Iran Detains Washington Post Reporter, Wife And Colleagues

Posted July 25th, 2014 at 1:05 am (UTC+0)
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Jason

Iran today confirmed the arrest of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, his wife Yeganeh Salehi and two unnamed U.S. citizens who work with him as photojournalists.

Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Gholam-Hossein Esmaili, Director General of the Tehran Province Justice Department, as saying no further information will be released about Rezaian until “technical investigations” have been completed.  He was speaking on the sidelines of rallies in Tehran held to mark International Quds Day, which takes place on the last Friday of Ramadan every year to protest Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

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The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour says Iran has a “dismal record with regard to its treatment of imprisoned journalists” and says CPJ will hold Iran accountable for the safety of the four detained journalists.

Iran ranks among the world’s top three worst jailers of the press.  In 2013, the CPJ reported Iran was holding at least 35 journalists in jail.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Swaziland: Doing Your Job Could Cost You Your Freedom

Posted July 23rd, 2014 at 4:05 pm (UTC+0)
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Swaziland's King Mswati III  arrives for celebrations marking his 40th birthday and the country's 40th year of independence at the Somhlolo national stadium outside Mbabane September 6, 2008. Swaziland, one of the world's last absolute monarchies, is holding a multi-million dollar celebration of the king's 40th birthday and its 40th year of independence on Saturday after rare protests over poverty. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Swaziland’s King Mswati III arrives for celebrations marking his 40th birthday and the country’s 40th year of independence at the Somhlolo national stadium outside Mbabane September 6, 2008. Swaziland, one of the world’s last absolute monarchies, is holding a multi-million dollar celebration of the king’s 40th birthday and its 40th year of independence on Saturday after rare protests over poverty. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

 

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ says Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, famously. That story didn’t end so well, but at least someone knew there was a problem. Swaziland’s King Mswati III is not so self-aware – or perhaps he’s just masking the stench with the new leather in his fancy cars and private jet, and the designer fragrances worn by any of his 15 wives. – Simon Allison, Daily Maverick, 21 July 2014

 

Mbabane, Swaziland, January 18, 2014:  Government vehicle inspector Vincent Bhantshana Gwebu was on his daily rounds, making sure that government vehicles weren’t being used by Swazi officials for unofficial purposes.

He happened to notice an empty government car parked outside of a school. After questioning its driver, Gwebu issued tickets on two charges: Using a government vehicle over the weekend and using that vehicle for non-official purposes without written authority.

Unfortunately for the civil servant, the driver happened to be in the employ of a certain high court judge who had used the car — and driver — to go to the school to purchase uniforms for her children.  Before he knew it, Gwebu was summoned by police and jailed for contempt of court. His crime?  Ticketing a government official who clearly enjoyed immunity from the law.

That’s when Bheki Makhubu and Thulani Maseko got involved. In February and in March, Makhubu, the editor of the Nation magazine, and Maseko, a human rights lawyer, published articles criticizing Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi for abusing his power.

In apparent retaliation, angry chief justice issued a warrant for their arrest in mid-March on charges of “scandalizing the judiciary” and “contempt of court.” The pair, deemed “a flight risk,” have been held in Mbabane’s Sidvwashini Prison ever since and have been repeatedly denied bail.

Last week, they were found guilty and will likely serve a three-year sentence and a fine.

In his ruling, High Court Judge Mpendulo Simelane issued a harsh warning to journalists, saying that judges may override Swaziland’s Constitution which provides guarantees of freedom of speech.

“No one has the right to attack a judge or the Courts under the disguise of the right of freedom of expression,” Simelane said, “because it is in the public interest that the authority and dignity of the Court is maintained.”

The United States this week expressed its deep concern over the convictions. Committee to Protect Journalists Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine called the conviction “an indictment of the thin-skinned Swazi judiciary that serves a monarch and denies citizens the basic right of freedom of expression.”

