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MENA Journalists & Cyber Activists: In the Line of Fire

This is a guest blog entry from Dr Agnes Callamard, executive director at ARTICLE 19.

From Morocco to Bahrain, everyday people have taken on the cast iron hold of dictatorships and absolute monarchies resulting in an extraordinary collective awakening that has paved the way for epochal change in the region. The youth movement, which lies at the core of the uprisings, continues to play a prominent role in the pro-democracy and pro-reform demonstrations, which have swept through the region, unabated by government clampdowns or concessions.

To date, there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a civil war in Libya, major protests in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Oman, Iran and Yemen and minor protests in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara. The protests have also triggered similar unrest outside the region, including in Azerbaijan. Fuelled by unemployment, restrictions on freedom of expression and government corruption, the protests proved to be the ultimate litmus test for government’s tolerance of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, across the Middle East and North Africa.

The response from a number of governments has included indiscriminately firing on protesters – resulting in at least a thousand deaths and thousands of wounded – shutting down the internet and phone lines, the jamming of Al-Jazeera’s satellite and other international broadcasters, and further clamping down on press freedom whilst also offering concessions in some cases. A clear example of this dichotomy is currently unravelling in Syria, where the entire Syrian cabinet resigned as a concession to protesters on March 29 2011 but where security forces killed at least 25 pro-democracy protesters in Homs on April 17 2011.

The determination of the protesters across the region to keep the movement “peaceful,” and their success at doing so despite significant state violence has been commended by the international community. These men, women and children who have taken to the streets are part of an unprecedented movement that has built sufficient momentum over the past months to influence the current scope of events. How we, the international community, respond to this movement and support the transition process in post-revolutionary countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, will come to define our work in the region for years to come.

ARTICLE 19 urges Arab states to grasp this opportunity to begin a process of real democratisation, with the respect of freedom of expression at its core. The transition and reform processes require, and should be based on, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, transparency, and the ability of all, men and women, religious and other minorities and vulnerable groups, to speak out and participate equally and without fear in the reform process and the democratic running of their country. The stability of the region relies on such stewardship.

ARTICLE 19 is also calling on Arab governments to hold an independent and transparent investigation into the violations that have taken place over the last months, determine all responsibilities, including the line of command, and bring to justice those responsible. The right to know is a fundamental human right which takes on particular importance in situations, such as those in the Arab world, where people are disappeared, imprisoned, beaten and tortured, or worse still, killed in mysterious circumstances and secrecy.

Social Media, Grass Root Activism and the Arab Uprisings

As one Egyptian activist succinctly tweeted during the protests there, “we use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.

Today, more than ever, access to electronic media, the ability to spread ideas online and the cyber activism that this enables have emerged as essential elements to popular movements for greater freedom and, perhaps more surprisingly, even essential to 21st Century revolutions. This is the human rights revelation of the extraordinary cascade of revolutions which are springing up across the region.

In Tunisia, grassroots and independent digital activists such as Nawaat and Tunileaks and bloggers including Fatma Riahi, all of whom the regime had tirelessly sought to repress, played a key role in disseminating information during the uprisings. While the protests that eventually led to the toppling of Ben Ali took root in the rural and marginalised heartlands of Tunisia – far from the national and international spotlight – coverage of the subsequent police brutality, sniper shootings, and wounded protesters in hospitals first came via posts on Facebook and Twitter, and in footage on Flickr and YouTube.

Journalists & Cyber Activists: In the Line of Fire

Although the ripple effects of the uprisings differ from country to country, the ongoing persecution of journalists and cyber activists remains a serious cause for concern for ARTICLE 19. Against this backdrop of continued unrest, a disturbing pattern of violence, harassment and intimidation against journalists, cyber activists and bloggers covering widespread civil unrest is emerging.

There have been widespread allegations of human rights violations and disappearances during the prodemocracy protests, and many journalists, human rights defenders, bloggers and cyber activists have been detained in a number of countries, including in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Accusations of torture of protesters and journalists especially in Syria and Bahrain are beginning to emerge, as the scale of government clampdowns is emerging.

ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate release of all imprisoned peaceful protesters and political prisoners, including journalists and bloggers that are being detained in the context of pro-democracy protests. In addition, the authorities should immediately investigate and disclose the fate and whereabouts all those who are missing, and immediately inform their families.

Libya

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented more than 80 attacks on the press since political unrest erupted in Libya last month. They include four fatalities: Ali Hassan Al Jaber, a Qatari cameraman working for Al-Jazeera, Mohamed Al-Nabous, a Libyan journalist and blogger and more recently, two photojournalists were killed – Vanity Fair’s Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, a US photojournalist working for Getty Images.

According to reports, there has been 49 detentions, 11 assaults, two attacks on news facilities, the jamming of Al-Jazeera and Al-Hurra transmissions, at least four instances of obstruction, the expulsion of two international journalists, and the interruption of Internet services. At least 18 journalists and media workers, including at least six Libyan journalists and nine foreign journalists are missing or in government custody.

The disappearance of foreign media workers started taking place shortly after the Libyan authorities asked journalists from different international news outlets to leave the country within 24 hours. The government has also decided not to issue new visas for journalists who wish to cover the unfolding conflict.

