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Huffington Post blogger blocked from accepting journalism award by Cuban government

Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban blogger for The Huffington Post who garnered attention in recent months for offering frank criticism of her country’s Communist government, said last month that she was barred by Cuban officials from traveling to the U.S. to accept a coveted journalism award.

Sánchez has been publishing the blog Generación Y – full of social commentary on daily life and political struggles from her hometown of Havana, and offering some of the most blatant criticism of her country’s one-party system found within Cuba – for the past two years. Despite strict government censorship in Cuba, she has managed to keep her blog alive and active by evading police and sometimes emailing entries to her friends in other countries to post. Time magazine listed her as one of the world’s 100 most influential persons in 2008, stating that “as one of the under the nose of a regime that has never tolerated dissent, Sánchez has practiced what paper-bound journalists in her country cannot: freedom of speech.”

In May, Cuban authorities denied Sanchez permission to fly to Madrid to accept the Ortega y Gasset Prize in digital journalism for creating Generation Y, which gets more than 1 million hits a month.

Then, in early October, she became the first blogger to win one of the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes given by Columbia University for journalism that advances inter-American understanding. But she was again denied an exit visa by the Cuban government, rendering her unable to attend the event where she made history.

She made a video recording in response to her visa denial, which she posted on her blog and which was played at the Cabot Prize award ceremony on October 12. “We Cubans are like small children,” she explained in the message, “who need Father’s permission to leave the house.”

Tunisian Opposition Leader Beaten by Cops

Hamma Hammami, the former editor of the banned newspaper Alternatives and spokesman for the illegal Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT), was badly beaten by police yesterday after criticizing the country’s government in an interview for Al Jazeera, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Hammami was returning to Tunis from Paris, where he had given the interview – in which he criticized Tunisia’s electoral system, human rights abuses, censorship of the press – on September 25th.

Hammami’s wife, Radhia Nasraoui, a lawyer and human rights activist, told Reporters Without Borders that she had taken a taxi to meet her husband at the Tunis airport, because her car’s tires had been slashed. “I saw Hamma arrive, his mouth covered with blood, his glasses broken, bruises on his face, surrounded by about 20 policemen who were continuing to hit him,” she said, “A policeman came up to me, snatched my mobile phone and threw it away with great force.” Nasraoui added that after returning home they learned that the Tunisian authorities had told France 24 – a 24-hour French news syndicate – that Hammami had arrived back in Tunis without any problem.

“We no longer have the right to express our views in Tunisia,” she said.

According to the BBC, “Human rights activists in Tunisia and abroad accuse the government of widespread abuses, including the torture and harassment of dissidents,” and of “using the courts to silence political opponents.”

In 1999, Mr. Hammami was handed a nine-year prison sentence for belonging to an illegal organization (PCOT), in what he called an unfair trail. He went into hiding with two colleagues for four years, eventually coming forward in February 2002. Before his court appearance he told reporters that he and his colleagues were not extremists or outlaws, but had “refused to submit to dictatorship… and repressive laws.” He said that even if imprisoned “we will continue the struggle from the darkest corners of our cells.” His nine-year sentence was confirmed, but he was released in September 2002.

Corruption in Russia Increasingly Deadly for Journalists and Activists

The headline on the Reporters Without Borders homepage today read “Russia: From Bad to Worse.” And certainly after the deaths of activist Nataliya Estemirova and journalist Anna Politkovskaya (pictured above) that made international headlines last month, the situation in Russia seems to be quickly deteriorating.

Two human rights activists, Alik Dzhabrailov and his wife Zarema Sadulayeva, were found shot dead in Chechnya on Tuesday, the same day journalist Malik Akhmedilov was found murdered. The deaths have lead to greater government scrutiny and even harsh words from EU representatives.

“It is important that an investigation into these latest murders is conducted promptly, transparently and thoroughly.” said the Swedish president. “The perpetrators must be brought to justice.”

It is a point that needs to be addressed in a country that has been unable to find or prosecute many human rights and journalism victims, in some cases undoubtedly because of government involvement. Such was the case in the investigation and trial that went no where for slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

The EU Observer reports that two Chechen newspapers pulled out of the country in recent days due to safety concerns. Two NGOs have also left in recent days.