As for the unfortunate vehicle inspector, at the time of writing, his fate isn’t known.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

China: Xinjiang Authorities Ban Ramadan Fast

Posted July 4th, 2014 at 12:50 pm (UTC+0)
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An ethnic Uighur woman (C) hugs her son as she stands outside her house with her daughter (R) and neighbours at an old residential area of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region July 22, 2012.  REUTERS/Rooney Chen

An ethnic Uighur woman (C) hugs her son as she stands outside her house with her daughter (R) and neighbours at an old residential area of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region July 22, 2012. REUTERS/Rooney Chen

It’s the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which means Muslims across the globe are are fasting from dawn til sunset — everywhere, that is, except in northwestern China.

Authorities in the Turkestan district of Xinjiang have banned Muslim Uighurs from fasting or taking part in any other religious activities associated with Ramadan.  Officials say they’re looking to protect the health and well-being of youths and block institutions from promoting religion.  But rights groups say the ban–is part of an ongoing crackdown on the religious minority, who number about 8 million in China.

“Uighurs are seen by Beijing as an ethno-nationalist threat to the Chinese state,” Human Rights Watch said. “As Islam is perceived as underpinning Uighur ethnic identity, China has taken draconian steps to smother Islam as a means of subordinating Uighur nationalist sentiment.”

This isn’t the first time Xinjiang has prohibited Uighurs from observing the fast, one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith. But this year’s ban is especially significant, as it comes in the midst of an unprecedented crackdown on Uighurs following a series of attacks over the last few months blamed on the Muslim minority.  These include a brutal attack in the Kunming train station March 1, when eight assailants carrying large knives killed 29 people and injured 143.

China has linked the attacks to global radical Islam, according to the Uighur Human Rights Project.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Egypt: “Appalling” Verdict in Al Jazeera Journalist Trial

Posted June 23rd, 2014 at 1:32 am (UTC+0)
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Al Jazeera journalist Mohammed Fahmy stands behind bars at a court in Cairo May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

Al Jazeera journalist Mohammed Fahmy stands behind bars at a court in Cairo May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

One of the first thoughts I had when I woke up this morning was that today was going to be the day that we would finally hear the fate of three Al Jazeera journalists, Egyptian-Canadian acting Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, Australian reporter Peter Greste and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, who, along with 17 others, have been jailed since last December on charges of “spreading false news,” portraying the conflict between pro- and anti-Morsi Egyptians as a “civil war,” as well as supporting or actually being card-carrying members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.  Today they would find out their sentences.

#FreeAJStaff_(Free_AJ_Staff)_on_Twitter_-_2014-06-23_11.52.50
Like so many observers, I was almost certain the court would release the journalists, especially given that U.S. Secretary Kerry is in Cairo looking at U.S.-Egypt cooperation.

But like everyone else,  I was stunned when I read they were sentenced to seven years in prison — and Mohamed given an additional three years on separate charges, along with an LE5000 fine–about $700–for possessing ammunition.

The judge also handed down 10-year prison terms to British journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane and the Dutch journalist Rena Netjes, who were tried in absentia.

The Al Jazeera English website identified its other journalists tried in absentia as: Alaa Bayoumi, Anas Abdel-Wahab Khalawi Hasan, Khaleel Aly Khaleel Bahnasy and Mohamed Fawzi.

In Baghdad today Secretary Kerry called it “a chilling and draconian sentence.

Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister is completely appalled by the verdicts and and “appalled” Foreign Secretary William Hague summoned the Egyptian Ambassador to London for a meeting to discuss the matter.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says her Government is “deeply appalled” and will talk to the government of Egypt’s newly-elected President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as to whether anything can be done to intervene.

Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey says the verdicts defy “logic, sense, and any semblance of justice”.

“There is only one sensible outcome now,” Anstey said in an online press release:  “For the verdict to be overturned, and justice to be recognized by Egypt…The authorities in Egypt need to take responsibility for their actions, and be held to account by the global community. 

