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.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Iraqi Photographer Released After 17 Months

On February 10th, Iraqi freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam was finally released by US military forces after being detained for 17 months without charge.

Jassam, who regularly contributed photos and video to Reuters news agency, was detained in September 2008 during raid on his home in Mahmudiya, a town 30 miles south of Baghdad, an area which experienced high levels of insurgent activity at that time.

Press freedom organizations have been critical of the journalist's captivity. Reporters Without Borders declared that Jassam's release was “excellent news” but also stated that it was dissatisfied by the fact that the military did not give any reasons for his arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who have documented 14 cases where journalists have been held by US Forces for extended periods without charge, responded by calling on the US Government “to ensure that this release marks the end of its policy of open-ended detentions of journalists.”

The Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) cleared Jassam back in November 2008, on the basis that there was no evidence against him. However, US military authorities continued to hold him after the judgment. Lt. Col. Pat Johnson, a Pentagon spokesperson for the U.S. Forces in Iraq, responded the Court's decision did “not negate the intelligence information” that listed him as a threat to Iraqi security and stability. The intelligence information implicating Jassam was not shared with the CCCI.

On the day of his release, Lt. Col. Johnson once again stated that Jassam was detained due to “activity with an insurgent organization.” Johnson reiterated that there was intelligence evidence against him but gave no indication of what the evidence was.

David Schlesinger, Editor in Chief at Reuters, deplored the lack of process surrounding Jassam's incarceration claiming that it meant that the journalist was not given the right to defend himself properly.

Jassam was detained under war-time rules for detention, before the U.S.- Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) took effect in January 2009. As a result, US forces have claimed that they are "not bound" to adhere to the processes of the CCCI in the case against Jassam.

This interpretation of U.S. Forces remit is disputed by Thomas Kim, Deputy General Counsel at Thomson Reuters, who argues that the way that the US military has dealt with Jassam's case is not consistent with the Rule of Law or the spirit of the SOFA. Article 3 of the Status of Forces Agreement puts a duty on the US forces not to act in a way that is inconsistent with the “letter and spirit of the agreement.” The purpose of the agreement is to allow Iraq to re-establish its sovereignty while keeping the country stable and free from terrorism. It can be argued that the US military forces unwillingness to follow Iraqi court procedure contradicts the sovereignty aim of this agreement.

Jassam's case and other similar cases potentially cast a shadow over the U.S.A.'s human rights record in conflict zones. Joel Simon, CPJ's executive director, expressed during Jassam's imprisonment that these instances “undermine the ability of the U.S. government to effectively advocate for press freedom around the world.”

Photo Credit: AP

Monday, February 8, 2010

Photographer Faces Jail For “Insulting” Uzbekistan

By: Adrian Jarrett. On January 23rd prominent Uzbek photojournalist and filmmaker Umida Akhmedova was charged by the country's authorities for committing criminal offenses under Article 139 (“slander”) and Article 140 (“insult”) of the Uzbek Criminal Code after being reported by the Uzbek State Agency for Press and Information, a government media watchdog. The offending piece of work, “Woman and Man: From Dawn till Night,” consists of 110 photographs of traditional Uzbek life and was made with support from the Swiss Embassy Gender Program in 2007. Ferghana, a regional news website, reports that prior to being charged, Akhmedova was also questioned about her documentary, The Burden of Virginity, a 2008 film that chronicles the traditional social pressures for young women in Uzbekistan to abstain from sexual relations until marriage.

The Uzbek authorities state that they undertook an expert review of Akhmedova's work and concluded that in her work, she made comments that were “unscientific, unsound and inappropriate” which resulted in a “disrespectful attitude towards national traditions.” In the review, particular emphasis was placed on the fact that Akhmedova photographs focus on the “undeveloped” regions of the country rather than more modern areas, leading to what the report found was a deliberately distorted image of the country.

