One Free Press Coalition
10 Most Urgent, May 2020
On May 1, 2020 the Coalition launched the 15th monthly “10 Most Urgent” list (ranked in order of urgency), calling attention to the most pressing cases of journalists under attack for pursuing the truth.
At least half of the journalists on this month’s list are currently behind bars. The #FreeThePress campaign and World Press Freedom Day (Sunday, May 3) call for the immediate release of all jailed journalists. In light of the threat posed by coronavirus, their freedom is now a matter of life or death.
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1. Azimjon Askarov (Kyrgyzstan)
Jailed journalist in deteriorating health at high risk for contracting COVID-19. On May 11, a Kyrgyz court is scheduled to hear the final appeal in the case of Azimjon Askarov which has been drawn out during his nine years imprisoned, despite persistent international condemnation. The award-winning ethnic Uzbek journalist had been reporting on human rights when he was arrested on trumped-up charges that included incitement to ethnic hatred and complicity in the murder of a police officer. Askarov’s wife Khadicha recently wrote a letter to the Kyrgyzstan President pleading for the journalist’s release, saying he is “absolutely innocent” and suffers from painful bone and joint inflammation.
2. Abdulkhaleq Amran, Akram al-Waleedi, Hareth Hameed and Tawfiq al-Mansouri (Yemen)
Yemeni journalists long held captive in prison now sentenced to death. On April 11, four Yemeni journalists—Abdulkhaleq Amran, Akram al-Waleedi, Hareth Hameed and Tawfiq al-Mansouri—were sentenced to death on charges of spreading false news. The individuals have been detained for nearly five years by the Ansar Allah group, known as the Houthis, at war with the internationally recognized government, a Saudi-led military coalition. The journalists’ lawyer says they were allowed no representation in the courtroom during sentencing, which was put off so long because Houthi leaders were trying to release them as part of an exchange deal with the Yemeni government.
3. Mahmoud al-Jaziri (Bahrain)
Imprisoned reporter punished for telling media about inmates’ coronavirus fears. Mahmoud al-Jaziri was moved to solitary confinement on April 8 as retaliation for an audio clip that surfaced on dissident-run media channel Bahrain Today3 in which he disputed reports that Bahraini authorities had taken measures to protect prisoners from the spread of COVID-19. A reporter for the now-defunct independent newspaper Al-Wasat, the last of the country’s independent newspapers, Al-Jaziri has been imprisoned since December 2015 on a 15-year sentence on charges of belonging to a terrorist group.
4. Solafa Magdy (Egypt)
Prison conditions heighten COVID risk for journalist in deteriorating health. The overcrowding of Egyptian prisons—such as the one in Al-Qanater housing Solafa Magdy—and inhumane conditions threaten to turn detention places into clusters of disease. Magdy, a freelance multimedia journalist, and her husband have been jailed since November 2019 on charges of “membership of a banned group” and “spreading false news.” She has endured medical neglect and even declined treatment for fear of contracting an infection in the facility’s unhygienic hospital. In April, prison authorities prohibited Magdy’s mother from visiting and from contributing money and food for her.
5. Darvinson Rojas (Venezuela)
Freelance journalist and parents arrested for his reporting on COVID-19. Venezuelan freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas spent 13 days detained after police agents showed up at his home claiming to be conducting a COVID-19 test. In reality, they broke in, violently arrested him and later interrogated him about sources of his reporting on COVID-19. According to local press freedom organization Espacio Publico, Rojas was secretly presented before a judge on March 22 and charged under the controversial “Anti-Hate Law” with incitement to hate and instigation. Rojas was denied the right to his private lawyer, instead represented by a court-appointed public defender.
6. Truong Duy Nhat (Vietnam)
Authorities switch charges to sentence blogger to 10 years behind bars. Truong Duy Nhat, a blogger with Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese language service funded by U.S. Congress, disappeared from a Bangkok shopping mall in January 2019 and two days later was in pretrial detention where he remained 15 months before sentencing March 9 to ten years in prison. After police initially charged him with illegally acquiring property but failed to procure enough evidence, a half-day trial brought him up on charges of “abusing his position and power while on duty” as a reporter. Previously he served two years in prison for blogging critical of the Communist Party.
7. Elena Milashina (Russia)
Journalist fears for her life, after leader rebuffs her coronavirus reporting. On April 12, independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta correspondent Elena Milashina wrote that quarantined Chechens had stopped reporting coronavirus symptoms for fear of being labeled “terrorists.” Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov called that “nonsense” and blamed the Federal Security Service for not silencing her. She has sought protection from the Investigative Committee of Russia and the prosecutor general’s office but gotten no response and has told CPJ by phone that she is “really afraid, as Kadyrov’s threats are really serious.” Six journalists who cover Chechnya have been murdered in Russia since 1992.
8. Mir Shakil ur Rehman (Pakistan)
To silence criticism of pandemic preparedness, government targets broadcast outlet and its CEO. The CEO, owner and editor-in-chief of Jang Media Group, Mir Shakil-ur-Rehman, was arrested March 12 over a case involving allegations that he illegally acquired land in 1986. The next day, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority ordered cable distributors throughout the country to stop transmitting Geo TV, which is owned by Jang Media Group and is the nation’s largest TV news channel, or move its broadcasts to a higher, harder-to-find channel. Despite no charges filed, Shakil-ur-Rehman was denied bail on April 7. The channel has criticized the government’s coronavirus preparations.
9. Yayesew Shimelis (Ethiopia)
Journalist charged with “hate speech and disinformation” for COVID coverage. On March 26 journalist Yayesew Shimelis published to Facebook and YouTube a report about the COVID-19 virus which Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health condemned as false. He told a friend he feared government retaliation—and the next day was arrested at a relative’s home. On three occasions April 15 to 21, police failed to respect court orders to release Yayesew, instead introducing new allegations against him. He was eventually released on bail until a May 15 hearing on charges of distributing disinformation, punishable with up to three years in prison or a fine of up to $3,000 under a recently-enacted law.