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Iraq: First Journalist Casualty A Reminder of Reporter Safety Basics

Posted June 20th, 2014 at 2:08 pm (UTC+0)
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Wounded Reuters photographer Gleb Garanich, who was injured by riot police, takes pictures as riot police block protesters during a scuffle at a demonstration in support of EU integration at Independence Square in Kiev November 30, 2013. The International News Safety Institute says 58 journalists or media staff have been killed while working in 2014 alone. REUTERS

Wounded Reuters photographer Gleb Garanich, who was injured by riot police, takes pictures as riot police block protesters during a scuffle at a demonstration in support of EU integration at Independence Square in Kiev November 30, 2013. The International News Safety Institute says 58 journalists or media staff have been killed while working in 2014 alone. REUTERS

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) this week announced a journalist was killed covering the offensive against the Iran-backed Shiaa government of Nouri Al-Maliki in Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL) and other Iraqi Sunni groups.

Khaled Ali Hamada, an Al-Ahad TV cameraman died Monday in the eastern governate of Diyala and Al-Ahad TV reporter Moataz Jamil Hassan was badly injured. Based in Diyala, Al-Ahad TV is linked to the Shiite Islamist group Kutla Asaib Ahl Al-Haq.

Reporter Minas Al-Souhil and his cameraman, covering events for the private Iraqi network  Al-Sharqiya News, were meanwhile arrested  by security forces in Baghdad this week, and the network’s Diyala correspondent, Halmi Kamal, was kidnapped and held by armed individuals in Baqubah (55 km northeast of Baghdad).

It’s a powerful reminder of the dangers of reporting in conflict zones, and as the Iraq crisis heats up, more and more international journalists will be headed there to cover events–including some of VOA’s best.

The International News Safety Institute (INSI)  is offering these tips and reminders about staying safe in Iraq:

  • Iraq is one of the world’s most dangerous places for reporters.  Events are moving quickly, and kidnappings, bombs, targeted killings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are still a daily threat throughout the country and all out military conflict is now a real possibility between the Iraqi military, Shia militia groups and Sunni militants from ISIS.
  • Foreign journalists are banned from entering Al-Anbar province without approval from the Iraq’s Ministry of Defense and the Anbar Operations Command Center.  Don’t be adventurous; international and local journalists who aren’t carrying the right paperwork do get arrested in Iraq.
  • That said, don’t consider Erbil and the north to be any safer than anywhere else in Iraq.  The whole country is dangerous now, for reporters and non-.
  • Plan your routes into and out of the country before going. Be ready for any emergency, including medical.  You’re on your own.
  • If you haven’t worked in a hostile or war zone before, take a hostile environment training course.
  • Read up on military tactics and weapon systems, and carry appropriate protective gear.
  • Understand that medical/emergency care may not be available, so have a basic understanding of trauma care.
  • If you’re not familiar with weapons of war, check out this basic INSI guide to the types of  weapons used in conflict, what kind of damage they can inflict and how to protect yourself:
Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

#KeepingScore: During FIFA 2014, Rights Group Campaigning to Defend Free Expression

Posted June 16th, 2014 at 11:23 am (UTC+0)
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Brazil's national soccer team coach Scolari gestures towards Neymar as they address reporters before their team's final practice in Sao Paulo

 

While the world’s are fixed on the 2014 FIFA World Cup games underway in Brazil, the global association of writers PEN International has launched an internet campaign calling on Brazil and eleven other countries participating in this year’s football games to respect and protect free expression.

The campaign calls on PEN members and everyone else who supports free speech and free expression to share information on threats to those rights using the hashtag #keepingscore.

#Keepingscore“Freedom of expression is the corner stone of democracy,” said PEN International Executive Director, Carles Torner.  “A democratic society cannot function without an active commitment to freedom of expression. As the world turns its attention to Brazil, we must demand that the host and participating countries make this commitment and that those individuals being persecuted for this most basic right are not forgotten.”

