to protect the nation from foreign influence. Cuba has been subject to a 50 year embargo embargo by the U.S. which Amnesty International has described as "immoral."

However, in an open letter to the President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Reporters Without Borders called on Brazil and its regional partners to exert more pressure on the Cuban government to release the prisoners, stating that the regime's struggles against the embargo "does not excuse the brutal treatment and humiliation of journalists, activists, trade unionists and their families."

According to the Associated Press, Guillermo Farinas, a fellow imprisoned Cuban, was hospitalized earlier this month. The 48 year old independent journalist had began a hunger strike in response to the death of Zapata and to continue the protest for better prison conditions.

"He remains firm in his hunger strike," his mother told the news service.

Photo Credit: Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Friday, March 12, 2010

US may challenge Chinese Internet Censorship

Earlier this week, Reuters reported that U.S. trade officials are evaluating whether the legal implications of China's internet censorship could give rise to an International Trade Law case before the WTO. If successful, the case would allow other countries to raise tariffs against Chinese exports.

“It (China's internet censorship policy) is less of a trade issue than it is a freedom of information issue,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk considered in an interview with Bloomberg radio last month. He has more recently commented that his office are "trying to make our own determination whether we believe in fact this is not WTO compliant."

"The U.S Government is not powerless to influence China's policies for censoring the internet," says Peter Scheer, Executive Director of The First Amendment Coalition, a California based public interest non profit organization. The Coalition argues that the "Great Firewall of China" is
"an illegal restraint on international trade because it bars foreign companies from competing, via the internet, in the vast Chinese market."

Zheng Zhihai, general secretary of the China Society of World Trade Organisation Studies responded stating "If someone intends to challenge China's right to govern its Internet by resorting to WTO rules, they are apparently misguided and bound to fail" .The case would the the first of its kind presented at the WTO and censorship does not necessarily fall foul of International Trade rules.

The European Centre for International Political Economy concedes this in working paper published last year but adds that it may " have the potential to discipline the clumsier manifestations of censorship: outright blockages by a government that is capable of enforcing selective filtering for example, and will persuade governments to use more selective and less trade-disruptive means."

The lack of precedent surrounding the case combined with the length of time a potential case would take to be resolved has led to Kirk describing the potential legal battle as an "uncertain path." As a result, the preferred method of resolution is still political interaction. The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue is held later this spring.

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Respect for Press Freedom in Eritrea Once Again Under Scrutiny

The recent reported solitary confinement of a radio journalist in Eritrea has once again put the status of press freedom, the treatment of journalists and prison conditions inside the country under scrutiny.

Yirgalem Fesseha Mebrahtu, who has contributed to both public and private media during her career, was detained along with the rest of her colleagues at Radio Bana on February 22nd 2009.

"The Eritrean government has once again shown its cruelty," Press Freedom organization Reporters Without Borders(RSF) stated in response to the news. The journalist has been incommunicado since the time of her arrest but RSF reports that the reasons behind Yirgalem Fesseha's recent isolation is currently unknown.

This news comes a little over three years since sources in Eritrea revealed that Fesshaye "Joshua" Yohannes died in custody. A former guerilla fighter during Eritrea's 30 year conflict for independence from Ethiopia, Yohannes was a respected playwright and a popular writer for Setit, a weekly publication that had established a reputation for being critical of how the government handled difficult social issues. Yohannes was arrested in 2001 during a government crackdown on private media after the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The private press were alleged by the Eritrean authorities to be a security threat by "jeopardizing national unity" at the time.

RSF have verified that Yohannes was the fourth journalist to die at the secret desert prison he was held. Said Abdulkader, Medhane Haile and Yusuf Mohamed Ali perished at the prison between 2005 and 2006. Koïchiro Matsuura, the Director-General of UNESCO at the time, invited the Eritrean government "
to shed light on these cases and to ensure respect for due process of law and basic human rights, including freedom of expression and press freedom."

However, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) confirm that at least 19 journalists remain behind bars in Eritrea as of December 1 2009 . One of these journalists, Dawit Isaac was one of the 2009 finalists for the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought. A Eritrean/Swedish dual national, Isaac was a co-founder of Setit and his nomination for this award has been seen as a moral victory by Eritrean political exiles with one stating “Dawit Isaac has not sunk into the oblivion where the authorities want him to be.”

Eritrea is considered to be one of the worst countries in the world to be a journalist. It was ranked last in RSF's most recent Press Freedom Index and according to Freedom House's latest Freedom of the Press report, foreign journalists are restricted from entering the country unless they agree to make favorable reports about the regime.

The Eritrean constitution guarantees freedom of speech but as national elections have repeatedly been postponed due to border disputes with Ethiopia, the constitution has never been implemented.

Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Teaching freedom of speech and religion in schools

Here's some recommended reading for those interested in the issues covered by this blog:

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine has an excellent article by historian and author Russell Shorto titled "How Christian Were the Founders?" The piece focuses an a school board battle in Texas, where a small but powerful contingent of right-wing Christians are pushing to incorporate religion into history teaching. Shorto examines issues of intent in the founding documents - such as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights - which were written by devoutly Christian men who were nevertheless skeptical of religion's role in public life. The article touches upon free speech issues in Revolutionary times and today, where right-wing activists and "hard-line secularists" alike claim that they are not being heard.

Shorto's most recent book, Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, focuses on related topics.

Read the article here.