IFEX https://ifex.org The global network defending and promoting free expression. IFEX advocates for the free expression rights of all, including media workers, citizen journalists, activists, artists, scholars. Fri, 24 May 2019 18:07:59 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.1 UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2019 – surreal, inspirational, thoughtful and imaginative https://ifex.org/unesco-world-press-freedom-day-2019-surreal-inspirational-thoughtful-and-imaginative/ Fri, 24 May 2019 18:07:59 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=306224 Reyhana Masters, IFEX's Africa Regional Editor, attended the 2019 WPFD celebrations in Addis Ababa.

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Jointly organized by UNESCO, the Ethiopian government and the African Union Commission, this year’s World Press Freedom day (WPFD) commemoration in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, hosted at the plush African Union headquarters, provided moments of inspiration, reflection, introspection and creativity.

The highest number of participants on record – over 2000 – including journalists, bloggers, cartoonists, activists, media freedom and access to information advocates and dignitaries, attended the 2019 WPFD celebrations, in a country that just over a year ago was considered the worst jailer on the continent. There was a strong sense of immense possibilities.

Being in the striking and sizeable African Union Conference Centre, completely disconnected from the hustle and bustle of the city’s pace and pulse, was akin at first to being in a glass bubble. But the animated, engaging and insightful panel and plenary discussions over an intense three days brought back the reality of the conference themes.

Disinformation, hate speech, and democracy

There was substantial emphasis on the impact of disinformation, misinformation and hate speech on democratic electoral processes, and responses to tackle them. Related themes included internet shutdowns, access to information, legislative frameworks and the safety of journalists. While there was agreement that misinformation and disinformation are not new phenomena, participants recognised how new technology was changing the landscape – creating both new opportunities and new vulnerabilities.

This point was emphasised by Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa, when she acknowledged that while information is power, technology had acted as an accelerant in making people doubt the facts. In her simple but impactful video address, the internationally renowned Ressa – recently arrested and charged for cyber libel in the Philippines – mentioned how journalists and newsgroups around the world are having to “retain the trust and belief of the communities they once served. Social media platforms have been weaponised”, she said and went on to pose the question: If you don’t have facts, how do you have truth?”

She urged newsrooms and journalists to come together to take the role of gatekeeping seriously. Her reference to the basics of accuracy, fairness, objectivity and verification was a message reiterated through the conference by several speakers.

Concern was raised about governments using the real issues of disinformation and hate speech to unnecessarily restrict and regulate online content.

Missing from some of these conversations was the collective public responsibility in curbing the misinformation menace. Empowering society to be aware of risks and how disinformation can be harmful was a point raised by attendees. “Addressing these issues in Africa is a priority and not just the responsibility of media – it is key to empower society and youth in particular as they are propagating online information,” proffered Moez Chakchouk, assistant director-general for communication and information sector.

Tore Bergsaker of Norwegian fact-checking organisation Faktisk noted that: “we are grappling with information pollution whose aim is to sow mistrust by playing on racial, ethnic, gender and religious differences. The easy response is to regulate, but it is not the solution. Fact checking is only part of the solution – the real tool is to increase media literacy and raise [the] critical thinking [of readers].”

At various points the term “fake news” was dismissed as both inaccurate and subject to manipulation, with “information disorder” and “information pollution” offered as alternative and more useful descriptions.

Praise for Ethiopia – but not only praise

Mention was repeatedly made of Ethiopia’s impressive rise of 40 places in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Rankings. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abid Abey, Ethiopia’s landscape has transformed dramatically, releasing all jailed journalists, unblocking websites, opening up the media space, allowing restricted journalists to work again and agreeing to media legal reform.

However, the lavish praise was tempered by Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of The Addis Standard, who hailed the changes on the landscape, but flagged the danger that media in Ethiopia were focussing on survival, and serving purposes other than the globally recognized principles of free, independent and strong media.

Fellow Ethiopian exiled journalist Simegnish Mengesha warned of the “wave of media outlets that are taking sides and serving as a tool to set a certain agenda. In a transitional period when we are experiencing ethnic tensions, I fear that such a press could be a danger in creating a more polarized society.”

Artistic expression

Unique to the declaration for WPFD 2019 was the inclusion of a resolution that specifically addressed the concerns of artists which resolved to:

Put in place transparent and effective systems to protect journalists, including press cartoonists, artists, ‘artivists’ and others who are at risk of attack for exercising their right to freedom of expression, thereby ensuring that they can carry out their public watchdog role effectively, including during elections.

This followed two concluding sessions: Artistic Freedom and Freedom of Expression at the Tip of the Pen, and Enlarging Choices: Artistic Freedom and Diversity of Contents.

Under the banner of Cartooning for Peace, cartoonists from around the globe showcased their work in the AU lobby – a showstopper display of satire that participants were able to contemplate as they moved from one session to another. Press cartoonists were also part of a discussion on press freedom and artistic freedom in democratic debate,  informed by “testimonies from those whose work and violations make them true « barometers of freedom of expression».”


UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize

The most poignant moment was when Prizi Thura Aung accepted the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize on behalf of jailed journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Wa Lone’s soft-spoken brother Aung told guests: “All they ever wanted to do their job…. “Now they want to return to their family members and to the work they love.”

