Friday, June 28, 2013

Turkey's use of counterterrorism law to suppress media

The crackdown on the media in Turkey continues with arrests and searches of homes and offices of journalists as Ankara tries to stifle ant-government protests. But this is only one part of the suppression of the media, especially in the Kurdish language, where journalists criticising the government are routinely accused of terrorism.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) that monitors freedom of expression issues around the world, expressed concern over aggressive statements made by Ankara and raids on media organisations and journalists covering the protests. RSF said organisers, their supporters and journalists had been accused of acting “at the behest of ‘external actors’ or in collusion with ‘terrorist organizations’ with the aim of destabilizing the country.”

“The protest movement’s criminalization is being accompanied by an unacceptable and dangerous climate of hostility towards the media … We call for immediate explanations of the arrests of journalists in recent days. Raids on journalists’ homes and news media violate the principle of the protection of sources, the cornerstone of media freedom,” RSF observed in a statement on June 18.

RSF, which places Turkey as the 154th of the 179 countries on the Press Freedom Index, reported that anti-terrorism police had raided the offices of a number of leftwing newspapers and the homes of journalists who work for them. Etkin News Agency (ETHA) is one such targeted with its offices raided on the 18th with two of its senior women journalists held under house arrest.

RSF also pointed to a number of Turkish and foreign journalists who had been targeted by law enforcement authorities since protests began in late May. In a statement on June 17, it named eight reporters who were arrested for covering events at Istanbul as the police used violence to evict protestors. The journalists were detained and later released.

Although Turkey’s harsh treatment of the independent media is in the spotlight only following the protests, it is one the most media-hostile governments in the world. As mentioned in my posting June 26, according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), Turkey has 45 journalists – the largest number in the world – behind bars.

Among those who are targeted by Turkish authorities are journalists working Kurdish language media organisations. The minority Kurds, victims of Turkey’s vicious policy of political repression, have been fighting to establish a state of their own. In a June 12th posting, the German newspaper Spiegel Online International’s Michael Sontheimer describes the ordeal of Zeynep Kuray (35), a Kurdish-language journalist who was arrested in December 2011, by five plainclothes officers entering her apartment in Istanbul at 5.00 a.m. in the morning.

“After she had spent three days in the Istanbul police prison, a prosecutor informed her that she was being accused of being a member of a terrorist organization, the media committee of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK). He claimed that the KCK was a cover for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which wanted to create a Kurdish nation with armed force,” Sontheimer writes. Kuray was released on bail in April although many other Kurdish-language journalists remain in detention.

“‘Turkey’s counterterrorism laws are archaic and repressive,’ says Christophe Deloire, the general secretary of Reporters without Borders... Under … the country’s anti-terror law, spreading ‘propaganda for a terrorist organization’ carries a penalty of two to seven-and-a-half years in prison,” states the Spiegel Online story.

At a panel discussion on press freedom in Turkey on March 27, Susan Corke of the New York-based Freedom House referred to a Carnegie report which said that 68% of journalists detained in Turkey in 2012 were held under counterterrorism laws. “These detentions have been justified on the basis of combating the PKK, especially through the KCK case… Reporting on, or printing material produced by, the PKK, should not in itself be considered a crime,” Corke said. (Freedom House classifies media in Turkey as partly free)

Placing the rising importance of Turkey to the West and its role in war in Syria, Corke cautioned that security should not be the sole lens through which the west’s relations with Turkey are viewed. She recommends two ways whereby the West could press Ankara on media reform: by strengthening civil society actors and by including freedom of the media as a benchmark in the dialogue on Turkey’s full accession to the European Union membership.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Hardship in exile no bar to journalists exposing abuse and violence

Journalists fleeing violence and imprisonment find political asylum, but have to face formidable odds to survive in the country of exile. Despite such hardships, by using the media tools available in their adopted home, they document and publicise the abuses and suffering in the country they fled.

In a statement on the eve of World Refugee Day on June 20, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that over the past 12 months it had helped 55 journalists to escape persecution. The statements addressed two main reasons for the exodus: fear of violence and fear of imprisonment. Iran (9) and Somalia (8) witnessed the highest number of fleeing journalists, “followed by Ethiopia, Syria, Eritrea, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Sudan and 13 others.”

It is noteworthy that two journalists from among this group of countries are recipients of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism – Karla Rivas from Mexico (2011) and J. S. Tissainayagam from Sri Lanka (2009).

Violence against journalists was highest in Syria where 28 journalists were killed in the line of duty in 2012 and CPJ assisted five to flee the country, although the exact number is difficult to ascertain due the armed conflict there. CPJ said it had supported 18 journalists to flee into exile over the years. Syria is followed by Somalia where 12 were killed last year and 70 journalists have fled the country from 2008.

The second important reason for flight is journalists fearing imprisonment. In 2012, Turkey’s prisons held the highest number of journalists, (49) with Iran (45) close on its heels. CPJ said it has assisted five Iranian journalists to flee the country.

