Why the Freedom of Press Matters for Shaping a Future of Human Rights

Amnesty International USA
10 min readMay 2, 2023

World Press Freedom Day, on May 3rd, is a day to acknowledge and defend the crucial role of journalists in promoting transparency and human rights around the world. Journalists play a critical role in reporting on human rights violations, and that can have significant consequences for those responsible. Around the world, repressive leaders try to suppress free press by imposing censorship, surveilling journalists via Pegasus spyware, arresting journalists, resorting to violence, and even stripping their nationality to silence them.

Attacks against journalists increased substantially in 2022, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 67 journalist and media workers were killed around the world, and an additional 363 journalists have been imprisoned this year because of their work.

The number of killings in 2022 increased by 50% from 2021 and is the highest number since 2018, with the 4 highest being from Ukraine (15), Mexico (13), Haiti (7), and the Philippines (4). The top 10 countries with the most imprisoned journalists are Iran (62), China (43), Myanmar (42), Turkey (40), Belarus (26), Egypt (21), Vietnam (21), Russia (19), Eritrea (16), and Saudi Arabia (11).

These numbers make it clear that many journalists risk their lives to bring the truth to light. Their stories, highlighted below, serve as a reminder of the vital role of a free and independent press as a driver for all other human rights.

Central America — Nicaragua and El Salvador

On April 19, 2023, Nicaragua marked the fifth-year anniversary of the ongoing human rights crisis in the country. On that date in 2018 the Nicaraguan government reacted with extraordinary violence aimed at people holding rallies all over the country in protest of proposed changes to pension policy. Five years on, far from ending its policy of repression to subdue dissenting voices, the Nicaraguan government continues to expand and reinvent it. This includes silencing independent journalists through violence and arrests on bogus charges, and stripping media organizations of their legal status, raiding their facilities, and seizing their assets. The latest attempt to silence free speech was on February 21, 2023, when the government forced 222 people into exile and stripped them of their nationality. Among them were Miguel Mendoza, a journalist and sports reporter critical of President Ortega, Juan Lorenzo Holmann, general manager of the newspaper La Prensa; and Miguel Mora of channel 100% Noticias; “Daniel Ortega is trying to replace the unjust imprisonment of those who speak out and defend rights with forced exile,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty International’s director for the Americas. In the neighboring Central American country of El Salvador, the government has infected journalists’ mobile phones with Pegasus spyware. In February 2022, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly amended their criminal law to allow the use of “digital undercover agents”, to allow police to implement “necessary” digital undercover operations.

Sri Lanka

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 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’sgovernment, journalists 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.

Widespread public protests in 2022 against government mismanagement of the economy forced a change in government, including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation. The protests were met with excessive force by the security forces, including beatings of journalists by the police and the military. Since the change in government, journalists have faced attempts at intimidation by the police.

One emblematic journalist case is the disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda (pictured above). 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.

TAKE ACTION: WHERE IS PRAGEETH EKNALIGODA

China

Zhanargul Zhumatai has disappeared into detention in China for the second time in five years. She is a 47-year-old ethnic Kazakh woman from Urumqi in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. In 1999 she traveled to Kazakhstan to study at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University and afterward worked as a journalist in that country. In 2008, she returned to China and dedicated herself to organizing exhibitions and events aimed at preserving Kazakh culture, for which she has received several awards. She also advocated for the rights of Kazakh shepherds in Xinjiang whose lands were being confiscated by Chinese authorities

Zhanargul was first detained and taken to a detention center in March 2018 where she was shackled, handcuffed and subjected to beatings. She was released in October 2019 but around the beginning of 2023 local authorities began searching for her. She avoided them for some time and sent out pleas over social media for help, saying ““Either kill me or let me go to Kazakhstan. I don’t want to continue in this hell.” She was detained again in February 2023 and since then there has been no information released regarding the charges against her or the conditions under which she is being held. Her family has had no access to her and is very concerned about her health as she developed a heart condition during her first detention.

DEMAND CHINESE AUTHORITIES RELEASE ZHANARGUL IMMEDIATELY BY TAKING PART IN AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL’S URGENT ACTION ON HER BEHALF

Burundi

Burundi’s media organizations continue to face government repression since the 2015 crisis. The government suspended or closed most independent human rights organizations and media outlets and drove them into exile. Despite promises by President Ndayishimiye to normalize relations with the media in 2021, the Burundian government continues to view the press and human rights work with suspicion, and severe restrictions on human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, remain in place. In June 2020, journalists were among a group of 34 people sentenced to life in prison in absentia in June 2020 on questionable accusations of involvement in an attempted coup in May 2015.

On January 2, Burundian journalist Floriane Irangabiye was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of one million Burundian francs (USD 482). She was convicted on trumped-up charges of “undermining the integrity of the national territory.” The mother of two was arrested on August 30 while on a family visit in Bujumbura, the former capital of Burundi. Among the evidence, the prosecution presented against her was a show where she and her guests suggested that the people of Burundi don’t speak out for fear of reprisals. The prosecution also presented as evidence photos of her posing with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and former President Pierre Buyoya at public events.

