CPJ Insider, November: Face-to-face with Pakistani border control and a northern Syria crisis

On a strange ‘stop list,’ CPJ staffer is refused entry to Pakistan

Cartoon by Afraid Canvas.
Cartoon by Afraid Canvas.

The man at the Lahore airport customs point looked puzzled. Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, was holding a U.S. passport with a valid, newly issued visa to enter Pakistan. But the computer showed he was on a “stop list” from the Interior Ministry.

It was highly unusual. Local officers told Butler he was added to the list after receiving his visa. Butler, who was traveling to address an annual human rights conference, had never had trouble entering Pakistan before, though he has criticized its press freedom record often. “This seemed designed to draw attention,” he says. The Foreign Ministry could grant a visa, but the Interior Ministry could take it away.

The officers tried calling higher-ups, but it was the middle of the night and they learned no further information. Soon, Butler was back on the same plane he’d arrived on and was returning to Doha, where he was put on a flight to the United States. The flight crew held his passport and boarding pass.

Butler quickly made contact with CPJ colleagues, and on his return flight helped coordinate a response. The moment he was safely in the U.S. and in possession of his passport, CPJ was ready. We issued a public statement, contacted the Pakistani embassy to demand answers, and reached out for support from the U.S. government. “The staff came together very well as a team to support what I was trying to do,” Butler says. “That was a very good feeling.”

Media coverage of the snub was enormous, and there was an outpouring of solidarity on social media from CPJ board members, peers, colleagues, and friends. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells expressed concern, as did Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Conference organizers condemned the Pakistani authorities for barring Butler’s attendance, but he participated anyway, delivering his remarks via Skype.

In a Washington Post op-ed, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon—citing growing safety concerns for traveling CPJ staff—asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to make clear to Pakistani authorities that Butler’s treatment was unacceptable and that support for press freedom and the rights of journalists is an essential U.S. value.

Throughout, Pakistani authorities have remained silent.

CPJ Emergencies steps up as US pulls out of Syria

Smoke is seen billowing from the sites of airstrikes in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, on October 13, 2019. Two Syrian Kurdish journalists were killed in the attacks. (AP/Emrah Gurel)
Smoke is seen billowing from the sites of airstrikes in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, on October 13, 2019. Two Syrian Kurdish journalists were killed in the attacks. (AP/Emrah Gurel)

When President Trump made the surprise announcement that the U.S. would pull out of Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria and make way for Turkish troops, we knew many journalists were in imminent danger.

María Salazar Ferro, CPJ’s Emergencies director, immediately gathered our cross-organization Emergencies Response Team to prepare for whatever might come. A large number of journalists were working in this once-safe area, but now they faced a perilous situation. “It’s a complicated conflict scenario where a lot of players are involved. On the ground are the Turks, Kurds, Assad forces, Russian forces, Islamic State fighters, and other militias,” Salazar Ferro says. Journalists risk severe injury, arrest, kidnapping, and worse.

The team believed that Kurdish journalists, fearing arrest, would eventually try to flee to Iraqi Kurdistan. They had already identified about 200 Kurdish media workers through partners, and began organizing a joint fund to help cover evacuation costs.

Another major concern was international freelance journalists, who don’t have the kind of security, support, and financial resources that staff journalists do. Freelancers have been going in and out of the area daily, and the Emergencies Response Team has been in constant communication with various teams preparing to enter Syria. In addition to risk of injury, they could be arrested if stopped by the arriving forces of the Syrian government. CPJ reactivated a 2017 partner network to share changing tactical safety information with these journalists and published a safety note on war reporting in English, Arabic, and Kurdish.

In the face of fast-moving crises, CPJ Emergencies creates structures that allow it to respond quickly to events. Our readiness was tested on Sunday, October 13, when a civilian convoy was decimated by a Turkish airstrike. Minutes after the strike, the team’s phones began to buzz about journalists who were riding with the convoy. Within an hour, CPJ’s Middle East representative, Ignacio Miguel Delgado Culebras, reached two French TV crews and a freelancer reporting for CNN who were on the scene. Sadly, two Kurdish journalists, Saad Ahmed and Mohammed Hussein Rasho, were killed in the blast.

Soon, the team was fielding queries from multiple freelancers about the security situation. We became an unofficial information-sharing center, able to give freelancers the same kind of information that well-equipped international crews were receiving, and allowing them to make educated decisions about how to safely cover this changing story.

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Marking 2 years since the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia

CPJ's EU representative, Tom Gibson, stands with representatives of the European Commission, European Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, European Parliament, and Transparency International at a vigil in Brussels for slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. (Photo courtesy of the office of European Parliament Member Roberta Metsola.)
CPJ’s EU representative, Tom Gibson, stands with representatives of the European Commission, European Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, European Parliament, and Transparency International at a vigil in Brussels for slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. (Photo courtesy of the office of European Parliament Member Roberta Metsola.)

