Governments exploit national security laws to punish critical journalists. By Monica Campbell
Governments exploit national security laws to punish critical journalists. By Monica Campbell
Your cellphone allows authorities to locate you and uncover your sources. By Danny O'Brien
Press freedom remained in a deep freeze under authoritarian leader Islam Karimov. The authorities continued to imprison critical journalists on lengthy terms. Muhammad Bekjanov, one of the two longest-imprisoned journalists in the world, was sentenced to an additional prison term just days before his scheduled release. The handful of independent journalists in the country faced politicized prosecution, censorship, and other forms of repression. The authorities permitted minimal Western media presence. A BBC journalist who broke a story on forced sterilization of Uzbek women was barred from entering the country in February. The authorities continued their practice of hiring “experts” to build fabricated criminal cases against journalists on charges ranging from national defamation to extremism. Using that tactic, prosecutors filed criminal cases against two independent reporters in 2012. The government’s vast censorship practices earned it a place on CPJ’s 10 Most Censored Countries list, published in May. The authorities aggressively expanded censorship during the year: The state communications agency was told to block websites deemed “threatening to the nation’s information space”; the education ministry barred college students from visiting Internet cafés; and the government raided and seized control of the local branch of the Russian telecommunications company, MTS, causing up to 10 million Uzbeks to lose mobile Internet and phone access. In a July documentary, a state-owned broadcaster called online activism a weapon worse than bombs.
The Leveson inquiry, begun in 2011 after revelations of phone-hacking and other ethical lapses by the press, drew to a close with the issuance of a lengthy report that proposed the creation of an independent regulatory body backed by statute. Critics, including CPJ, warned that statutory regulation would infringe on press freedom; Prime Minister David Cameron urged instead that the industry strengthen self-regulation. Some progress was made toward the reform of libel laws, which are highly unfavorable to journalists because they allow for “libel tourism,” the practice of filing claims based on minimum circulation within the United Kingdom even when plaintiffs and defendants are not based there. Libel legislation introduced in May would limit long and costly proceedings and make it easier for frivolous cases to be quickly dismissed. Press freedom advocates said such reform would be an important step forward, but urged lawmakers to strengthen public-interest defense and protect Internet service providers. The measure was pending in the House of Lords in late year. In June, the Home Office proposed a measure to increase government surveillance of all online communications. The proposal met with strong criticism--detractors called it the “snooper’s charter”--and a Parliamentary review committee dismissed it as excessive. The government sought to allow Sweden to extradite Julian Assange for questioning in an alleged assault, prompting the WikiLeaks founder to take refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. One journalist in Belfast was threatened in 2012, and the 11-year-old murder of Irish reporter Martin O’Hagen remained unsolved.
As Ukraine prepared to assume the 2013 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the nation’s leaders undermined one of the organization’s core values: freedom of the press. Censorship, denial of public information, physical attacks against reporters, and politicized lawsuits against news outlets marred the nation’s press freedom climate, the Kiev-based Institute for Mass Information, or IMI, reported. The boldest attack against the free press was parliament’s vote to criminalize defamation. Legislators were forced to withdraw the bill within weeks in the face of nationwide protests and international outcry. Protests also greeted a government tax investigation into the opposition broadcaster TVi. Starting in July, tax police and prosecutors raided the station’s newsroom and froze its bank accounts. Prosecutors eventually dropped their case against TVi owner Nikolai Knyazhitskiy but imposed a fine against the station. Impunity prevailed in ongoing assaults against reporters, as it did in the 2000 murder of Georgy Gongadze, the first online reporter in the world to be killed for his work. Although the trial of a former Interior Ministry general on charges of carrying out Gongadze’s brutal slaying began in July 2011, the proceedings ground away without resolution in late 2012. The prosecution has been pockmarked by the government’s procedural missteps. In June, an appellate court said prosecutors could not pursue a case against former president Leonid Kuchma, who has long been accused of ordering the murder.