CPJ says that an important reason that journalists decide to flee is the impunity media-persecuting government officials enjoy. It pointed to a correlation between countries with a high rate of exodus and high levels of impunity: “Countries with high impunity rates often see an increase in violence because perpetrators feel emboldened by the slim chances of being caught. The result is self-censorship and exile.”

Mexican journalist Veronica Basturo, whose family was threatened with murder, was assisted by CPJ to flee in 2012. “Like Basurto, most of the journalists fled into exile only as a last resort, leaving behind careers, livelihoods, and family to escape forms of intimidation including violence, imprisonment, and threat of death,” said CPJ.

While some journalists find asylum overseas, they often face great hardship in finding work, in the naturalisation process and lack of social support. Reporters without Borders (RSF) based in Paris, brought the plight of exiled journalists to the attention of the UN Commissioner Human Rights (UNHCR).

“We call on UNHCR … to establish an alert mechanism with a designated referral officer within each of its local offices so that cases involving refugee journalists and human rights activists can be identified and handled more quickly because they are particularly exposed to danger,” RSF said. The letter included two more recommendations: to upgrade security to journalists in initial countries of refuge because they may continue facing threats from government of their countries of origin and for expeditious access to individual protection and resettlement in their country of adoption.

RSF has also updated guidelines for journalists seeking asylum in the USA or Europe on procedures, requirements and information to help journalists start life again.

Despite the persecution they experienced back home and daunting odds as they try to make a living as refugees, journalists in exile continue to fight for freedom, human rights and justice in the land from which they were uprooted. They use the internet, social media, radio and other platforms in their country of exile to inform the international community of the dire conditions in their home countries.

The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), a project of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) compiled a report on the exiled journalists and their importance for promoting democracy and human rights.  Writing in the 2011 its author Bill Ristow observed, “[t]heir (journalists in exile) successes are manifold. They include numerous examples such as those above, in which the exile organizations have had a direct impact on events in their homelands. Beyond that, many international journalism experts argue the importance of the exile media includes informing the outside world of what’s happening to their countrymen, and nurturing a structure of independent journalism that someday could be re-established at home.”

For those interested, a celebration of the bravery and steadfastness of four Sri Lankan journalists exiled in Europe and the USA is Silenced Voices, a documentary by director Beate Arnestad.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Suspected attackers of PMA winner Lukpan Akhmedyarov brought to trial

In a development not often seen in countries with poor records of media freedom, the attackers of Kazakhstan journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov were brought to trial in Uralask last month.

Akhmedyarov (36), who reports to the daily Uralskaya Nedelya, won the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism in October 2012. Speaking at award ceremony at the Press Club in Washington DC, chief guest Robert O. Blake, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs said, “Mr. Akhmedyarov’s continued activism in the face of this adversity is what makes him such an outstanding selection for this award.”

Assaulted in April 2012, Akhmedyarov was “stabbed repeatedly, shot with an air pistol and beaten on the head. He was hospitalized for one month and then underwent a long course of therapy,” said Reporters without Borders (RSF).

Significantly, there appears to be a move by Kazakh authorities to find the real culprits. In May 2012 some suspects were arrested but released soon because they were, as RSF described them, “scapegoats.” In a statement on May 22 this year however, RSF said, “[t]he investigation has been conducted professionally since it was restarted about one year ago – at least so far. Procedural safeguards have been respected, and the planned nature of the attack and its connection with Akhmedyarov’s work have been recognized.”

RSF that tracks media freedom issues around the world and has placed Kazakhstan 160th of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index in 2012 and names the country’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev a predator of press freedom.

RSF’s statement said that four persons are standing trial who have been charged with attempted murder. Two of them – Almaz Batyrkhairov and Manarbek Akbulatov – are accused of attacking the journalist, which was planned by Askhat Tahkambetov. The fourth suspect had driven the vehicle which the attackers rode. The two attackers had admitted they had assaulted Akhmedyarov, but “to scare him, not to kill him.”

RSF quotes Akhmedyarov as having told the organisation in a January 2013 interview “he had every reason to trust the new investigation” and that he had identified two of the suspects as his attackers. In an interview in October 2012 with RSF however, he voiced scepticism on obtaining justice through the country’s courts.

Although four persons have been identified as involved in the assault the RSF statement says the assault was “under the orders of an unknown party.” This might be the reason that has prompted RSF to strike a cautionary note. “It remains essential that the investigation go to the heart of the matter by discovering those who ordered this savage attack … The new trial session must be completely transparent.”

The April 2012 attack was not the only occasion the journalist was targeted for exposing corruption. In 2008 he was dismissed from service from TDK 42 television and was repeatedly subject to defamation suits for exposing official corruption, said the Peter Mackler Award blog introducing the award’s 2012 winner.

Receiving the award Akhmedyarov said, “It is a big honour for me to receive this prize. I look on it however not as an award for my service but as a symbol of hope and optimism for all of my colleagues.”


Friday, June 21, 2013

Can new president Hassan Rohani free Iran's media?