October 16 marked two years since Malta’s best-known investigative journalist and anti-corruption campaigner, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was assassinated in a car bombing. Candlelight vigils were held in London, Malta, Brussels, and elsewhere to honor her memory and to call for justice. Although three men have been charged with her murder, a trial date has not yet been set and those who ordered her killing remain at large.

However, we have new hope now that the Maltese government has finally announced a public inquiry. “The fact that the government said, ‘Okay, we’re going to start it,’ I think is a victory and shows how effective advocacy can be,” said Caruana Galizia’s son Matthew in a moving video interview with CPJ. “If we can show that people are prepared to fight back, then I think that makes it a little bit harder to murder a journalist.” The U.S. embassy has offered to help with a probe.

Impact Tracker

In June 2018, Jarrod Ramos entered the Capitol Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, and gunned down five people in what was the deadliest single attack on the media in recent U.S. history. The dead included journalists Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, and Wendi Winters. Rebecca Smith, a sales assistant, was also killed. Police arrested Ramos, who had been enraged at the newspaper for reporting on his criminal prosecution for stalking a former high school classmate. He had made repeated threats against the paper. CPJ decried the attack, demanded justice, and called for a public defense of the vital role journalists play in keeping the public informed. On October 28, a week before trial proceedings were set to begin, Ramos pleaded guilty on all counts, as well as not criminally responsible, the equivalent of an insanity plea.

Over the last year, CPJ has reported on powerful mobile surveillance software called Pegasus sold by the NSO Group that many governments have abused to spy on journalists and critics. We reported that Pegasus may have helped the Saudis surveil Jamal Khashoggi, who was later murdered by officials in their consulate in Istanbul, and how Mexico and Morocco used malicious mobile links to target journalists for infection. To date, NSO has responded to the abuse claims with spin, so CPJ has advocated for export controls and other measures that might curb the sale of its products in the international market. There was a major break when WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against NSO on October 29, claiming users of its messaging app became infected with NSO malware after receiving video calls they did not even have to answer. The illegal attack, WhatsApp said, targeted at least 100 human-rights defenders, journalists, and other people around the world.

Twelve years ago, independent journalist Alisher Saipov was shot dead at close range in a street in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, bordering Uzbekistan, by an unknown gunman using a silencer. Saipov, 26, was the founder of the Uzbek-language newspaper Siyosat, and covered Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for U.S.-funded broadcasters Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, and for the Central Asia news website Ferghana. He had interviewed members of banned Islamic groups and covered mass killings by Uzbek troops. In 2010, Osh authorities convicted a man of the murder, but released him in 2012 after proof of an alibi emerged. CPJ has long advocated for justice in the case, publicly and in meetings with Kyrgyz officials, and offered support to the family. In August, Kyrgyz authorities quietly reopened the investigation into Saipov’s assassination, which CPJ reported in October and called for an open and thorough reinvestigation. “We long for official information revealing who or what was the reason for my brother’s assassination,” Shohrukh Sapiov told RFE/RL.

Moroccan security forces in August arrested Hajar Raissouni and charged her with sex outside of marriage and having an illegal abortion that she said she never had. A reporter for independent news website Akhbar al-Youm, she was arrested as she left her doctor’s office with her fiancé in Rabat after being treated for internal bleeding. Her fiancé, doctor, and two medical staffers were also arrested. Raissouni sent a letter from prison saying that authorities interrogated her about topics including her political writing and her colleagues, according to reporting by Akhbar al-Youm. Raissouni’s arrest sparked an international outcry; CPJ included her in October’s One Free Press list of “Most Urgent” cases, which are given a spotlight by a large coalition of media partners. On October 17, King Mohammed VI granted pardons to Raissouni, her fiancé, and her medical team, which “put right an unjust process,” Raissouni told AFP.

Iranian authorities have arrested multiple labor and economics reporters since the beginning of the year. CPJ called for the release of Amirhossein Mohammadifard and Sanaz Allahyari, a married couple who started Gam, a news channel on the Telegram app that covers labor issues, and their colleagues Amir Amirgholi and Asal Mohammadi, who were all arrested in January. We also covered the May detentions of Kayvan Samimi, editor-in-chief of Iran-e-Farda magazine, and Marzieh Amiri, economics reporter at Tehran-based newspaper Shargh Daily. They were arrested while covering a May Day demonstration. “Jailing journalists who cover protests will not erase the underlying issues that drove the protesters onto the streets,” CPJ’s Sherif Mansour said. In August, we strongly condemned a court’s cruel sentence for Amiri–10 and a half years in prison and 148 lashes–and we regularly featured her in the monthly One Free Press list of “Most Urgent” cases. Domestic and international pressure continued to mount, and Mohammadifard and Allahyari went on hunger strike for more than 60 days. On October 26, Iran released Mohammadifard, Allahyari, Amiri, and Amirgholi on bail until their appeals are heard. The first three are pictured in a tweet posted after their release from Evin prison. Mohammadi was released on bail on Nov. 3.

