IFEX Communiqué Vol 20, No 32 | 17 August 2011
1. Syria: Arab League breaks its silence and condemns Assad's massacre of protesters; journalists disappear
2. United Kingdom: Prime Minister considers banning social media, interferes with journalists' editorial independence
3. Burundi: Government extinguishes criticism with legal harassment
4. Burma: Artists under fire; "Irrawaddy" magazine remembers 1988 uprising
Also in this
5. International: UN releases essential guide to understanding human rights
6. Bahrain / Awards:
Bahraini rights activist Nabeel Rajab honoured with Ion
1. Syria: Arab League Breaks its Silence and Condemns Assad's Massacre of Protesters; Journalists Disappear
As both the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League demand that the Syrian regime end its bloody crackdown on protesters, security forces are continuing their brutal assault, report Human Rights Watch and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). In defiance of international demands, President Bashar al-Assad's aggressive military push to annihilate protests during the holy month of Ramadan has killed 40 people in the Syrian port city of Latakia in the past week. The regime is also abducting dissident journalists and bloggers as it continues its war on information, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The Arab League, which includes all 22 Arab countries, finally spoke out on Syria and called on the regime to stop the repression of protests in a statement issued by its secretary general on 7 August. The league's position began to change last week when Gulf Cooperation Council members Kuwait and Qatar criticised the ongoing brutality by Syrian security forces. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Damascus but did not condemn the Syrian government's actions. Bahrain also withdrew its ambassador.
But the Arab League did not suggest any specific actions. In a letter, Human Rights Watch is urging the Arab League's secretary general to convene an emergency meeting of the foreign ministers of the league's member states. The letter asks the league to lean on Assad's regime to permit unhindered access to the country for international humanitarian agencies and workers, a UN-mandated fact-finding committee, and independent observers and journalists.
"Syria's people, at this time of severe oppression, deserve to have their voices heard," said Human Rights Watch. Secretary general Nabil al-Arabi and the Arab League "shouldn't limit themselves to words of concern when Syrian tanks are gunning down protesters in the streets."
The UN Security Council's 3 August statement called on Syria to cooperate fully with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which has been investigating the abuses in Syria.
But since the UN statement, Syrian forces have stormed the cities of Deir al-Zor, Daraa, Saraqeb, Hoola, and Maaret al-Nu`man, and intensified their crackdown in Hama. At least 100 people were killed in the siege on Hama, which started on 31 July, with water, electricity and communication lines cut as tanks rolled into the centre of town on 3 August.
Forces have killed at least 231 anti-government protesters since 1 August, bringing the total number of civilians killed by the government since mid-March to about 2,000, says Human Rights Watch.
In Latakia this past week, tanks fired at poor Sunni Muslim districts, say news reports. Security forces then carried out large-scale arrests in the city's neighbourhoods. The assault has also forced thousands of Palestinian refugees to flee the port city.
ANHRI has urged the international community to pressure Syrian authorities, and save civilians from a regime that has lost its legitimacy as it responds to peaceful expressions of dissent with bullets.
Local human rights groups report that security forces have so far detained more than 10,000 activists, protesters, and even bystanders. Evidence of systematic and extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture by Syrian security forces point to crimes against humanity, says Human Rights Watch.
"We fear that Bashar Al-Assad's regime is locked into a repressive frenzy that has reached a point of no return," RSF said. "Isolated internationally, especially since the withdrawal of many Arab ambassadors and the increase in international community pressure, the authorities persist in censoring any discourse different from their own, jailing netizens and journalists who have witnessed violence against protesters."
According to RSF, Myriam Haddad, a woman reporter for the magazine "Mouqarabat", was kidnapped from Havana Café, in the centre of Damascus, on 11 August. The same day, journalist Sami Al-Halabi was severely beaten and arrested by intelligence officials. Blogger Jehad Jamal was imprisoned on 4 August, after already being jailed numerous times. Four other journalists were abducted by security agents on the morning of 4 August from a café in the southern Damascus suburb of Jaramana.
IFEX members have been reporting on the growing number of journalists and bloggers detained, tortured or disappeared. Individuals have been abducted on their way to work, arrested at security checkpoints, taken from cafés or arrested for covering demonstrations.