Amnesty International says, “The light of public scrutiny is gradually being turned off in Chechnya. First, international organizations and journalists were banned from the region, and now, local civil society is being eliminated.”

Press intimidation can no longer be considered a rare occurrence in the region. Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 141 out of 173 for press freedom.

For an interesting way to grasp the corruption that occurs in the country, this unique graph from Information is Beautiful breaks down how billions of dollars is spent around the world. According to the chart, bribes to Russian officials come in at a staggering $316 billion. That is just under the $320 billion spent on worldwide drug trafficking, not to mention the $54 billion it would take to feed every child in the world for a year, according to the chart.

Photo Credit: AFP

Chavez Claims Media Violated Free Speech, Shuts Down 34 Broadcasters

Protesters rallied on Saturday to object to the government shutdown of 34 radio and television stations. Crowds of at least 200 gathered outside Contatel, the country’s communications regulator who broke the news. This move follows the shut down of two oppositional television stations just two years earlier.

“In any country that respects the rule of law, a broadcast media suspected of using a frequency in an irregular manner would have been warned in advance that proceedings were being initiated against it and its representatives would have been given a chance to defend themselves or file an appeal,” says Reporters Without Borders.

The crowds outside Contatel in Caracas called Chavez a dictator, while the president says that the outlets are to blame for abusing free speech. “Freedom of expression must be limited,”said Luisa Ortega, Venezuela’s Attorney General.

The government is also claiming that the move serves to “democratize” the media and take it out of the hands of the elite. And for yet another inconsistent excuse, a representative from Contatel says the shut downs were due to administrative errors where the stations failed to update their licenses or let them expire.

This assortment of explanations come just one day after Chavez expressed support for new legislation that could further restrict journalists and send them to jail for “media crimes.” According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, one area of the proposed bill states that “any person who divulges false news through the media that upsets public peace … will be sentenced to between two and four years in prison.” “False”, “manipulated” or “distorted” reports that “harm the interests of the state” would be reason enough to jail journalists for six months to four years.

Government interference isn’t a new tactic for silencing media critics; In 2007 RCTV, a known government critic, was not allowed to renew its license. Self censorship was apparent in at least two other stations that noticeably modified their programing after the 2007 incident.

“With the exception of Cuba, Venezuela is the only country in the region that shows such flagrant disregard for universal standards of freedom of expression,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

Pictures as Protest

By Katie McNish

The New York Times last week reported on a dicey situation in Zambia, where a journalist’s effort at activism backfired and landed her in jail.

Chansa Kabwela, the news editor of the Zambian daily The Post – which has been critical of the impoverished country’s “corrupt” regime – was concerned about the national health care worker’s strike. She was approached by a distraught man bearing photos of a gruesome incident: his wife, naked outside a local hospital where she had been denied medical attention by striking workers, giving birth to a child who died hours later. According to Ms. Kabwela, the man hoped that if The Post published the photos, more tragedies like his family’s could be avoided. She and The Post’s other editors decided that the images were too disturbing for publication, but felt they were important given the dire situation. On June 10, Ms. Kabwela sent copies of the photos to several women’s groups and public officials, including the Vice President and Health Minister, urging them to “take quick action and end this strike.”

But, Ms. Kabwela told the Times, “the government deliberately decided to misunderstand my intention,” – to draw attention to the suffering caused by the strike – and instead dubbed the images “pornographic.” On June 13, she was arrested and charged with “distributing obscene materials in order to corrupt the morals of society.” She was released on bond but faces up to five years in prison.

Some have speculated that this incident has been a government response to The Post’s negative editorials, though statements by both the government officials and some of women’s groups that received the photos pointed only to the woman’s nakedness, highlighting her lack of “privacy and dignity.”

Ms. Kabwela issued an apology and the strike has since ended, but the war of words between the The Post and the Zambian government continues. Recent editorials have called President Rupiah Banda and his government’s response to the incident an “abuse of power.”