TAKE ACTION FOR FLORIANE IRANGABIYE: WRITE AN APPEAL IN YOUR OWN WORDS OR USE THIS MODEL LETTER

Cameroon

Journalists and other human rights defenders who speak out about human rights violations face grave danger in Cameroon. The recent murder of a journalist in Cameroon is an example. On January 22, 2023, the body of Martinez Zogo, a Cameroonian journalist, was found on the outskirts of Yaoundé. A respected journalist and former managing director of the private radio station, Amplitude FM, he regularly denounced alleged embezzlement by well-known personalities, particularly from the business world. Those responsible for his kidnapping and murder have not been brought to justice.

This case is like the unsolved case is Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe, a journalist known as “Wazizi.” He was forcibly disappeared and murdered after his arrest by security and defense forces in August 2019 in the South-West region of Cameroon. The Cameroonian authorities delayed ten months before admitting he had died in detention. The results of the investigation conducted by the military police and sent to the Head of State still have not been made public. These likely murders of these journalists added to a long list of people killed, raped, convicted, or intimidated in Cameroon for speaking out about human rights violations with total impunity for those responsible.

#JusticeForWazizi

Yemen

On April 11, 2020, the Specialized Criminal Court in Sana’a sentenced four journalists, Akram al-Walidi, Abdelkhaleq Amran, Hareth Hamid and Tawfiq al-Mansouri to death. They were part of a wider group of 10 journalists who were formally charged in December 2018 with a series of offenses, including spying, which carries the death penalty. They all were arrested in 2015 and have been awaiting trial since then. The journalists’ lawyers were permitted to attend that first session (December 9, 2019) but have subsequently been barred from attending all the other court sessions.

On June 9, 2015, at 4 am, nine journalists were arrested in a single raid on the Qasr al-Ahlam hotel in Sana’a. The nine journalists were working in a room rented out in Qasr al-Ahlam Hotel as it was one of the few places in the city that had an internet connection and electricity. The 10th journalist, Salah al-Qaedi, was detained at his home in Sana’a by members of Huthi forces on August 28 2015, according to an eyewitness. The 10 journalists worked for a variety of news outlets, some of which oppose the Huthi armed group, while others are aligned to the al-Islah opposition political party.

The arbitrary detention of 10 journalists for nearly four years by the Huthi de facto authorities is a grim indicator of the dire state of media freedom in Yemen.

**UPDATE: During the writing of this blog, on April 16, 2023, the Huthi de facto authorities released four of these journalists (Akram al-Walidi, Abdelkhaleq Amran, Hareth Hamid and Tawfiq al-Mansouri ) who had been sentenced to death, as part of a prisoner exchange between the Huthi de facto authorities and the internationally recognized government of Yemen.

Despite this update, journalists still remain under Huthi detention. They are: Mohammad al-Junaid, Mohammad al-Salahi and Nail al-Sidwai (there are more but these three AI has clear information).

Please write to Huthi authorities urging them to drop all pending charges and release these journalists: Mohammad al-Junaid, Mohammad al-Salahi and Nail al-Sidwai.

Send your letter, email, tweet to:

Ansarullah Spokesperson
Mohamed Abdelsalam
Email: mdabdalsalam@gmail.co

Twitter: @abdusalamsalah

Algeria and Morocco

Governments across North Africa share similar tactics in their crackdown on freedom of expression online and offline, with journalists frequently targeted with trumped-up charges leading to lengthy trials and prison sentences.

Ihsane El Kadi is just the latest journalist to be targeted by the Algerian authorities amid their unrelenting assault on independent media. The authorities are taking extreme steps to stifle critical voices, even though Algeria’s constitution protects the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” according to Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“In recent months, a court sentenced an Algerian journalist to death in absentia on espionage charges and at least five others are facing prosecution on unfounded charges, most of which are related to “spreading fake news”. The authorities have also shut down at least three media outlets after being accused of broadcasting online without authorization. All journalists jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, including those held on farcical charges of spreading ‘fake news’, must be immediately and unconditionally released.”

Meanwhile, Moroccan journalist Hanane Bakour faces up to three years in prison and a fine for a Facebook post where she criticized the holding of a local election by the ruling party.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa said: “It is shocking, heavy-handed, and absurd that a journalist faces criminal charges over a Facebook post that was critical of Morocco’s main political party. Hanane Bakour has a right to her opinions, even if politicians object to them. Morocco is increasingly showing its intolerance of criticism of the political system. These trumped-up charges against Hanane should be dismissed immediately and the case against her dropped.”

Hanane’s case is only the most recent example of the intense repression of the media in Morocco, along with those of Afaf Bernani, Taoufik Bouachrine, Omar Radi, Hajar Raïssouni, and Soulaimane Raïssouni.

Egypt

In Egypt, three Mada Masr journalists currently face trial on charges punishable by up to two years in jail and fines.

Mada Masr editor-in-chief Lina Attalah and three journalists, Rana Mamdouh, Sara Seif Eddin and Beesan Kassab were questioned by prosecutors on charges of “spreading false news” and “defamation” of Nation’s Future party members and “deliberately disturbing [them]”, in addition to “operating an unlicensed website” in the case of Lina Attalah. According to Mada Masr’s lawyers, prosecutors asked the editor-in-chief to identify the authors and editors of the article in question as well as the outlet’s sources, institutional workflow and funding. This aggressive assault on independent media across North Africa must stop.

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