As it turned out, the choice of these two journalists was momentously significant, as they were freed from prison in Myanmar just 5 days later. Their release was celebrated around the world.

A fitting end to the UNESCO WPFD commemoration was the capture of concerns, issues and ideas raised over the three days in the Addis Ababa Declaration.

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Journalists assaulted during post-election riots in Indonesia https://ifex.org/journalists-assaulted-during-post-election-riots-in-indonesia/ Thu, 23 May 2019 17:54:27 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=306510 At least seven journalists were attacked after riots erupted during a protest against the election results in Indonesia.

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Once again freedom of the press in Indonesia was marred as journalists were assaulted and threatened while reporting at the rally that turned into a riot around the Election Monitoring Agency (Bawaslu) building on Wednesday, 22 May.

As verified by the team from Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) Jakarta, at least seven journalists have been assaulted, intimidated, and persecuted from the early hours till later in the morning on Wednesday.

The journalists are Budi Tanjung (CNN Indonesia TV journalist), Ryan (CNNIndonesia.com), Ryan (MNC Media journalist), Fajar (Radio Sindo Trijaya journalist), Fadli Mubarok (Alinea.id journalist), as well a reporter and cameraperson from RTV.

It is possible that more journalists were subjected to violent treatment. AJI Jakarta is still in the process of gathering data and verifying information on the assaulted journalists.

The incident happened as journalists were covering the situation around the Bawaslu Building. They were forbidden by the police from recording the arrest of individuals suspected of provoking the masses.

Budi Tanjung, of CNN TV Indonesia, was hit on the head and the video he recorded on his mobile phone was erased by members of the Police Mobile Brigade in front of the Gereja Kristen Indonesia church on Jl. Wahid Hasyim, Central Jakarta, early on Wednesday morning.

Another incident was reported by Ryan, a CNNIndonesia.com journalist who was reporting from Jl. Jatibaru, Central Jakarta. He was recording a video of the police capture of suspected provocateurs. The police confiscated his mobile phone and asked him to erase the video.

Ryan was hit on the face, neck, upper right hand, and shoulders by members of the Mobile Brigade and people in civilian uniforms. They also used sticks to beat him.

The police had continued the assault even though Budi and Ryan had identified themselves as journalists and showed their press cards for proof.

The journalists were also assaulted by protesters. They persecuted the journalists and seized their equipment including their camera, mobile phone, and recorder. The protesters forced the journalists to delete all photo and video documentation. Some journalists reported that they had also been beaten by the protesters.

AJI Jakarta and the Press Legal Aid Institute (LBH Pers) strongly condemn the assault on the journalists as well as attempts to impede them in their work by both the police and protesters.

The intimidation on journalists reporting on a riot may be construed as censorship on journalism. It is a criminal offense as specified in Paragraph 18 of Law No. 40 of 1999 on the Press, which stipulates that anyone who obstructs freedom of the press is punishable by no more than two years’ imprisonment and no more than Rp500 million in fines.

We urge the security forces and the public to respect and support the climate of freedom of the press, and to refrain from intimidating and impeding journalists who are on field duty.

We also appeal to the heads of media organizations to take responsibility and to prioritize the safety of their journalists. No news is worth the loss of life.

Regarding this incident AJI Jakarta and LBH Pers issue the following statement:

1.    We urge the security forces to fully investigate the violence and intimidation against journalists by the police and members of the public.
2.    We appeal to the heads of media organizations to take responsibility over the safety of journalists on field duty.
3.    We appeal to journalists covering the mass protests to put safety first by staying at a safe distance during a riot.

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It’s amazing what can happen in two days! IFEX’s 2019 Strategy Conference in Berlin https://ifex.org/its-amazing-what-can-happen-in-two-days-ifexs-2019-strategy-conference-in-berlin/ Wed, 22 May 2019 13:47:58 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=305280 The last time IFEX came together as a network was in Montreal in 2017, under the theme: Rights, Resistance, and Resilience. But in our current global context it has become increasingly apparent that we need to move beyond resistance, and find ways to disrupt the current paradigm.

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The IFEX network now includes more than 100 member organisations from over 60 countries, all dedicated to defending freedom of expression. As Executive Director Annie Game noted in her opening remarks at IFEX’s 2019 Strategy Conference, our traditional approaches are hitting walls. “We need to rethink how to do this work in a climate where outrage has been normalized, protests ignored, statements unheard and laws upturned.”

We chose Berlin for this meeting – a city known as an international hub of creativity, innovation, tech, community, and culture. A natural fit for those of us who love freedom of expression, and a city that knows something about taking down walls.

We wanted to use this time together to create a public square for the IFEX network and our allies, a creative space conducive to shaking things up, sparking new ideas, and finding ways to turn those ideas into actions.

Was it amazing? Yes, it was!

Creativity was spliced into every aspect of this meeting. We even had a soundtrack; a revolutionary musical playlist provided by Venezuelan journalist and DJ Melanio Escobar. Throughout the conference, Iranian political cartoonist (and head of United Sketches) Kianoush Ramzani sat in on sessions, visually capturing key conversation points with his pen, and Spanish illustrator from Child Rights International Network (CRIN) Miriam Sugranyes captured her overall impressions of the conference with the inspiring painting that appears at the top of this article.

