Tag Archives: Amnesty International

International Migrants Day 2016, Syria & the World’s Refugee Crisis

International Migrants Day 2016

December 18 is International Migrants Day, falling in the middle of yet another broken ceasefire in Aleppo, Syria. The combination of 4.5 million refugees and 6.5 million internally displaced people means that half of Syria‘s 22m population are technically migrants, making it the biggest humanitarian refugee crisis and migration exodus since the Nazi era. Half-a-million have been killed in the civil war/uprising and there are few signs of an end in sight.

Dignity for all migrants

Two years ago, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said in hope:

“On International Migrants Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to shape diverse and open societies that provide opportunities and lives of dignity for all migrants.” – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 2014

Two years later and the outgoing Secretary General, at his last press conference, sounded a depressing note, describing:

“the carnage in Syria” as “a gaping hole in the global conscience” and Aleppo as “a synonym for hell”. “We have collectively failed the people of Syria. Peace will only prevail when it is accompanied by compassion, justice and accountability for the abominable crimes we have seen.” – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 2016

Crisis, Displacement, Migration…Relief, Asylum, Refuge

Over a quarter-of-a-billion of the world’s population are migrants – people who have changed country because of war, disaster or famine, and the poverty or threat to life brought on by them. Globalisation and the resultant increased geographical mobility, not to mention trafficking and exploitation mean that some nations have seen 8-fold increases in net migration since the 1990s. If we recognise our international origins many more of us, if not all of us, are migrants too. 

If we recognise our international origins many more of us, if not all of us, are migrants too. Who is truly British or English when we are part Roman, part Saxon, part Viking, part Norman, part Dutch and many more besides.

Refugees from “forced displacement” recorded worldwide in 2015 numbered over 65 million according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. That’s nearly 1% of the world currently homeless, nationless, fleeing wars, terror, persecution and the slow death and disease of refugee poverty from relying on handouts and the generosity of others, NGOs, international aid and agencies.

Around 53,000 migrants have died since 2000 just attempting to reach the shores of more free, safe, developed nations, over half trying to get to Europe – some 6,000+ each year, most recently. Hundreds die every year attempting to enter America, similarly with Australia. Even if they make it, hundreds of thousands end up detained (350,000pa in the US) and returned, or imprisoned. 

Sadly, the escalation of migrant deaths means that on average 20 die each day, with 2016 the worst on record at 7,200 deaths with 2 weeks left to run. It represents a 50% increase since 2014 which itself was double the figure for 2013. Some 4,800 deaths in the Meditteranean also represent a 33% increase over 2015, despite a 60% reduction in arrivals to Europe’s southern coasts. 

Migrant Arrivals and Deaths Mediterranean 2016
Migrant Arrivals and Deaths Mediterranean 2016

Back in 1990, on 18 December, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. In 1997, some Asian migrant organisations began to commemorate 18 December as the International Day of Solidarity with Migrants. In 2000, the UN proclaimed that date, henceforward, to be International Migrants Day.

In remarks to the UN, in October 2013, Ban Ki-moon said:

“Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family.” 

Resolutions but no Resolution

At a high-level meeting on migration at the United Nations in New York, 3-4 October 2014, Member States unanimously adopted a Declaration calling for “respect of human rights and international labour standards”, “commitment to fight human trafficking” and strongly condemning “manifestations of racism and intolerance.” 

The declaration set out to “Strongly condemn the acts, manifestations and expressions of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against migrants and the stereotypes often applied to them, including on the basis of religion or belief.”

The need to “improve public perceptions of migrants and migration” was also stressed.

It further recognised, in the same declaration document, that “human mobility is a key factor for sustainable development”, something which many immigration reactive nations are seeking to restrict. 

In 2016, September 19, the UN General Assembly held its first ever summit on large movements of refugees and migrants to enhance their protections. The resultant commitments, known as the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (NY Declaration), reaffirm present international protections and pave the way for forthcoming new global compacts in 2018.

