IFEX Communiqué Vol 20, No 33 | 24 August 2011

Published: Thu 25 Aug 2011 03:21 PM
Free Expression Spotlight
1. India: Another right to information activist shot dead
Regional News
2. Cambodia: Crackdown on critical groups confirms civil society fears of forthcoming NGO law
3. Bahrain / Egypt / Kuwait: Governments attack Twitter activists
4. Angola: Authorities block activists on way to parallel SADC summit
5. Chile: Citizen protests draw attention to media concentration problems, says new RSF report
Also in this Issue
6. International: Following U.K. riots, INSI offers guidelines on how to safely report on protests
Free Expression Spotlight
1. India: Another Right to Information Activist Shot Dead
A woman activist who was a strong advocate of India's right to information law has been gunned down in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, making her the 13th right to information activist murdered in the past year, say Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and news reports.
Shehla Masood, who was also an environmental and anti-corruption activist, was shot dead on 16 August in front of her home as she prepared to go to a demonstration in support of jailed anti-corruption leader Anna Hazare. He has since been released from prison.
Over the past two years, Masood had been campaigning for the 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act to be better implemented. Since her death, she too has attracted a lot of attention, with nearly 1,500 supporters on a Facebook tribute page already.
The act allows Indian citizens to file requests for information to most government bodies. Through RTI requests, activists have often uncovered illicit activities, making them targets of threats and violence.
In a January 2011 visit to India, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders said that "RTI activists, who may be ordinary citizens, have increasingly been targeted for, among others, exposing human rights violations and poor governance, including corruption of officials."
Masood joins a dozen people "apparently killed last year... for seeking information under the act," says RSF.
She had reported threats to the local police as early as January 2010 but nothing was done, RSF added.
"I think it is very risky and unsafe for activists to work for civil rights in India, especially in Madhya Pradesh," RTI activist Ajay Dubey, who is also based in Bhopal, said in an interview with "The Wall Street Journal".
According to the paper, Dubey is the founding member of Prayatna, an activist group of which Masood was a member. RTI requests have been their main weapon. Dubey says that he alone has filed more than 5,000 RTI applications, on issues ranging from industrial pollution to police reforms. One particularly successful RTI request led to the closure of illegal mines in his home state, Dubey said.
Dubey told the paper that he blamed Masood's murder on the lack of state protection. "There is no provision to protect activists; this puts RTI activists in particular danger since they often collect evidence that can cause problems for corrupt officials."
Dubey and Masood had both been pressing for the state government to implement a law aimed at protecting whistleblowers. In February 2010, Masood wrote about "the need for a Whistleblower (Protection) Act in India" on her blog.
According to "The Wall Street Journal", family members and fellow activists have filed a request to the Indian government demanding the Central Bureau of Investigation, the country's top investigative body, to probe Masood's death. The request is currently under consideration.
Related stories on
- Right to Information campaigner shot dead
More on the web:
- Whistleblowers demand greater protection after Masood's death (The Wall Street Journal):
- Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, as she concludes her visit to India (OHCHR):
- Shehla Masood's Diary:
Regional News
1. Cambodia: Crackdown on Critical Groups Confirms Civil Society Fears of Forthcoming Ngo Law
Organisations critical of a government project to rebuild a railway link that could displace thousands of families have been suspended or told to toe the government line, reports the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). Critics say it's a sign of what's to come if a controversial bill that aims to regulate the country's non-governmental groups gets passed.
NGO Forum, an umbrella group of 88 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) whose donors include Christian Aid and Oxfam, confirmed it had received a "warning letter" from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over its concerns relating to communities affected by a railway rehabilitation project linking Phnom Penh to Thailand, which is funded by the Asian Development Bank and AusAID. The government said the group had made "false" and "unfair" claims about the deaths of two children relocated by the railway.
In a meeting last week, the Foreign Affairs Ministry accused NGO Forum and international organisation Bridges Across Borders of inciting families to oppose the project. The groups were told to "readjust their work in order to work closely with the government," reports CCHR.
The claims come on the heels of the government's suspension of land rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), which had been critical of government-backed evictions as a result of the railway project. According to STT, a higher number of affected households than officially reported will be displaced and probably at unfair compensation rates.
Earlier this month, 130 Cambodian groups - including CCHR - issued a joint statement condemning the suspension, calling it arbitrary and illegal.
The groups say the suspension is a "preview into the future of government control over civil society organisations and associations" under the draft law on associations and NGOs, which is on the verge of being passed.
The law has been widely criticised for imposing registration on grassroots movements and community-based organisations and the lack of transparency in the assessment process. STT has been told it can seek reinstatement when the law comes into force.
"This law will be a disaster for freedom of expression in Cambodia. Sadly, it's clear this is precisely the intent of the highest levels of government, who don't want to face any sort of criticism from anyone," Human Rights Watch told the "Phnom Penh Post".