Artistic expression was the theme of the first plenary:The Early Show (it was, after all, 9:30 in the morning). Political scientist, thought-leader (and temporary IFEX talk-show host) Geraldine de Bastion led a wide-ranging discussion with writer Iyad el-Baghdadi, singer, activist and parliamentarian Bobi Wine – who also treated us to a rousing musical performance – and Quechua artist, writer, and documentary film-maker Violeta Ayala.

We brought that same creative lens to the urgent question of how to campaign for greater impact. In Campaign Revival, activist and former UN Special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly Maina Kiai was joined for a chat ‘around the kitchen table’ by Brazil’s Queer Museum Curator Gaudêncio Fidelis, founder of Girl Activists of Kygyzstan Zhanna Zharmatova, Lady Parts Justice League founder (and former head writer for The Daily Show) Lizz Winstead, and Syrian Archive Director Hadi El Khatib. Then, in the session Really, Who is Listening? John Clark of UK brand agency Coley Porter Bell shared some timely and welcome ideas about how we can adapt some of the strategies corporate and political campaigns use to garner more influence and get our messages to more strongly resonate with the audiences we need to reach.

Journalist safety and the problem of impunity were also front and centre. In conversation with Annie Game, Dr. Agnès Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (and Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University), reported on her inquiry and push for accountability in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She called on us all to not let this case fade, and to support her in her continued efforts as she heads toward presenting her report to the UNHRC in June 2019.

Technology’s role in enabling stronger connections between news sites and their audiences was the subject of an interactive session facilitated by Gayathry Venkiteswaran: Journalism and Communities of Action, featuring journalists Inday Espina-Varona from the Philippines, Melanio Escobar from Venezuela, and Can Dündar from Turkey.

Those were the plenaries; smaller breakout sessions focussed on some of the dynamic, complex and evolving issues we all encounter in our defense of freedom of expression and information: When does being categorically against censorship ignore valid concerns of other groups and potential allies? In an increasingly polarized context, are we losing our capacity to reasonably debate with one another? How can we ensure that our calls for transparency don’t jeopardize the principle of anonymity? When it comes to regulating tech companies, what approach is best? How can we include more diverse voices into the work we do? Where do our free expression rights intersect with youth rights? Can more flexible funding help counter the ravages of the closing of civic space on our organisations?

Some of what we overheard:

“As an activist, you have to think in terms of decades. A 20-year plan: What do we have to start doing now, in order to see that change?”

“People always say: teenagers can do anything… just not now. Well, we aren’t fighting for our future as adults: we are fighting for things now.”

“We need to speak to conservatives, not just to progressives.”

Invited guests and participants from outside the IFEX network, including a good number of Berlin-based activists, helped stimulate and enrich our conversations, push our boundaries, and transform our thinking. If this meeting taught us all one thing, it was to break an old rule: Please, do talk to strangers!

As advocates for human rights and as believers in the power of expression, we need to collaborate and support each other, embrace our shared humanity, and take the time to acknowledge our successes. Such times are precious. So we made sure to bring dancing, music, and laughter into our public square as well – as we always do!

We invite you to check out some of our photos.

We all left Berlin with a lot more than just a new lanyard. We left with new perspectives, ideas, tactics… and allies.

And, speaking of artistic freedom, we also left our own mark on Berlin, in the shape of a mural painted by local graffiti artists Caro Pepe and Age Age on the wall of a small courtyard off of Hackescher Markt: a celebration of our collective efforts to break the chains that stifle freedom of expression.

IFEX Mural at Hackescher Markt in Berlin. Photo credit: Marco Lauber

It’s important for us to remember that some IFEX members were absent; either because, like our colleague Nabeel Rajab, they continue to suffer incarceration and ill-treatment in their home countries, or are restricted by travel bans.

When the conference ended, and everyone left to return to their homes, we were reminded again of the reality so many of our colleagues and allies live every day.

At the airport in Germany, Iyad el-Baghdadi was at first refused permission to board his flight to Ireland; he was told that it was because of his refugee status. Then, after his return to Norway, he was informed by authorities that he was facing a serious potential threat from Saudi Arabia. Iyad is a pro-democracy activist and a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

A few days later, in Uganda, Bobi Wine was detained, charged, and placed under house arrest, charged with holding an illegal assembly and procession in July 2018, when he led a street protest against Uganda’s then newly-imposed social media tax.

Erol Önderoglu, RSF correspondent in Turkey and editor of Bianet, returned home for yet another trial date, which was then postponed (part of the continued harassment of so many journalists and rights defenders in the country).

Tanzanian authorities prevented Dr. Wairagala Wakabi, executive director of Ugandan IFEX member CIPESA, from attending the commemoration of Tanzania Human Rights Defenders’ Day when they detained him upon arrival and then deported him.

Gaudêncio Fidelis returned to Brazil – a country that censored and shut down the Queer Museum exhibit he had curated, and where he received hundreds of death threats from the religious right, including from the man who is now president, Jair Bolsonaro.

We came together in Berlin to strengthen our resolve, mine our expertise, engage meaningfully with the issues and each other, and move forward together as network committed to freedom of expression. We are confident this was the case; our network is stronger, and our work is more important than ever.

