General: World Press Freedom Day in the MENA region, between death and death sentences


As we mark another World Press Freedom Day on 03 May 2020, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is working on cases that are examples of the extreme lack of freedom of speech in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Rights groups are pulling together to try to save the lives of four Yemeni journalists who have been sentenced to death as well as human rights defenders, journalists and activists who are being held in unsanitary conditions across the region from Egypt to Bahrain. In the MENA region, journalists and online activists continue to face imprisonment, ill-treatment and sentences that are meant to stifle any critical voices.

Countries around the world are releasing prisoners to protect them from the COVID-19 virus, because prisoners are at a higher risk than other populations. Yet most of the human rights defenders and journalists who are in prison in the MENA region in violation of their right to freedom of expression, have been denied freedom. For example, Bahrain has freed over 1500 prisoners, including some political prisoners, but no journalists or high-profile activists and human rights defenders, such as GCHR’s Founding Directors Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab, who have serious health issues and are being held in crowded cells. In a joint appeal, GCHR and 20 NGOs called for their immediate release during the COVID-19 crisis.

In addition, journalist Mahmoud Al-Jaziri was moved to solitary confinement after reporting on unsanitary conditions inside Bahraini prisons. Al-Jaziri has been imprisoned since December 2015 and is serving a 15-year prison sentence. He recorded an audio clip that was posted on YouTube on 07 April that contradicted statements by the Bahraini authorities who claimed to have taken measures to protect prisoners from the spread of COVID-19.

In Yemen, four journalists, Abdulkhaleq Ahmed Amran, Akram Saleh Al-Walidi, Al-Hareth Saleh Hamid and Tawfiq Mohammed Al-Mansouri, were sentenced to death on 11 April 2020, on charges of “spying” and “spreading false news.” More than one hundred organisations have signed a joint action to be published this coming week, noting that “Journalism, especially independent and critical journalism, is vital to promote transparency, accountability, good governance and respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, in Egypt, 24-year-old filmmaker Shadi Habash died on 02 May 2020 in Tora prison after spending two years awaiting a sentence for directing a sarcastic song called “Balaha” about President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Some of the many charges brought against Habash and his colleague Mustafa Gamal, who was arrested with him, were “insulting the military” and “abuse of social media networks.” In the song Balaha, former prisoner of conscience Ramy Essam, the voice of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, sings “You lived in gardens and we lived in jails” and you finished your four-year-term in “disgrace.” It is still unclear how Habash died, whether through medical negligence or suicide. He had been ill and sent out calls for help, including last October 2019 when he wrote that in prison “you can simply go crazy or slowly die.”

Last week, GCHR also joined an action led by Access Now with 50 supporters to urge the Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release courageous human rights activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah. Abdel Fattah has been on hunger strike for three weeks, since 12 April, to protest inhumane conditions in Tora prison, along with his continued illegal detention since his arrest on 27 September 2019, and the restrictions on communications with his family. His arrest is also related to criticism of Egypt’s President after protests on 20 September 2019 led to the detention of over 4,000 prominent activists, journalists, university professors, and lawyers, among the protesters. Abdel Fattah has also been charged with “spreading false news,” a blanket, vague, and broad charge that the Egyptian authorities use to restrict the free speech of activists, journalists and protesters.

“These are just a few cases representing thousands of other people in the region who have been imprisoned and killed this past year simply for practicing their right to freedom of speech,” said GCHR Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim.

“Through our work we have seen to what extent freedom of speech in this region seems to be intertwined with imprisonment, suffering and death,” says Zaynab Al-Khawaja, GCHR’s Journalist Protection Coordinator. “Today we witness the death of a young man for the crime of political sarcasm, and we hope for a future in which people who work online and in the media are celebrated in our countries and not punished,” she added.

On 04 May 2020, the Freedom Forum will add the stories of 11 men and women to its Journalists Memorial to represent all journalists who died or were killed while reporting the news in 2019. Among the names are Saad Ahmad and Mohamed Hussein Rasho, two Kurdish journalists killed in a bombing in Syria and Iraqi journalist Hisham Fares Al-Adami, who was killed in Baghdad by a sniper bullet on 04 October 2019. He was one of the first journalists to die during popular protests which spread across Iraq last year. This week, GCHR called for those responsible for their deaths to be brought to justice.

On World Press Freedom Day, GCHR also joins other members of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) to issue an urgent appeal to “honour those who work tirelessly to help keep the public informed and call for robust support for independent journalism.”

The appeal states: “Millions of people around the world are looking for reliable, fact-based, and gender-sensitive journalism that can help them navigate the biggest shared challenge of our lifetime. The need for trustworthy information has never been greater and more urgent than during this pandemic. Access to timely, high-quality information is imperative during a global health crisis; it is one of the key pillars required to slow the spread of this virus, mitigate its impacts, and underpin collective societal responses. Journalism is also the best antidote to fight the misinformation that is fuelling the pandemic.”