General: On World Press Freedom Day, GCHR calls for more resources to protect journalists

03.05.22

On World Press Freedom Day, marked annually on 03 May, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) calls for more resources to protect journalists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as well as worldwide. Journalists face great risks to carry out their work, both in the field and online, and are often attacked with impunity.

The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day has been designated by UNESCO as “Journalism under Digital Siege". The 2022 World Press Freedom Day Global Conference (WPFD) is taking place in Uruguay on 02-05 May.

GCHR has partnered with UNESCO’s Global Media Defense Fund for the second year to support the work of  investigative journalists in the MENA region to investigate impunity for crimes against journalists. GCHR has done a survey to gain more information on the level of knowledge among MENA journalists on protection mechanisms available to them. The Survey can be found (in Arabic) online, and if you are a journalist from the MENA region we invite you to fill it out.

Preliminary results from the survey, which has been answered by over 40 journalists from the MENA region, show that 83% of journalists feel a “high” or “very high” level of risk in their work.

“It is troubling to know that people investigating crimes against journalists in our region are in fact taking the risk of facing the same fate of the cases they cover. When I work with journalists on the ground, I find it heartbreaking to say the least, that they are writing about crimes that they already have been - or could be - the victims of in the future. These survey results are not surprising when those who commit crimes against journalists face no repercussions,” says Zaynab Al-Khawaja, GCHR’s Journalists’ Protection Coordinator.

Among the countries in the region where journalists face the most risk are Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Iran, where many journalists have been murdered or imprisoned, some facing the death penalty. Many others have fled their homes and countries.

For example, while four journalists sentenced to death in Yemen on charges of "espionage" and "spreading false news" no longer face death, they remain behind bars since their arrest in 2015. In spring 2021, the four journalists, Abdulkhaleq Ahmed Amran, Akram Saleh Al-Walidi, Al-Hareth Saleh Hamid and Tawfiq Mohammed Al-Mansouri, were moved to a prisoner exchange house, but have yet to be released. GCHR organised an appeal signed by over 150 NGOs in May 2020 to help save their lives.

GCHR has been doing a lot of work to highlight the risks to human rights defenders and journalists from surveillance. On 15 March 2022, GCHR, Access Now and Front Line Defenders organised a side event at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 49th session on Digital Security Threats Facing HRDs/WHRDs in the MENA Region. GCHR’s Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim, who moderated the event, condemned the surveillance of human rights defenders, including women, in the region and called for an end to the sales of surveillance tools to the MENA region. At the event, Jordanian human rights lawyer Hala Ahed Deeb, who was recently revealed to have been hacked by Pegasus, said, "We don't feel that we are safe anymore as human rights defenders and we can't help people because we can't help ourselves." Watch the event at: https://youtu.be/ZWwbIdzxf48

On behalf of GCHR, human rights lawyers William Bourdon and Vincent Brengarth filed a complaint in France on 28 July 2021 against the Israeli software company NSO Group, whose Pegasus hacking software is responsible for surveillance harm caused to human rights defenders in the MENA region and beyond. Those targeted by Pegasus software include GCHR’s Advisory Board member Ahmed Mansoor, serving 10 years in prison for his online activism in the United Arab Emirates; Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey in October 2018 with impunity; and many human rights defenders and journalists whom GCHR works with in Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The lawsuit is part of the strategy to counter the sales and use of surveillance tools to persecute human rights defenders. In 2021 GCHR and Access Now co-founded the MENA Coalition to Combat Digital Surveillance. Other members are ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch, Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM), Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA), Masaar - Technology and Law Community, Red Line for Gulf, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and SMEX.

In an effort to help guide businesses on the human rights costs of surveillance technology, GCHR contributed to Navigating the surveillance technology ecosystem: A human rights due diligence guide for investors, March 2022, by the Surveillance Technologies Accountability Project, a joint initiative of Heartland Initiative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, and Access Now. The Guide examines how surveillance technologies create human rights risks for individuals and communities.