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TOSsed Out: Highlighting the effects of content rules online https://ifex.org/tossed-out-highlighting-the-effects-of-content-rules-online/ Wed, 22 May 2019 10:53:02 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=306444 EFF launched TOSsed Out, a new iteration for tracking and documenting the ways that Terms of Service (TOS) and other speech moderating rules are unevenly and unthinkingly applied to people.

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This statement was originally published on eff.org on 20 May 2019.

Today we are launching TOSsed Out, a new iteration of EFF’s longstanding work in tracking and documenting the ways that Terms of Service (TOS) and other speech moderating rules are unevenly and unthinkingly applied to people by online services. As a result of these practices, posts are deleted and accounts banned, harming those for whom the Internet is an irreplaceable forum to express ideas, connect with others, and find support.

TOSsed Out continues in the vein of Onlinecensorship.org, which EFF launched in 2014 to collect reports from users in an effort to encourage social media companies to operate with greater transparency and accountability as they regulate speech. TOSsed Out will highlight the myriad ways that all kinds of people are negatively affected by these rules and their uneven enforcement.

Last week the White House launched a tool for people to report incidents of “censorship” on social media, following the President’s repeated allegations of a bias against conservatives in how these companies apply their rules. In reality, commercial content moderation practices negatively affect all kinds of people, especially people who already face marginalization. We’ve seen everything from Black women flagged for sharing their experiences of racism to sex educators whose content is deemed too risqué. TOSsed Out will show that trying to censor social media at scale ends up removing legal, protected speech that should be allowed on platforms

TOSsed Out’s debut today is the result of brainstorming, research, design, and writing work that began in late 2018 after we saw an uptick in takedowns resulting from increased public and government pressure, as well as the rise in automated tools. A diverse group of entries are being published today, including a Twitter account parodying Beto O’Rourke being deemed as “confusing” or “deceptive,” a gallery focused on creating awareness of diversity of women’s bodies, a Black Lives Matter-themed concert, and an archive aimed at documenting human rights violations.

These examples, and the ones added in the future, make clear the need for companies to embrace the Santa Clara Principles. We helped create the Principles to establish a human rights framework for online speech moderation, require transparency about content removal, and specify appeals processes to help users get their content back online. We call on companies to make that commitment now, rather than later.

People rely on Internet platforms to share experiences and build communities, and not everyone has good alternatives to speak out or stay in touch when a tech company censors or bans them. Rules need to be clear, processes need to be transparent, and appeals need to be accessible.

TOSsed Out Entries Launched Today:

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DRC President urged to act on promises to reform media landscape https://ifex.org/drc-president-urged-to-act-on-promises-to-reform-media-landscape/ Wed, 22 May 2019 10:24:51 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=306431 RSF and partner organization JED are urging DRC's President Tshisekedi to follow through on promises to reform the media landscape and put a stop the closure of radio stations and attacks on journalists.

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This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 15 May 2019.

As Félix Tshisekedi prepares to assess his first 100 days as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its partner organization, Journalist in Danger (JED), have recommended five concrete measures that he should take to realize his promises to improve respect for press freedom.

Dear President Tshisekedi,

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Journalist in Danger (JED) would like to salute the encouraging pledges you have given with regard to press freedom since taking office. In your inaugural speech on 24 January, you said you wanted to turn the media into a “real fourth estate” in your country. More recently, on World Press Freedom Day (3 May), you reaffirmed this goal by saying you regarded the press as “one of the key motors of the rule of law.” This political will to restore journalists to the core of development and the transition to democracy in the DRC represents a major break with your predecessor.

The DRC heads the list of African countries with the most press freedom violations last year and is ranked 154th out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, which RSF recently released. You now have the historic possibility of shedding these sombre distinctions. Since your installation, RSF and JED have noted a significant fall in the number of abuses against media and journalists in the DRC. But promises of change alone are not enough. After decades of repeated violations of the freedom to inform, targeting journalists is a reflex that has not yet disappeared. It is still the heritage of a system that needs dismantling.

The 12-month prison sentence that the journalist Steeve Iwewe received on 1 March for “insulting the authorities” while covering a protest by disgruntled state employees in Equateur province – later reduced to a suspended six-month jail sentence – illustrates the need to urgently overhaul media laws that criminalize press offences and provide for completely disproportionate penalties.

Members of your party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), ransacked the premises of Radio Télévision Fraternité (RFT) in Mbuji-Mayi on 16 March because they were angered by the defeat of UDPS candidates in the senate selections.

As the world was celebrating World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, 15 radio stations were shut down in Kananga, in Kasai-Central province, for not paying taxes. But only the radio stations that were the most critical of the new governor were targeted, and no account was taken of the offers by the radio station managers to pay off the back taxes in stages. Your government cannot continue to tolerate the closing of media outlets to settle scores.

