Author Archives: Jacqui Park, IFJ Asia-Pacific (Australia)

How do we overcome impunity?

Journalists stage a demonstration outside the Peshawar Press Club in response to the murder of Nasrullah Afridi. Photo courtesy of the Khyber Union of Journalists.

Well, my bags are packed and all last-minute preparations made for IFEX, which gives me time to make another post. I’m really looking forward to hearing from colleagues from around the world about their struggles against impunity – it’s certainly one of the biggest obstacles to free expression in many parts of the world.

This is especially true of South Asia. In recent weeks we’ve seen our colleagues in Pakistan come out in force to protest the murder of Nasrullah Afridi, who was killed in a car bombing in the city of Peshawar on May 10. Afridi’s death has mobilised journalists around the country, though especially in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas, where he was from, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where he had relocated to with his family. He moved to Peshawar after sustained threats on his life and a grenade attack on his home in 2007.

Understandably, his colleagues in Pakistan are outraged that more wasn’t done by authorities to help protect him. The question now is whether they will act to find and punish those responsible for his death. If we look at the track record on killings of journalists in Pakistan, then the outlook isn’t good.

Last year the IFJ ranked Pakistan as the most dangerous country in the world for media professionals, with 16 media workers killed. Afridi is the fourth journalist to be killed in Pakistan this year. Of the scores of media workers who have been murdered in Pakistan, only one conviction has ever been recorded – for the high-profile murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Pakistan is only one example, of course. In Sri Lanka, a different set of circumstances conspires to allow the murder and abduction of journalists to go unpunished. The international community was horrified by the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on January 8, 2009. Wickrematunge’s posthumous editorial chillingly predicted that investigations into his death would be ineffectual, saying:

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too.

Almost two and a half years later his words read like a self-fulfilling prophecy – no real progress has been made in investigating his death. The same can be said of the investigations into the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, who has been missing since January 24, 2010.

So how do we address impunity or lack of legal protection in the context of a state under siege and beholden to corrupt interests, such as in the case of Pakistan? Or in the context of an entrenched anti-media regime successful in enforcing silence, which is the case in Sri Lanka?

I don’t have all the answers. But I do think our best chance of doing so is by working together with our partners on the ground, and not giving up our struggle. Concerted international advocacy works, as in the case of J.S. Tissainayagam, who was eventually pardoned. I think it is forums like IFEX that give us the best chance of success.

New threats to free expression in the digital age

Greetings, IFEX friends, from all at the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific. I’m excited to be once again joining next week’s IFEX GM and Strategy Conference. It’s a terrific way for us to come together to share our stories, our struggles and our ideas for furthering the global campaign for freedom of expression and access to information for all people.

I’d like to kick off my first foray into blogging by talking about – aptly – journalists and freedom of expression online.

The rise of online media has revolutionised the way everyone with access to the web operates in their professional and personal lives. The past few years have seen working journalists and their industries presented with a whole host of challenges and opportunities. In some parts of the Asia-Pacific region, the business model that supports journalism has been unsettled and citizen journalists and bloggers are playing an increasingly significant role in public discourse. WikiLeaks, in addition to exposing some uncomfortable truths about the nature of diplomacy, has fundamentally shifted long-held conventions about the relationship between journalists and sources.

As we meet in Beirut the Human Rights Commission will consider this latest report by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue. The report focuses on the Internet, looking at the trends and challenges for people around the world who use this transformative medium to exercise their rights and promote society’s progress as a whole.

This an important report, as it outlines how countries block access to the Internet, restrict content and criminalise legitimate forms of expression. The arbitrary use of criminal law, La Rue writes, creates a “chilling effect” and leads to other human rights violations, such as arbitrary incarceration and torture.

La Rue also notes that the Internet has become the key means for people to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and access to information. And, as much as there are journalists using online media and communications technologies to exercise these rights, some authorities are doing their best to place roadblocks at every digital avenue.

China is an urgent case in point, and is highlighted in La Rue’s report. Filtering systems, La Rue writes, scan websites for words like democracy and human rights in order to block access to them. Bloggers are incarcerated at rates outstripping the rest of the world – and that is only the cases that we know about. ISPs are required to watch over Internet users and are held responsible for user content posted online. The IFJ report released in January, Voices of Courage: Press Freedom in China also considered these grave issues.

The IFJ has been monitoring violations of journalists’ rights in China since 2008. Earlier this year, when calls for “jasmine” revolution spread through the Web from Tunisia and through the Middle East, people in China who attempted to either publicise these events or make similar calls for protest have been dealt with harshly by the authorities. Scores of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists have been harassed, demoted or jailed. The most high-profile case to date is that of artist Ai Weiwei, who has been locked up for almost two months with the authorities alleging tax evasion at one of Ai’s companies. On April 3, the day Ai was detained, journalist Wen Tao, a close associate of the artist, was also incarcerated.

Media organisations can suffer the wrath of the authorities without even mentioning Ai’s name. On May 12, Southern Metropolis Daily ran an editorial that alluded to the artist by making oblique references to his work. The writer of the piece now faces the sack, and the editorial lasted only a few hours on the newspaper’s website before it was pulled down. It’s a beautiful, evocative piece of writing – and thanks to the Hong-Kong-based China Media Project, you can read it in full here.

It’s clear that for all its potential to strengthen democracy and free expression, we must be vigilant to ensure the Internet isn’t constrained and restricted just like the printing press or airwaves have been in many parts of the world. I’m looking forward to hearing more about Internet policy and regulation next week at IFEX Strategy Conference for this reason.

Serenade Woo, the IFJ’s Press Freedom in China project manager is set to take part in this discussion. The IFJ has monitored violations of press freedom and journalists’ rights since the lead-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing in August 2008. It’s important work, made possible in consultation with a range of international organisations and funded by the Media Safety and Solidarity Fund that is supported by journalists in Australia and New Zealand.

Over the years the IFJ project has uncovered scores of censorship orders for print and online media issued by China’s authorities and, with the assistance of journalists on the ground, delved into China’s efforts to control online media and information sharing.

The clampdown in China since February is at least as harsh as that of the period leading up the 2008 Games, and I’m interested in hearing more about how the situation there compares with that of the oppressive regimes in the Middle East that persist in their desire to undermine the rights that we at IFEX hold so dear.