Human Rights Watch has also warned that the government's moves will have a chilling effect on the media. "Information sources for the media among local associations will likely dry up because those association officials will rightly worry that the government could shut them down overnight," said Human Rights Watch.
In another sign of the government's increasing intolerance, more than 100 activists working to protect the large Prey Lang forest in northeastern Cambodia were detained last week in the capital, Phnom Penh, for handing out "save the forest" flyers, reports the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). Authorities said the flyers could "disrupt social order." Some activists were held for questioning and "re-education," reports CCHR.
Villagers living near the forest, which spans over four provinces, say their livelihoods are being threatened by deforestation and continuous government concessions to private rubber and other companies. They maintain that the forest is critical to the preservation of wildlife and flora that are sacred to indigenous communities.
One of the villagers, Svay Phoeun, said major development loans from foreign aid and international banks were potentially driving some of the destruction of the forest.
"Once again we see the phrase 'disruption of social order' being used to justify cracking down on freedom of expression," said CCHR. "The real threat here is to the elite's ability to exploit Cambodia's natural resources. And the real threat to social order is the disregard for the homeland and livelihood of hundreds of ordinary citizens."
Villagers have since delivered a petition with around 300 signatures to embassies, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank calling for their intervention.
Related stories on
- Suspension of prominent land rights NGO confirms civil society fears over forthcoming NGO law:
- Authorities conduct mass detention of forest activists in Phnom Penh:
More on the web:
- Civil society and private sector groups condemn government's arbitrary suspension of local NGO (Freedom House):
- NGO Forum breaks silence on "warning":
- Prey Lang activists petition internationals for help (Voice of America):
2. Bahrain / Egypt / Kuwait: Governments Attack Twitter ACTIVISTS
The governments of at least three Arab countries - Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait - have launched investigations into or prosecuted Twitter activists, provoking other countries in the region to follow suit, reports the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
In Egypt, activist Asmaa Mahfouz faces a military investigation for her comments on Twitter and Facebook, in addition to a phone call she had made to a religious satellite channel, that "insulted the military," report ANHRI and Human Rights Watch. Mahfouz had criticised the military for failing to intervene to protect protesters on 23 July. Although she was released on 20,000 Egyptian Pounds (US$3,400) bail, Mahfouz still awaits trial.
The Mahfouz case is the latest in a series of moves prosecuting critical expression by Egypt's military, which is increasingly setting narrower and narrower limits on what is permissible, Human Rights Watch said. According to Human Rights Watch, military courts have sentenced at least 10,000 civilians since January 2011 after unfair proceedings.
Bahrain started targeting Twitter users last April when it investigated well-known rights activist Nabeel Rajab for publishing a picture of a Bahraini citizen who allegedly died after being tortured in police custody. According to ANHRI and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), of which Rajab is president, another investigation is planned into Rajab's tweets.
Last week, Rajab was called in for questioning for allegedly "deliberately posting sensational propaganda and false information on his social networking site likely to disrupt public order, spark fear among people, damage public interests and defame authorities." He had recently posted a letter critical of the head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. Rajab stands by his posts and said he will continue to tweet. Read his posts here: @NABEELRAJAB
In Kuwait, blogger Nasser Abul was arrested in June for allegedly threatening state security in Twitter messages, report ANHRI and Human Rights Watch. Abel had posted tweets that sharply criticised and mocked the ruling families of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for the military crackdown on anti-government protests in Bahrain, supported by Saudi troops. His lawyer said that Abul denied writing some of the more inflammatory tweets, and that hackers had posted the messages.
"Nasser Abul has been held for more than a month on the basis of a few tweets that clearly constitute protected speech," said Human Rights Watch. "His detention appears to be an illegal effort to punish him and intimidate others who might dare be critical about Kuwait's fellow Gulf monarchs."
Kuwaiti authorities should immediately investigate allegations that Abul has been mistreated in detention, having reportedly been subjected to sleep deprivation, held in solitary confinement, and denied family visits and legal counsel, Human Rights Watch added.
Kuwait's "Al-Siyasah" newspaper reported that a member of Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family plans to file a defamation suit against Abul on behalf of the royal family.
Meanwhile, security services in the United Arab Emirates are closely monitoring activity on social networking sites, says ANHRI.
Anyone posting false and malicious news or statements that would harm public security would be punished with imprisonment of one month to three years, the Ministry of Interior announced on 17 August.
"It seems that Arab governments have run out of values like tolerance, dialogue, or respect for freedom of opinion and expression, and have settled for police repression as a means to deal with different and critical opinions," said ANHRI. "It has become crystal clear that a war is raging between speech and the police."
Related stories on
- Call for release of jailed Internet scribes:
- Youth leader, protesters charged with "insulting the military":
More on the web:
- Twitter in the Arab governments' line of fire (ANHRI):
- Summon of Nabeel Rajab for his tweets (BCHR):
3. Angola: Authorities Block Activists on Way to Parallel Sadc Summit
In an apparent restriction on free expression, journalists and activists trying to participate in activities planned around last week's summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Luanda, Angola, were denied entry to the country, report the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Human Rights Watch. A parallel civil society forum was also cancelled.