A successful transition to democracy in the DRC will largely depend of the concrete and urgent measures that are taken to guarantee the freedom to inform. To this end, RSF and JED recommend that you prioritize the following five actions:

  •  Overhaul repressive legislation without delay, decriminalizing press offences so that journalists can calmly and freely play their vital role as a fourth estate.
  •  End arrests of journalists and arbitrary closures of media outlets by giving an independent regulatory authority the sole right to impose sanctions and by making the security forces and judiciary aware of journalists’ rights and duties.
  •  Establish a national mechanism for protecting journalists that is equipped with resources and branches within the various institutions, so that abuses against journalists do not remain unpunished.
  •  End impunity for crimes of violence against journalists by reopening the investigations into the murders of journalists that have taken place during the past two decades.
  • Transform that national radio and TV broadcaster, RTNC, into a real public service media that is open to all currents of opinion.

We trust that you will give our recommendations the necessary attention.


Christophe Deloire                                        Tshivis Tshivuadi

Secretary-General                                         Secretary-General

RSF                                                                      JED

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Directive banning reporting of corruption in Sudan condemned by RSF https://ifex.org/directive-banning-reporting-of-corruption-in-sudan-condemned-by-rsf/ Wed, 22 May 2019 09:43:29 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=306420 A directive prohibiting media houses from reporting on corruption, sent out by Sudan's media regulatory body acting on instructions from the Military Transitional Authority, has been condemned.

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This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 16 May 2019.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a ban on media coverage of corruption and other acts of censorship by the military authorities now running Sudan, whose policies are blocking the Sudanese people’s desire for independent media, an indispensable component of any successful transition to democracy.

The deposed president, Omar Al-Bashir, has been in prison since 16 April but the Military Transitional Council now in charge is maintaining a close control over what the media report.

The media regulatory agency, which is controlled by the transitional authorities, has just sent a letter to all Sudanese media outlets prohibiting the publication of any information about corruption. The ban was issued by Abdul Azim Awad – who has held on to his position as the media regulator’s secretary general – amid a wave of corruption complaints against many of the former regime’s leaders

“We unreservedly condemn this decision, which runs counter to the Sudanese people’s desire for a public debate of the highest quality at this pivotal moment in Sudan’s history, a debate without the authorities interfering and without the media being censored,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “We urge the transitional military authorities to abandon the old regime’s control over the media and to assist the development of a free and independent press instead of trying to keep a tight grip on editorial policies. There will be no successful transition to democracy without press freedom.”

The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) is no longer systematically seizing newspaper issues, as it did during the protests leading to Bashir’s removal. But the NISS and the former regime’s military commanders, who are in charge of the transition, continue to interfere in the work of journalists.

Al Midan reporter Mohamed Al-Fateh was arrested at Khartoum airport on 14 April because he was on a list of banned journalists.

Hiba Makawi was suspended from his position as a national radio reporter on 2 May because of a report critical of the NISS. Certain politicians and civil society representatives who have been invited to take part in debates on the public broadcast media are often denied access by NISS agents.

Journalists are still a long way from overcoming the instinct to censor themselves, as the intelligence services and the former ruling party continue to control the public media and most of the privately-owned media.

Sudan is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.

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Malaysia: New government, old tactics https://ifex.org/malaysia-new-government-old-tactics/ Wed, 22 May 2019 09:29:18 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=306405 Lack of progress on reform commitments undermines fundamental freedoms and democracy a year after the victory of the Pakatan Harapan coalition.

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This statement was originally published on article19.org on 6 May 2019.

The victory of the Pakatan Harapan coalition in general elections held on 9 May 2018 signalled a seismic shift in Malaysia’s political environment. Malaysians voted for leaders whom they expected to implement wide-ranging reforms and undo the damage done to democracy and human rights during 61 years of rule by the Barisan National (National Front) coalition. Indeed, Pakatan Harapan’s leadership invited these expectations. The coalition’s campaign manifesto included strong commitments to repeal repressive legislation, reform public institutions and ratify human rights treaties.

Many of the government’s actions during its first months in power were encouraging. In a joint statement published after the new government’s first 100 days in office, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS applauded the formation of the Institutional Reform Committee, which was tasked with making recommendations to the new government on priorities for legislative and structural reforms. In August 2018, Malaysia’s lower house of Parliament also passed a bill – later rejected by the Senate – to repeal the Anti-Fake News Act, a repressive law adopted by the previous government in the run-up to elections. Authorities took steps towards ending criminal proceedings against human rights defenders, political activists and critics of the former regime. Among those benefiting from dropped charges or acquittals were human rights lawyers Surendran and Eric Paulsen, Socialist Party activist S. Arutchelvan, political cartoonist Zunar, former Batu MP Tian Chua, former Jelutong MP Karpal Singh, and the #KitaLawan protesters. One week after the election, former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was released from prison.

However, after one year in power, the Pakatan Harapan government has made little progress on many of the promises made in its manifesto, and has backtracked on other commitments made since taking power. Notably, the government reversed course on its decisions to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court after coming under pressure from conservative groups. The government has also failed to take concrete steps towards the ratification of other human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Furthermore, the government has failed to reform repressive legislation, including the Sedition Act 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and Peaceful Assembly Act 2012. Instead, authorities have used these laws to harass, investigate and prosecute human rights defenders, activists and others exercising fundamental freedoms. The government’s failure to address reprisals against activists by non-state actors and anti-rights groups, which are increasingly becoming an obstacle to human rights reforms, also gives cause for concern.

