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Anti-Terrorism Laws Target Journalists

Anti-Terrorism Laws Target Journalists

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After publishing an online column in 2011, Eskinder Nega was accused of providing “moral support” to supposed outlaws, as he criticised the prosecution of journalists considered by the Ethiopian government to be “terrorists.” Eskinder was also charged for alleged links to Ginbot 7, a banned political party based in the United States, a claim which he has rejected. As a result, Eskinder received an 18-year jail sentence in July 2012 under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism legislation – yet another gruelling example of how such laws can be misused to stifle and punish the work of journalists in the name of national security.

Since Ethiopia adopted its notorious Anti-Terror Proclamation in 2009, politically motivated prosecutions have been turned against independent media, as authorities have ruthlessly arrested and served journalists with harsh jail sentences. In the most recent crackdown, six independent bloggers of the activist group “Zone 9” and three freelance journalists were arrested on 25 and 26 April and are now held incommunicado, on allegations that they collaborated with foreign human rights groups or used social media to incite violence in the country.

Ethiopia’s vague wording in Articles 2, 4 and 6 of its anti-terrorism law has been regularly used to jail journalists for doing their job: from anything covering a protest to talking to opposition groups. An IPI/WAN-IFRA report following a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia in November 2013 clearly highlights the dangers in misusing such legislation to further repress any criticism of the government: “The 2009 anti-terrorism law gave new powers to the government to arrest those deemed seditious, including journalists who step beyond the bounds of politically acceptable reporting or commentary.”

But Ethiopia is not the only country to misuse vaguely worded anti-terrorism laws to attack press freedoms. As countries worldwide started adopting national security legislation over the past decade, many prosecutions have also forced many journalists into jail, and many others into self-censorship and silence.

The report “In the Name of Security” published by Human Rights Watch in 2012 says that more than 140 countries have adopted new anti-terror legislation since 9/11. When reviewing 130 of those laws, it found that all contained one or more provisions that opened the door to abuse. This risk has especially hit the media: the number of journalists jailed worldwide reached 232 in 2012, 132 of whom were detained on anti-terror or other national security charges, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

This ongoing trend has recently come under the spotlight in Egypt, where three Al Jazeera reporters are among many other Egyptian journalists detained and charged as “terrorists” for supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, under the military-backed government that has ruled the country since President Morsi’s ousting in July 2013.

In an interview with WAN-IFRA, Sherif Azer, an Egyptian human rights activist and coordinator for Front Line Defenders, notes how anything that will fall within the context of the regime’s “war on terrorism” will be very hard to deal with: “so far the current regime is definitely not taking it easy on anything that is related to the Muslim Brotherhood, and they considered Al-Jazeera as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, so they are considering it as part of their war on terrorism.”

This has not only seen scores of journalists arrested, but has also increased widespread self-censorship among media outlets: “Once there is someone who is having an attitude of criticising the regime and the army, even in a sarcastic way, they will most likely be subjected to some kind of harassment, even if not a direct harassment from the regime or an arrest, it will be silencing in general,” comments Azer.

If Turkey is considered one of the largest prisons for journalists worldwide, legislation further endangers the work of journalists who report on terrorism or anti-government activities. A much broader definition of “terrorism” was introduced in an amendment to anti-terror laws in 2005, allowing defendants to be detained for lengthy periods before being formally charged.

In a review by CPJ, approximately 70 percent of journalists jailed in 2012 by Turkish authorities were charged with “aiding terrorism.” Many of them were accused of covering activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkish authorities list as a terrorist organisation. Among those journalists charged is Tayyip Temel, the editor-in-chief of the daily Kurdish-language newspaper Azadiya Welat, who has been behind bars since October 2011, condemned for allegedly supporting terrorism by covering the activities of PKK. There is no definitive evidence that he participated in any terrorist activities.

The United States and European governments have also come under fire for putting national security concerns ahead of civil liberties, including press freedoms. Especially since 9/11, democracies have increasingly relied on anti-terrorism laws to protect government secrets and constrain journalists from publishing classified information.

The detention under Schedule 7 of the UK Terrorism Act 2000 of David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who has been instrumental in breaking the story on the National Security Agency files, is another example of how governments can use such legislation to dangerously associate journalism with terrorism, as highlighted in WAN-IFRA’s UK Press Freedom Report.

Vaguely worded and distorted anti-terror legislation continues to constrain the work of journalists worldwide. As the “30 Days for Freedom” campaign focuses on journalists such as Eskinder Nega who are jailed under such legislation for simply doing their job, it should also highlight the need for a deeper debate on what kind of balance to strike between national security concerns and press freedoms.


Jessica White's picture

Jessica White


2014-04-30 12:33

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