Amongst the scores of disappearance cases, ARTICLE 19 received reports from Benghazi that three journalist Hassan Zeitouni, an Algerian journalist, Majdi Hilal, Egyptian cameraman and Mohammad Al-Shoueihdi, 26-year-old Libyan cameraman from Benghazi went missing in Ajdabiya in the late afternoon of April 6 2011 when they drove out of town towards the frontline around al-Breiqa. The first news of their detention came on April 8 2011 at midnight, when Libyan national TV showed Zeitouni criticising Benghazi and praising Tripoli.

According to reports, there are good reasons to believe that he did so under pressure. Since then, Zeitouni has been released, but the whereabouts of Hilal and Al-Shoueihdi have yet to be established. The families of the disappeared journalists have not heard from either of them.

ARTICLE 19 is calling on Libyan authorities to immediately provide information on the whereabouts of all journalists detained or missing in Libya.

Egypt

In post-revolution Egypt, the freedom of expression situation in the country took a major blow when the Egyptian military introduced a new requirement requesting that local print media obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces before publication. In a letter to editors dated March 22 2011, the director of the Morale Affairs Directorate of the Egyptian military, Maj. Gen. Ismail Mohamed Othman demanded that they do not “publish any (topics, news, statements, complaints, advertisements, pictures) pertaining to the Armed Forces or to commanders of the Armed Forces without first consulting with the Morale Affairs Directorate and the Directorate of Military Intelligence and Information Gathering, as they are the authorities specialized in reviewing such issues, [in an effort to] ensure the security and safety of the homeland.”

The first casualty of this law is Maikel Nabil, a blogger who campaigned against conscription and criticised the army's role during anti-government protests , and who was arrested on March 28 2011, after criticising the military in his blogs. According to reports, his blog posts and comments on social networking website Facebook were used as evidence against him in the trial.

ARTICLE 19 is calling on the Egyptian military authorities to remain true to the spirit of the revolution, to repeal the requirement requesting that local print media obtain approval for all mentions of the armed forces and to immediately release blogger Maike Nabil. ARTICLE 19 is concerned with the slow pace of reforms initiated, particularly with regard to the 30-year-old state of emergency which is still in place. ARTICLE 19 calls for all provisions of the Emergency Law to be repealed.

Syria

As the crackdown on human rights defenders, political activists, protesters and journalists reporting on anti-government protests continues across the country, cases of torture and ill treatment in detention are emerging. In Madaya, a suburb of Damascus, the capital, four seventeen-year-olds, were recently handcuffed and taken from their classrooms for spraying anti-government graffiti. This follows on from an incident last week which saw fifteen teenagers arrested for writing anti-government graffiti on walls in Daraa.

ARTICLE 19 has also received reports from family members of journalists who have been forcibly disappeared and whose whereabouts remain unknown, including the Alabiya.net reporter Mohamad Zaid Mastou. Zaid Mastou was arrested on April 6 2011 by Syrian authorities while he was in a cyber cafe in Damascus. According to eyewitness reports, Zaid Mastou was beaten by government authorities during his abduction before being taken off to an undisclosed location.

Zaid Mastou had returned to Syria few days before the outbreak of demonstrations in the last month and was covering the confrontations between security forces and protesters for Alabiya.net. His family have not received any news from him since his arrest. Despite numerous requests, government authorities have refused to provide his family with any information. The situation in the country remains critical: Over 350 individuals have allegedly been killed since the protests began, at least 120 since Friday alone. The security forces have shown no restraint, using live fire ammunition against unarmed protesters. The vast majority were killed for expressing their views in the context of peaceful protests

ARTICLE 19 is calling on the Syrian government to put an immediate stop to the heavy handed and violent crackdown on the protests and the protesters and resulting violations of key human rights, including the right to freedom of expression. In addition, ARTICLE 19 is also calling for an immediate independent investigation into the killings, use of torture and ill treatment, and other violations committed by government forces.

Bahrain

At least 30 people have been killed since anti-government protests by Bahrain's Shiite majority began in February. Hundreds have been detained in the crackdown on the rebellion. Last month, the Sunni-led state saw the worst sectarian clashes since the 1990s after mainly Shia protestors, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets. As part of a crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in the Gulf Arab Kingdom, a human rights lawyer and at least two doctors have been detained, and there have been at least 4 reported cases of deaths in custody.

In addition, Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Ashiri, a blogger who moderated and wrote for a website that covers news and other developments in his village of al-Dair, died under mysterious circumstances while in government custody on April 16 2011. He was charged with disseminating false news and inciting hatred, the BBC reported. Karim Fakhrawi, founder and board member of Al-Wasat, the country's premier independent daily, also died in custody under mysterious circumstances. The government has accused AlWasat of “deliberate news fabrication and falsification.” Since then, the government has announced it will file criminal charges against three of the paper's senior editors and has deported two other senior staffers.

Fakhrawi died on April 12 2011, a week after he was apparently taken into custody.

ARTICLE 19 is calling on the Bahraini government to put an immediate stop to the heavy handed and violent crackdown on the protests, and the violation of the right to freedom of expression, including the right of the press to report on the events. ARTICLE 19 calls on Bahraini authorities to conduct an independent and transparent investigation into the death in state custody of both Al-Ashiri and Fakhrawi, and into the killings, use of torture and ill treatment, and other violations committed by the Bahraini security forces.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

  • For more information please contact: Mona Samari, Senior Press Officer ARTICLE 19 + 44 207 324 2510 or email mona@article19.org
  • ARTICLE 19 is an independent human rights organisation that works around the world to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. It takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech.

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