Not long after the elections, civil society groups called on the government to ensure transparency in legislative and institutional reform processes and to provide opportunities for meaningful participation by civil society and other stakeholders. However, reform initiatives have been anything but transparent, with civil society having few opportunities to provide input. Tellingly, the government placed the Council of Eminent Persons’ report – which includes the recommendations from the Institutional Reform Committee – under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), preventing its release to the public.

These failures and shortcomings clearly demonstrate a lack of political will by the Pakatan Harapan government to follow through on its commitments and take the kind of decisive action need to protect and promote human rights in Malaysia. The CIVICUS Monitor – an online platform that tracks threats to civil society – has continued to categorise civic space in Malaysia as “obstructed” a year after the change in government. ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS call on Malaysia authorities to act with principle and resolve, and to follow through on their human rights commitments without delay.

Read the briefing

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Syria: Detention, harassment in retaken areas https://ifex.org/syria-detention-harassment-in-retaken-areas/ Wed, 22 May 2019 00:29:55 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=306392 Active combat has ended in much of Syria, but nothing has changed in the way intelligence branches trample rights of perceived opponents of Assad’s rule.

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This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 21 May 2019.

Syrian intelligence branches are arbitrarily detaining, disappearing, and harassing people in areas retaken from anti-government groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuse is taking place even when the government has entered into reconciliation agreements with the people involved.

Human Rights Watch has documented 11 cases of arbitrary detention and disappearance in Daraa, Eastern Ghouta, and southern Damascus. The government retook these areas from anti-government groups between February and August 2018. In all cases, the people targeted – former armed and political opposition leaders, media activists, aid workers, defectors, and family members of activists and former anti-government fighters – had signed reconciliation agreements with the government. Local organizations, including Syrians for Truth and Justice and the Office of Daraa Martyrs, have documented at least 500 arrests in these areas since August.

“Active combat has ended in much of Syria, but nothing has changed in the way intelligence branches trample rights of perceived opponents of Assad’s rule,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Lack of due process, arbitrary arrests, and harassment, even in so-called reconciled areas, speak louder than empty government promises of return, reform, and reconciliation.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 former residents of Daraa and Quneitra governorates, Eastern Ghouta, and towns in southern Damascus. They said that Syrian intelligence branches have detained and harassed people related to anti-government activists or former fighters, along with defectors, members of anti-government groups, or activists. Humanitarian workers, community leaders, and media activists who remained in government-held areas were also detained and harassed. People have been arrested in their homes and offices, at checkpoints and in the streets, relatives and witnesses said.

The locations include Da’el, Ibtta’, Naua, al-Yadudeh, and Etaman in Daraa governorate; a town in Quneitra governorate whose name is withheld due to concerns about reprisals; Douma in Eastern Ghouta; and Babila in southern Damascus. Residents said, based on checkpoints and personnel conducting raids, that Da’el and Ibtta’ are under the control of Air Force Intelligence, while al-Yadudeh and Etaman are under the control of Military Intelligence.

In southern Damascus, the Military Intelligence Patrols Branch arrested people and transferred them to the Palestine Branch, also operating under Military Intelligence. Human Rights Watch could not ascertain which intelligence branch was responsible for detentions in Ghouta.

Most of those detained were apparently never charged. In three cases, intelligence branches apparently arrested people because someone filed a complaint against them. In the majority of cases, people were held incommunicado either throughout or for part of their detention and denied access to a lawyer. The authorities did not inform their families of their whereabouts or take them promptly before a judge, as far as their relatives and colleagues could tell. In one case, a detainee told friends that military intelligence beat them before taking them to military court, even though they were arrested in a civil suit.

In at least one case, authorities transferred the person to Sadnaya prison, which is known for torture and extrajudicial executions. In three cases, relatives were detained and/or harassed by intelligence branch members to gain information about their wanted family member or to force that family member to return.

Relatives and friends of detained people said they were released only after their families paid a bribe and, in some of the cases, asked high level members of the reconciliation committees or Russian military police to intervene. One person interviewed said he got a relative released after reaching out to the Russian military police. Two others said they brokered the release of relatives through the Fifth Corps, an affiliated militia. In at least two other cases, relatives said they tried to reach the Russian military police or the local reconciliation committees but failed.

Interviewees said the Russian government’s ability to help depended on the area where the person was arrested and whether the person asking was an important community leader or had connections. In two other cases, former residents said, protests in the town where the detained person lived led to their release.

The Syrian government should immediately release all arbitrarily held detainees, or if there are valid grounds for holding them, make those clear. The authorities should present detainees to a judge within 48 hours of their arrest, provide them with access to a lawyer, and inform their families of their whereabouts.

Russia should use its influence with its ally Syria to stop arbitrary detention and harassment, Human Rights Watch said. Russia should expand its ad hoc intervention to release arbitrarily held detainees and information regarding those disappeared. Russia should also support the work of impartial international organizations to gather information on the whereabouts of disappeared people, monitor detention sites, and facilitate communications with families. Russia should press the Syrian government to cooperate fully with these organizations to ensure they have full access to formal and informal detention centers.

Local reconciliation committees should continue to monitor and address arbitrary detention, harassment, and disappearance and raise individual cases with the Russian military police, the Syrian government. Impartial international organizations working on these issues should provide support to the local committees.

