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In Egypt, Morsi bans pre-trial detention of journalists

23 Aug

New York, August 23, 2012–Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi banned pre-trial detention of journalists charged with press-related offenses today in a decree issued just hours after a Cairo criminal court jailed an editor pending trial on charges of insulting the president, according to news reports. 

“We welcome President Morsi’s decision to ban pre-trial detention but urge thorough reform that repeals the archaic laws criminalizing the reporting of news and the expression of opinion,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Authorities must also halt an alarming rise in repression that has included newspaper confiscations, criminal prosecutions, and assaults against journalists.”

A Giza criminal court had ordered the pre-trial detention of Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief of the private daily Al-Dustour, who is charged with “insulting the president” and “spreading rumors that could disturb public safety and harm public interest,” according to news reports. Afifi’s trial, originally scheduled to begin today, was postponed to September 16 and the presiding judge ordered him jailed in Cairo’s Tora Prison, news reports said.

Afifi was freed shortly after Morsi issued the decree, according to news reports. Cairo’s general prosecutor also lifted an August 12 order that barred Afifi from traveling, according to news reports. The travel ban was issued a day after a Cairo court ordered the confiscation of several editions of Al-Dustour, CPJ research shows.

Al-Dustour is well-known for its criticism of the government’s majority Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, news reports said. The daily has run several articles alleging the Muslim Brotherhood would turn Egypt into an Islamic state, the reports said.

Abdel-Halim Qandil editor-in-chief of the private weekly Sawt al-Umma, and Adel Hammoda, editor-in-chief of the private weekly El-Fagr are facing trial on similar charges of insulting the president, according to news reports. Qandil’s charge stems from an August 13 article that questioned the president’s intelligence, news reports said. Hammoda’s charges stem from articles on June 28 and August 9 calling the president a “fascist,” and “protector of terrorists,” according to news reports.

Today’s developments came against a backdrop of rising repression in Egypt. On Wednesday, authorities confiscated several editions of the weekly Al-Shaab, which is affiliated with Egypt’s Labor Party, in connection with an article criticizing the head of Egypt’s intelligence apparatus, according to news reports.

Earlier this month, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, appointed new editors-in-chief of the country’s state-run newspapers. The move was seen as placing people sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of state news coverage. Over the past month, CPJ documented a stream of attacks against journalists including the confiscation a newspaper, the physical assault of three journalists on the street, and the censorship of several newspapers. 

·         For more data and analysis on Egypt, visit CPJ’s Egypt page here.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

In Ethiopia, Feteh editor jailed during trial

23 Aug

Temesghen's articles, published in Feteh, above. (Feteh)

New York, August 23, 2012–Ethiopian authorities must immediately release Temesghen Desalegn, editor of the leading weekly Feteh, who was ordered jailed today pending his trial on defamation, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The High Court judge deemed Temesghen a flight risk during his trial, which resumes on September 3, according to local journalists. Police summoned the journalist for questioning on August 1 and told him they were charging him over his articles published in seven editions of the weekly Feteh that were critical of the administration of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, local journalists said. Mastewal Publishing and Advertising PLC, the company that publishes Feteh, has also been charged, the same sources said.

Temesghen is being held at Kality Prison in Addis Ababa, the capital, local journalists said. Feteh has not been published since July 20, when the Ministry of Justice blocked the sale and distribution of 30,000 copies to suppress the paper’s coverage concerning the health of Meles, the sources said. Meles died Monday of liver cancer, according to international news reports.

“Temesghen Desalegn is the ninth journalist imprisoned in Ethiopia in retaliation for critical coverage of the administration of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “Temesghen is not a criminal for expressing his constitutional right to freedom of expression. The charges against him should be dropped, and he should be released immediately.”

According to a charge sheet reviewed by CPJ, authorities have cited five columns written by Temesghen between July 2011 and February 2012 as a basis of the charges.

  • The journalist was charged with “outrages against the constitution or the constitutional order” stemming from two articles discussing the peaceful struggles of youth movements for political change in Ethiopia in the wake of the Arab Spring.
  • He was also charged with defaming the state in connection with two columns criticizing the killing and imprisonment of student protesters; the massacres of ethnic minorities by government forces; and the ethnic federalism system introduced by Meles.
  • Mastewal Publishing and Advertising was accused of allowing Temesghen to “divert or control the minds of the people in order to create riot or violence in the country.” The company was charged with inciting the public to violence by running stories criticizing government control of the leaders of Ethiopia’s Christian and Muslim communities.

In a statement last week, Mastewal Publishing appealed to the Ethiopian government and the diplomatic community to stand with them and protect the Ethiopian press from repression, according to news reports.

In May, Temesghen was sentenced to a suspended four-month prison term and a fine of 2,000 birrs (US$113) on charges of contempt of the judiciary over his coverage of the trial of imprisoned journalist Eskinder Nega.

  • For more data and analysis on Ethiopia, visit CPJ’s Ethiopia page here.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Blog: Criminalization of speech a serious setback for Russia

23 Aug

Shortly after the May 7 presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin, the Russian parliament passed four major bills in record time–all of them meant to counter the protests that first erupted in the country in December 2011.