Since 11 August, Angola has denied entry to at least 17 members of southern African NGOs seeking to participate in the 7th Civil Society Forum of SADC, a meeting usually held in tandem with SADC summit meetings. The authorities have also confiscated human rights reports from Zimbabwean activists, report the members.
Authorities suddenly cancelled the civil society forum for unspecified "security reasons". The forum was scheduled to feature discussions on governance, accountability, media freedom, and access to information - "domains in which Angola lags behind," CPJ said.
Journalists Joana Macie and Manuel Cossa from Mozambique were also barred from entering the country on 11 August, allegedly because they lacked the proper entry visas, report MISA, CPJ and Human Rights Watch. They had been invited to take part in a workshop on economic reporting and gender.
CPJ reports that in a statement dated 12 August, three prominent southern African civil society organisations called on the leaders of the SADC member states to withhold the rotating presidency of the organisation from Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos, who is the incoming SADC chair.
"We strongly believe that Angola does not deserve to chair SADC until they have resolved their internal democratic deficits, lack of transparency, and continued repression of civil society voices," the statement said.
Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) sent separate letters urging SADC leaders to address a number of pressing human rights concerns at the meeting, including the lack of freedom of expression and assembly; the repression of recent anti-government demonstrations in Malawi, Swaziland, and Angola; and the continuing political violence and "alarming" increase of press freedom violations in Zimbabwe.
"Keeping civil society from sharing their concerns with SADC leaders and keeping journalists from reporting on what the leaders discuss is no way to show leadership in the region," said Human Rights Watch. "Angola needs to invite the journalists and civil society leaders to come back, return the reports, and welcome their interest and participation."
Related stories on
- Immigration authorities deny entry to Mozambican journalists, SADC activists:
- SADC urged to reprehend Mugabe over surge in press freedom violations:
4. Chile: Citizen Protests Draw Attention to Media Concentration Problems, Says New Rsf Report
A surge in citizen unrest in Chile, from students demonstrating against an unfair and expensive school system to miners demanding better working conditions, may help break up the country's media oligopoly inherited from the Pinochet regime, says a new report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
According to RSF, the protests are a challenge to a political, economic and media system inherited from the Pinochet years. "During the last 20 years of rule by the Concert of Parties for Democracy, media ownership continued to be concentrated in very few hands, hindering pluralism and leading to conflicts of interest," said RSF.
"There are now fewer print media in Chile than there were at the end of the dictatorship," Francisco Martorell, former vice president of the Journalists Association of Chile and current editor of the monthly "El Periodista", told RSF.
The report highlights the "national oligopolies" of El Mercurio and Copesa, owners of the newspapers "El Mercurio" and "La Tercera" respectively, which are the sole beneficiaries of a subsidy system established under the dictatorship that is worth US$5 million a year.
RSF describes a similar situation in the radio world, whereby the Spanish media group Prisa, owner of "El Pais" newspaper, also "owns about 60 percent of radio frequencies."
But with today's protest movements, media concentration is being questioned.
"There is an increase in awareness and even an emerging citizenship that was reined in for a long time because of the trauma left by the dictatorship," Manuel Fuentes, the Santiago bureau chief of the Spanish news agency EFE, told RSF.
RSF points to how online, community and alternative media have played a central role in protest movements against rising education fees, the HydroAysén hydroelectric project, the working conditions of miners and the protests of the Mapuche minority.
"Existing on the margins has ended up bringing us together in an alliance," said Pia Figueroa, the head of Pressenza, an online agency that specialises in covering conflict and promoting non-violence. "The support of our external networks is decisive in the process of building alternative forms of communication."
Read more about Chile's changing media landscape in the RSF report
Citizen activism challenges protected media oligopoly
Also in this ISSUE
5. International: Following U.K. Riots, Insi Offers Guidelines on How to Safely Report on Protests
The International News Safety Institute (INSI) has published recommendations on how to safely report on protests and unrest following the recent attacks against journalists covering the riots in the U.K.
INSI reported that photographers were beaten and had their cameras stolen or damaged. Other journalists were threatened or forced to flee areas of violence.
For news desks, INSI recommends that they fully brief teams before they are deployed - including arranging contact points in case a team gets separated and ensuring they have protective equipment. INSI also suggests having a newsroom briefing on "lessons learned" immediately after the coverage.
Journalists and media personnel are advised to do the following: always carry press identification, but hide it in case it draws too much attention; carry a mobile phone with emergency numbers saved on speed dial; carry a first aid kit and know how to use it; wear fitted clothing that is not inflammable; and carry a backpack with enough food and water for a day in case they can't leave an area.
INSI also reminds journalists that they do not need to be in the middle of a crowd to cover an event. Photographers are advised to shoot the scene from high vantage points - while ensuring there is an unobstructed escape route.

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