Despite the ongoing threats of persecution in areas held by the Syrian government, countries hosting refugees, including Lebanon, Denmark, and Germany, are under domestic political pressure to encourage returns. In some cases, countries have actively organized returns, created incentives for refugees to return, made conditions in host countries increasingly inhospitable, and even deported refugees back to Syria.

“Those who tell you there is stability or security in the south are lying,” a humanitarian worker from Daraa told Human Rights Watch. “There are still assassinations and arbitrary detentions, and the residents continue to suffer persecution.”

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called on all governments not to forcibly return anyone to Syria.

“Nowhere is the effect of an absence of protection guarantees starker than in areas re-taken by the government,” Fakih said. “The harassment and abuse by intelligence branches is a major deterrent for people considering return and has forced out people who wish to remain. If Russia is serious about encouraging refugee returns, it should pressure the government to end detention abuses and create conditions conducive to a safe and dignified return.”

Applicable International Law

Under international law, detention is arbitrary when the detaining authority violates basic rights of due process, including for a prompt hearing before a judge. Principle 11 of the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment states that a detainee must be “given an effective opportunity to be heard promptly by a judicial or other authority,” and that a judicial or other authority should be empowered to review the decision to continue detention.

Extended detention without charge or trial or without an appearance before a judge is arbitrary and violates international human rights standards. Detention is also arbitrary if it lacks a clear basis in domestic law or if the person is detained for exercising a basic right such as free assembly.

Collective punishment is also prohibited under international law. It comprises any form of punitive sanctions and harassment, including but not limited to judicial penalties, imposed on families or other targeted groups for actions that they did not personally commit. It is contrary to basic principles of international human rights and humanitarian law, which provide that no person may be punished for an offense they have not personally committed. This covers “sanctions or harassment of any sort, administrative, by police action, or otherwise.”

Under international law, governments are in principle prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts can still function. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees everyone the right to timely trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body authorized to monitor compliance with the ICCPR, has stated that civilians should be tried by military courts only under exceptional circumstances and only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process.

Under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, enforced disappearance is defined as:

The arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.

Government Takeovers in 2018

Eastern Ghouta, Daraa, and Quneitra were identified as de-escalation zones as part of the Astana process, a negotiations track guaranteed by Turkey, Russia, and Syria. However, between February and August 2018, the Syrian-Russian military alliance opened an offensive on each of these areas, and within a few months managed to regain control of them. Southern Damascus was not included in the de-escalation zones, as it was controlled by Islamic State militants, but was also subject to an offensive that ended in May.

In the follow up to each of these take-overs, residents were given the option of being evacuated to areas under the control of anti-government armed groups in northwest Syria or remaining in these areas under government control. For many, remaining under the threat of arrest and abuse by the Syrian government was not an option, and they decided to leave. Others chose to remain.

The Syrian government’s takeover of Daraa and Quneitra in Syria was faster and resulted in fewer civilian casualties and less destruction than in other areas, including Aleppo and Ghouta. In these areas, there was a proliferation of Russian-mediated reconciliation agreements, and guaranteed deals between anti-government commanders and the Syrian government. These deals allowed the majority of fighters to remain with their light arms, provided a vetting process to clear people of charges by the intelligence branches, and provided a six-month break before conscription for those still required to serve in the military. In return, people who chose to remain had to sign a document indicating they would not be involved in anti-government activities.

Former residents and experts said that the result of these deals was that Daraa and Quneitra governorates were divided up by various security forces, including the armed forces and the National Defense Forces, various intelligence branches, and a newly created Fifth Corps. The Fifth Corps consists of former members of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group for anti-government forces. Former members told Human Rights Watch that it is led by Ahmed al-Odeh, a former anti-government group, supported by Russia, and controls certain towns in Daraa governorate.

In Ghouta and south Damascus, anti-government armed groups have not maintained any power even if they signed reconciliation agreements, and intelligence branches have regained full control of the area. The offensives to re-take these areas included unlawful tactics such as indiscriminate strikes and the use of prohibited weapons.


All but 1 of the 16 Human Rights Watch interviews were conducted remotely with people who had managed to leave the areas in question after the government retook the area or with people who were in close and regular contact with their relatives in government-held areas.

Of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed, six had left the area because security forces had harassed them or because authorities issued warrants against them or arrested their relatives. In several cases, the humanitarian situation and government restrictions on their ability to move freely also contributed to their decision to leave.

Human Rights Watch only included those cases in which the person interviewed was a close relation or had witnessed or experienced the harassment. Given the restrictions on access and associated security concerns, it is likely that the total number of people arrested and harassed in these areas is much larger than the cases identified.

For further information on specific cases, read the full statement on HRW’s site.

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Opposition members in Guinea imprisoned for staging protest https://ifex.org/opposition-members-in-guinea-imprisoned-for-staging-protest/ Tue, 21 May 2019 16:33:34 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=306357 Seven members of the opposition have been sentenced and charged, for staging protests opposing constitutional changes that will allow Guinea's President Alpha Conde to seek a third term.

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This statement was originally published on mfwa.org on 9 May 2019.

