Middle East: predators of press freedom start to topple
The kingpins of repressive machinery, political leaders of regimes hostile to civil liberties and direct organizers of campaigns of violence against journalists – they are the predators of press freedom. They prey on the media.
There are 38 predators this year. Pride of place goes to North Africa and the Middle East, where dramatic and sometimes tragic events have taken place in recent months. It is the Arab world that has seen the most important changes in the 2011 Predators list. Heads have fallen. The first to go was Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced to step down on 14 January, thereby giving his people the chance to explore the entire range of democratic possibilities.
Other predators such as Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh, who has been overwhelmed by the wave of protests sweeping his country, or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who is responding with terror to his people’s democratic aspirations, could also fall. And what of Muammar Gaddafi, the Guide of the Revolution, now the guide of violence against his people, a violence that is deaf to reason? And Bahrain’s King Ben Aissa Al-Khalifa, who should one day have to answer for the deaths of four activists in detention, including the only opposition newspaper’s founder, and the vast repressive operation against pro-democracy protesters?
Freedom of expression has been one of the first demands of the region’s peoples, one of the first concessions from transitional regimes, and one of the first achievements, albeit a very fragile one, of its revolutions.
Attempts to manipulate foreign reporters, arbitrary arrests and detention, deportation, denial of access, intimidation and threats – the list of abuses against the media during the Arab Spring is staggering. Those determined to obstruct the media did not stop at murder in four countries – Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. The fatalities included Mohamed Al-Nabous, shot by snipers on the government’s payroll in the Libyan city of Benghazi on 19 March, and two journalists directly targeted by the security forces in Yemen on 18 March.
There have been more than 30 cases of arbitrary detention in Libya and a similar number of foreign correspondents have been deported. Similar methods have been used in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, where the authorities make every possible effort to keep the media at a distance so that they cannot broadcast video footage of the repression.
The media have rarely played such as key role in conflicts. These oppressive regimes, already traditionally hostile to media freedom, have treated control of news and information as one of the keys to their survival.
Journalist have been direct targeted by the authorities or caught in the crossfire of the violence between activists and security forces, reminding us of the risks they take to perform their essential job of reporting the news.
The need to be at the reporting front line, and often the front line of the violence, has taken a heavy toll on photojournalists since the start of the year. Reporters Without Borders pays tribute to the Franco-German photographer Lucas Melbrouk Dolega, who was hit by a police teargas grenade in Tunis on 17 January and died three days later, and to Tim Hetherington, a British photographer working for Vanity Fair, and Chris Hondros, an American photographer working for Getty Images, who were killed by a mortar shell in the Libyan city of Misrata on 20 April.
Rest of the world
In Asia, some leaders have been replaced by others without any change to the repressive systems they control. Thein Sein has replaced Than Shwe at the head of the regime in Burma (where 14 journalists are in prison). The Communist Party chose Nguyen Phu Trong to succeed Nong Duc Manh in Vietnam (where 18 netizens are currently jailed). In both countries, one predator has taken over from another. They are the figureheads of regimes that use imprisonment as a way to censor and allow no hope of a political opening. One-party system attitudes, clan interests and a national unity ideology characterize these impenetrable dictatorships, now jittery about the pro-democracy movements sweeping the world.
The shockwaves from the Arab Spring have affected the policies pursued by China’s predator, President Hu Jintao, and Azerbaijan’s predator, President Ilham Aliyev. They fear that this is a virus that could spread. More than 30 dissidents, lawyers and human rights activists are being held incommunicado in China. There is no way of finding out what has happened to them. One of the latest victims is the internationally famous artist Ai Wei Wei. No one knows where he is being held. The Azerbaijani authorities have adopted various tactics with the opposition and media in response to attempts to hold Arab-style demonstrations in Baku. Facebook activists have been jailed. Reporters for the opposition newspaper Azadlig have been kidnapped and threatened. Journalists trying to cover the protests have been arrested and beaten. The Internet has been blocked.
Other predators remain tragically true to themselves. Issaias Afeworki in Eritrea, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan and Kim Jong-il in North Korea head the world’s worst totalitarian regimes. Their cruelty is staggering. Their extreme centralization of authority, their purges and their ubiquitous propaganda leave no space for any freedom.
Iran’s predators – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reelected as the Islamic Republic’s president in June 2009, and Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader – are the architects of a relentless crackdown marked by Stalinist-style trials of opposition politicians, journalists and human rights activists. More than 200 journalists and bloggers have been arrested since June 2009, 40 are still held and around 100 have had to flee the country. An estimated 3,000 journalists are currently out of work because their newspapers have been closed down or have been banned from rehiring them. Reporters Without Borders calls for a special human rights rapporteur to be sent to Iran as a matter of urgency, in line with the resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council on 24 March.
The other side of the Atlantic has seen an unusual addition to the list of Predators of Press Freedom – the militias of Honduran businessman landowner Miguel Facussé Barjum, which have had their hands free to harass opposition media since the June 2009 coup d’état – especially the small and often modest community radio stations that wage a David-and-Goliath battle against big business and political interests.
Pakistan and Cote d’Ivoire – two of the priorities for the coming year
Reporters Without Borders plans to continue working on the issue of organized crime’s violations of media freedom. The initial report on this subject, issued in March 2011, will be developed, especially with a view to the visit that United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay is due to make in the coming months to Mexico, where seven journalists were killed in 2010.
Violence is also the major problem in Pakistan, where 14 journalists have been killed in a little more than a year. It continues to be one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media. Media organizations in the most hazardous regions must reinforce mechanisms for protecting their journalists, who are too often exposed to danger.
In Mexico and Pakistan, as in the Philippines, protection of the media is handicapped by impunity. The negligence of local officials, the insolent freedom with which criminal gangs operate and corruption all conspire to ensure that investigations into violence against journalists rarely lead to arrests. Media freedom cannot progress if impunity is not combated effectively.
As regards the Internet, the priority for Reporters Without Borders will be to defend net neutrality, which is being threatened by proposed legislation in several countries. The organization is concerned about the growing pressure – varying in intensity according to the nature of the regime – on Internet sector companies, especially Internet service providers, to assume the role of Internet regulator.
A big news story in recent months, Côte d’Ivoire continues to be a priority for Reporters Without Borders and has been even since it monitored the media during the two-round presidential election in October and November. From the attacks on journalists who support Alassane Ouattara to the recent threat of a witch-hunt against Laurent Gbagbo’s supporters after Ouattara took office in early April, Reporters Without Borders has followed the crisis closely and will continue to monitor developments.
In Turkey (which received a Reporters Without Borders country visit in April), the problem is not just repressive laws, especially the counter-terrorism and state security laws, but also and above all abusive practices by the courts and judges due to their lack of knowledge of investigative journalism. The latest example is the jailing of Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, two journalists who are well known for their investigative coverage of the Ergenekon conspiracy case and the functioning of the Turkish police and judicial systems.
In northern Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan, the security forces of the two parties that control the government have responded with violence to a recent wave of street demonstrations and journalists have been among the first to suffer.
More and more journalists and netizens are being prosecuted in Vietnam, where the Communist Party follows its Chinese big brother’s model as regards governance and repression. Reporters Without Borders continues to closely monitor China and Iran, two countries that devour their journalists.
The international community’s silence on many countries such as Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Eritrea and the central Asian dictatorships (especially Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) is more than culpable, it is complicit. We urge the democracies not to continue hiding behind their commercial and geopolitical interests.