The International Association of Art Critics have appealed to Uzbek authorities to release Akhmedova, stating that her work “ cannot be viewed as a “document” in legal sense, therefore it cannot be an agent of “slander”.” Some Uzbek and Kazakh art critics have also suggested that the authorities are not qualified to judge her work, an opposing report they made to the one made by Uzbek authorities asserts that those that reviewed Akhmedova's work showed “incompetence” and “ignorance.” Also, Akhmedova told Ferghana that when she was interviewed at a Tashkent police station, her interviewer did not understand what an ethnographer was, indicating that little was known about the nature or purpose of her work.

Reporters Without Borders have condemned the charges against Akhmedova, describing them as “an absurd and flagrant violation of free expression.” Reporters Without Borders also reports that discussion of Uzbekistan's social problems are not permitted and that the charges against Akhmedova reaffirms that any debate on Uzbek society is “unthinkable.”

However, despite these criticisms of press freedom in Uzbekistan, Uzbek President Islam Karimov complained last Wednesday that his country's media was “toothless” and told his legislators they should “create conditions for more active reporting by Uzbek media” particularly in areas of government policy.

Akhmedova, a graduate of the All Soviet State Institute of Cinematography, was the first camerawoman in Uzbekistan and won the 2006 Inter Press Grand Prize for Modern Photography in Central Asia. The charges against her have a maximum sentence of three years.

To see some of Akhmedova's work, click here.

Photo Credit: Umida Akhmedova.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tunisian Journalist Taoufik Ben Brik Loses Appeal

By: Adrian Jarrett. On Saturday, Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik lost his appeal against the controversial six month sentence handed to him in November for publicly assaulting a female motorist and causing deliberate damage to her car.

Ben Brik, a co-founder of the National Council for Civil Liberties in Tunisia and a fierce critic of longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was arrested on October 29th 2009 following the publication of critical articles in the French press during the build up to the 25th October Tunisian general election, which President Ben Ali won with almost 90% of the vote.

Freedom of the Press and Human Rights groups say that the charges against Ben Brik were fabricated to silence his criticism of the government. Reporters Without Borders have labeled the charges as “trumped up” and Amnesty International have described Ben Brik as a “prisoner of conscience.”

Ben Brik suffers from Cushing's Syndrome, a hormonal condition for which treatment requires regular access to medication. Shortly before the November trial, France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed the concern Ben Brik's family had for the journalist's health and urged the Tunisian government to release Ben Brik so that he could receive medical treatment.

However, Jean-François Julliard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, confirmed that after his conviction, Ben Brik had been transferred to a prison in Siliana, 130km from his family in Tunis. Julliard added that this distance has prevented Ben Brik's family from visiting him regularly. Ben Brik's lawyers have also expressed their frustration. One member of his counsel told the Committee to Protect Journalists that they had been prevented from seeing their client during the build up to his appeal on numerous occasions, despite having permits from judicial authorities.

Tunisian authorities deny fabricating the case against Ben Brik and have stated that his conviction “has nothing to do with freedom of the press” and insist his transfer to Siliana was a “routine measure taken by prison officials who organize the transfer of inmates based on the capacity of different prisons.”

Ben Brik was convicted in absentia during his trial but it is believed that the overwhelming global protest and the concern shown during European Parliament public debate on the Human Rights situation in Tunisia last week may have convinced the Tunisian authorities to allow him to speak at his appeal. According to Reuters, Tunisia is sensitive to European criticism due to future plans to improve upon its current EU Association Agreement and apply to the EU for Advanced Status, which would qualify Tunisia for preferential trade terms with the European Economic Area and potentially enhance its international standing.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Ben Brik used this opportunity to highlight the political nature of the charges against him by stating, “When people want to live, destiny must surely respond. Darkness will disappear, chains will certainly break.” These words, by Tunisian poet Abou Al Kacem Echebbi, were used to spur the resistance during the country's guerilla War of Independence against the French in 1952-54 and currently serve as the final two versus of the Tunisian national anthem.

Photo Credit: BBC