With 49 journalists imprisoned for their work as of December 1, Turkey emerged as the world’s worst jailer of the press. Kurdish journalists, charged with supporting terrorism by covering the activities of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, made up the majority of the imprisoned journalists. They are charged under a vague anti-terror law that allows the authorities to equate coverage of banned groups with terrorism itself. A CPJ special report issued in October found highly repressive aspects of the penal code and anti-terror law, a criminal procedure code that favors the state, and a harsh anti-press tone set at the top levels of government. Intense government pressure caused media owners to dismiss critical journalists and generated pervasive self-censorship throughout the profession. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has filed several defamation lawsuits in recent years, publicly denigrated numerous critical journalists. CPJ conducted three fact-finding and advocacy missions to Turkey in 2012, meeting with journalists, lawyers, diplomats, and Turkey’s justice minister, Sadullah Ergin. CPJ urged Ergin to undertake a case-by-case review of all detained journalists.
Authoritarian leader Emomali Rahmon praised journalists' mission at a ceremony said to mark the centennial of the Tajik press, but his speech came with a contradictory message: Rahmon urged news outlets not to publish reports that could damage Tajikistan's international image, cause pessimism, or undermine public order. Such was the gap between rhetoric and reality. Rahmon signed into law a measure decriminalizing libel, even as statutes still impose prison penalties of up to five years for coverage deemed insulting to the president. The authorities blocked access to several independent news websites for up to three months after the outlets questioned the official account of a security general's killing and alleged that Rahmon had stepped up surveillance of local religious groups. Among the blocked outlets were both local and international outlets, including the popular Asia Plus, Ferghana News, Lenta, and the BBC, the Dushanbe-based National Association of Independent Mass Media in Tajikistan reported. The authorities also announced the creation of a volunteer-staffed cyberunit to identify supposedly extremist content and material insulting to the president. Citing the unit's findings, the state communications chief declared Facebook a "hotbed of slander" and ordered it blocked nationwide.
The beginning of Vladimir Putin’s third term as president was marked by a crackdown on civil society and critical opinion. Putin signed laws that suppress dissent by limiting public assembly, criminalizing defamation, and authorizing state censorship of critical websites. A Cold War-era chill settled in as lawmakers passed a measure requiring nongovernmental groups receiving international grants to register as “foreign agents,” and the administration expelled the United States Agency for International Development and the United Nations children’s agency. Illustrating the growing climate of intolerance, a court convicted members of a punk band on “hooliganism” charges and sentenced them to prison in connection with an anti-Putin stunt at a Moscow church. Deadly anti-press violence persisted: Assailants in the North Caucasus city of Nalchik gunned down a news anchor for the state-owned broadcaster VGTRK. Authorities made little substantive progress in addressing impunity in previous journalist murders. A former police colonel was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of helping plot the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya. Family and colleagues were dismayed that the suspect made a deal with investigators to be tried behind closed doors. And the country’s top criminal investigator threatened a leading newspaper editor in response to a critical commentary.
President Almazbek Atambayev and his ministers declared their commitment to press freedom and rule of law even as government agencies routinely subjected independent reporters to intimidation. Kyrgyzstan resisted domestic and international calls for the release of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek investigative reporter and human rights defender serving a life term on fabricated charges, including the murder of a police officer during ethnic violence and inciting ethnic hatred. In a June special report, CPJ found that regional authorities targeted, tortured, and imprisoned Askarov in retaliation for his coverage of the June 2010 conflict between ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz residents in the south, along with his long record of in-depth reporting on abuses by regional police. The 2010 clashes continued to cast a shadow over Kyrgyzstan's press freedom record. In February, the authorities blocked domestic access to the independent regional news website Ferghana News stemming from its reporting on the conflict. Uzbek-language media outlets, which were forced to close in the aftermath of the conflict, began to make their way back into the market, but in smaller numbers, local press freedom groups reported. As in previous years, independent journalists and news outlets battled politicized prosecutions and retaliatory lawsuits. Impunity continued in the 2007 murder of prominent editor Alisher Saipov and in the 2011 attack on his brother, journalist Shokhrukh Saipov.
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