Early on October 17, unidentified armed, uniformed men raided the Baghdad home of Iraqi blogger Shojaa Fares al-Khafaji, detained him, and seized cell phones, computers, and surveillance camera footage, all within sight of Iraqi security forces, according to his blog, Clean Brotherhood. Al-Khafaji, among other prominent journalists, had been accused in an online smear campaign of working to normalize relations with Israel. CPJ called on Iraqi authorities to disclose whether they were holding al-Khafaji and, if not, to immediately open an investigation. The next day, al-Khafaji was released. He told CPJ that he was held by a militia. In a Facebook post, Iraqi researcher Hisham al-Hashimi thanked everyone who spoke out, including Iraq’s president, interior minister, and national security advisor.

On October 23, security officers raided the offices of Algerian daily Le Provincial and arrested its editor-in-chief, Bendjama Mustapha. CPJ demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Mustapha and multiple other journalists arrested after covering nation-wide protests demanding reform. The next day, Mustapha was released, Le Provincial said in a Facebook post.

Nigerian authorities in May again arrested Jones Abiri, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Weekly Source newspaper. CPJ urged authorities to release him immediately and drop the cybercrime, anti-sabotage, and terrorism charges against him. We also featured him on the One Free Press list of “Most Urgent” cases. Abiri was previously imprisoned on similar allegations in July 2016, and was released in August 2018 following a major international campaign to free him. In the current case, prosecutors set difficult bail terms and sought to call secret witnesses, actions CPJ protested. Nigerian authorities later modified the bail terms, and on October 25, Abiri was released. He is required to appear in court in December.

Authorities in Ethiopia arrested journalist Mesganaw Getachew on August 9 after he recorded an interview outside a court in Addis Ababa. In an attempt to avoid notice while reporting on the case of a group charged with breaking Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law, Getachew, a reporter for the privately owned Ethiopis weekly, used a camera installed in his eyeglasses. CPJ demanded his unconditional release. He was freed on October 29 along with journalist and activist Elias Gebru.

Must Reads

Amid a broad crackdown, the Indian government has enlisted Twitter to “withhold” accounts that share news and information out of Jammu and Kashmir from readers in India, CPJ’s Avi Asher-Schapiro and Ahmed Zidan report. An opaque legal process “is being misused to target journalists, and kill free expression that’s supposed to be guaranteed in the Indian constitution,” a digital rights advocate says.

The Nigerian military is targeting journalists’ phones and computers to conduct “forensic searches” for information about their sources, CPJ’s Jonathan Rozen reports. At least two companies that produce digital forensics tools—Israel-based Cellebrite and U.S.-based AccessData—are operating in Nigeria, where security forces regularly arrest and interrogate journalists, CPJ found. One journalist told CPJ that officers who raided his newspaper in January asked for his phone so they could “scan it.” “They said [they] just want to see the contents and then maybe the numbers of the people I talk to—I said no,” the journalist said.

CPJ in the news

Trump’s rhetoric towards the press has real-world implications,” WNYC’s “The Takeaway”

Murdered journalists more than a Trump meme,” Albuquerque Journal

How Arizona State University’s student-run newspaper broke a major Donald Trump–Ukraine story,” Teen Vogue

Twitter removes almost 1 million tweets in Kashmir, accused of bowing to Indian censorship,” Newsweek

Pakistan moves to install nationwide ‘web monitoring system,’Coda Story

More than 50 days into the Kashmir lockdown: Latest updates,” Brown Girl Magazine

Journalist says she was blinded in one eye by police rubber bullet,” Asia Times

Cambodian reporters’ legal limbo traumatizes their families,” Voice of America

Nigerian military using surveillance technology to spy on Nigerians – CPJ,” Premium Times

The challenges of navigating Ethiopia’s new media landscape,” Al Jazeera

Deadly risks for journalists in Mexico,” Public Radio International’s “The World”

Killing the Messengers: Rising violence against journalists and indigenous leaders defending the Amazon,” CounterPunch

In Nicaragua, attacks on journalists are part of Ortega’s survival strategy,” World Politics Review

Journalist shot and killed in Haiti, inciting more anti-government protests,” New York Daily News

Rights groups call on Egypt authorities to free journalist,” The Associated Press

Iraqi military admits to ‘excessive force’ in crackdown against protesters,” The Washington Post

Panel discusses James Foley, the safety of American hostages,” The Michigan Daily

Doxxed journalist reveals perils of working in Hungary’s hostile media environment,” First Draft

Uzbekistan urged to stop using ‘totalitarian’ practices after blogger sent to psychiatric clinic,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty