How You Can Help Protect Freedom of Expression Now

By the Cogroup Collective

On May 3, the world celebrates World Press Freedom Day to defend the fundamental principles of press freedom and defend journalists from attacks on their independence. Since Amnesty International began in 1961, we’ve supported freedom of expression and protected those, including journalists, who speak out for others. Attacks by governments and others against journalists continue to occur around the world. We’ll highlight a few examples and provide opportunities to take action to defend press freedom.

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In Myanmar, two Reuters journalists sit in the notorious Insein Prison, imprisoned for investigating the brutal military crackdown that escalated into systematic human rights abuses against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State. Take action now to demand their release .

On December 12, 2017, during the course of their investigation, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were invited to meet two police officers for dinner at a restaurant in Yangon. Shortly after being seated, they were handed documents. The two journalists were then arrested for ”possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces (with the intent) to send them to a foreign news agency.” Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were formally charged on January 10, 2018 of violating the Official Secrets Act and could face up to 14 years in prison.

The situation in Rakhine State and the plight of the Rohingya worsen by the day. Approximately 700,000 have fled to Bangladesh, driven from their land by a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing. They have been killed, raped, driven from their homes, their lands burned, and their escape routes mined. The spring monsoons will soon wreak havoc on their health and survival. And yet the Myanmar government — from the military leaders to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi — deny the reality, or hide their heads behind a smokescreen of ”fake news.”

At a time when thorough reporting is most needed, journalists like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are followed, intimidated, detained, arrested, and criminally prosecuted for shining a light on the human rights abuses committed by the Myanmar military.

In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been called a reformer who will modernize the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and pave the way for the eventual allowance of women drivers and other exciting changes like the opening of cinemas. Yet, since he came to power in June 2017, his appetite for reform has not extended to the Kingdom’s ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression. In fact, in September 2017, Saudi authorities began a wave of arrests targeting more than 60 human rights defenders, including journalists and writers, for charges related to dissent. Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger jailed and sentenced to 1,000 lashes for starting a website on social and political debate, remains behind bars for the sixth year. The Saudi government can demonstrate its professed interest in reform by releasing Raif Badawi and dropping all charges against him. Please call the Embassy of Saudi Arabia (202–342–3800) and request Raif’s immediate release.

Since the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, more than 180 media outlets have been shut down, and more than 2,500 journalists have lost their jobs. Despite a few positive developments, such as the release of journalists Ahmet Şık and Murat Sabuncu, Turkey remains the number one jailer of journalists in the world for the second year in a row. More than 100 journalists who were detained in the wake of the coup attempt still in prison. Follow the hashtag #FreeTurkeyMedia and the @FreeTurkeyMedia twitter account for updates on imprisoned Turkish journalists and censorship issues. We also encourage everyone to join journalists, artists, and human rights defenders and take a selfie to stand in solidarity with imprisoned Turkish journalists and tag it with the #FreeTurkeyMedia hashtag.

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Prageeth Eknaligoda © Private

Over recent decades in Sri Lanka, independent journalists have been attacked and sometimes killed just for doing their jobs. One emblematic case is the disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who disappeared on Jan. 24, 2010, two days after publishing an article critical of then president Mahinda Rajapaksa. This past April 12 was the 3,000th day since his enforced disappearance. Please take action here and demand that the Sri Lankan government account for Prageeth’s whereabouts.

In Russia, the republic of Chechnya in the North Caucasus region has long been a dangerous place to investigate and report on violations of human rights. One of the few journalists who dared to engage in this work was Natalia Estemirova, a well-known activist with the human rights group Memorial.. While investigating hundreds of incidents of kidnapping, torture, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings by Russian troops or militia members in Chechnya, she received numerous threats attempting to silence her. In 2009, she was looking into a series of government sanctioned house-burnings. On the morning of July 15, she was forced into a van as she left home for work. Her body was found in a wooded area in neighboring Ingushetia a few hours later with bullet wounds to her head and chest shot at close range.

In the course of her work in Chechnya, Natalia Estemirova often collaborated with Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who was also murdered in retaliation for her work. Even after the killing of her colleague in October 2006, Estemirova continued to collect information about grave violations of human rights and support the efforts of those fighting official corruption in Chechnya. She became increasingly concerned about growing restrictions on the rights of women and incurred the wrath of Chechen President Kadyrov when she spoke out publicly on Russian television about his attempts to impose dress code requirements on women.

In spite of international calls for a full and impartial investigation into the killing of Natalia Estemirova, no one has ever been found responsible for her death and brought to justice. Failure to account for her murder has reinforced impunity for the harassment and intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders in Chechnya. Justice for this courageous investigative reporter would go far toward restoring a safe space for the legitimate work of journalists and human rights defenders in the North Caucasus.

