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Blog: News media expand, but freedom lags in Kashmir

27 Aug

Indian police detain a Kashmiri protester in Srinagar. (AP/Mukhtar Khan)

Early this month, newspaper offices in Indian-controlled Kashmir received a note warning journalists to be more supportive of the Kashmir independence movement, according to the leading national daily, The Times of Indiaciting a news agency in the state’s summer capital, Srinagar. No militants took responsibility this time, but in mid-March insurgent groups issued a joint message that urged journalists to “highlight the pain and suffering of Kashmiris because of oppressive state policies.” 

Facing intimidation from multiple sides is all part of being a journalist in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Just last November, officers of the Central Reserve Police Force, a government security agency, assaulted journalists on assignment in downtown Srinagar, according to New Delhi-based Tehelka magazine.

Ever since the region was first wracked by conflict 23 years ago, the media have faced attacks from militant groups and state agencies. At least 10 journalists have been killed in the region since 1992–mostly by unidentified assailants–and many others have been wounded. Journalists have been jailed, photographers beaten, equipment seized, telephones tapped, websites blocked, emails hacked, social networking sites scrutinized, and text messages banned.

“The media, while they are not being targeted or harassed systematically as they were 20 years ago, continue to be vulnerable,” veteran journalist Yusuf Jameel told me by telephone from Srinagar. In 1995, Jameel, then working for the BBC, received a parcel bomb sent to his home. The ensuing blast killed a friend and injured Jameel.

Despite these woes, the number of media outlets in Kashmir continues to grow. Nearly 900 publications are registered today in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, up from 30 in 1989, according to the website of the Registrar of Newspapers for India. For the first time, a national English-language daily published from Chandigarh, The Tribune, has opened local editions, first in Jammu and more significantly last week, in Srinagar itself. Local and national news channels have proliferated, as have websites and bloggers–reflecting diversity in the news media and hinting at its potential robustness.

But expanding news media does not necessarily mean that the press is free. The scrutiny the media face from state and militant groups is in direct proportion to the level of unrest in the region. In June, locals commemorated the summer of 2010, when the state responded to increasingly violent demonstrations by imposing a curfew. Back then, newspapers distribution was halted for a total of 30 days, cable services were disrupted, and journalists were confined to their homes, despite having valid curfew passes.

Two years later, while the news media are not burdened by outright censorship, they continue to be hindered by what Shujaat Buhkari, editor of the newly launched daily Kashmir Rising, calls “invisible pressures.” High on the list are the obstacles to reliable information. Public officials, thanks to national security laws, are under no obligation to provide reports, give statistics, or impart up-to-date, accurate information to journalists.  National security legislation such as the Public Safety Act, established in 1978, has even been used to incarcerate journalists. 

“So-called national security far outweighs the public’s right to know,” says Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times, one of the oldest newspapers of Jammu and Kashmir. “Even if any information is given, it will often be slanted. For small-time reporters located in rural areas or in the border regions, it becomes especially difficult to resist such pressure. Then the army becomes both the guardian and the guide.”

As Jameel told me: “Typically, reporting in any given situation, the reporter will have three versions: The ‘official’ version; the militant group’s version; and the eyewitness version.” Thus, news media credibility can be a casualty.  “Media consumers in the Valley are often skeptical about the news they receive,” says Bashaarat Masood, the Srinagar-based correspondent of The Indian Express. When the public reads a report they often ask themselves who has given the story –intelligence agencies or militant groups?  Masood adds: “The reality is that in a conflict situation, as a reporter, you need to balance the story with both sides.  So you are always looking at how to find that threshold, that fine balance.”

There are other obstacles. Government organizations can withhold advertising–one of the main sources of revenue for local media houses–in order to pressure an independent outlet. Local newspapers and news channels, which officials often consider sympathetic to the cause of the resistance, or even anti-Indian, are particularly vulnerable.  

Bhukari, whose paper, along with four others, was banned from receiving government advertising, has written extensively on this subject. “I was told that my paper would not get government advertising, as it preaches secessionism.  I took the matter up with the Central Home Minister, but nothing has happened,” Bhukari said.

Bhasin recounted an episode from seven years ago to illustrate the state’s ongoing determination to punish critical news outlets. “When The Kashmir Times wrote a story how the then-state’s chief minister’s daughter-in-law had bagged a lucrative contract, the paper’s electricity supply was ‘mysteriously’ disconnected for six months,” she recalled.

In this and other important respects, not enough has changed in Jammu and Kashmir.

