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BBC Crew Forcibly Prevented From Speaking To Sri Lanka President

BBC’s James Robbins prevented from speaking to Rajapakse (Pic.BBC)

Freedom of the foreign media to cover events in Sri Lanka reached a new low on Wednesday. A BBC camera crew was physically restrainedby security personnel to prevent them getting close to the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to ask him questions. The incident occurred at an event associated with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which Sri Lanka is hosting between November 15 and 17. 

Heightened security appears to follow an incidenton Tuesday, when a journalist of UK’s Channel Four television asked Rajapakse a question as the latter was getting into his car after opening the Commonwealth Business Forum. Media culture in Sri Lanka discourages reporters questioning officials and politicians except at press conferences or with an appointment.
The occurrence reflects the growing culture of intolerance of criticism and impunity in Sri Lanka. The country is ranked 163rd among 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index with journalists killed, made to disappear, imprisoned and forced to flee overseas.
“Critical or opposition journalists continue to face intense intimidation in Sri Lanka. Our research shows that at least 26 journalists have gone into exilein the past five years, which is one of the highest rates in the world. And while work-related murders have declined since 2009, the slayings of nine journalists have gone unpunished over the past decade, which is one of the worst records of impunity in the world,” wrote Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urging Commonwealth leaders to press Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to unshackle the media.
Meanwhile, on November 13, Channel Four journalists who were on their way to northern Sri Lanka where much of the fighting took place in 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009 were not allowed to enter the area to film. The train in which they were travelling was blocked by pro-government protestors.
“Hundreds surrounded the train and some boarded it, a witness said, adding that police made no attempt to clear the crowd. The Channel 4 television news team, which has previously reported on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, had to return to the capital Colombo…,” said Reutersquoting Channel Four and the local police.
Channel Four is particularly shunned by the Sri Lanka government for three documentaries it made on the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ that show civilians caught up in savage combat between government troops and rebel LTTE fighters. Political and military leaders of the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE hierarchy are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The spotlight on Sri Lanka from CHOGM has also shone on Sri Lanka’s long history of suppressing media freedom. Among the victims is Prageeth Ekneligoda, a columnist and cartoonist who disappeared on the eve of the presidential election on January 26, 2010.
Prageeth’s wife Sandaya in a piece to The Independent UK wrote, “In Sri Lanka there is almost no independent media. What are journalists there allowed to write about? Peaceful elections, new initiatives to keep the streets clean, how well the government is doing and CHOGM.  When CHOGM comes to Sri Lanka there will only be positive stories for the visitors to read. Positive stories, smiling billboards and hidden secrets.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will raise human rights and media freedomissues with host Rajapakse. However Sri Lanka’s Media and Information Minister Kehiliya Rambukwella angrily dismissed the suggestion.
“The invitation to Prime Minister David Cameron was not based on that (raising human rights concerns).We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka? We are not a colony. We are an independent state,” Rambukwella told the BBC.
However Cameron has said he would insist on taking up the issues with Rajapakse.
CHOGM that Colombo hoped would help its leaders consolidate their badly-eroding legitimacy at home has turned out to be PR nightmare both within Sri Lanka and overseas.

Turkey, Journalists Are Not Terrorists

                                                                        Courtesy IFJ

Turkey‘s dubious reputation as the world biggest jailor of journalists was reinforced on November 5 when four more journalists were imprisoned – three for life – for “trying to overthrow constitutional order by means of violence” and being members of a political body that Ankara considers a terrorist organisation. The incarceration comes just three months after an Istanbul court slapped politically-motivated prison sentences on 12 other journalists – one of them for life – allegedly for their part in the Ergenekon conspiracy. There are numerous other acts of media repression the Turkish government is accused of, including assaults on journalists during anti-regime protests and targeting media organisations of the Kurdish minority.