Political Breaking Point

Breaking Point World Refugee Day Refugees Are Welcome
Breaking Point – World Refugee Day – Refugees Are Welcome

In the UK, all the main parties bar the Greens at the last election in 2015 were in a race to the bottom to prevent economic migration, restrict benefits for 2-4 years, and tighten borders – despite the economic case for immigration. The EU Referendum in June 2016 saw migrant peoples both demonised and topping some people’s fears and reasons for voting. In the US, the Republicans and Donald Trump have lionised migrants and Muslims especially. Meanwhile, the city of New York, with its large immigrant communities has vowed to oppose any anti-migrant or Muslim registers or laws.

An issue for the world

It is not just Europe and America that are primary destinations, though. For instance, in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates is made up of about 84% immigrants – millions from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, among others. The population has grown by some 500% since 1990. Some of the UAE migrant workers end up being “beaten, exploited and trapped into forced labour, according to an October 2014 report by Human Rights Watch.” 

Migrant workers have also suffered greatly in Qatar during the building work of the 2022 World Cup football stadium with the tacit sanction of UEFA whilst it turns a blind eye to the poor human rights record on its immigrant workforce.

Amnesty International‘s Head of Refugee and Migrants Rights says:

“Political decision-makers need to show leadership by ensuring the human rights of migrants are protected, instead of taking cheap shots through scaremongering tactics. Poor migrants are the perfect political scapegoats – they have no money, no influence and they can’t vote. So if you’re a government whose policies are letting people down, you can blame it all on immigration.” – Amnesty International

Allowing and welcoming immigration is part of international development, yet we prefer to give aid and then say, “stay away”, cementing our “me first” attitudes and protectionist economic policies that are counter free market and prevent natural third world development. The longer we artificially maintain the global haves vs have-nots the more we encourage “desperation migration”. We need generous global action on poverty and economic opportunity, not selfish states. Anyone willing to risk life and limb to reach your borders is probably the kind of driven committed person who would be an asset to your country, community, and workforce.

Don't Bomb Syria Rally, Norwich, 28 November 2015 photo by Katy Jon Went
“Refugees Welcome” Don’t Bomb Syria Rally, Norwich, 28 November 2015


Saving Syria’s Aleppo from War Crimes & Humanitarian Crisis, Norwich Rally

Save Aleppo, Syria – Norwich Rally

Lotty Clare, Save Aleppo, Norwich demo
Lotty Clare, Save Aleppo, Norwich demo

Movement for Justice and UEA student, Lotty Clare led a rally outside City Hall Norwich for Aleppo Syria with Tim Hughes of Stop the War Coalition, activist and writer Katy Jon Went, Norwich-based Syrian refugee Anas, and John Cowan. Cllrs Alan Waters and James Wright of Norwich City Council were among the gathered crowd to offer support and hear what could be done. Alan Waters said that the city’s MPs, Chloe Smith and Clive Lewis, would be written to.

What can you do?

One of the hardest things is feeling so powerless in the face of the humanitarian disaster, but there are actions that can be taken:

  • Writing to MPs
  • Writing to international embassies about the United Nations Responsibility to Protect to which all member nations signed up in 2005 to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity
  • Writing to Syria’s embassy as responsible for the wellbeing of its own people and to uphold the 16 UN resolutions regarding atrocities and human rights abuses in Syria
  • Supporting Syrian and international aid charities
  • Helping Médecins Sans Frontières as a medic or with money
  • Joining Amnesty International
  • Welcoming Syrian refugees – offering spare rooms. Half of Syria have been forced out of their homes, the biggest refugee and displacement crisis since the Second World War, 11 million people
  • Keeping yourself informed to maintain international pressure on the parties responsible for perpetuating the situation
  • Attending rallies to keep Syria in the public and media eye
Norwich Save Aleppo Rally
Norwich Save Aleppo Rally

My own contribution evolved out of a facebook rant I wrote earlier in the day about the escalation of terror and atrocities in the weeks before Christmas, the supposed season of goodwill and peace to all mankind.

Text of my speech

We hear you Aleppo
“We hear you Aleppo”, placard by Laure Ollivier-Minns

A year ago, as the UK Parliament was considering joining the by then year long US & 13 nation coalition of bombing Syria, I attended a Don’t Bomb Syria rally. A year later and the situation is worse, not only in Syria but also in surrounding nations. 15 years of invasions, interference, and increased radicalisation by bombing the bombers, has not stopped or solved a single middle eastern crisis.