In a separate strategy to pressure the Assad regime, both Freedom House and Human Rights Watch are calling for sanctions on Syria's oil and gas sectors, and for the European Union (EU) to freeze the assets of Syrian oil and gas companies, in order to tie lifting of the sanctions with an end to the use of excessive and lethal force against peaceful demonstrators. The EU has already frozen the assets of 35 Syrian officials and four entities in response to Syria's rights abuses. Syrian activists have also called on Canada and other countries which trade with Syria to impose sanctions.
Related stories on
- Government urged to heed UN Security Council's call, end attacks on peaceful protests:
More on the web:
- Human Rights Watch on Syria:
Arrests and beatings as information war continues
Syria ignores protests over siege of Latakia
Assad's forces pound Syrian port city of Latakia (Guardian)
Syrian tanks shell Latakia, death toll reaches 34
1. United Kingdom: Prime Minister
Considers Banning Social Media, Interferes With Journalists'
On the heels of riots in England this month, Prime Minister David Cameron's government is looking at banning the use of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook in order to stop suspected rioters from sharing online messages to foment violence. Cameron has also called on broadcasters to hand over unused footage of the riots to police. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) warn that censorship does not prevent social unrest, and that sharing personal data with police is a disturbing precedent.
After his statement to parliament, Cameron said Home Secretary Theresa May will be talking to Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion (RIM). According to "The Guardian", he urged Twitter and Facebook to remove messages, images and videos that could incite unrest. Cameron has also asked the police if they need new powers.
RIM, the Canadian manufacturer of the popular BlackBerry smartphone, has already provided Scotland Yard with information about a number of BlackBerry users, endangering their personal data, says RSF. "We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can," RIM announced on Twitter.
RSF says, "If information provided by RIM leads to arrests, questions will be raised about the validity of the evidence and the legality of the way it was acquired." It could also have major consequences as an example for other governments.
In the past, RIM has yielded to ultimatums from repressive regimes in countries such as United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for filtering websites, access to user data, or the censorship of encrypted services.
Cameron's suggestion that leading broadcasters hand over footage would "turn them into police auxiliaries," said RSF.
"Broadcasters must not be obliged to provide authorities with raw footage in the absence of any legal due process. Such demands directly endanger journalists and compromise their ability to report the news," said CPJ.
On 10 August, BBC's head of newsgathering, Fran Unsworth, said handing over footage would damage broadcasters' editorial independence.
According to CPJ, the media may be sharing incriminating evidence with the police. "In the U.K., under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the police can obtain an order from a judge forcing the media to provide unpublished material."
During the riots, CPJ reported that British journalists were direct targets of the violence. Rioters ran after Mark Stone, a Sky News reporter, who had just returned from Libya. He was forced to withdraw from the unrest near Clapham Junction in London on 8 August. In Croydon the same day, BBC and Sky News reporters had to retreat when rioters smashed their vehicles' windows.
Sign this petition to "Tell PM Cameron No Way
to Twitter Shutdown".
Related stories on ifex.org:
- BlackBerry cooperation with police sparks concern over targeting of social networks:
More on the web:
- CPJ condemns U.K. for riot footage and restrictions:
Easy targets, journalists under direct fire in the UK
David Cameron considers banning suspected rioters from
social media (Guardian):
Essex police charge man over water fight planned on
BlackBerry Messenger (Guardian):
2. Burundi: Government Extinguishes Criticism With Legal Harassment
With a judiciary vulnerable to political interference, Burundian authorities have been behind a series of politically motivated arrests and summonses of journalists and lawyers to muffle public criticism, report Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Two privately owned radio stations highly critical of the Burundian government have been intensely targeted by the National Council for Communication (CNC). Several of these radio journalists have been called in for questioning by the public prosecutor in recent months.
For instance, on 9 August, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) editor Bob Rugurika was interrogated for the fifth time by a magistrate in the capital, Bujumbura, about programmes aired by his station. Earlier, Rugurika was accused of "inciting ethnic hatred" after RPA aired a story revealing that an official involved in setting up a truth and reconciliation commission was himself named as an alleged perpetrator in a 1996 UN report on crimes against humanity.
The same day, Patrick Mitabaro, news editor of Radio Isanganiro, a leading private broadcaster, was interrogated for the second time in court for airing an interview in which Burundi Bar Association President Isidore Rufyikiri criticised magistrates for bowing to political influence from the government. In May, Mitabaro was accused of weakening the security of the state after airing an interview with an exiled opposition leader who questioned a government bill ordering all political parties to re-register within six months.