10. Jamal Khashoggi (Saudi Arabia)
Pressure persists for Kingdom to release jailed journalists—and bring justice for brazen murder. Saudi Arabia imprisoned 26 journalists in 2019, according to CPJ tracking. And has yet to deliver justice in the 2018 killing of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Findings from the U.S. and UN point to an “extrajudicial killing” involving the Saudi crown prince and demanding an independent criminal investigation. For its part, Turkey indicted 20 Saudi nationals on March 25 on charges of murder and incitement linked to Khashoggi’s murder.
World Press Freedom Day in the MENA region, between death and death sentences
As we mark another World Press Freedom Day on 03 May 2020, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is working on cases that are examples of the extreme lack of freedom of speech in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Rights groups are pulling together to try to save the lives of four Yemeni journalists who have been sentenced to death as well as human rights defenders, journalists and activists who are being held in unsanitary conditions across the region from Egypt to Bahrain. In the MENA region, journalists and online activists continue to face imprisonment, ill-treatment and sentences that are meant to stifle any critical voices.
Countries around the world are releasing prisoners to protect them from the COVID-19 virus, because prisoners are at a higher risk than other populations. Yet most of the human rights defenders and journalists who are in prison in the MENA region in violation of their right to freedom of expression, have been denied freedom. For example, Bahrain has freed over 1500 prisoners, including some political prisoners, but no journalists or high-profile activists and human rights defenders, such as GCHR’s Founding Directors Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab, who have serious health issues and are being held in crowded cells. In a joint appeal, GCHR and 20 NGOs called for their immediate release during the COVID-19 crisis.
In addition, journalist Mahmoud Al-Jaziri was moved to solitary confinement after reporting on unsanitary conditions inside Bahraini prisons. Al-Jaziri has been imprisoned since December 2015 and is serving a 15-year prison sentence. He recorded an audio clip that was posted on YouTube on 07 April that contradicted statements by the Bahraini authorities who claimed to have taken measures to protect prisoners from the spread of COVID-19.
In Yemen, four journalists, Abdulkhaleq Ahmed Amran, Akram Saleh Al-Walidi, Al-Hareth Saleh Hamid and Tawfiq Mohammed Al-Mansouri, were sentenced to death on 11 April 2020, on charges of “spying” and “spreading false news.” More than one hundred organisations have signed a joint action to be published this coming week, noting that “Journalism, especially independent and critical journalism, is vital to promote transparency, accountability, good governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, in Egypt, 24-year-old filmmaker Shadi Habash died on 02 May 2020 in Tora prison after spending two years awaiting a sentence for directing a sarcastic song called “Balaha” about President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Some of the many charges brought against Habash and his colleague Mustafa Gamal, who was arrested with him, were “insulting the military” and “abuse of social media networks.” In the song Balaha, former prisoner of conscience Ramy Essam, the voice of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, sings “You lived in gardens and we lived in jails” and you finished your four-year-term in “disgrace.” It is still unclear how Habash died, whether through medical negligence or suicide. He had been ill and sent out calls for help, including last October 2019 when he wrote that in prison “you can simply go crazy or slowly die.”
Last week, GCHR also joined an action led by Access Now with 50 supporters to urge the Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release courageous human rights activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah. Abdel Fattah has been on hunger strike for three weeks, since 12 April, to protest inhumane conditions in Tora prison, along with his continued illegal detention since his arrest on 27 September 2019, and the restrictions on communications with his family. His arrest is also related to criticism of Egypt’s President after protests on 20 September 2019 led to the detention of over 4,000 prominent activists, journalists, university professors, and lawyers, among the protesters. Abdel Fattah has also been charged with “spreading false news,” a blanket, vague, and broad charge that the Egyptian authorities use to restrict the free speech of activists, journalists and protesters.
“These are just a few cases representing thousands of other people in the region who have been imprisoned and killed this past year simply for practicing their right to freedom of speech,” said GCHR Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim.
“Through our work we have seen to what extent freedom of speech in this region seems to be intertwined with imprisonment, suffering and death,” says Zaynab Al-Khawaja, GCHR’s Journalist Protection Coordinator. “Today we witness the death of a young man for the crime of political sarcasm, and we hope for a future in which people who work online and in the media are celebrated in our countries and not punished,” she added.
On 04 May 2020, the Freedom Forum will add the stories of 11 men and women to its Journalists Memorial to represent all journalists who died or were killed while reporting the news in 2019. Among the names are Saad Ahmad and Mohamed Hussein Rasho, two Kurdish journalists killed in a bombing in Syria and Iraqi journalist Hisham Fares Al-Adami, who was killed in Baghdad by a sniper bullet on 04 October 2019. He was one of the first journalists to die during popular protests which spread across Iraq last year. This week, GCHR called for those responsible for their deaths to be brought to justice.
On World Press Freedom Day, GCHR also joins other members of the Global Forum for Media Development to issue an urgent appeal to “honour those who work tirelessly to help keep the public informed and call for robust support for independent journalism.”
The appeal states: “Millions of people around the world are looking for reliable, fact-based, and gender-sensitive journalism that can help them navigate the biggest shared challenge of our lifetime. The need for trustworthy information has never been greater and more urgent than during this pandemic. Access to timely, high-quality information is imperative during a global health crisis; it is one of the key pillars required to slow the spread of this virus, mitigate its impacts, and underpin collective societal responses. Journalism is also the best antidote to fight the misinformation that is fuelling the pandemic.”