Christmas sees no let up in world chaos and terror, no salam, shalom, peace toward all men…an Advent calendar of death mostly meted out on non-combatants, mother and child, drone strike “collateral damage”, innocent victims of men’s rush to conquer and dominate, or to solve problems with swords rather than ploughshares, bombs rather than words.

Use your power for peace, Save AleppoOn Sunday, IS killed 25, mainly women, in Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral, the same day Boko Haram forced two 7-year-old girls to act as suicide bombers in a Nigerian market. In the first 2 weeks of December alone, IS have executed 100 people, so have Syrian pro-government forces, and suicide bombs have gone off in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Turkey, Yemen.

Meantime the humanitarian disaster that is Syria and Aleppo continues to escalate with over 450,000 killed, and some 4.8 million refugees (along with 6.6m internally displaced, that’s half of Syria’s 22m population forced out of their homes), cities flattened, hospitals destroyed, children killed (up to 50,000). The current raids on Aleppo have been called by the UN this afternoon, in all probability a war crime. If the battle for Aleppo is over, then for Assad the victory is Pyrrhic as the city is demolished and its people dead and devastated.

Great progress world, congratulations on continuing to be a right royal fuck up 2016 years after baby Jesus/Yeshua/Isa was apparently born. Extremist and fundamentalist religious interpretations, repressive political regimes, and “proxy wars” are not on my Xmas card list, Syrian refugees are – an airdrop of aid, peaceful passage out of conflict zones, a welcome in the West, but better still – stop the bombing so they can stay, live and rebuild their land.

Save Aleppo not inactionInstead, we continue the bombing, and breaking of ceasefires 2 hours after they are put into effect – even bombing the very roads the evacuations were due to take place on. Bombing escalates terror, and is a failed strategy, that even Donald Trump now admits! Indeed, Boris Johnson, against political and Tory party advice, has called a spade a spade, and for an end to proxy wars of geopolitical games carried out by Saudi Arabia, but perhaps also: Iran, Russia, Turkey and the US.

Each religion or political cause can be twisted to apparently justify slaughter, but that comes from man’s inhumanity to man, not faith or ideology per se. Equally, most faiths can be quoted from to encourage love, mercy and kindness. At this time of year, and every day, we need to be encouraging community, compromise and communication, not escalating conflicts creating mass casualties as the collateral toll of other people’s battles.

Save Aleppo

Save Aleppo

“Save us, people. Save us, people, world, anyone who has even a bit of humanity,” said one doctor in a voice message from a besieged district. “We beg you, we beg you, the dead and wounded are in the streets and people’s homes have collapsed on top of them. Save us. Save us.”


Shortly after the rally, it was announced that the ceasefire had been restored, but for how long? By Friday morning it was off again. A UN official says the evacuation is “redolent of the Nazi evacuation of the Warsaw ghetto” as thousands are bussed out down the 21km corridor, 6km of which is controlled by Government forces. 

"We hear you Aleppo", placard by Laure Ollivier-Minns
Supporters at the #SaveAleppo rally in Norwich. More photos here and also pics by Emma Pamplin here.


No AdBlock isn’t broken it’s Amnesty’s World Day Against Cyber Censorship

World Day Against Cyber Censorship

12 March is World Day Against Cyber Censorship, first designated in 2008 at the request of Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières/RSF) and Amnesty International. Like World Press Freedom Day (3 May) it concentrates on restriction of Internet access issues and online freedom of expression. It’s purpose is to:

RSF Stop Cyber Censorship - World Day Against Cyber Censorship
RSF Stop Cyber Censorship

“rally everyone in support of a single Internet that is unrestricted and accessible to all. It is also meant to draw attention to the fact that, by creating new spaces for exchanging ideas and information, the Internet is a force for freedom. However, more and more governments have realised this and are reacting by trying to control the Internet.” – Reporters Without Borders

The event logo, designed by Reporters Without Borders is a computer mouse freeing itself from its chains, symbolising the defence of free expression online.