Lawyers who support dissenting colleagues or defend critical journalists are being punished. Rufyikiri was arrested on 27 July and held for nine days after speaking out at a rally in support of a detained colleague.
Another lawyer, François Nyamoya, a spokesperson for the opposition party Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, who has defended RPA journalists for years, has been in prison since his arrest on 29 July. He was accused of tampering with witnesses in a 2004 murder trial. But Human Rights Watch says the charges against Nyamoya were made under the new penal code, which was not on the books when the alleged offense occurred. Nyamoya is also RPA journalist Bob Rugurika's lawyer.
Under this severe repression, lawyers are being arrested simply for talking to journalists. Lawyer Suzanne Bukuru was arrested on 15 July, on charges of "complicity in espionage" after she set up an interview between her clients, complainants in a rape case, and French journalists legally working in Burundi. Bukuru was released on 1 August, with charges pending.
In solidarity, members of the Burundian bar went on strike in late July to support Rufyikiri and Bukuru. Last week, about 70 members of the Burundian bar sat in front of the appeals court to protest Nyamoya's detention.
According to Human Rights Watch, in 2009 and 2010, judges were relocated or threatened when their decisions were not favourable to the government or ruling party.
Related stories on ifex.org:
- Government critics face repeated arrests, questioning:
Radio journalists repeatedly summoned, fuelling hostile
climate for media freedom:
More on the web:
- Burundi's journalists and lawyers face intense harassment (CPJ):
3. Burma: Artists Under Fire; "Irrawaddy" Magazine Remembers 1988 Uprising
Inside Burma, a photojournalist is facing a possible 23 years behind bars, a political hip hop artist recently released from prison was banned from performing at a charity event, and a dance troupe is being forced to perform in front of a censorship board, reports Mizzima News. Outside the country, the exiled editor of "Irrawaddy" magazine marks the August anniversary of the 1988 uprising that was ruthlessly crushed by the same regime that continues to silence dissident artists and writers, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Photojournalist Sithu Zeya was just doing his job when he took pictures of the aftermath of bomb explosions at a Rangoon water festival in 2010. But the Burmese junta threw him in jail with an eight-year sentence, using its draconian Immigration Act and Unlawful Association Act. He is now facing an additional seven to 15 years on top of the original sentence, under the Electronics Transactions Law - which bars a citizen from electronically disseminating information considered to be a threat to the security of the junta. His appeal of the first charge was rejected on 9 August. Family members say Zeya has been tortured and is now being held at Insein Prison.
In February, Zeya's father and fellow journalist Maung Maung Zeya with the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) were sentenced to 13 years in prison under the same laws. In July, journalists' associations reported that Sithu Zeya was tortured into revealing that Maung Maung Zeya is an underground journalist.
Meanwhile, artist Zay Yar Thaw, a member of Generation Wave, an underground youth group that spreads pro-democracy messages using visual art and hip hop songs, was told that if he performed at a charity event, it would be cancelled by authorities. The event was scheduled to take place on 6 August in order to raise funds for a home for sick and elderly people with no family members in Rangoon.
In response, Zay Yar Thaw said, "The government has declared that it is a democratic government, so it has the responsibility to explain who has imposed a ban on me, and why."
He was arrested in 2008 for possessing foreign currency and for founding Generation Wave, which was declared illegal. He was sentenced to four years in prison and then recently released on 17 May after the president of Burma commuted his sentence. Most of the Generation Wave members were also arrested.
In July, the chairman of Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise decreed that traditional dance troupes who want to make a video of a performance must now deliver a full-dress rehearsal in front of censorship board officials three days prior to a performance. The chairman says he intends to weed out vulgar jokes about government officials.
In neighbouring Thailand, editor of the Burmese exile news magazine "Irrawaddy", Aung Zaw, was featured in an interview with RSF about the publication's history and how it covers the political and human rights situation in Burma.
Aung Zaw participated in the 1988 uprising against the Burmese regime's strongman, Gen. Ne Win, forcing him to resign.
"My comrades and I participated in this political movement, which was without precedent in Burma. I rubbed shoulders with many leading figures from the Burmese pro-democracy movement during the demonstrations. I soaked up the ideas of these respected journalists and writers," said Aung Zaw.
