Freedom of the press came under threat in 2013 in ways – and in some countries – that would have seemed inconceivable when the year began.
As the International Press Institute (IPI) today launches its “World Press Freedom Review”, highlighting press freedom violations over the past two years, one sobering development in 2013 was the number of journalists who found themselves ensnared in criminal cases.
“In addition to attacks on journalists, the IPI World Press Freedom Review highlights a plethora of examples in which criminal laws affected journalists’ work across the globe,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said. “Some of these laws are legitimate in nature but applied in full disregard of the right to press freedom; others have no place in a democratic society.”
She added: “Governments’ failure to repeal such laws leads to restraint, self-censorship and the loss of information that is vital for the democratic functioning of any country.”
Some of the most-unexpected actions against journalists in 2013 came from countries that often speak the loudest about protecting press freedom, including the United States and the United Kingdom, as authorities sought to contain fallout from disclosures by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
But journalists around the rest of the world were subject to shocking criminal accusations in 2013. Here are five of the more outrageous cases that we saw:
– U.S. government labels basic journalism ‘conspiracy to commit espionage’
James Rosen, Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent, probably thought he was engaged in standard newsgathering practice when he talked U.S. State Department official Stephen Jin-Woo Kim into sharing information on North Korea’s anticipated response to U.N. sanctions. The FBI disagreed. In a warrant for Rosen’s private communications, an FBI agent said that Rosen, by using “flattery and playing to Kim’s vanity and ego”, violated the Espionage Act “at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator”.
Rosen ultimately was not charged criminally, but news of the allegation against him surfaced in May on the heels of reports that federal prosecutors subpoenaed records for office, home and mobile telephone lines associated with more than 20 Associated Press journalists. The revelations led the Justice Department to issue new guidelines on handling investigations that involve reporters, which legislators incorporated in a renewed push for a federal law that would protect journalists’ confidential sources.
However, Attorney General Eric Holder declined to apply the new guidelines to an existing case involving New York Times reporter James Risen. Instead, federal prosecutors continued to fight for a court order forcing Risen to reveal his source for information on a failed CIA attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. That effort culminated in an appeals court ruling that the First Amendment created no privilege, at least in criminal cases, allowing journalists to protect a confidential source’s identity.
– Angolan reporter publishes reports in Portugal, faces charges at home
Reporter Rafael Marques de Morais faces criminal charges under Angolan law for reports that allegedly defamed high-level Angolan officials, even though the reports were not published in that country. Instead, Marques published his report, “Diamantes de Sangue: Corrupção e Tortura em Angola (Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola)”, in Portugal, Angola’s former colonial ruler, where prosecutors on Feb. 11 dismissed defamation charges filed on behalf of the Angolan plaintiffs.
Marques’ reports implicated business and government officials, including several military generals, in alleged corruption and human rights abuses in the country’s diamond mining sector. The journalist – who runs the Maka Angola corruption watchdog site and has written for several Angolan newspapers and international news media, including Forbes – told IPI last week that his lawyer was seeking dismissal of the latest charges: 11 counts filed in July 2013 in an Angolan court. “We took longer to file as we were waiting for a quieter moment,” he said via e-mail on Dec. 17. “There has been too much tension here, and the issue could have passed unnoticed.”
After the Angolan charges were filed, IPI and other press freedom and human rights groups lobbied the European Parliament to investigate the case, noting that Marques and his lawyer were initially denied access to evidence. In a Sept. 6 letter to the European Parliament, the organisations argued that the charges “constitute a clear violation of [Marques’] right to free expression and right to due process, which Angola has an obligation to uphold under international law as well as the Angolan Constitution”.
– Cuba: journalist who reported disease outbreak ‘disrespected’ country’s rulers
Imagine you receive a tip that your government is failing to distribute badly needed medical supplies in the midst of a cholera and dengue fever outbreak whose very existence it denies. Quite a bombshell. But now imagine that following the tip lands you in prison.
That’s what happened to Cuban journalist Calixto Ramón Martínez Arias, who endured 204 days of imprisonment and two hunger strikes between September 2012 and April 2013. Arrested at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, Martínez was accused of – but never formally charged with – disrespecting a public authority under Article 144.1 of the Cuban Penal Code. That article falls under the umbrella of criminal defamation, a category that includes both libel and the ubiquitous offence of desacato or “insult of authority.”
