Journalists to Remember on World Press Freedom Day

May 3, 2015

Prisoner of Conscience Eskinder Nega (right) is serving an 18-year sentence for his legitimate work as a journalist in Ethiopia
Prisoner of Conscience Eskinder Nega (right) is serving an 18-year sentence for his legitimate work as a journalist in Ethiopia

By Selin Thomas, Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting Fellow

It would be impossible to bypass the endless torrent of violence and conflict currently ongoing around the world. Horrific scenes of decimated cities, bodies bloodied and limp, flood our newsstands as reports of torture, mass abductions, beheadings and revolutions barrage our televisions. From Chicago to Nigeria, Libya to the Central African Republic, Israel to Iran, we have witnessed some of humanity’s most atrocious contributions to history yet, and they show no sign of stopping.

Witnessed. That is the key word here. It would be a mistake to interpret this inundation of horror as new; though conflict may be increasing alongside globalization, it has existed in spite of itself since civilization’s conception, of course. What is new, though, what is immeasurable, remarkable and now inevitable, is the capacity of these tremendous events to be witnessed by populations the world over, accessible on screens over oceans and continents. Burdened with ensuring this dissemination of reliable, accurate and balanced information on the global scale? The international press.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a staggering 61 journalists were killed in 2014, and 221 journalists were jailed. Though these numbers may appear small on the scale of the conflicts of which they are on the fray, they are a crucial and chilling determination of how these events will proceed, how they will be conducted, and how they will ultimately end. Here are twelve examples of journalists who have paid the price for conducting their essential work:

  • The Unity Five, media workers from Myanmar arrested in early 2014, were taken into custody after Unity published an article on January 25 about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory in Pauk Township, Pakokku District in Magwe Region. Due to their legitimate reporting, they were all charged with “disclosing State secrets, trespassing on the restricted area of the factory, taking photographs and the act of abetting” under Article 3(1) A/9 of Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. On July 10 the Pakokku District Court sentenced them to 10 years imprisonment and hard labor which were later reduced to seven years. On World Press Freedom Day join us as we flood the Facebook page of Myanmar’s Minister of Information with messages demanding the government #FreeUnity5:
  • Journalist and human rights defender Anna Politkovskaya’s 2006 assassination has still seen no justice in Russia, in which 56 journalists have been killed since 1992, according to CPJ. Politkovskaya investigated and reported award-winning coverage of torture and other violations of human rights there, exposing countless crimes committed by the Russian Federation government until her untimely death set a chilly precedent for investigative reporting in the country.
  • Eskinder Nega, an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, is a prominent Ethiopian journalist who was arrested and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment after making speeches and writing articles criticizing the government and calling for freedom of expression to be respected. In June 2012, he was found guilty of “preparation or incitement to terrorist acts, “participation in a terrorist organization,” and “high treason.” His wife, Serkalem, once a publisher and journalist in Ethiopia, was also arrested and held in captivity during the birth of their son until able to flee to the United States, where they await Eskinder’s return.
  • Khosro and Masoud Kordpour, both journalists from Iran’s Kurdish minority, were sentenced in November 2013 to prison terms of respectively six years and three-and-a-half years, convicted of the vaguely worded offenses of “gathering and colluding against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the system.”
  • Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, along with colleague Peter Greste, were found guilty of charges of “broadcasting false news” and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, and sentenced to seven years in prison (the judge sentenced Mohamed to an additional three years for possessing a souvenir bullet casing). The court convicted all but two of the other defendants, sentencing them to between seven and 10 years in prison. Most were sentenced in absentia, but a group of four other men – unconnected to the Al Jazeera journalists – were also jailed. The Cairo Criminal Court overturned the journalists’ conviction in January 2015 and a month later Greste was deported. On Feb. 12, Fahmy and Mohamed were conditionally released from jail after spending more than 400 days in detention. They still await their retrial on the original charges.
  • Investigative journalist Rafael Marques de Morais exposes corruption and human rights abuses in Angola through his website MakaAngola. The government perceives him to be a threat, and he has faced multiple arrests to silence his work. Rafael most recently has been on trial for criminal defamation because of a book he wrote alleging abuses in the diamond fields in Angola. Despite the efforts at intimidation, Rafael will not be silenced and continues to publish articles that ask hard hitting questions of officials running the country he loves and demanding they do better.
  • Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian has been held in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin Prison since his arrest in July 2014. He had been the Washington Post’s foreign correspondent. He is being charged with nebulous security-related offenses including “collaborating with hostile governments” and “spreading propaganda against the system.” Rezaian has been granted only brief access to a lawyer.

History shows us that the sometimes turbulent relationship between the press and government has allowed for the oft-flawed but well-exercised muscle of democracy to triumph over tyranny, genocide and war. Throughout countless global crises, tragedies and triumphs, it has been the publication of journalism during the greatest events of the century (the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, CIA torture report the Syrian Civil War, to name a few) that lifts the veil so diligently, and informs the public so dutifully, it heralds its own merciless victories. For this, journalists like those listed, often torn by the duality of their patriotism and conscience, or sometimes simply caught amid the dangers in which they are immersed, have a target painted on their back.

In honor of World Press Freedom Day, May 3, let us not only salute these journalists and the many others killed and jailed for their work on our world’s frontlines, but let us demand their freedom and the freedom of journalists to follow, so that we may ensure that those waging sectarian wars, those dropping bombs on children, those murdering their citizens and kidnapping their children, those torturing prisoners and stealing from already impoverished nations, are held accountable. We can and simply must do this to ensure, in the words of Eskinder Nega, that “democracy [is] no longer the esoteric virtue of Westerners but the ubiquitous expression of our common humanity.”

Act now on behalf of unjustly targeted journalists by joining Amnesty International’s Urgent Action Network, which provides an effective and rapid response to urgent situations involving journalists and also prisoners of conscience and other individuals whose human rights are being imminently threatened.Members of the Urgent Action Network compose and send letters, e-mails, and faxes to government officials urging them to stop human rights violations.