News from the Committee to Protect Journalists, July 2015

CPJ calls Kenya on its “Broken Promises”

As U.S. President Barack Obama headed to Kenya and Ethiopia in July, CPJ launched a special report in Nairobi on the climate for press freedom in Kenya. The report, called “Broken promises: How Kenya is failing to uphold its commitment to a free press,” found that a combination of legal and physical harassment, as well as concentration in media ownership, is making it increasingly difficult for journalists to work freely in Kenya.

CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, and CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine met with Information and Communication Cabinet Secretary Dr. Fred Matiangi, who said President Uhuru Kenyatta was determined to create a culture and an environment that respected press freedom. The cabinet secretary pledged to ensure investigations into a brutal attack against two journalists in April and to further discuss the country’s criminal defamation law.

But, as Simon observed at the press conference, if a commitment to delivering justice is to have meaning, it must bear results.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney C. Radsch participated in a White House consultation in advance of the Nairobi trip where she emphasized the link between press freedom, democracy, and development and urged President Obama to address the deteriorating climate for the free press in Kenya.

The issue of press freedom was indeed on President Obama’s agenda. In remarks he made in Ethiopia in late July, he addressed the relationship between a free press and a successful democracy, saying, “We all know what the ingredients of real democracy are. They include free and fair elections, but also freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly. These rights are universal.”

Fourteen journalists released…

…six in Ethiopia

On July 8, just before President Obama visited Ethiopia, authorities released five journalists from prison. Two bloggers affiliated with the independent collective Zone 9, Mahlet Fantahun and Zelalem Kibret, were freed, along with three other journalists–editor Asmamaw Hailegiorgis, and freelancers Edom Kassaye and Tesfalem Waldyes. All were arrested on April 25 and 26, 2014, and charged with incitement and terrorism. Four other Zone 9 bloggers–Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Befekadu Hailu, and Natnail Feleke–remain in prison.

The next day, the Ethiopian government freed Reeyot Alemu from prison. Reeyot, a critical columnist who has been jailed since June 2011 on terrorism charges, was featured in CPJ’s Press Uncuffed: Free the Press campaign. Of the 11 journalists featured in Press Uncuffed, four of them–Bheki Makhubu, Ammar Abdulrasool, Pedro Canché, and Reeyot Alemu–are now free.

Ethiopia has been a priority for CPJ since the violent crackdown on protests and the media that followed the 2005 contested elections. Our Journalist Assistance Program has helped scores of Ethiopian journalists in recent years. CPJ has also conducted two board missions to Addis Ababa, most recently in June 2012 with CPJ Board Member Charlayne Hunter-Gault and CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney, in which they raised Reeyot’s case with senior leaders.

…five in Myanmar

Five journalists who were jailed on anti-state charges were released on July 30 in a mass amnesty granted by the president, according to news reports.

Kyaw Zaw Hein, a reporter for the now-defunct newspaper Bi Mon Te Nay; the paper’s editors, Win Tin and Aung Thant; and its publishers, Yin Min Tun and Kyaw Min Khaing were arrested on July 8, 2014, and sentenced to two years in prison in October on charges of defamation under Article 505(b) of the penal code, an anti-state provision. It was not immediately clear if any conditions were attached to the journalists’ release.

The convictions were in connection with a front-page story that ran in Bi Mon Te Nay that repeated an activist group’s false claim that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic group leaders had formed an interim government to replace President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration.

… two in Syria

Also released in July were Hussein Ghrer and Hani al-Zitani, both members of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, who have been imprisoned since February 2012. Human rights groups have said the men were tortured in custody by Air Force intelligence agents.

Ghrer was released on July 17, and al-Zitani was freed the next day, according to reports. An undetermined number of journalists have been detained by authorities since mass unrest erupted across Syria; many of them remain in custody.

A few days before his disappearance, Ghrer wrote on his blog, “Silence doesn’t serve us after today. We don’t want a country where we get imprisoned for uttering a word. We want a country that embraces and welcomes words.”

… one in Moldova

Authorities in the Transdniester region of Moldova freed Sergei Ilchenko, a freelance journalist, from prison on July 18, according to news reports.

The journalist was detained on March 18 and accused of making public calls to extremism in connection with an article that was published on a local online forum that called on residents to pick up arms and start a revolution against the pro-Russia Transdniester authorities, reports said. Three days later, a court ordered the journalist to be jailed for two months pending an investigation. He was charged with extremism.

