The smears began the day Christian Ulate began representing jailed Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora: tweets accusing the lawyer of being a leftist or questioning his legal credentials. He began to fear he was being surveilled.
Ulate had taken over the case in August 2022 from two other lawyers, Romeo Montoya García and Mario Castañeda, after the prosecutor in Zamora’s case announced that they were under investigation. After less than three months of representing Zamora, Ulate left Guatemala for a trip to Honduras. The attacks, he said, stopped abruptly.
Looking back, Ulate believes the harassment was part of a clear pattern. Other lawyers who would go on to represent Zamora — there were 10 in total by the time of the journalist’s June conviction on money laundering charges widely considered to be retaliation for his work — were harassed, investigated, or even jailed.
“We knew that the system was against us, and that everything we, the legal team, did around the case was being closely scrutinized,” Ulate told CPJ.
Zamora’s experience retaining legal counsel, while extreme, is hardly unique. CPJ has identified lawyers of journalists under threat in Iran, China, Belarus, Turkey, and Egypt, countries that are among the world’s worst jailers of journalists. To be sure, lawyers are not just targeted for representing journalists. “Globally lawyers are increasingly criminalized or disciplined for taking on sensitive cases or speaking publicly on rule of law, human rights, and good governance issues,” said Ginna Anderson, the associate director of the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, which monitors global conditions for legal professionals.
But lawyers and human rights advocates told CPJ that when a lawyer is harassed for representing a journalist, the threats can have chilling effects on the free flow of information. Inevitably, journalists unable to defend themselves against retaliatory charges are more likely to be jailed – leaving citizens less likely to be informed of matters of public interest.
A barometer of civil liberties
Attacks on the legal profession – like attacks on journalists – can be a barometer of civil liberties in a country, legal experts told CPJ. Hong Kong, once viewed as a safe harbor for independent journalists, is one such example. The territory has seen multiple members of the press prosecuted under Beijing’s 2020 national security law, including media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, who faces life imprisonment. Lai, a British citizen, is represented by both U.K. and Hong Kong legal teams, which work independently of each other, and both have faced pressure.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher, the head of the U.K. team, has spoken openly on X, formerly Twitter, about attacks on Lai’s U.K.-based lawyers, from smears in the Chinese state press to formal statements by Hong Kong authorities. Gallagher has faced death threats, attempts to access her bank and email accounts, and efforts to impersonate her online. “That stuff is quite draining and attritional and designed to eat into your time. They want to make it too much hassle to continue the case,” Gallagher told the Irish Times.
The Hong Kong legal team representing Lai — who has been convicted of fraud and is on trial for foreign collusion — has also appeared to have come under pressure from authorities. After Lai’s U.K. lawyers angered Beijing by discussing Lai’s case with a British minister, the Hong Kong legal team issued a statement distancing itself from the U.K. lawyers.
Any appearance of working with foreigners could compromise not only Lai’s case but also the standing of his lawyers, said Doreen Weisenhaus, a media law expert at Northwestern University who previously taught at the University of Hong Kong.
“They have to appreciate the potential harm that they could face moving forward — that they could become targeted — as they try to vigorously represent Jimmy Lai,” she told CPJ.
CPJ reached out to Robertsons, the Hong Kong legal firm representing Lai, via the firm’s online portal and did not receive a reply.
Moves to isolate and intimidate lawyers working on Lai’s case are part of a larger crackdown over the last decade, including China’s 2015 roundup of 300 lawyers and civil society members. “In many ways, China institutionalized wholesale campaigns of going after journalists, activists, and now lawyers,” said Weisenhaus.
Defending journalists who cover protests
In Iran – another country where the judiciary operates largely at the government’s behest – lawyers representing journalists have been targeted in the wake of the 2022 nationwide protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in morality police custody. Those protests saw the arrests of thousands of demonstrators and dozens of journalists, including Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, who helped break the story of Amini’s hospitalization. The two reporters are accused of spying for the United States; the two remain in custody while awaiting the verdict in their closed-door trials.
Hamedi and Mohammadi’s lawyer, Mohammed Ali Kamfiroozi, who also represented human rights defenders, received warnings to dissuade him from continuing his work: phone calls from unlisted numbers, threats in the mail, ominous messages to his family, and an official letter from authorities telling him to stop his work, according to CPJ’s sources inside the country. Nevertheless, Kamfiroozi continued his work, publishing regular updates about his clients’ cases on X until he, too, was arrested on December 15, 2022 while inquiring at a courthouse about a client.
Kamfiroozi’s last post on X before his arrest lamented the state of Iran’s judiciary: “This level of disregard for explicit and obvious legal standards is regrettable.”
Kamfiroozi was released from Fashafouyeh prison after 25 days in detention and has not returned to his work as a lawyer, according to CPJ’s sources inside the country. A new legal team has since taken over the journalists’ cases. Since then, the crackdown on the legal profession has continued, with lawyers being summoned by the judiciary to sign a form stating they will not publicly release information about clients facing national security charges – a common accusation facing journalists. Lawyers who fail to sign can be disbarred and arrested at the discretion of local judges.