Reporters without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media watchdog, has expressed cautious optimism that Hassan Rohani’s victory in Iran’s recent presidential election could reverse the country’s war on freedom of the media. However, as reports emerge that Rohani might have been “allowed to win,” fundamental reform – including that of the media – appears questionable.

In a public statement released on June 18, RSF said, “Your campaign promises included references to a desire to work for freedom of expression and media freedom, and the release of all political prisoners. These firm undertakings encouraged progressives, especially young people and women, to vote en masse for you. It is now your duty to keep these promises, and to ensure that they are not empty, meaningless words.”

The RSF statement draws attention to its demands to Rohani when he was campaigning for the election. The demands included releasing from detention 54 journalists and netizens, an end to impunity and investigations beginning into the murder of 11 journalists, a repeal of censorship laws and improved access to the internet.

Meanwhile, Rohani's willingness to act on his promises was tested at a press conference on June 16 when he was questioned on the closure of the offices of the Association of Iranian Journalists (AoIJ) an affiliate of the media watchdog International Federation of Journalist (IFJ). IFJ said in a statement on June 19 that Rohani “replied that ‘guilds and associations are the best ways to run social affairs of the society.’

IFJ reacted with a letter signed by its president Jim Boumelha welcoming Rohani’s attitude to media freedom and civil liberties, but cautioned there was still a long way to go. “Your words of ‘new opportunities’ and ‘constructive interaction’ and your emphasis on ‘Iranian people bringing back hope throughout their turnout and participation’ ring true … However, they will have a fuller meaning if you re-open the space for free journalism by ordering the lifting of the close of the Association and release journalists in jail.”

One reason for optimism is that Rohani was endorsed by two former reform-minded presidents: Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. It is notable that under Khatami, elected president in 1997, a number of restrictions of the media were relaxed.

But now that the dust has settled on the elections, more thoughtful assessments of Rohani and the electoral process are emerging. “The question is whether Rowhani can deliver on the hopes he ignited in the country. He will have to deal with a conservative parliament unsympathetic to his policies…,” writes Haleh Esfandiari director, Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars wrote in the New York Times. Among the hurdles for Rohani she cites is opposition from the country’s all-powerful supreme leader Ali Khameni and the hardliners in the elite military corps, the Revolutionary Guard.

Another theory is that Rohani was ‘permitted’ to win. With crippling economic sanctions and strident opposition to Iran’s foreign policy, especially with regard to nuclear weapons and the country’s role in the Middle East, commentators feel a nominally reform-minded president like Rohani would be an asset in Teheran. Carol J. Williams in an article to the Los Angeles Times said Rohani’s victor was a “confluence of government self-interest and popular hunger for change.” Williams goes on to quote Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center’s Middle East program: “He’s (Rohani)  not talking about fundamental reform, he’s talking about increasing social freedoms, a more diversified press, and he’s addressing the economy...”

Reform of the system will depend on how Rohani negotiates the domestic and international forces surrounding him. But there might very well be an opportunity for smaller changes such a diversified press and releasing political prisoners, which RSF and IFJ have asked for. How far such changes will go to benefitting the Iranian people only time will tell.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Code of Ethics to Stifle Sri Lanka's Media

Sri Lanka’s Government is set to impose a code of ethics on its already stifled media. The code which affects print, broadcast and online media will become law once the bill is passed by the country’s Parliament. It is not clear when the bill will come to Parliament or what penalties will be given for non compliance.

“The government’s proposed media code is part of a sustained campaign to control the media and curtail dissent,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lankan journalists are already under enormous pressure not to be critical of the government, and the vagueness of this code will likely lead to greater self-censorship to avoid government retaliation.”

Presently Sri Lanka is placed 162 of 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders (RSF) Index. In the last year alone, five news websites were shut down and a leading Tamil opposition newspaper office was been burned down and had its journalists assaulted. Impunity is rife and there has been progress in investigations into murders and disappearances of journalists.

The latest imposition of a code of ethics comes after the media has reported protests against the Government for rising cost of living, shortcomings in rehabilitation of minority Tamils following the country’s brutal ethnic war and runaway corruption.

The code is couched in broad and vague language which press watch dogs fear could be used as a weapon to harass journalists even further. For instance, prohibiting content with “anything against maintenance of law and order or which may promote anti-national attitudes” is directed at recent protests against the Government on issues as militarisation, suppressing trade unions and even sustained attacks on the media. The code also restricts content that “contains criticism affecting foreign relations,” which means that Sri Lanka’s media could be penalised for carrying stories of international criticism.

This is not the first time there has been an attempt to enforce regulation of the media through a code of ethics. A code was introduced in 1981 under the Press Council Act but not enforced. Instead a Press Complaints Commission was set up where media professionals drew up a code for self-regulation. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) commenting on the Press Complaints Commission said it had “operated fairly successfully” for the past 10 years. “We fail to see how the … effort to introduce a media code to supersede the existing practices in the profession will contribute to the public interest,” said the IFJ Asia-Pacific.

“The new media code is unnecessary and little more than a heavy-handed assault on the remnants of Sri Lanka’s free press,” Adams said.