Seven members of an opposition political movement in Guinea were, on May 7, 2019, sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of 500,000 Guinea Francs each after they staged a protest against President Alpha Conde.

Boubacar Barry, Thierno Mamoudou Diallo, Mohamed Camara, Amadou Soumah, Sylla Mohamed, Mamadou Celou Diallo and Mohamed Keita are all members of the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC), a political group opposed to any constitutional changes to allow President Conde to seek a third term.

They were arrested on May 4, 2019, at the Fodé Fissa stadium in Kindia, where the president was performing the official launch of festivities to mark Guinea’s 61st independence anniversary.

The seven were wearing-shirts with the inscription “No to Constitutional Changes”, the catchphrase of opponents of the Presidents’ perceived ambition to seek a third term, when they were arrested. They were charged with “obstructing the right to demonstrate and disturbing public order” under article 625 and 561 of Guinea’s criminal code.

Alpha Condé, 81, has not yet spoken about the constitutional changes reportedly being planned to allow him to seek a third mandate in 2020. However, many of his recent pronouncements have been interpreted in that direction and the authorities are getting increasingly intolerant of opponents of his perceived third-term ambitions.

After the verdict, the seven activists, who had spent three days in pre-trial detention, were returned to prison under heavy surveillance to serve their three-month prison terms.

In an interview with reporters at the end of the hearing, the defense lawyer, Salif Béavogui, described the trial as “politico-judicial” and “shameful.”

The MFWA finds the arrest, the arbitrary detention and subsequent sentencing of the seven activists as ridiculous and unacceptable in a democracy. Guinea’s constitution guarantees the right to peaceful protest, and we call on the authorities to uphold this right at all times.

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Two newspapers suspended in Gabon over defamation claims https://ifex.org/two-newspapers-suspended-in-gabon-over-defamation-claims/ Tue, 21 May 2019 16:25:27 +0000 https://ifex.org/?p=306351 A complaint by a powerful senior official in Gabon's government has led to the suspension of two publications in the country.

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This statement was originally published on cpj.org on 17 May 2019.

Gabon’s media regulator should immediately lift its suspensions of the tri-weekly newspaper L’Aube and the weekly Echos du Nord, and give journalists the freedom to cover issues of public interest, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On March 20, the High Authority for Communication, Gabon’s media regulator, ordered Echos du Nord to suspend publication for four months following a defamation complaint by the president of Gabon’s constitutional court, Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, according to news reports.

On April 10, the authority issued an order suspending L’Aube‘s publication for six months for the alleged defamation of Maixent Accrombessi, the former chief of staff to Gabonese President Ali Bongo, according to Melissa Bendome, a technical adviser at the authority, who spoke to CPJ over messaging app.

CPJ spoke with Liliane Bilogho Ndong Nang, director of government information at the prime minister’s office, in an attempt to reach Accrombessi and Mborantsuo for comment, but Bilogho declined to give their contact information.

“The suspensions of the L’Aube and Echos du Nord newspapers by Gabon’s media regulator send a chilling signal to all journalists that anything deemed undesirable by powerful people in the country may be grounds for complete censorship,” Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, said from Durban. “Journalists must be free to deliver information to the public in whatever form they see fit, without fear.”

The Echos du Nord suspension order followed the paper’s February 4 publication of an article about Mborantsuo’s increasing power in the country, according to the news website Gabon Review. Mborantsuo filed a complaint with the High Authority for Communication, and the regulator called the article “slanderous,” “vindictive,” and “outrageously acrimonious,” according to the Review.

Echos du Nord‘s weekly print publication has been suspended since March 20, according to news reports. Its website has not been updated since 2017.

L’Aube Editor-in-Chief Orca Boudiandza Mouellé told CPJ via phone on May 7 that, while the newspaper did cease publication on April 10 after the regulator’s decision was announced on Gabonese TV, they have yet to receive a formal notification of the suspension. The newspaper does not have a website, Mouellé told CPJ.

Accrombessi’s lawyer filed a complaint with the media regulator after L’Aube published a satirical text on April 1 as a joke, in which a caricatured Accrombessi spoke about looting Gabon and manipulating the president, according to Mouellé and media reports.

On April 8, L’Aube published a clarification, explaining that the April 1 article was published as satire, as seen in an image of the newspaper featured by online broadcaster Benin Web TV.

The High Authority for Communication’s suspension order also referenced an interview by L’Aube with Echos du Nord founder Désiré Ename, published on March 25, following Echos du Nord‘s suspension, in which Ename referred to the regulator with “pejorative and sarcastic expressions,” according to French daily Le Figaro.

In 2016, Echos du Nord‘s offices were raided by Gabon’s domestic intelligence agency, several of its staffers were arrested, and one was allegedly tortured during an interrogation, as CPJ reported at the time.

L’Aube was previously suspended for three months beginning in November 2018 after it published an article about Bongo’s allegedly poor health, according to the U.S. Congress-funded Voice of America.

CPJ called Tiburce Armand Nziengui Boussougou, adviser to the director of government information, who answered but declined to comment on the state of press freedom in Gabon.

Earlier this year, Gabon’s government shut down the internet and broadcasting services throughout the country following a coup attempt against Bongo, as CPJ reported at the time.

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