Freedom of Expression Index 2015-2016

Last year say saw 64 journalists killed carrying out their jobs, along with 6 media assistants. A further 19 netizens and citizen journalists were killed.  In the first 10 weeks of 2016 another 11 journalists have been killed and over 300 journalists and citizen campaigners have been imprisoned for defending freedom of speech.

Freedom of the Press around the World 2015 RSF
Freedom of the Press around the World 2015, RSF

The United Kingdom has fallen from 19th to 34th on the RSF press freedom index since 2010.

Turkey’s censorship & state media interference

RSF World Press Freedom Index 2015 Turkey
RSF World Press Freedom Index 2015 Turkey

EU member hopeful, Turkey, ranks in the 150s out of 180 nations, and on 4 March the state forcibly took over the critical newspaper, Zaman. A decade ago it ranked at #98. “Turkey’s “underlying situation” score – covering such areas as cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders – actually worsened, showing that freedom of information continues to decline.”[UPDATE – the day after

“Turkey’s “underlying situation” score – covering such areas as cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders – actually worsened, showing that freedom of information continues to decline.” – RSF World Press Freedom Index

[UPDATE – the day after World Day Against Cyber Censorship a bomb exploded in the capital city Ankara killing at least 37 and injuring over a 100. Turkey’s state response included a broadcast ban by its broadcasting agency, RTÜK and then a court banned Twitter and Facebook after blast scene images were shared online. This despite Facebook instituting its “marked safe” check-in procedure for its users there.]

AdBlock call for the Internet to be Unblocked

Computer Privacy Quote, Amnesty
Computer Privacy Quote, Amnesty International

Only for today, AdBlock is “un-blocking” some ad banners – just those from Amnesty about online censorship and freedom of speech. AdBlock’s CEO points to RSF’s “Enemies of the Internet” list as justification for this wake-up call:

“On their current list of ‘Enemies of the Internet’, Reporters Without Borders include China, the United States, North Korea, the United Kingdom, and many others.” – Gabriel CubbageAdBlock CEO

“Blocking ads is both easy and ethical”, says Gubbage, but blocking the Internet is not.

Saudi Arabia Internet Content Blocking

Freedom of Speech Quote, Ai Wei Wei, Amnesty
Freedom of Speech Quote, Ai Wei Wei, Amnesty

Raif Badawi is one of many in Saudi Arabia, e.g., Waleed Abu Al-Khair and Tariq al-Mubarak, to have fallen foul of one of the world’s leaders in Internet content blocking. Strict web filtering is in place to block content deemed pornographic, or “morally reprehensible” – the latter has come to include religious apostasy, state criticism, or discussion of human rights issues and abuses.

United Kingdom Surveillance

Being Watched Quote, Edward Snowden, Amnesty
Edward Snowden on “being watched”, Amnesty International

Even the United Kingdom is a current “enemy of the Internet”. Why the UK? For our unprecedented CCTV, cyber and telecommunications surveillance, in some areas second only to China and in others worse than the US, according to Edward Snowden. This stems from a confusion that journalism equates with terrorism, or its risk, as the Guardian knows only too well.

“GCHQ thus gathers an unprecedented quantity of information”. – RSF

Meantime, in the USA, the FBI have ordered Apple to create unblocking software to release the contents of a killer’s iPhone to them, a move resisted by Apple with the backing of Facebook, GoogleMicrosoft and the United Nations!

RSF Cyber-Freedom/Netizen Prize

Since 1992, Reporters Without Borders, along with more recently TV5 Monde have offered a journalistic freedom Prize to reporters and online activists around the world. 2003 saw RSF give a first cyber freedom award to imprisoned Tunisian cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui. Since 2010, RSF has been awarding a Netizen Prize to the cybercitizen online activist, blogger, or journalist, who has most fought for freedom of expression and reporing on the Internet.

2010 – Awarded to the Iranian women’s rights activists, including co-founder Parvin Ardalan, of the Change for Equality website, www.we-change.org
2011 -Awarded to the founders of a Tunisian blogging group named Nawaat.org.
2012 -Awarded to Syrian citizen journalists and activists of the Media center of the Local Coordination Committees.
2013 – Awarded to Vietnamese blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh.
2014 – Awarded to Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi.