Belarusian lawyers have also been muzzled in the wake of nationwide protests. After widespread demonstrations following the disputed August 2020 presidential election — during which dozens of journalists were arrested — Belarusian lawyers were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements preventing them from speaking publicly about many criminal cases. At least 56 lawyers representing human rights defenders or opposition leaders were disbarred or had their licenses revoked in the two years after the protests, and some were jailed, according to the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Initiative, the American Bar Association, and the group Lawyers for Lawyers.
Belarusian lawyer Siarhej Zikratski, whose clients included the now-shuttered independent news outlet Tut.by, imprisoned Belsat TV journalist Katsiaryna Andreyeva, and program director of Press Club Belarus Alla Sharko, was required to undergo a recertification exam which ultimately resulted in authorities revoking his license. He fled the country in May 2021 after he was disbarred and amid ongoing pressure from the government on his colleagues.
In the months after he left, Tut.by was banned in Belarus and Andreyeva, who was nearing the end of a two-year imprisonment, was sentenced to another eight years on retaliatory charges. (Sharko was released in August 2021 after serving eight months.)
“They took away my beloved profession and my business,” Zikratski wrote in a Facebook post announcing his emigration to Vilnius, Lithuania. “I will continue to do everything I can to change the situation in Belarus. Unfortunately, I cannot do that from Minsk.”
Lawyers in exile can lose their livelihoods
While exile is not an uncommon choice to escape state harassment, it comes at a cost: lawyers are unable to continue their work in their home countries.
“The bulk of the harassment against media and human rights lawyers, including criminal defense lawyers who represent journalists and other human rights defenders [occurs] in-country,” said Anderson of the ABA. “Increasingly this is forcing lawyers into exile where they face enormous challenges continuing to practice or participate in media rights advocacy.”
This was the case for Ethiopian human rights lawyer Tadele Gebremedhin, who faced intense harassment from local authorities after he began defending reporters covering the country’s civil conflict in the Tigray region that began in November 2020.
Gebremedhin represented freelance journalists Amir Aman Kiyaro and Thomas Engida, Ethio Forum journalists Abebe Bayu and Yayesew Shimelis, Awramba Times managing editor Dawit Kebede, and at least a dozen others, including the staff of the independent now-defunct broadcaster Awlo Media Center, whose charges are related to their reporting on the Tigray region.
Gebremedhin told CPJ that the harassment started in May 2021 with thinly veiled threats from government officials and anonymous calls telling him not to represent journalists because members of the media are terrorists. He strongly suspected that he was under physical and digital surveillance, and his bank account was blocked. In November 2021, he was detained by authorities and held for 66 days without charge before being released.
“That was my payment for working with the journalists,” Gebremedhin said.
He fled to the United States shortly after his release from police custody, and now works as a researcher at the University of Minnesota Law School Human Rights Center. Just a few of the dozens of reporters he defended are still working in journalism. While they are not behind bars, the damage done to civil society remains, Gebremedhin said.
Lawyers arrested alongside journalists
Sometimes, lawyers are arrested alongside the journalists they represent. In the runup to Turkey’s May 2023 presidential elections, Turkish lawyer Resul Temur was taken into government custody in Diyarbakır province for his alleged ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkish authorities consider a terrorist organization, along with several Kurdish journalists who were also his clients.
Authorities took his work phone, computer, and all of his electronic devices, including his 9-year old daughter’s tablet, and all of the paper case files he had in his office, Temur told CPJ. He was released pending investigation, and fears he’ll soon be charged.
“Lawyers like me who are not deterred by judicial harassment will continue to be the targets of Turkish authorities,” he said.
In Egypt, a country where numerous human rights defenders have been locked up, Mohamed el-Baker, the lawyer of prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abdelfattah, was arrested as he accompanied Abdelfattah to police questioning in September 2019. Authorities charged both with spreading false news and supporting a banned group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
After serving nearly four years of his sentence and amid growing international pressure, el-Baker was granted a presidential pardon in July. However, it remains unclear if the lawyer will be allowed to return to work. Many of his clients, Abdelfattah among them, remain in prison.
Retaliation leads to censorship
The damage, from Egypt to Turkey to Guatemala and beyond, is great. When lawyers for reporters fear retaliation as much as the journalists do, it creates an environment of censorship that harms citizens’ ability to stay informed about what is happening in their countries.
“When journalists can’t have access to lawyers, they’re kind of left on their own,” Weisenhaus told CPJ. “I think we’ll still see courageous journalists who will continue to write about what they perceive as the wrongs in their country and their society. But those numbers could dwindle if they’re constantly being prosecuted and convicted.”
Additional research contributed by Dánae Vílchez, Özgür Öğret, and CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program staff.
Editor’s note: Ginna Anderson’s title has been updated in the fifth paragraph.