The campaign focuses on a dozen countries where journalists have been threatened, attacked, jailed or killed:  Brazil, Cameroon, Columbia, Ecuador, England, Honduras, Iran, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Russia and the United States, drawing from cases lists that PEN’s Writers In Prison Committee produces every six months.

Some of the cases of concern among the 2014 World Cup players include:

  • Eric Ohena Lembembe, the former executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), a prominent LGBT rights activist, journalist, writer and blogger. On July 16, 2013, Lembembe was found dead and his body mutiliated.  He appeared to have been dead several days. His murder reportedly came in the wake of several attacks on the offices of human rights defenders, including LGBT rights activists.
  • Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev, the deputy chief editor of a leading independent weekly in Dagestan, Novoe Delo (“New Action”), and regular contributor to the online site Caucasian Knot known for reporting on corruption and rights abuses in Dagestan.  On July 9, 2013, he was shot to death outside his home in the village of Semender near the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala.  Earlier in the year, Akhmednabiev had survived a similar attempt on his life when unidentified gunmen fired at him three times, but missed, and he had received numerous death threats.  A criminal investigation is said to be under way.
  • José Noel Canales Lagos, a reporter for the online news site Hondudiario.  While en route to work in the city of Comayagüela in August, 2012, group of unidentified men opened fire on his car, shooting him in the head.  PEN reports that Lagos had been receiving frequent death threats for three years.  The motive for the shooting is not known
  • PEN is also citing the US National Security Agency’s surveillance program, which it says has greatly expanded since 9/1, monitoring hundreds of millions of Americans and foreigners by spying on their telephone calls, emails and text messages.

PEN_BWC_Brazil-1024x781

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Thailand: In Wake of Coup, Media Freedom Threatened

Posted May 27th, 2014 at 3:33 pm (UTC+0)
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Supporters of the military cover their mouths as a symbolic gesture of silence as they stand in front of a phalanx of riot police during a rally against military rule at the Victory Monument in Bangkok May 26, 2014. Thai coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Monday he had been formally endorsed by the king as head of a military council that will run the country, and warned he would use force if political protests flared up again.   REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Supporters of the military cover their mouths as a symbolic gesture of silence as they stand in front of a phalanx of riot police during a rally against military rule at the Victory Monument in Bangkok May 26, 2014. Thai coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Monday he had been formally endorsed by the king as head of a military council that will run the country, and warned he would use force if political protests flared up again. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Media rights groups are expressing outrage and calling on the Thai junta to release two journalists  arrested last week after the military declared martial law on that country.

The Bangkok Post reports Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist with the daily Nation, was summoned to the headquarters of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) where he was questioned, but not in the presence of his lawyer.

“I hope people will not give up the spirit and that General Prayuth will be the last dictator of Thailand,” RSF quotes Rohanaphruk as saying before going in for questioning.

“They can detain me, but can never detain my conscience,” he added.  He then taped his mouth shut (see Twitter screen capture, below).

Also being detained is Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of the political news magazine Fah Diew Gan, for having demonstrated in Bangkok against the coup.

PravitThailand’s military seized power Thursday May 22 in a bloodless coup.  General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced the military takeover on national television, suspending the constitution and dissolving the government.

One of the junta’s first acts was to severely curtail the media: The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) says the military has blocked about 100 web pages, 15 satellite and cable networks and an undetermined number of community radio stations.

Six networks have since been allowed to resume transmissions, but are being strictly monitored from broadcasting news and any content that the government deems to encourage violence, insult the monarchy and criticize the military coup.  International news channels including CNN, BBC and CNBC, NHK, CCTV are also blocked, but SEAPA says Thai audiences can still access these outlets’ online sites.

General Payuth also asked all internet operators and services providers to monitor and report all media, Facebook and other websites for violations against peace and order.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Pakistan Gives Indian Journalists The Boot

Posted May 14th, 2014 at 3:29 pm (UTC+0)
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Pakistani journalists chant slogans during a protest, called by PFUJ, against the attack on television anchorperson Hamid Mir, outside the press club in IslamabadThe government of Pakistan is expelling two Indian journalists, a move that New Delhi calls a “retrograde step.”

Press Trust of India‘s (PTI) Snehesh Alex Philip and The Hindu‘s Meena Menon received letters late Tuesday evening from the Pakistan government’s External Publicity Wing notifying them that it would not extend their visas and giving them until May 20 to leave the country.

“We have been given no notice, no reason and no rationale for this virtual expulsion by the Pakistan government that keeps affirming that they want improved relations with India, PTI‘s Editor-in-Chief and CEO M. K. Razdan said.

The move comes days ahead of installation of a new government in India and diplomatic observers say that the Pakistan’s unilateral action will not go down well with New Delhi.

“​It is regrettable and unfortunate that the two Indian correspondents in Pakistan have been asked to leave prematurely and suddenly only a few months after their arrival there,” Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.

Pakistani authorities have so far made no statement.

Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan reached  an agreement 40 years ago that would allow two reporters from each country.  India says that allowing journalists would be an important means of building confidence between the two countries.

It was just one year ago that Pakistan also expelled New York Times Islamabad bureau chief Declan Walsh.

Although the notice came from the Ministry of Interior, Declan Walsh and  the Times believe Pakistan’s military was behind his expulsion.
According to an April 30 Amnesty International report, “A bullet has been chosen for you”:  Attacks on journalists in Pakistan, Walsh said the military was unhappy about his reporting on a number of sensitive issues, including the military’s role in enforced disappearances nd killings of killing of Baloch separatists and the US drone program.

Declan

 

“Pakistan’s media community is effectively under siege,” David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director, said in late April on releasing that report.  “Journalists, in particular those covering national security issues or human rights, are targeted from all sides in a disturbing pattern of abuses carried out to silence their reporting.”

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Pakistan: Do Religious Laws Embolden Extremists?

Posted May 12th, 2014 at 8:47 am (UTC+0)
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A woman reacts to the killing of Rashid Rehman, a lawyer who was shot by unidentified gunmen a day earlier, outside his residence in Multan May 8, 2014. Gunmen posing as clients shot dead the prominent human rights lawyer defending a professor accused of blasphemy, officials said Thursday, underscoring the danger facing those trying to put an end to religious intolerance in majority-Muslim Pakistan. Wednesday's killing of Rashid Rehman in the southern city Multan was the first time a lawyer has been killed for taking on a blasphemy case, police said. REUTERS/Stringer

A woman reacts to the killing of Rashid Rehman, a lawyer who was shot by unidentified gunmen a day earlier, outside his residence in Multan May 8, 2014. Gunmen posing as clients shot dead the prominent human rights lawyer defending a professor accused of blasphemy, officials said Thursday, underscoring the danger facing those trying to put an end to religious intolerance in majority-Muslim Pakistan. Wednesday’s killing of Rashid Rehman in the southern city Multan was the first time a lawyer has been killed for taking on a blasphemy case, police said. REUTERS/Stringer

Lawyers and human rights activists in Pakistan are mourning the murder of a prominent human rights lawyer who was gunned down in his office May 8th by unknown assailants.

Rashid Rehman, 53, was the lawyer representing Junaid Hafeez, the Bahauddin Zakariya University lecturer is accused of spreading blasphemy — it is unclear whether he actually wrote a comment or merely ‘liked’ it; his Facebook page has since been removed.

His accusers were hardline university students themselves.

Rashid Rehman

 

Rehman served as the regional coordinator for the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which says it has lost six of its members. Five of them — Naeem Sabir (2011), Siddique Eido (2011), Zarteef Afridi (2011), Ahmed Jan Baloch (2013) and Rashid Rehman (2014) — were killed in the line of duty. The sixth victim, Malik Jarrar Hussain’s (2013) was victim of a sectarian killing. No one linked to the murders has been arrested.