In China, political journalist Gao Yu was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in April, 2015 for “revealing state secrets.” Gao Yu allegedly shared with a U.S.-based Chinese language magazine and a Hong Kong publishing house an internal Communist Party ideological paper that critiques freedom of the press and “universal values,” such as democracy, and human rights. These charges are due solely to her challenging the views of the government and are a clear attack on press freedom in the country. Although Gao Yu is being allowed to serve the rest of her sentence, which was reduced to five years, outside prison due to severe health issues, she and her family have been harassed, attacked and kept under surveillance. This shameful behavior by the Chinese authorities needs to stop.

Meanwhile, in India, threats to journalists have been steadily increasing over the past few years. Though Kashmiri photojournalist Kamran Yousuf was recently released from prison after spending months in pre-trial detention for allegedly “waging war against the government of India,” other journalists have faced threats and have been killed for their work. It is believed that Sandeep Sharma was killed in Madhya Pradesh recently for investigating illegal mining. Navin Nishchal and Vijay Singh appear to have been the victims of a feud with powerful politicians that led to their deaths in March. Well-known journalist Gauri Lankesh was killed by Hindu fundamentalists in August of 2017, and in total 11 journalists were killed in India in 2017. Most of their attackers have walked away without facing any punishment, and journalists are being increasingly frequently jailed for politically-motivated charges such as sedition or of being a threat to national security, in a political atmosphere that is becoming more and more intolerant of dissent. Others speaking out for human rights in India are being threatened and silenced too.

In Vietnam, where the press is not free, the journalist and social activist Hồ Đức Hòa was arrested and charged in 2011 for campaigning for democracy. Authorities prevented independent journalists from observing the proceedings inside the courtroom of Mr. Trần Thị Nga’s trial, a labor and land rights activist condemned to nine years in prison in 2017 (for more details, go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/aiusasoutheastasia)

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov has been convicted after grossly unfair trials in military courts in Russia. Sentsov is a Ukrainian citizen from Crimea, but in violation of international humanitarian law has been transferred from occupied Crimea to Russia and tried under Russian law, and have been denied access to the Ukrainian consul and a lawyer. It appears that he is being punished for his public opposition to the Russian occupation of Crimea in February 2014, and the trial appears to be part of a Russian propaganda war against Ukraine. Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment on August 25, 2015 by the Rostov-on-Don Military Court for “setting up a branch of a terrorist group” and “having organized terrorist acts in April 2014”, shortly after the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea. He had taken part in the EuroMaydan demonstrations that erupted in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in November 2013.

Amnesty International believes Oleg Sentsov was convicted after unfair trials and that he had been wrongly charged with much more serious crimes than his actions, or alleged actions, merited. His conviction was based on testimony obtained through the use of torture. The court dismissed allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, made by Oleg Sentsov, in violation of Articles 3 and 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights and of Russian legislation.

Across Central Asia, the police and security services continue to intimidate and harass journalists. Human rights lawyers endured arbitrary arrests, politically motivated prosecutions, harsh prison sentences and harassment. In Kazakhstan, journalists and activists faced politically motivated prosecutions and attacks. Having all but strangled independent media already, the authorities used increasingly elaborate and aggressive methods to stamp out dissenting voices on the internet and social media. While no journalists in the region were killed in 2017, beatings, torture, and judicial punishment for reporting on unfavorable state news have continued. Please take action for Akmaral Tobylova in Kazakhstan, a graphic designer, charged under anti-terrorism legislation simply for browsing the website of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party. In Uzbekistan, journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev has been unfairly detained and tortured in prison; please write on his behalf. Journalist Khairullo Mirsaidov in Tajikistan currently faces charges brought by the state for publicly standing up to corruption; please call for his immediate release by writing to: Prosecutor General Yusuf Rakhmon, Prosecutor General’s Office, 126 A. Sino Avenue, Dushanbe 734043, Tajikistan; fax: +992 372 21 02 59; email: secretariat@prokuratura.tj

The Cogroup Collective consists of the following Amnesty International USA country/thematic specialists: Viachaslau Bortnik (Eurasia), Alice Dahle (Women’s Human Rights), Nancy Galib (Myanmar), Jim McDonald (Sri Lanka), James Mutti (India), Jon Poser (Russia), Claire Sadar (Turkey), Jerome Sauvage (Vietnam), Ella Shen (Central Asia) and Zoya Waliany (Saudi Arabia).

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