One Month in an Arab Spring

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Wave of labor protests in Khuzestan.

Wave of labor protests in Khuzestan.

Report of the Freedom of the Press Committee for May 2011

Acknowledging that there was no board report in April owing to the annual dinner, we’ll confine ourselves just to the month of May, which has already been a busy one and which has, perhaps predictably, focused largely on the Middle East and northern Africa.

This has, after all, been the “Arab spring,” when journalists covering the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East face daunting challenges and physical danger.  By the count of the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 450 reporters, photographers and broadcasters had been attacked by authorities or by mobs by the 1st of May.  Dozens had been arrested—many of them beaten or otherwise mistreated while detained—and 12 killed.  In Libya specifically, journalists have had to work under fire in combat situations.

To King Hamada ibn Isa al-Khalifahthat of Bahrain we delivered a laundry list of abuses that happened this spring alone.  The length shocked even the committee.  “Your government,” we told the king bluntly, “seems to be using every means possible to enforce a news blackout about events in Bahrain, even though electronic media make it virtually impossible to conceal what is happening anywhere in the world nowadays.”  There has so far been no reaction at all from Bahrain.

To Egypt’s acting prime minister, Essam Sharaf, we protested the recent three-year jail sentence imposed by a military court on the blogger and conscientious objector Maikel Nabil Sanad.  Sanat was arrested March 28, tried April 7 and sentenced April 10—without his defense or supporters present—for having accused the armed forces of taking part in the arrests and the torture of demonstrators in the country’s revolution this year.  As we told Mr. Sharaf, the formal charges—insulting the military, publishing false information and disturbing public security—are unacceptably vague.  More to the point, they are plainly intended to infringe on Sanad's right to seek and report information and express his opinions without retaliation or harassment.

To King Abdullah II of Jordan we addressed ourselves more in sadness than in condemnation.  Amid the turmoil of the Middle East, we told the king, Jordan has stood as a place for rational discussion of critical issues.  But there is evidence that this is being undermined by forces within the government intent on intimidating and threatening the press at a time when free expression is more necessary than ever.  We referred specifically to the February 6 hacking attack on Ammon News, a popular website that published a statement from 36 tribal leaders calling for reforms in the country.  We also noted that some 52 Jordanian journalists recently condemned the attacks on independent web sites and have privately said they feel personally threatened by Jordanian state security forces.

In Iraq, where so much blood has been shed in the name of liberty, we told Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that the Overseas Press Club of America adds its voice to the many protests against the continuing abuse and harassment of journalists attempting to cover the news there.  In April alone, three journalists were shot to death, one was abducted while serving a prison term, and literally dozens have been assaulted, beaten and detained for varying periods.  Those killed include: Taha Al-Alawi, the head of the satellite television station, Al-Masar TV, killed in his car by gunmen; Asieh Rakhshani, a filmmaker, and Saba Haftbaradaran, a journalist working for the satellite TV station, Iranntv.com.  Bothwere shot while trying to cover demonstrations at Camp Ashraf, a camp for refugee Iranians.  The abducted journalist, Saad Al-Awsi, the editor of the weekly, Al-Shahid Al-Mustaqil, was kidnapped by gunmen on 25 March from Rusafa prison, where he was serving a one-year sentence on charges of defamation and publishing classified information after writing articles criticizing the political situation and Your Excellency in particular.  The pattern of deliberate interference with press freedom is unacceptable and a violation of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Worse, its persistence and extent have a numbing effect on the world at large.

Finally, we wrote—again—to President Mahmud Ahmedinejad to protest the government's ban on coverage of the bloody repression of demonstrations in the province of Khuzestan, specifically the mistreatment of bloggers and media contributors who attempted to tell that story.  Thedemonstrations were called in the provincial capital of Ahvaz on April 15 to mark the sixth anniversary of violent clashes between security forces and members of the Arab community, who are the majority in the province.  Continuing protests the next day were crushed by Revolutionary Guards.  Both national and international media were prevented from covering these events.

The response to FOP protests, as the board knows, is typically silence.  The committee is sustained by evidence of change, from time to time.

On May 3rd, the committee told President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that it was “deeply gratified” by the conviction of the killers of Anastasia Baburova, a young journalist with Novaya Gazeta who was murdered last year as she interviewedthe prominent human-rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov.  Our hope now, as we told Putin and Medvedev, is that Aleksandr Bastrykin, chairman of the Investigative Committee that won the conviction, will be encouraged in his mission to pursue 18 other cases of murdered journalists in recent years.  We remain especially concerned about the killings of Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, Paul Klebnikov and Magomed Yevloyev.

Even that would only be a beginning.  By the conservative count of the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 50 journalists have been killed with impunity in Russia since 1992.

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