The first bill, a law on public rallies, directly contradicts the Russian Constitution and significantly restricts the right for citizens to peacefully assemble and protest. The second one, a law on non-governmental organizations that receive grants from abroad, labels all citizens working in that sector as “foreign agents.” Two other laws–one forces websites to block banned content; the other recriminalizes defamation and drastically increases the penalties–give the powers that be broad authority over local journalists and news outlets.

Paradoxically, Aleksandr Khinshtein, one of the authors of the bill recriminalizing defamation, is a journalist himself (as well as a deputy of the State Duma). What’s even more surprising is that the bill received support from the Moscow-based Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ).

RUJ chairman Vsevolod Bogdanov told CPJ that “when Khinshtein called me in June and told me about the bill, I told him that I am categorically against libelous and ordered articles. Journalists must be held responsible for those,” he said. “It is another matter what form that bill finally took when it was approved by the Duma and signed by the president. And, undoubtedly, we will defend journalists from unsubstantiated charges of defamation.”

One would agree with Bogdanov if he were referring to the information war waged by the pro-government media on Russia’s civil society. In early spring, for example, the government-controlled federal television channel NTV aired a series of documentaries that smeared human rights defenders, opposition activists, and the leaders of Russia’s protest movement who were rallying against the flawed parliamentary and presidential elections. Two of the films–Foreigners Will Help Them, which first aired in February, and Anatomy of a Protest, which first aired in March–were widely criticized as having been doctored and constructed to defame civil activists as traitors of Russia who had been paid by the U.S. State Department to protest against authorities. The films were shown on primetime television and aired repeatedly.

Bogdanov told CPJ that “Russian state media is involved in propaganda and can be, in fact, considered the main libeler,” and that the new bill might allow for a case to be started against such outlets, but, he admitted, “there hasn’t been such a precedent as of yet.”

The Russian Press Council, an independent institute for media self-regulation, recently responded to a complaint filed by journalists and human rights defenders against NTV in connection with the documentaries and declared the films to be “state propaganda that violates the principles of journalistic ethic.” But NTV ignored the declaration, refused to acknowledge the press council authority, and failed to participate in related council hearings.

According to the Voronezh-based Mass Media Defense Center (MMDC), an independent advocacy group, winning a defamation case against a state media outlet is extremely difficult.

But the situation is different where independent and pro-opposition media are concerned. According to lawyers for MMDC, the number of cases filed–and won–by state officials against such media has grown in recent years. Records from the European Court of Human Rights show that since 2004, there have been 36 claims of violations of Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) filed at the court by local journalists convicted of defamation in Russia.

The new law, which recriminalizes defamation in Russia, will undoubtedly be used to financially destroy the independent press: The penalty for defamation is up to 5 million rubles (more than US$150,000), which is a huge sum for the majority of Russian media, with the exception of state-owned outlets.

More important, the law allows for the reopening of old cases against journalists and human rights defenders, which were suspended or scrapped when President Dmitry Medvedev decriminalized defamation in November 2011.

Andrei Krasnenkov, the lawyer of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, has already declared that his client intends to resume his defamation case against Oleg Orlov, a prominent human rights defender and the former boss of slain journalist Natalya Estemirova. The case was scrapped in January as a result of Medvedev’s reform. (Orlov had publicly accused Kadyrov of involvement in Estemirova’s murder.)

[Translated from Russian by Nina Ognianova]

from Committee to Protect Journalists

U.S. journalist unaccounted for in Syria

23 Aug

New York, August 23, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about the well-being of U.S. freelance journalist Austin Tice, who has not been heard from in Syria for more than a week, according to reports from The Washington Post and the McClatchy news service, two outlets for which he was reporting. 

Tice, 31, has reported on the conflict in Syria since May 2012, often traveling with the Free Syrian Army, according to his profile on the photo-sharing website Flickr. His family and his editors at thePost and McClatchy have been unable to establish contact with Tice since mid-August.

“We are concerned that family and editors have lost contact with Austin Tice, a journalist who has been reporting on events in Syria for some of the leading international media outlets,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “His work is protected by international law, which guarantees the right to seek and receive information. As a journalist, he is a civilian and must be protected from harm.”

Tice is currently enrolled as a student at Georgetown Law School, according to his professional profile on LinkedIn. Along with his reporting for the Post and McClatchy, Tice has contributed to numerous news outlets including Agence France-Presse, CBS, and Al-Jazeera English. Prior to becoming a journalist, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps, the profile said.

CPJ has documented a resurgence in dangers facing the press in Syria in the past several weeks. Japanese journalist Mika Yamamoto died in the northern city of Aleppo on Monday. Bashar Fahmi, a Palestinian reporter for the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Al-Hurra, and Cüneyt Ünal, a Turkish cameraman for the station, who were also in Aleppo, have not been heard from since Monday, CPJ research shows. In a video that purported to document Yamamoto’s death, a rebel fighter said the two Al-Hurra journalists had been seized by Syrian forces. That claim could not be independently corroborated.

CPJ has also documented the abductions of both local and international journalists. Armed militants kidnapped John Cantlie, a British freelance photographer, and Jeroen Oerlemans, a Dutch freelance photographer, while crossing into Syria from Turkey on July 19, CPJ research shows. They were released a week later. At least 19 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian conflict since November, including one killed just over the border in Lebanon, making Syria the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research

  • For more data and analysis on Syria, visit CPJ’s Syria page here.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

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