Protect Threatened Journalists on World Press Freedom Day

By the AIUSA Cogroup Writers

World Press Freedom Day, May 3rd, provides an opportunity for people around the world to celebrate the fundamental human right to freedom of expression, enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every day, journalists around the world face the threat of intimidation, censorship, imprisonment and violence, including torture, for their efforts to report on human rights violations.

Amnesty International advocates for the right to freedom of expression where it has been denied, including in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Morocco, Algeria, China, Iran, and Sri Lanka.

On this day four years ago, the Nicaraguan government began launching a strategy of silencing protesters who held anti-government rallies all over the country starting on April 18, 2018. Just days prior, reporter Ángel Gahona was shot and killed in Bluefields while covering the protests. Another nine journalists were wounded on the same day. A month later, during the March of the Mothers, the facilities of the 100% News Channel in Managua and Radio Darío in León were attacked. Attacks on the free press continue in Nicaragua. In August 2021, police in Nicaragua raided the offices of La Prensa newspaper and detained the general manager, Juan Lorenzo Holmann. In April of 2022, Holmann was sentenced to nine years in prison after a “closed-door” trial where the judge ruled him guilty of money laundering. Holmann’s cousin Cristiana Chamorro, a presidential hopeful, was arrested on similar charges along with six other presidential candidates just prior to the 2021 election.

In other Central American nations, governments are using similar tactics. In El Salvador, threats and harassment by President Bukele and his allies led to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decision to grant protective measures for 34 members of the award-winning online newspaper El Faro in February 2021. In November 2021, the governing party introduced legislation designating media outlets that receive international funding as “foreign agents” and limiting their ability to report crucial human rights information.

In January 2022, Amnesty International verified that multiple journalists had been targeted with Pegasus cell phone spyware, allowing their cameras and microphones to be accessed remotely without permission. Threats and slurs against journalists increased following the declaration of a state of exception in March 2022. The government also passed a vague law that criminalizes whatever it deems a message in support of the gangs, creating fear that journalists could be charged for reporting anything about the gangs. President Bukele specifically threatened to imprison two journalists who reported on the government’s unexplained release of a gang leader wanted by the United States government. Bukele’s tweets labeling gang expert Juan Martínez as a “terrorist” and “spokesperson” for the gangs caused him to flee the country.

In Sri Lanka, it can be dangerous to be a journalist. Journalists who dare to criticize the government have been arrested and tortured. Prior to 2015, Sri Lanka was considered by Reporters Without Borders as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, where impunity for crimes against journalists was prevalent. Prominent editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed in broad daylight while on his way to work in 2009. Journalist J.S. Tissainayagam was convicted under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act for two magazine articles and sentenced to 20 years in prison (he was later pardoned and left the country). At least 15 media workers are estimated to have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2006. Due to a change in government in 2015 which ousted then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, there was an opening for dissent for a few years. In 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the former Defense Secretary under his brother’s government, won the presidential election. Under the new government, journalists have faced intimidation, including attacks by supporters of the governing party, police raids on media outlets, summons by law enforcement, anonymous death threats, and smear campaigns against journalists in state and private media.

One emblematic journalist case is the disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda. He went missing after leaving work on January 24, 2010. Two days earlier, he had published an article critical of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Despite years of police investigations, the Sri Lankan government has not accounted for his fate. A court case has been proceeding in the past few years against members of military intelligence accused of involvement in his enforced disappearance but the case has been subject to repeated and lengthy delays. Please call on the government to conduct an effective investigation and hold accountable those responsible for his disappearance.

In Morocco, authorities continue to harass human rights defenders and activists, with at least four facing criminal investigations and prosecutions over social media posts critical of the authorities. These cases include human rights defender Saida El Alami and blogger Mohamed Bouzlouf.

“The Moroccan authorities are harassing and intimidating activists through unfounded criminal investigations and bogus charges in a shameless bid to silence critical voices and clamp down on peaceful activism,” said Amna Guellali, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

After years of harassment, Moroccan journalist and human rights activist Omar Radi was sentenced to six years in jail on charges of rape and espionage following a grossly unfair trial, with similar flaws replicated on appeal; he has since been transferred to the remote Tifelt 2 prison where his family cannot visit him and he has no access to the treatments he needs for his Crohn’s disease condition.

Meanwhile, Hirak activists in Algeria, held in pre-trial detention since April 2021, face charges because they exposed the torture of a child in police custody by posting a video on Facebook in which the 15-year-old victim says that he was sexually assaulted by the police.

“Despite the fact that this video went viral in Algeria, causing outrage over the reports of torture of a child, including attempted rape, the Algerian authorities’ response was to silence the messengers instead of investigating the reports,” said Guellali.

“The charges brought against all five are related to their exercise of freedom of expression in publicizing a child’s testimony. The Algerian authorities must immediately drop all charges, release the five activists and respect their obligations under international law to protect victims and witnesses of torture and other ill-treatment from retaliation.”

In China, Zhang Zhan 张展 is a former lawyer turned citizen journalist who bravely took it upon herself to travel to Wuhan in February 2020 and investigate the Covid-19 outbreak there, despite great risk to herself. She used social media to report on the detention of other independent reporters as well as the harassment of victims’ families who were seeking information and demanding accountability for their relatives. Zhang went missing from Wuhan on May 14. She had been whisked 400 miles away to Shanghai where she was tried and sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vague charge used for all types of unwanted behavior in China. In June 2021 she began a hunger strike to protest her detention. On July 31, she was admitted to a hospital due to severe malnutrition, at which time she weighed less than 88 pounds. She eventually ended her hunger strike because she was being force-fed by prison personnel. You can send a message to Chinese authorities to demand that Zhang Zhan be released at once.

In March 2022 Amnesty International joined 54 human rights and civil society organizations in a joint letter expressing alarm at the Iranian parliament’s moves to ratify the “Regulatory System for Cyberspace Services Bill,” which would have the effect of severely curtailing the Iranian public’s access to information, as well as their right to freedom of expression The signatories of the joint letter urge that the bill be rescinded. If implemented, the Bill would likely carry grave risks of increased and even complete communication blackouts in Iran, and it is likely to be used as a tool to conceal serious human rights violations. Particularly alarming are provisions of the Bill that place Iran’s internet infrastructure and internet gateways under the control of the country’s armed forces and security agencies. In the latest draft of the Bill, the Secure Gateway Taskforce will control international gateways that connect Iran to the internet. Delegating such control over internet and communications access to entities that repeatedly commit serious human rights violations with complete impunity will have chilling effects on the right to freedom of expression in Iran. The result will be that information and communications will be under the monitoring and censorship of the authorities and may result in Iran’s eventual disconnection from the global internet.

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