The status of the charges against Ilchenko were not clear at the time of his release.

Demanding justice for Jason Rezaian

In the lead-up to the one-year anniversary of the July 22 imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, CPJ’s Board of Directors sent a letter to the head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, calling for the journalist’s release.

Rezaian, who is featured in CPJ’s Press Uncuffed campaign, has been held since July 2014. The New York Times reported in April 2015 that Rezaian had been formally charged with four crimes, including espionage.

“Iran has never held an international journalist for as long as Jason Rezaian has been held,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The delay in charging him combined with the lack of evidence of any wrongdoing speaks to the political nature of his detention. The court should drop all charges against him and release him immediately.”

Add your voice to the call for Rezaian’s release.

Testifying for press freedom

Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior Americas program coordinator, testified in a July 29 congressional hearing on press freedom in the Americas about how violence and censorship are weakening Latin American democracies.

In the hearing, called “Threats to Press Freedom in the Americas,” Lauría said that deadly violence against the press in the Americas has caused censorship to reach one of its highest points in recent decades. In Brazil, for example, three journalists have already been killed this year, the same number that were killed in Brazil in all of 2014, according to CPJ research. Most of the crimes go unsolved, and impunity exacerbates the risks for journalists covering sensitive issues, Lauría said.

“Despite the strong tradition of independent, investigative, and critical media in many countries of the region, journalists are increasingly vulnerable to both violence and government harassment,” Lauría said. “Scores of journalists have been killed and disappeared. Media outlets have been bombed and forced into censorship. The consequences are devastating: many regional democracies have deteriorated due to political instability and weakened institutions.”

Click here for more about the event and here for Lauría’s full testimony.

CPJ helps a press freedom organization stay online

Earlier this month, the website of the Quito-based freedom of expression organization Fundamedios was taken offline after a distributed denial-of-service attack. DDoS attacks are a method of censoring speech by overloading a website with spoof traffic, thus rendering content unavailable to intended users. It is just one of the many digital risks journalists and news organizations face.

After CPJ learned of the attack, we connected Fundamedios with the technology company Cloudflare, which provides free DDoS attack protection for at-risk public interest websites through its Project Galileo, of which CPJ is a co-founding partner. Fundamedios was back online within days.

“Journalists have to be able to share information safely and reliably in order to do their jobs,” said CPJ Technology Program Coordinator Geoffrey King. “DDoS attacks threaten organizations large and small by suppressing information even after it has been published. It’s critical to be prepared for potential attacks at any stage in the reporting process. Thanks to Project Galileo, journalists and small- to medium-size public interest organizations can enjoy world-class protections for free.”

In our own words

In his July 20 column for the Columbia Journalism Review, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon discussed the importance of encryption for journalists. Simon argued that journalists are not able to do their job without a degree of secrecy and “without a secure Web they have no such assurance.” This, he said, “is a cause that allows journalists to perform their core function, and media organizations should get behind it.”

In a joint report for Latin America Goes Global on July 2, CPJ Senior Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauria and CPJ Americas Research Associate Sara Rafsky wrote about the deteriorating climate for press freedom in Brazil. At least 14 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work since President Dilma Rousseff came to power in January 2011, three of them in 2015, CPJ research shows.

In a story for Haaretz on July 5, CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney discussed why Israel must protect journalists in the next Gaza conflict. “One year and numerous inquiries later, we still don’t know the whole truth behind the staggering death toll among journalists and media workers during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza,” he wrote.

Where we’ve been

July 15-17, 2015: CPJ Europe and Central Asia Research Associate Muzaffar Suleymanov briefed the U.S. Department of State about his June 2015 fact-finding mission to Ukraine, where he reported on press freedom abuses in Russia-annexed Crimea as well as the media climate in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine.

July 16, 2015: CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch addressed free speech online on a panel at the The Internet Governance Forum USA (IGF-USA) called “Truth and Trolls: Dealing with Toxic Speech while Protecting Free Speech Online.”

July 29-30: CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch, CPJ Technology Program Coordinator Geoffrey King, and CPJ Staff Technologist Tom Lowenthal met with top officials at the White House and the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss encryption policy and the need to keep the Internet secure for journalists as well as their sources.