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Independent journalist jailed in Azerbaijan

27 Aug

New York, August 27, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a prison sentence imposed Thursday against Faramaz Novruzoglu, a freelance journalist who has faced years of persecution in reprisal for his coverage of alleged government corruption. CPJ also calls for an appeals court to reverse last week’s unjust ruling and release Novruzoglu on appeal.

The Nizami District Court in Baku sentenced Novruzoglu, also known as Faramaz Allahverdiyev, to four and a half years in jail on charges of illegal border crossing and inciting mass disorder, according to the independent regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel. Novruzoglu denied the charges, and said they had been fabricated in retaliation for his investigative stories on government corruption published in the independent newspaper Milletim and on social networking websites.

Authorities imprisoned Novruzoglu in April on charges that he called for mass disobedience on a Facebook page under the name of Elchin Ilgaroglu, news reports said. Authorities also accused him of illegally crossing the border into Turkey in November 2010, Kavkazsky Uzel reported.

Novruzoglu denied the charges in court, Kavkazsky Uzel reported. He said he was not the owner of the Facebook page and that investigators found no evidence despite seizing his personal computer. He also presented the court with his passport, which showed other travel during the time that he was accused of having crossed the border with Turkey.

Emin Huseynov, head of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, told CPJ that investigators failed to present any credible evidence against the journalist and that the state-appointed defense attorney did not effectively defend him in court. According to Huseynov and Kavkazsky Uzel, Novruzoglu and his colleagues said they believed that he was targeted in retaliation for critical articles he wrote on high-level corruption in the export of Azerbaijani crude oil and the import of Russian timber.

This is not the first time Novruzoglu has been prosecuted and imprisoned for his work. He was previously imprisoned in 2007 and 2009 in retaliation for his journalism, CPJ research shows.

Huseynov said his group will hire an independent lawyer for Novruzoglu, and appeal his verdict within a month.

“Authorities have persecuted Faramaz Novruzoglu for years because of his critical reporting,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Novruzoglu should be freed immediately pending appeal, his conviction should be thrown out, and the official retaliation against him should stop once and for all.”

Azerbaijan maintains a revolving-door policy for imprisoning independent and pro-opposition journalists, CPJ research shows. At least eight independent reporters are currently behind bars for their work, locked up in Azerbaijan’s prisons and pretrial detention facilities.

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

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Colombian Supreme Court sues journalists for defamation

27 Aug

Bogotá, August 27, 2012–Colombia’s Supreme Court must immediately drop unprecedented criminal defamation complaints against two prominent local columnists who questioned recent actions by the court, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The criminal chamber of the Supreme Court announced in a statement on Thursday that it would file libel charges against Cecilia Orozco Tascón, who writes a widely read column in the Bogotá daily El Espectador, and María Jimena Duzán, a columnist for the weekly Semana magazine.

“It is outrageous that an entire chamber of the Colombian Supreme Court would accuse journalists Cecilia Orozco Tascón and María Jimena Duzán of defamation for opinions they expressed in editorial columns,” said Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “Inter-American jurisprudence says that public officials are subject to higher scrutiny. This is an act of intimidation against journalists by one of the country’s most powerful bodies.”

In an August 22 column, Orozco criticized the courts for removing magistrate Iván Velásquez from his position as chief of the court’s investigative unit. Velásquez was a key figure in uncovering financial and political links between public officials and now-disbanded illegal right-wing paramilitary groups. He came under fierce criticism from both implicated politicians and former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, whose second cousin, former Senator Mario Uribe, was imprisoned in the “parapolitics” scandal, according to news reports.

Orozco questioned the court’s official explanation that Velásquez had simply completed his term, and suggested that his removal was the result of pressure from implicated politicians who wanted to derail the ongoing court investigations. The journalist also suggested that many of the Supreme Court judges had earned their jobs as a result of political favors.

The Supreme Court’s statement denied Orozco’s charges and said her language offended the honor of the court. The statement also said the column was “unfounded,” “twisted,” and “denigrating.” Orozco told Bogotá’s RCN Radio that she stood by “every comma” in her column.

Duzán’s August 19 column criticized a series of changes that she said gave deferential treatment to politicians, as it could result in lighter prison sentences for officials convicted of crimes in comparison with regular citizens. She also criticized the court’s decision to extradite a major paramilitary figure to the United States on drug charges rather than make him face trial in Colombia for the massacre of civilians. She wrote, “It’s clear that for this court drug trafficking is more important than having murdered and massacred civilians and that cooperation with the United States [is more important than] … than the rights of victims to know the truth and have reparation.”

In Thursday’s statement, the Supreme Court denied the allegations, calling the column “biased.” “I stand by what I wrote,” Duzán told CPJ. “The court should respond to these problems rather than trying to put columnists on trial.”

