Thursday, June 2, 2011

Persecution Of Journalists At Home And Abroad

THE prime minister’s hitherto inconspicuous and unobtrusive defence adviser, Tarique Ahmed Siddique, held a mind-boggling press conference recently. It was part of a concerted—some would call it concocted—high-level effort to denounce Limon Hossain and his father, with seemingly trumped up charges about the family’s criminal link. There also was a strong attempt to defend the Rapid Action Battalion. RAB members, in a raid to apprehend a top-notch gangster had shot Limon, who lost his left leg and has thus been disabled. The security/defence adviser, a retired major general of the army, described the damaging media reports as a conspiracy against RAB. He claimed that ‘the writers have involvement with militancy.’ He also stated that a newspaper editor was involved with the August 21 grenade attack, ‘We have enough evidence to bring the editor to justice… But we are not doing so as the prime minister does not believe in harassing journalists’ (The Daily Star, May 21). He, however, neither corroborated his assertions nor did he divulge any source or evidence. The ubiquitous home minister later declared that Tarique Siddique’s remarks represented the official government position. ‘The comment of the adviser should be treated with respect and taken as a government statement,’ she said ( bdnews24. com, May 22). Even though her remark was mainly about his comments about Limon’s criminal complicity, her categorical assertion that he represented the government stance would give credence and official seal of approval to his diatribe against the journalists and the media. Limon’s left leg unfortunately was amputated due to alleged cruel and callous actions of elements of the elite security force. Since then the government big shots seem to be suffering from the chronic foot in the mouth disease in a full throttle, insensitive yet futile attempt to misrepresent the facts, demonise the victim and defend an indefensible act. Without delving deep into the tragic and poignant Limon issue, the scathing and hostile comments by the defence adviser and validation by the home minister evidently suggests utter disdain and contempt towards journalists, especially critical press reports. The government bigwigs have grossly compounded the issue by blaming the media and lambasting reporters without substantiating the serious accusations. This negative posture towards the journalists, including coercion and persecution, is widespread in many places. According to Reporters without Borders, a global organisation that defends and protects press freedom, 20 journalists and 2 media assistants have been killed, and 152 journalists and 9 media assistants have been imprisoned all over the world this year. This includes the editor in-charge of the Bangla Daily Amar Desh who was released after a nine-month incarceration. A few foreign journalists were freed in Iran and Libya on May 18. This was welcomed as a positive development by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organisation dedicated to protection of the freedom of the press and expression. ‘We are relieved these journalists are free. It is time for Iranian and Libyan authorities to review cases of dozens of journalists who remain imprisoned for attempting to report on historic events in the Middle East and North Africa,’ said the CPJ executive director, Joel Simon. Homa Dorothy Parvaz, an Al- Jazeera journalist, had disappeared from Damascus, Syria on April 29 , where she travelled in the guise of a tourist to cover the political agitation. Foreign journalists are prohibited in the country. The Syrian authorities, for inexplicable reasons, deported her to Iran. The Iranian foreign minister declared that Iran had ‘no information’ about the missing journalist. The smokescreen about her whereabouts had caused consternation and concerns among the journalistic community, well- wishers and near and dear ones. Her eventual release after being held incommunicado was thus a great relief. The journalists released from Libya on the same day are Americans Clare Morgana Gillis and James Foley, Manuel Varela of Spain and Nigel Chandler, a British citizen. They had been held since early April. According to Reporters Without Borders, the following journalists are still captive in Libya: Kamel Ataloua, a British journalist working for Al-Jazeera, held since the start of March; Lotfi Ghars, dual Tunisian and Canadian citizen working for Al-Alam TV, held since March 16 ; Matthew Van Dyke, American freelancer who has been held since March 12 , and six Libyan journalists held for varying periods. At least 34 journalists still remain behind bar in Iran. Roxana Saberi, an American journalist of Iranian descent, accused of spying for the United States, was imprisoned for 100 days in 2009. She was mentioned in a recent Seattle Times report as someone who can relate to Dorothy Parvaz’s Iran experience. For weeks, Saberi was not permitted to see an attorney. She was held in solitary confinement for considerable period and kept from contacting her family prior to her release. She stated that Iranian authorities treated her similar to many political prisoners in the country: ‘From detainment to solitary confinement to being cut off from the outside world.’ Saberi had been in Tehran for six years and was writing a book. Iranian intelligence officials arrested her supposedly for espionage in 2009 and interrogated her for several hours before taking her to Evin prison in Tehran. Her life would be in turmoil for more than three months after that. Saberi claims that during her imprisonment, Iranian authorities pressed her to tell lies. She would be released if she confessed to spying, they said. She confessed but later recanted. ‘When you’re in a situation where you can’t talk to anybody from the outside world, I think you become more susceptible to any pressures that you might be under,’ Saberi said. She was sentenced to eight years in prison. Iranian appeals court overturned the sentence, and Saberi was released in May 2009. After her May 18 release from Iranian jail, the Canadian journalist Dorothy Parvaz recounted her 19- day experience in detention, first in Syria, then in Iran. She recalled being taken handcuffed and blindfolded into a Syrian jail, where she heard screams of prisoners being tortured. She felt it was an attempt to frighten her. Many prisoners were young men arbitrarily pulled off the street by security forces. Seattle Times quoted Dorothy Parvaz as saying that in Iran she was held in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison, interrogated by the authorities and denied contact with her family. This part of her experience is identical to that of Saberi. But she did not mention being mistreated. Much of the oppression and subjugation of journalists in the region seem to be the direct outcome of popular struggle and street agitation for greater freedom, fundamental rights and political reform. Here is a short description of the plight of other journalists in a few countries in the turbulent Middle East since the inception of the so called Arab Spring: Bahrain: The officials have accused the international media of supporting protesters ever since they began demonstrating against the government in February. Many foreign reporters have been denied visa, detained or deported from the airport. Frederik Richter, a German journalist and Reuter’s correspondent in Manama, Bahrain since 2008 , left the country recently at the behest of the government, which has accused him of biased reporting. In his last dispatch before departing Bahrain, he described the country possessed by fear. Oman: Reporters Without Borders is very disturbed by the course of events in Oman, noting in particular journalist persecution and roadblocks in their professional work, removal of websites and blocking media sources. The authorities have been cracking down on the anti-government demonstrations taking place for days in several parts of the country including Muscat, the port city of Sohar and the southern city of Salalah. The protests and repression are now getting virtually no credible news coverage. Syria: Without international media access and banning of foreign journalists, a reliable picture of the suppression of local journalists is hard to uncover and may only be exposed anecdotally without details. Reporters Without Borders hailed the release of Syrian journalist and activist Malak Al- Shanawani on May 15. The tumultuous Arab countries are not alone in targeting journalists for simply performing their professional duty. China, along with Iran, is the world’s top jailer of journalists, according to CPJ research. Other countries are then jailers of lesser magnitude. There are plenty of examples of victimisation of journalists at the flimsiest pretext. Samy Mbeto, a radio journalist in the Republic of Congo, for example, was detained on April 9 allegedly for ‘insulting authorities’ and ‘defaming politicians’ and urging listeners to mistrust election campaigns prematurely started by politicians before the legally permitted date. Mbeto was arrested without any evidence to support the charges, according to Journalists in Danger, partner organisation in Africa of Reporters Without Borders. Mbeto, however, has since been granted bail. On May 31 , thirty-three members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, global network for free expression, condemned persecution of imprisoned journalists in Eritrea. In an open letter to the president of the country they expressed serious concerns about the continued detention of journalists and dissidents in Eritrea under inhumane and appalling conditions. This has just been a tip of the iceberg in terms of journalist bashing, repression and internment. From the numbers, mentioned at the start of this article, the atrocious practice is prevalent in many countries where the concepts of freedom of expression and press are not adhered to. There is no let up in extensive journalist persecution. Way back in 1852 , Wendell Phillips, orator, abolitionist and a columnist for Liberator said, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ in a speech before the Massachusetts Antislavery Society. In countries such as ours, an elected government often acts in an authoritarian manner. In such a situation, the ruling brute majority often imposes the unsavoury will on the helpless people to fulfil narrow vested interests, the rule of law is missing or absconding, dissent, divergent and critical opinions are not tolerated and suppression and subjugation are common occurrences with professional and intrepid journalists specially targeted. The adage is more pertinent here than anywhere else and more appropriate now than ever before.