Füsun Erdogan, head of Ozgür Radyo and two journalists of the weekly Atlim – its editor Ibrahim Cicek and reporter Bayram Namaz– were given life, while Atilim’spublisher Sedat Senoglu, was sentenced to seven and a half years – all four charged for being members of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) that Turkey has banned as a terrorist organisation. According to the indictment the four journalists were arrested while preparing for the party’s fourth congress at a place where the police claim firearms were also discovered.
The trials were marred by procedural anomalies including long pre-trial detention and the judge refusing the defence’s request to examine documents produced by the police.
“These extremely harsh sentences have ended a trial marked by violations of defence rights and unacceptably long pre-trial detention for the main defendants. Despite a grave decline in her state of health, Füsun Erdogan spent more than seven years in prison before being sentenced. So did Bayram Namaz. What happened to the presumption of innocence? Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) asked.
RSF went on to say that Erdogan, Cicek and Namaz were given an additional 3000 years in prison for their responsibility for 150 acts of violence by MKLP as they held positions of leadership in the party.
Earlier, Erdogan who suffers from multiple health issues wrote in a letter to RSF that she had been held without trial for two years and although police accounts stated she and her husband Cicek were arrested at Ocakli where MLKP’s congress was to take place, in actuality they were detained while leaving a friend’s home in another town.
“We urge the judicial system to take account [breaches in due process] on appeal, and to re-examine the case with complete impartiality. But that could take some time, given the Turkish judicial system’s slowness. Meanwhile, the journalists should be released conditionally at once,” RSF said.
In a statement the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) referred to the imprisonment of the journalists in relation to Turkey’s obligations to media freedom as the country reopened negotiations to be admitted to the European Union.
“As the European Federation of Journalists  (EFJ) reconfirmed  that  ‘journalists are not terrorists’ on the Stand Up For Journalism Day on 5 November, the verdict that is based on political influence have shocked the journalist community in Europe and seriously affect  media freedom and journalists’ rights,” IFJsaid.
IFJ also reminded the “European Commission that the EU accession of Turkey must comply with the European standards on freedom of expression and information.”
On November 6, PEN Norway asked a delegation of its members in Turkey to “react sharply and raise the issue with the host.”  
As of December 2012, Turkey had in jail 49 journalists, said CPJ. There were more detentions this year. In August, 12 journalists were convicted and jailed, allegedly for their involvement in the Ergenekon conspiracy. The conspiracy refers to a military coup hatched between 2004 and 2007 against the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Refering to their arrests over the conspiracy Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) said, “These Turkish journalists, several of whom have already spent several years behind bars, have been swept up by an overly broad prosecution that equates journalistic coverage unfavorable to the government with actual anti-state activities.”
To read this blog’s posts on journalists and Ergenekon conspiracy, please click here.
Journalists are regularly arrested under Turkey’s counterterrorism laws. At a panel discussion on press freedom in Turkey on March 27, Susan Corke of the New York-based Freedom House referred to a report by Carnegie which said that 68% of journalists detained in Turkey in 2012 were held under counterterrorism laws.
To read this blog’s post on Turkey’s use of counterterrorism laws to restrain journalists please click here.
On September 16, Joel Simon, Executive Director of the New York-based Committee to  Protect Journalist in a letterTurkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called for far reaching reform of the media.
 RSF places Turkey 154th of 179 countries in its Media Freedom Index

Iraqi Photographer Released After 17 Months

On February 10th, Iraqi freelance photographer Ibrahim Jassam was finally released by US military forces after being detained for 17 months without charge.

Jassam, who regularly contributed photos and video to Reuters news agency, was detained in September 2008 during raid on his home in Mahmudiya, a town 30 miles south of Baghdad, an area which experienced high levels of insurgent activity at that time.

Press freedom organizations have been critical of the journalist’s captivity. Reporters Without Borders declared that Jassam’s release was “excellent news” but also stated that it was dissatisfied by the fact that the military did not give any reasons for his arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who have documented 14 cases where journalists have been held by US Forces for extended periods without charge, responded by calling on the US Government “to ensure that this release marks the end of its policy of open-ended detentions of journalists.”

The Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) cleared Jassam back in November 2008, on the basis that there was no evidence against him. However, US military authorities continued to hold him after the judgment. Lt. Col. Pat Johnson, a Pentagon spokesperson for the U.S. Forces in Iraq, responded the Court’s decision did “not negate the intelligence information” that listed him as a threat to Iraqi security and stability. The intelligence information implicating Jassam was not shared with the CCCI.

On the day of his release, Lt. Col. Johnson once again stated that Jassam was detained due to “activity with an insurgent organization.” Johnson reiterated that there was intelligence evidence against him but gave no indication of what the evidence was.

David Schlesinger, Editor in Chief at Reuters, deplored the lack of process surrounding Jassam’s incarceration claiming that it meant that the journalist was not given the right to defend himself properly.

Jassam was detained under war-time rules for detention, before the U.S.- Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) took effect in January 2009. As a result, US forces have claimed that they are “not bound” to adhere to the processes of the CCCI in the case against Jassam.

This interpretation of U.S. Forces remit is disputed by Thomas Kim, Deputy General Counsel at Thomson Reuters, who argues that the way that the US military has dealt with Jassam’s case is not consistent with the Rule of Law or the spirit of the SOFA. Article 3 of the Status of Forces Agreement puts a duty on the US forces not to act in a way that is inconsistent with the “letter and spirit of the agreement.” The purpose of the agreement is to allow Iraq to re-establish its sovereignty while keeping the country stable and free from terrorism. It can be argued that the US military forces unwillingness to follow Iraqi court procedure contradicts the sovereignty aim of this agreement.

Jassam’s case and other similar cases potentially cast a shadow over the U.S.A.’s human rights record in conflict zones. Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, expressed during Jassam’s imprisonment that these instances “undermine the ability of the U.S. government to effectively advocate for press freedom around the world.”

Photo Credit: AP