Rehman’s is the latest killing related to Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, which rights groups say are often used to settle personal scores that aren’t related to religion at all.

Police escort Salma alias Fatima (dressed in black), 40, who was arrested under the blasphemy law, as she leaves after appearing in the district court in Lahore September 17, 2013. Upon the allegations of the Imam of a local mosque, police filed a case against the school principal under the blasphemy law on September 2, 2013. The accused, who runs a secondary school, has denied the charges and claims that the complainant had a personal grudge against her, local media reported. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

Police escort Salma alias Fatima (dressed in black), 40, who was arrested under the blasphemy law, as she leaves after appearing in the district court in Lahore September 17, 2013. Upon the allegations of the Imam of a local mosque, police filed a case against the school principal under the blasphemy law on September 2, 2013. The accused, who runs a secondary school, has denied the charges and claims that the complainant had a personal grudge against her, local media reported. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

 

Just this past week, a Punjabi man was arrested after allegedly calling himself a prophet after local citizens produced a video tape of his statement.  If convicted, the man will sentenced to death under Pakistan’s so-called Punishment Act, section 295-CK of the country’s penal code.

Amnesty International cites the case of a Christian road sweeper from Lahore was sentenced to death in late March 2014 and fined 200,000 rupees (about $2,030).  He was arrested earlier in the month after a friend accused him of making blasphemous remarks during an argument.

In January 2014, according to a BBC report, a 70-year-old British man was sentenced to death being convicted of blasphemy.  He had been arrested in 2010 for writing letters in which he claimed to be a prophet.  His lawyers cited a history of mental illness, but a medical panel of the Rawalpindi court rejected this.

In its 2014 report on religious freedom, the US Commission on International Freedom said Pakistan jails more people for blasphemy than any other country. As of March, the date of that report’s release, 14 people were on death row and 19 others serving life sentences under blasphemy laws.

The report found that where there is a lack of religious freedom there is often violent religious extremism: Where governments enforce laws that stifle religious freedom, they embolden extremists to commit violence against perceived transgressors.  They also risk driving individuals into joining extremist groups and risk strengthening extremism by weakening democratic competitors.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Gambia: Journalists’ ‘Hell on Earth’?

Posted May 8th, 2014 at 10:54 am (UTC+0)
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Gambian President Yahya Jammeh holds up a Koran while speaking to the media  after casting his ballot in the presidential elections in Banjul September 22, 2006. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh holds up a Koran while speaking to the media after casting his ballot in the presidential elections in Banjul September 22, 2006. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

December 16, 2004A group of reporters and editors of a popular Gambian newspaper were holding a small celebration in their Banjul office at the end of a busy day.  They had reason to be jubilant:  Exactly 13 years earlier, editor Deyda Hydara and his friend Pap Saine had published the first issue of The Point, which would become a major independent voice in Gambian media.

The staff also had reason to be nervous.  Hydara was an outspoken critic of the government of President Yahyah Jammeh.  Before co-founding The Point, he had worked as the local correspondent for Agence France-Press (AFP) and was also a long-time correspondent for the press advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders.  He had a history of clashes with the government.

Just two days before, The Gambia had announced tough new media laws  by which journalists would now be forced to obtain expensive licenses and even register their homes as collateral against future fines for breaking the law. Hydara had announced his intention to challenge those laws.

Twitter - Search - deyda hydara 2014-05-07 18-22-57It would prove to be his undoing.

He left the office by car that evening and, while driving home, he was fired on by unknown assailants in a passing taxi.  He died instantly.  Though it has not been proven, it is widely believed he was killed by government forces.

Journalist Omar Bah knows a little about the repressive media environment in The Gambia.  He was forced into exile for speaking out against the Jammeh government and has detailed his experiences in a book, Africa’s Hell on Earth.