Countless other thousands of journalists and activists, and millions of netizens, deserve a free and unfettered Internet. We must learn to police ourselves, rather than be censored by others. For who decides when a state is right or wrong if the freedom to even discuss or criticise that state is removed from us?

RSF World Press Freedom Index 2015 Worst placed countries
RSF World Press Freedom Index 2015 Worst placed countries

Saudi Arabia mass executions & death sentences a Human Rights travesty

Saudi Arabia State Executions Escalate

2015 saw a rise in Saudi Arabia‘s public executions, some 157 people according to Amnesty International – there were 90 in 2014, 192 in 1995, the previous peak. Even more shocking was that 2016 began with 47 in a single day, on New Year’s Day, allegedly all ‘terrorists’ including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Iran has threatened reprisals with molotov cocktails already thrown at the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Meanwhile even mainstream media commentary is now comparing the House of Saud to ISIS whilst Bahrain and United Arab Emirates (UAE) praised the message it sent to terrorists. Saudia Arabia has now ordered Iranian diplomats out and Bahrain followed suit, severing diplomatic ties, a day later, along with UAE and Sudan creating a new Middle East crisis.

ISIS Saudi Arabia Executions Any Difference via Khamenei
ISIS v Saudi Arabia Executions “Any Difference” asks Iran’s Khamenei

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Iran too, despite its own record executions, has compared Saudi Arabia to ISIS. Ayatollah Khamenei the self-titled “Leader of the Islamic Revolution” calling it a “White ISIS” and asking whether there are “any differences” between them.

Other atrocities apart, and excepting the variant methods of execution (Saudi still has stoning and flogging punishments, though often commuted to jail time, not to mention posthumous crucifixion), what is the difference between the continued practice of state executions by America, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the so-called Islamic State, all of which have executed dozens of people a year. Iran has executed hundreds – perhaps a 1000 making its condemnation of Saudi Arabia somewhat hyprocritical. Pakistan has 6-8,000 people on its death row and in 2015 carried out 316+ executions a massive increase on the handful of 2014. Egypt (500+) and Nigeria (650+) have also been resorting to issuing death sentences (2014 figures).

Saudi Arabia's human rights record on executions 2014, 2015, 2016
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record on executions 2014, 2015, 2016

Ironically, the Saudi Arabian national flag features a sword – the very means of public execution, before each of which verses from the Koran are read justifying the sentence. Offences can include atheism, drugs crimes, homosexuality, insulting Islam, and sorcery!

The Death Penalty

Whilst just over a dozen countries had abolished the death penalty 30 years ago, today over a 100 have ended the practice. Some among those that have kept it, though, have increased its use in recent years in the name of countering ‘terrorism’.

Death Penalty around the world, 2014, Amnesty International
Death Penalty around the world, 2014, Amnesty International

Thousands a year are sentenced to death worldwide but fewer are carried out, some 20,000 people are incarcerated under a death sentence, yet to be carried out. In 2014 over a 110 people in 9 countries had their death sentence reversed, leaving them exonerated as innocent. This is the biggest reason to end the practice. Three times as many countries commuted death sentences to other forms of punishment.

“The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it.” – Amnesty International

Twelve countries still use hanging and ten use shooting, only Saudi Arabia and Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) behead people, swift but brutal. US executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and have steadily fallen since to 28 in 2015, but over 3,000 remain on death row.

A Foreign Office spokesperson has commented, saying that:

“The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country. The death penalty undermines human dignity and there is no evidence that it works as a deterrent.”

Perhaps the UK should criticise America, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China’s position on capital punishment, alongside Islamic State? As David Cameron was challenged to do and amongst excuses for close ties with Saudi responded with:

“We oppose the death penalty anywhere and everywhere” – David Cameron, October 2015

Executed Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

Arrested in 2012 and sentenced to death in 2014, Sheikh Nimr had opposed violence calling instead for peaceful protesters to resist the Saudi state and police bullets using “the roar of the word” and non-violent agitation, though he was not opposed to celebrating the deaths of tyrants. Mohammad al-Nimr, his brother, was arrested for merely tweeting about the death sentence but has since called for calm despite his own son on death row. Al-Nimr was pro-democracy and against “murder in the name of God”.