But many democracy activists and journalists were soon forced to flee the country, including Aung Zaw, by the military coup that left 3,000 dead.
"Irrawaddy" was started in 1993 by Burmese journalists in exile in Bangkok and has been exposing the Burmese junta's corruption and violent silencing of dissidents for 17 years. It is now based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. The magazine employs 35 people, including journalists, video-reporters, photographers, web designers and administrative staff. Reporters routinely go to the Thailand-Burma and India-Burma borders to gather news from inside Burma. Reporters also get information from sources that work for the regime.
A small group of "Irrawaddy" correspondents work underground in Burma. It is very dangerous work. For instance, one journalist was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1995 simply because he was a reporter.
The magazine also reports on the lives of Burmese refugees who live in the lawless regions along the Burmese border.
Although the magazine is censored inside Burma, its articles are closely read by the junta and opposition members. Burmese citizens circumvent government censorship by using proxies, and more than 35,000 Burmese visit the Irrawaddy.org website from within the country each month.
The magazine currently faces a restricted media landscape and a funding shortage. In recent months, the Burmese government has banned the use of Skype and raided Internet cafés across the country. In this climate of fear and censorship "Irrawaddy" needs your help. To make a donation, please contact: news (@) irrawaddy.org
You can also join the campaign to free
imprisoned actor and comedian Zarganar by signing this
Related stories on ifex.org:
- Imprisoned photojournalist faces extended jail term:
Political artist, hip hop singer banned from performing at
Traditional dance troupes face additional
More on the web:
- Irrawaddy informs the world about Burma (RSF):
in this Issue
4. International: UN Releases Essential Guide to Understanding Human Rights
How well do we know our rights? What does it mean to have the right to be protected, to protest, to have freedom of association, or the right to talk to international bodies? United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya has launched an essential guide to the right to defend human rights, aimed at supporting increasing understanding of the UN Declaration on human rights defenders and awareness of the dangers they face.
The 100-page downloadable document maps out the rights provided for in the declaration, analyses what these rights entail, what is needed to ensure their implementation, and addresses the most common restrictions and violations faced by defenders.
The guide is also a "comprehensive reference document for journalists covering the situation of human rights defenders in their countries, their regions and the world," said Sekaggya.
Download the guide here:
Commentary to the declaration on human rights defenders
Bahrain / Awards: Bahraini Rights Activist Nabeel Rajab
Honoured With Ion Ratiu Democracy Award
As president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and one of the country's leading rights activists, Nabeel Rajab has been closely monitored by the government, barred from leaving the country, beaten and harassed. His family home has been attacked with tear gas and armed invasions. One night, while he slept, dozens of masked gunmen stormed his house and abducted him, then drove him around in a vehicle all night and assaulted him - before returning him home. The Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington is honouring Rajab with this year's Ion Ratiu Democracy Award (IRDA) to give international recognition to his courageous fight for democracy in Bahrain.
Rajab is one of the few rights defenders who has not been imprisoned or gone into hiding. In June, he was being investigated for posting photos on Twitter of alleged torture that resulted in the death of a prisoner.
According to the Wilson Center, "As one of the founders of the human rights movement in Bahrain... [Nabeel has] worked tirelessly and at considerable personal peril to advance the cause of democratic freedoms and civil rights of Bahraini citizens."
The Ion Ratiu Democracy Award was established in 2005 in order to recognise the ideas, ideals and accomplishments of democracy activists around the world. Rajab has been invited to Washington, D.C., for one month to have an opportunity to engage with representatives of Washington's policy, NGO and academic communities. He will also participate in a symposium given in his honour at the Wilson Center at the end of the year.
Ion Ratiu (1917-2000) was a Romanian politician who had a deep interest in democratic change worldwide. He was one of the most outspoken voices of opposition to Nicolae Ceausescu, whose regime he opposed for years from London as the democratically elected leader of the World Union of Free Romanians. After 50 years in exile he returned to Romania in 1990 to contest the presidency, became a member of the Romanian Parliament, and later served as both Deputy Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies as well as Romania's roving ambassador to NATO.
More on the web:
- Woodrow Wilson International Center:
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The IFEX Communiqué is a service of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), a global network of non-governmental organisations working to defend and promote the right to free expression.