In an interview with fellow Cuban journalist Laura Paz, Martínez, who was released in April 2013, said the specific charge stemmed from an initial exchange of words with the arresting security agents, who claimed his presence in Havana was illegal. Martínez replied that if he was in Havana illegally then so, too, were Fidel and Raúl Castro, who both hail from Martínez’s hometown of Santiago del Este.
– Turkish journalists accused of trying to undermine state after making same claim against others
Turkish journalist Merdan Yanardağ, editor-in-chief of the Yurt newspaper, was convinced that a dangerous, shadowy conspiracy was operating inside Turkey’s government. In a program that aired on Kanalturk TV between 2004 and 2008, and in a book titled “How Turkey was Besieged: Behind the Curtains of the Fethullah Gülen Movement”, Yanardağ alleged that the movement – named for a Turkish author, educator and Muslim scholar who fled the country in 1999 for Pennsylvania, and whose members are said to be strongly entrenched within Turkey’s judiciary and police forces – represented a threat to democracy.
That criticism, Yanardağ says, led a Turkish court in August to sentence him to 10-and-a-half years in prison on charges that he was part of the alleged “Ergenekon” plot to use terrorism to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government. The court, acting on evidence outside observers have widely criticised, convicted all but 21 of the 275 defendants implicated in the alleged plot and sentenced nearly two dozen journalists to prison sentences varying from five years to life behind bars.
Yanardağ is not the only Turkish journalist who claims to have been imprisoned for criticising the Gülen movement. Investigative journalist Ahmet Şık said that his arrest in March 2011 in the Oda TV case, named for a news website prosecutors say acted as the media wing for the alleged Ergenekon plot, was related to his then-unpublished book “The Army of the Imam”, dealing with the movement’s alleged influence within the Turkey’s police. Şık, who was released in March 2012 after more than a year of pre-trial detention, remains on trial and faces seven-and-a-half years in prison if convicted.
– Chinese newspaper retracts unprecedented pleas for journalists’ freedom following ‘confession’
Chinese daily newspaper New Express (新快报) in October published unprecedented pleas for the release of its investigative reporter Chen Yongzhou, who exposed alleged fraud at a manufacturer, only to turn on him suddenly after he was shown on television, handcuffed and escorted by policemen, saying that he accepted bribes to fabricate the reports.
The New Express published 15 articles by Chen from September 2012 to June 2013 exposing alleged fraud at manufacturer Zoomlion, which is partly owned by the Hunan provincial government. The company denied the allegations and on Oct. 19 Chen was arrested and charged with “suspicion of damaging commercial reputation”.
In an Oct. 23, front-page editorial, “Please, release him”, the New Express explained: “We always thought that as long as we report responsibly then there would be no problem; and even in the event of a problem, we can publish corrections and apologise; if it is really serious, and we lose a court case, we will pay or shut down if we have to. But the fact is, we are too naive.” The newspaper said a review of Chen’s articles uncovered only one minor mistake and on Oct. 24 it issued a second editorial titled: “Again, please release him”. The state-controlled All-China Journalists Association (ACJA) also “urged local authorities to convincingly explain the controversial detention of a journalist”, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Then, on Oct. 26, China’s Central Television (CCTV) broadcast footage showing Chen’s confession. The ACJA quickly condemned “a Chinese reporter who has been detained on suspicion of releasing unverified and untrue stories about a company”, Xinhua reported, and the New Express published a retraction and apologised for Chen’s articles, as well as for the editorials calling for his release.
As for the “confession”, Hong Kong University’s China Media Project reported Wei Yongzheng (魏永征), a lecturer at Beijing’s University and well-known media lawyer, as commenting: “This programme of China Central Television’s, allowing a detained suspect to face the television camera and confess before the whole country … directly violates [the] Criminal Procedure Law, which states that ‘no person may be forced to confess their own crimes’. When someone has been deprived of their personal freedom, and when they are escorted out in prison garb and in handcuffs by a pair of brawny police officers – to say that they are consciously and willingly confessing their wrongs in their own words wouldn’t fool even a three-year-old child.”
The IPI World Press Freedom Review 2012-2013, released today, highlights press freedom violations and media developments across the globe. In six regional overviews – Africa, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East and North Africa – the Review also puts forward recommendations for legal changes and to address other challenges that affect journalists’ ability to carry out their work freely and independently. The IPI World Press Freedom Review is available here.