“The [Saudi] authorities depend on bullets … and killing and imprisonment. We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice”…We do not accept [force of firearms]. This is not our practice…We welcome those who follow such attitude…Nonetheless, we cannot enforce our methodology on those who want to pursue different approaches…The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of bullets.” – Sheikh al-Nimr

“The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors, instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors. The Khalifa family [in Bahrain] are oppressors, and Sunnis are not responsible for their actions. These are not Sunnis, they are tyrants. The Assad family in Syria are oppressors, and Shiism is not responsible for their actions. Never defend an oppressor. It is never justified for someone who is oppressed to defend [another’s] oppressor.” – Sheik al-Nimr, 2012

Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr Crufixion

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr via Facebook
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr via Facebook

Ali al-Nimr, nephew of executed Nimr al-Nimr, was arrested when just 17 for participating in Arab Spring pro-democracy demonstrations against the Saudi Arabian government. He was subsequently convicted by confession under torture. He is now 21 but in 2015 he was sentenced to death by beheading and then posthumous public crucifixion. As of today over 1.5 million people have signed just one of the several petitions to commute or cancel his sentence.

The UK Government believes that it can “achieve most by speaking privately and regularly to our Saudi interlocutors” rather than publicly confronting its ‘ally’. The Foreign Secretary recently said that he did not expect Ali al-Nimr to be executed and Shadow Minister Hilary Benn  has called on him “to seek fresh assurances that he will be reprieved.”

However, by threatening death to so many, and carrying out more than previous years, it is easy for Saudi Arabia to mollify the West with a couple of concessions and reprieves without denting its religious and political ethnic cleansing of opposition.

Political Prisoners in Saudi Arabia

Islamic Human Rights Commission IHRCSaudi Arabia denies it has any political prisoners but unofficial estimates from human rights bodies including the UK-based Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) suggest that up to 30,000 are imprisoned for political crimes against the Saudi state.

Back in November 2011, after the fatal shooting of four Shias, Sheikh al-Nimr had called for:

“[the] release of all those detained in the [Arab Spring] protests, and all prisoners of conscience – Sunnis and Shias.”

Raif Badawi Flogging

Saudi Arabian political blogger and recent recipient of the EU’s Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought, Raif Badawi, is serving a lengthy prison sentence for “insulting Islam” and also received the first tranche of 50 or a 1,000 lashed whipping sentence. Subsequent installments have been suspended based upon his poor health, exacerbated by his latest hunger strike, these last three weeks which has led to a deteriorating medical condition.

Raif Badawi, 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought
Raif Badawi, 2015 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

Wahhabism and Saudi Arabian History

Saudi Arabia has a wealth of cultural and religious history, is the birthplace of Islam, home to Mecca, Medina and Mohammed. It is rich in oil and other resources but beyond poor when it comes to human rights, democracy, and accountability. It offers the West tokenistic concessions in exchange for continuing its own ruthless totalitarianism.

Its brand of Islamic belief is Sunni as opposed to Shia, and an extreme version of that called Wahhabism or Salafism. They are stricter forms of Sharia Law based Islam, literalist, anti-Western and puritanical. Jihad, whether missionary or military, can be seen as a legitimate expression as well as expansion of Islam against its detractors.

Saudi Arabia, Extremism and Terrorism

Dr Yousaf Butt, senior advisor to the British American Security Information Council and director at the Cultural Intelligence Institute, says of Saudi Arabia:

“…one thing is clear: the fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence lies with the fanatical ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia. And if the world wants to stamp down and eliminate such violent extremism, it must confront this primary host and facilitator.”

He goes on to quote Wikileaks and other sources that purport to show Saudi’s financing of terror groups, several thousand Saudis are alleged to be in ISIL’s ranks. More easily verified is the funding of extremist Wahhabism via mosques and madrassas worldwide.