In its statement, the court said it recognized that both columns fell under “the fundamental right to opinion,” but said that “this does not mean that under the pretext of its exercise, [we] should tolerate the abuses of other rights, also of constitutional origin, such as dignity, good name, image and honor.”

The Colombian group Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) told CPJ that there was no precedent in Colombia for a court chamber to sue for defamation. After Thursday’s announcement by the Supreme Court, FLIP issued a press release stating that the Colombian Constitutional Court had previously ruled that all expression, including any deemed offensive, was protected by the constitution.

In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld defamation provisions in the penal code. The decision runs counter to emerging consensus over more than a decade by courts and legislatures throughout the region that have found that civil remedies provide adequate redress in cases of alleged libel and slander. Jurisprudence by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and declarations by the OAS’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression have repeatedly argued that public officials should be subject to a higher level of scrutiny. Yet some governments in the region continue to use archaic criminal defamation laws to silence dissent.

In May, CPJ launched the campaign “Critics are not Criminals” to help fight the criminalization of speech in the Americas.

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

from Committee to Protect Journalists

Video shows Turkish cameraman held captive in Syria

27 Aug

A screen grab of the video. (AFP/Al-Ikhbariya)

New York, August 27, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls for the immediate release of Turkish cameraman Cüneyt Ünal, who appeared exhausted and bruised in a video aired today in which he said he had been taken captive while reporting in Syria.

Ünal, a cameraman for the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Al-Hurra, was reported missing in the northwestern city of Aleppo on August 20 along with an Al-Hurra colleague, reporter Bashar Fahmi, a Palestinian. Ünal makes no mention of Fahmi in the video clip.

The journalist does not explicitly name his captors in the video. Ünal recounts traveling with an armed group that clashed with “Syrian soldiers and gendarmerie.” He goes on to say, “After that, they took me from the armed group and brought me here.” He does not state where he is being held. The date of the video is also unclear.

At a press conference in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the Syrian government was responsible for Ünal’s safety, according to news reports. “He was forced to make a statement that was dictated to him,” news reports cited Davutoglu as saying.

Ünal, whose face showed evident bruising, said in the video that he entered Syria illegally with armed men from Libya, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The video shows a picture of the journalist holding a rocket launcher.

“We hold Syrian authorities responsible for the safety and well-being of Cüneyt Ünal and Bashar Fahmi,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on authorities to immediately secure the release of Ünal and Fahmi and ensure that members of the media are not used as pawns during a conflict.”

CPJ has documented a resurgence in dangers facing the press in Syria in the past several weeks. U.S. freelance journalist Austin Tice has not been heard from since mid-August. The Syrian government has blocked international news media access to the conflict. As a result, journalists have been secretly crossing the border and embedding with rebel groups in order to cover the story. 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

Blog: A journalist’s account of a Cambodian activist’s death

27 Aug

Chut Wutty's son stands near a picture of his father during a commemoration ceremony. (Reuters/Samrang Pring)

Here’s a quick pointer to a piece in the Daily Beast by freelance reporter Olesia Plokhii, who worked at The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh until May this year. Plokhii’s moving story, “Death of a Forester,” describes the death of Chut Wutty, a Cambodian activist who was shot a few feet away from Plokhii and another journalist, Phorn Bopha, while he accompanied them to an illegal logging site in a protected forest in Koh Kong province. 

CPJ documented the killing of Chut Wutty in an April 26 story, “Cambodian activist killed over possession of logging photos,” and called for Cambodian authorities to thoroughly investigate the violent confrontation that also led to the death of a police officer.

Plokhii described the few days she spent with Chut Wutty in April:

I came to know him as a reclusive, meticulous and compassionate man. I witnessed his outrage at how Cambodia’s woodlands are falling victim to two-faced politicians, ruthless businessmen, lethargic NGOs, and uniformed thugs. I saw the way his own hunger for justice inspired villagers to stand up. His dedication was total. Some nights he would sleep in a hammock in the forest, within range of armed henchmen paid by illegal loggers, his global positioning system in his pocket and his camera at hand, plotting nonviolent counterattacks on behalf of voiceless communities. “It’s in my character to do dangerous jobs,” he said in a 2001 interview. “If I don’t do these things, life won’t be important to me.”

Cambodian journalists have been threatened in the past for reporting on alleged government complicity in illegal logging, according to CPJ research. International environmental groups say the government and the military are frequently complicit in the rampant illegal logging in Cambodia, The Associated Press reported.

Plokhii’s moving 2,600-word account of the episode is still available online. It’s definitely worth a read. 

from Committee to Protect Journalists

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