Human rights law: journalists under fire

From Russia and Turkey to Saudi Arabia, journalists are being persecuted and even killed. The media has never been more under threat; even in the US, accusations of ‘fake news’ from President Donald Trump are putting traditional media outlets on the ropes. We look at the laws protecting the free press, and the challenges they face.

  • Last updated Jun 18, 2019 4:51:44 PM
  • Jan Hill

Free speech under assault

According to the 2017 article Protecting the Human Right to Freedom of Expression in International Law, the enjoyment of other rights is not possible without free speech. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) announced by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the world has expressed a commitment to promote and observe fundamental human rights, and Article 19 of the UDHR protects freedom of opinion and expression.

More than 70 years later, the rights contained in the UDHR remain fully protected by international treaties, regional human rights documents and domestic human rights laws. Because an overwhelming majority of countries have ratified the various treaties protecting human rights, freedom of speech is considered to be the norm of international law. Not surprisingly, freedom of speech and the right to assemble are most strongly associated with western democracies, whereas the Soviet Bloc largely supports treaties that protect economic and social rights.

In October 2016, the UN reported that those seeking their right to freedom of expression face all sorts of government-imposed limitations that are illegal, unnecessary and disproportionate. Frequent targets of these restrictions include journalists, bloggers, government critics, dissenters, provocateurs and minorities, and freedom of expression is currently under assault across the globe. Western democracies are not immune from this trend, as illustrated by an increase in anti-protest laws and government surveillance of telecommunications metadata.

Case study: Russian journalists killed in Central African Republic

In July 2018, three Russian journalists who were investigating a Russian private military company with links to the Kremlin were killed in the Central African Republic (CAR). The team of journalists, led by veteran war correspondent Orkhan Kjemal, had been studying the actions of the Russian military firm Wagner, which was also active in Syria and Ukraine.

According to the Investigations Management Centre (IMC), after flying into the CAR on Friday July 27, the reporters had been in contact until the evening of Sunday July 29. Media reports indicate that the men might have been ambushed and killed by as many as ten Arabic-speaking men near the village of Sibut on Monday evening. The Russian foreign ministry confirmed the deaths.

At some point, the journalists had been denied entry to a military base they believed was run by Wagner because they lacked proper accreditation. Wagner has been tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy restaurateur turned government contractor who was active in the country. According to the IMC, the journalists were carrying thousands of dollars in cash along with cameras when they were killed, and their driver may have been seeking bribes from the police.

Earlier this year, Russian investigative journalist Maksim Borodin, who was also researching Wagner, died after a fall from a fifth-story balcony. Police have not opened a criminal case related to Borodin’s death, despite the fact that one of Borodin’s colleagues said the journalist had called him two nights before his death saying that there were men in camouflage and masks outside his building.

Russian state media have mostly failed to report on exactly what the journalists were investigating, and the Kremlin has publicly refuted any link to Wagner or even acknowledged the company’s existence. Private military companies are illegal in Russia, although Wagner’s commander, Dmitry Utkin, is thought to be close to the Kremlin. According to Russia’s foreign ministry, the men entered the country as tourists.

Russia is considered one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, and at least 58 reporters have been murdered in the country since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Some of those killed had been employed by Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper known for its critical and investigative coverage of Russian politics. After a series of threats in 2017, the paper’s editor said he was considering arming his newsroom with defensive weapons.

Case study: Turkey leads world in jailed journalists

Responding to reports that Turkey leads the world in the imprisonment of journalists, Turkish senior adviser Gulnur Aybet replied that if journalists are in prison, then they have been convicted of crimes unrelated to their profession.

But according to a report published recently in The Economist, Turkey, China, Egypt, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia accounted for 70% of the journalists imprisoned in 2018, and as of December 1, the Turkish government had 68 journalists jailed. The country is apparently cracking down on the independent press by equating journalism to terrorism, a policy that has been in place for a number of years.

More than 150 Turkish journalists have been imprisoned since the country’s failed coup attempt in July 2016, according to a Newsweek report. Many of these reporters and media workers have been charged with inciting hatred and aiding terrorists for articles they have written, posts they have shared on social media or opinions they have stated, and some will likely be in prison for life. More than 180 media outlets were ordered closed by a state decree, and at least 2,500 journalists have lost their jobs.

Journalists in Turkey have faced risks for many years, but many say President Erdogan’s tactics to rein in this extremely polarised country have severely limited (and all but eliminated) coverage critical to the government, pushing the country ever closer to authoritarian rule. When asked about imprisoned press members in 2017, Erdogan replied, “Most of those you say are in prison aren’t journalists. Most of them are terrorists,” he said. “Saying ‘I’m a journalist’ doesn’t make you a journalist.”

Turkish authorities have said that many members of the media who have been charged or sentenced shouldn’t be considered journalists because they were engaged in activities outside the scope of their profession. But reporters who have faced these charges say the evidence used against them is essentially basic journalism: articles, communication with sources and even an affiliation with a particular media outlet.

Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University in New York, put it this way: “This would be the equivalent of being in a country in which you had seven MSNBCs or seven Fox [stations], where you had news that was clearly supportive of the government on all the channels,” he said.

One former Turkish journalist, Can Dündar, who left the country while appealing a 2016 prison sentence, now lives in exile in Germany, where his role is more of an activist than a journalist, writing columns for the Die Zeit about corruption and freedom of the press, topics Turkish journalists don’t dare pursue.

“A freedom fighter, unfortunately,” Dündar said. “I say ‘unfortunately’ because it’s not the kind of journalism I wanted. But we were forced into it.”

Case study: Jamal Khashoggi murdered inside Saudi consulate

On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, Washington Post columnist, former editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, and frequent critic of the Saudi Arabian government, was killed inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Although the 59-year-old Khashoggi had a close relationship with the Saudi royal family for many years and even served as a government adviser, he eventually fell out of favour. In 2017, he went into self-imposed exile in the US, where he obtained permanent residency and wrote a monthly column for the Washington Post’s Global Opinions section. Often critical of the policies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Khashoggi expressed concern in his first Post column of being arrested due to an apparent crackdown on dissidents being overseen by the prince, who was first in line to succeed his father, King Salman.

Believing that nothing would happen to him on Turkish soil, Khashoggi travelled unannounced to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on September 28 to obtain divorce documents that would permit him to remarry. Although he told friends that he had been treated well during this visit, Khashoggi was told to come back again and arranged to return to Turkey on October 2.

After giving his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, two mobile phones with instructions to call an aide to the Turkish president if he failed to come back out, Khashoggi was last seen on CCTV arriving for his appointment October 2 at 13:14 local time. Cengiz waited outside the consulate for more than ten hours and then returned the following morning, but Khashoggi was nowhere to be found. For the next two weeks, Saudi Arabia denied any knowledge of Khashoggi, and Crown Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg News that the journalist had left the consulate “after a few minutes or one hour”.

But on October 20, state television reported that the journalist had been murdered in a rogue operation ordered by an intelligence officer. Saudi officials continued to provide conflicting explanations regarding what had happened to Khashoggi until more than one month later, when on November 15 the Saudi public prosecutor said that the journalist had been given a lethal injection after a struggle. After his death, his body had been dismembered with a saw inside the consulate and his remains handed over to a local collaborator outside the grounds.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan says there’s evidence that the killing was planned days in advance, and so far 11 people have been charged for the crime. Although none have been officially identified, Turkish officials believe they are Saudi officials and intelligence officers with links to the Saudi crown prince. The prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five of those charged.

After the murder was confirmed by the Saudis, US president Donald Trump called it the “worst cover-up in history”, yet continues to defend America’s ties to the kingdom, a key trading partner in the region. But many other world leaders have condemned the murder of Khashoggi and have demanded a full investigation. The US, Canada, France and the UK have all imposed sanctions against the 18 Saudis alleged to be connected to the murder, not including the Saudi crown prince, and Germany, Finland and Denmark have cancelled arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

Free speech in flux?

Countries without solid press freedom protections take their cues from the US, and since Donald Trump’s popularisation of the term “fake news” to denounce press coverage critical of his administration, there seems to have been a significant rise in the number of reporters facing “false news” charges. In 2016, only nine journalists around the world were jailed on those charges, but after Trump’s election, that number increased to 21 in 2017 and 28 in 2018, according to CPJ research. More sobering 2018 statistics for journalists:

· Four journalists and one media worker were murdered.

· Another journalist was killed in Chicago, but it’s unknown whether the motive was related to his journalism.

· As of August 1, 2018, the US was the third deadliest country for journalists, surpassed only by Afghanistan and Syria.

· At least 24 journalists were physically attacked (shoved, having their equipment damaged, or serious physical assaults).

· At least three journalists were arrested in the US in the course of their work.

· President Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric not only undermines the media in the US, but has also empowered tyrannical leaders to adopt his strategies to justify censorship, as authorities in China, Cambodia, Egypt, Philippines, Syria and Poland have done.

The year 2018 was the third in a row that more than 250 journalists were jailed around the world—Turkey remained the worst offender, while China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia confined more journalists than the previous year. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, politics is the riskiest beat, followed by human rights. This global phenomenon is creating a disturbing trend of free speech in flux. pa

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