As Gambia marked World Press Freedom Day May 3, I reached out to Bah in his new home in the northeastern U.S. state of Rhode Island.

RePRESSed:  When President Yahya Jammeh  came to power in 1994, he promised a free and open press and called on reporters to feel free to criticize him and his policies—but you say bad things happen to those who do.

Bah: President Jammeh’s tactic against the independent press is equivalent to baiting. He initially enticed reporters by allowing them free access to his office and to write as they wished. This was a time when the general population was brimming with hope because they saw the advent of a military takeover as a sort of rescue from three decades of self-perpetuating rule by the old government.

However, it turns out that private media was being naïve, because the “blue moon” was soon to end. The new military regime under President Jammeh was, after all, seeking legitimacy from the international community and it knew the only way it could attain that goal was by having the press on its side. As soon as the new government got established, it launched an unprecedented assault against journalists in the form of harassment, arrest and detention, closure of media houses, and deportation of foreign-born journalists.

RePRESSed:  What kind of legislative controls has the government imposed over the press?

Bah:  President Jammeh swirls around eccentric philosophies of pan-Africanism based upon the belief that leaders should be regarded as God-sent, and anyone who attempts to question their authority or criticize them is either a non-believer in God, an enemy of the nation or an agent of Western intrusion. Against this backdrop, President Jammeh openly describes journalists as “the illegitimate sons and daughters of Africa”, threatens to bury them six-feet deep and declares to the nation that people should stop purchasing newspapers so that media practitioners can starve.

Omar Bah

Omar Bah

His campaign against the press is being carried out by his security forces and through his own declarations. Most of his promises, if not all, have come to fruition because a number of journalists including notable senior editor, Deyda Hydara, have been killed while others have gone missing and/or illegally detailed for years without justice.

A total of 110 media practitioners have been recorded to have gone into exile, a number of media houses have been arbitrarily closed, journalists have been tortured and others threatened.

Furthermore, a number of stiff regulations and laws have been promulgated that do not only criminalize libel and expand the definition of sedition, but specifically target the independent media by exorbitantly increasing registration filing fees, court fines, and the long prison sentences for journalists.

RePRESSed:  You also suffered in the repressive media climate of the Gambia – and have written a book in which you describe being arrested, tortured and ultimately pegged for execution.

Bah:  Like many other Gambian journalists, I have been illegally arrested and detailed while working under a climate of fear and threats to my life. The final straw was in May 2006, when my private email account was hacked by the regime’s security agencies who were trying to uncover my email identity and correspondences with international media and human rights organizations.

As soon as they established that I had reported critical articles against the regime to foreign-based media, a nationwide manhunt was launched. I was lucky to be tipped just in time and managed to escape unharmed. Three days after my escape, the regime declared me a ‘wanted’ person and blasted my pictures across the media. I lived in solitary hiding in neighboring Senegal for a month before colleagues helped evacuate me to Ghana. After a year in Ghana, I was admitted as a refugee into the United States and resettled in Rhode Island.

Because of my new-found freedom, I decided it was time to share my story. I achieved this by expressing my refusal to be silenced and by blurting out the voice I had lost back home. The book’s title, Africa’s Hell on Earth, is derived from President Jammeh’s mocking reference to the prisons where he detains and tortures his critics.  It it also pinpoints the fact that there is indeed a certain place on the continent of Africa – so unknown and so unnoticeable – where hell is being imposed on the people.

RePRESSed:  You recently addressed the United Nations.  What were you looking for?

Bah:  I had the opportunity to address the Communication Coordinating Committee of the United Nations (CCCUN) on May 1, 2014  about media and human rights in The Gambia. I summarized the chronology of the violations against the independent press in The Gambia. My aim was simply to create awareness and call the world to action so that there can be justice, freedom and free environment of practice in The Gambia.

 

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

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About rePRESSEDed

VOA reporter Cecily Hilleary monitors the state of free expression and free speech around the world.

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