Saudi Arabia’s Hypocrisy on Human Rights

This same country was recently chosen to head a United Nations human rights selection panel. If it weren’t so serious and concerning, this would be satire. What’s worse is that apparently the UK supported their appointment.

Whilst Saudi Arabia has appeared to give women token political rights in recent municipal elections, they still can’t drive. Restrictions on political dissent and freedom of speech continue unabated and punishments for religious disagreement, in particular Saudi’s Wahabi version of Sunni Islam. As a result Freedom House’s freedom index ranks Saudi Arabia bottom on all counts.

Saudi Arabia is also the largest market for the British arms industry along with billions of other business deal tie-ups. As a result Britain is unlikely to publicly condemn Saudi too often, human rights will remain compromised by commercial interest. Indeed, a senior Government minister today defended close links with Saudi Arabia arguing that they enabled us to “tell them what we think”. True and unhypocritical condemnation of executions can only come when America and other countries also end the death penalty. Equally, rightful opposition to Islamic State (ISIL) should be accompanied by calling state-sanctioned extremism by Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and others to account too.

Human Rights Day: Righting Human Wrongs, Write for Human Rights

Human Rights Day – Universal Declaration of Human Rights

International Human Rights Day celebrates 67 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a precursor to the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s own, in peril, Human Rights Act. In the aftermath of the Second World War, on December 10, 1948, The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Universal was the hope and aspiration of the world’s most translated document, into some 300 languages. The application and implementation, however, remains inconsistent. Many leading nations treat it as a pick-n-mix document, usually ignoring the principles against torture or discrimination on grounds of sex or sexuality.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948

“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,…” – UDHR preamble

European Convention on Human Rights

In 1950 the Council of Europe’s initial 10 members including the UK drafted the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and brought it into force in 1953 for its 14 early member states, now 47 including Russia which joined in 1996. Vatican City is a notable exception to its agreement. Whilst Russia has signed it, like Azerbaijan it has not agreed to Protocol 13 – the complete abolition of the death penalty.

Article 14 is wide reaching in prohibiting and protecting against discrimination based on “sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status” –  the latter has now been taken to include sexual orientation.

Article 12, however, provides a heterosexual right to marry and have a family, which has legal precedent for including transsexuals under their post-operative gender status, but not for same-sex couples. See Rees v United Kingdom (1985/6), Cossey v UK (1990) and Goodwin v UK (1995-97).

UK Human Rights Act

The 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA) became law in 2000 in order to integrate the ECHR into UK national law to avoid people having to go to Europe to obtain recognition of their human rights as described and protected in the convention.

Human Writes BIHR Newsletter
Human Writes, issue 1, BIHR

Human Rights are more extensive than the protected characteristics outlined under the 2010 Equality Act. We are all human so all protected. That is why it is essential the HRA remain enshrined in law and is not watered down into a British Bill of Rights, because it goes beyond the Equality Act.

Today the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) launched its Human Writes, issue 1 calling on “People Power” to “protect what protects us all, our Human Rights Act”. That means writing to MPs and being vocal about human rights issues and laws both here and abroad.

Amnesty International Write for Rights
Amnesty International Write for Rights

Since 2009 and indeed earlier, Amnesty International has run its Write for Rights #Write4Rights letter writing campaign. Activists in more than 200 countries and territories write millions of letters, emails, tweets and petitions to those in authority and to the human victims of human rights abuses.

“Across the world, governments are afraid of people power and are cracking down on dissent. And that’s why we need to stand with people who are risking everything to speak out…Our words are powerful. We need to use that power to push for change, now.” – Amnesty International


Human Rights Day letter, Today, The Times
Human Rights Day letter, Today, The Times

BIHR also ran a full page advert/letter in the The Times signed by 157 organisations supporting the retention of the HRA. It notes that the UDHR is an:

“international Magna Carta for all humanity [that] has inspired so much, including our own Human Rights Act.”

The letter calls on Britain’s political leaders to;

“stand with the Human Rights Act recognising it is the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made law here at home.”

Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam

Some 45 Islamic nations have signed the alternative 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), more in accordance with Sharia law, and notably omitting rights based upon sexuality, gender, religious conversion or protecting against FGM. The freedoms that do exist are subject to “not being contrary to the principles of the Shariah”, as such there is no freedom of religion other than Islam. Article 24 states: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Sharia.” Article 19 sounds like it protects against going beyond Sharia law – an already harsh system: “There shall be no crime or punishment except as provided for in the Sharia.”

The Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR) tries to incorporate the UDHR and CDHRI. It was written in 1994 but even by 2008 only 7 states had adopted it, 13 by 2013 including Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Violations

In a mammoth opinion piece in the Guardian Eric Posner has suggested that international Human Rights laws are failing for being too general and being ignored by several leading democracies despite their theoretical protections pan-nationally against authoritarian states.

“it seems that the human rights agenda has fallen on hard times. In much of the Islamic world, women lack equality, religious dissenters are persecuted and political freedoms are curtailed. The Chinese model of development, which combines political repression and economic liberalism, has attracted numerous admirers in the developing world. Political authoritarianism has gained ground in Russia, Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela. Backlashes against LGBT rights have taken place in countries as diverse as Russia and Nigeria. The traditional champions of human rights – Europe and the United States – have floundered.”

Peace, education, sex/gender equality, LGBTI rights, slavery, no discrimination based upon race, colour, nationality, freedom of speech and the press, the right to bodily integrity for all, irrespective of gender or age, are but some of the rights that 67 years later are not yet universal despite the Universal Declaration.

As the Swedish politician Anna Lindh has remarked:

“Human rights are praised more than ever – and violated as much as ever.”

Today is a day to reduce those violations, and call more people and nations to account over them, and make sure the rights that do exist are known about and extended to those that may not know their rights or have the wherewithal to claim them.

Nigeria #365DaysOn #BringBackOurGirls from Boko Haram in Africa, no closer

Bring Back Our Girls, Not Forgotten

One year on from the 200+ Chibok girls capture by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the #BringBackOurGirls viral social media campaign, and there is still no news. Today, organisations and individuals around the world are trying to keep the media and political interest, as well as the girls, alive. The value of African lives and lack of international interest, alongside diplomatic and United Nations powerlessness, still means it is up to media and public channels to keep their fate an important issue.

365 Days On, Trending Hashtag

To keep the awareness current, a new hashtag campaign , alongside the old, has emerged to mark the lack of progress #365DaysOn.

The inaction has led to complaints about Hashtag diplomacy and foreign policy with some  questioning whether Twitter or petitions can achieve anything at all? In terms of Human Rights campaigns it has made a difference in seeing various international violations of freedom or fair trials, both acknowledged, and sometimes ended:

Nigeria’s Elections

The situation has contributed to the ousting of Goodluck Jonathan as President and the new incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, whilst saying that he would “do everything in its power to bring them home”, suggested that he could offer no promises and people shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Boko Haram brazenly added to the subdued expectations by saying that the girls had all [been] “converted to Islam” and “married off”.

Boko Haram still seem untouchable

Amnesty International have said that the Boko Haram militants have abducted 2,000 girls and young women in the last 15 months, forcing them to be cooks, sex slaves, wives, and fighters.

Nigeria, whilst on target to become Africa’s richest and fastest growing nation is also one of its most complex, and one were western influence is minimal. Indeed, Boko Haram’s very name means “Western education is forbidden”.

Islamic State (IS)

Map Africa Regions Countries WikiMediaWith Boko Haram and Al Shabab allying themselves with Islamic State it means that North Africa from Algeria to Sinai and Nigeria to Sudan, is under threat of extremist conquest and a massive increase in further human rights violations. Consolidation under a broad IS umbrella in Niger and Libya could see an extremist Islamist caliphate more a reality than a threat.

Ongoing battle & the Value of African Lives

Abuja Nigeria Bring Back Our Girls via Twitter purefoyAMEBO
Abuja Nigeria Bring Back Our Girls via Twitter @purefoyAMEBO

Whilst IS and Boko Haram use the Quran as justification, Muslim leaders around the world also condemn their actions from the same texts. This remains, therefore, extremist ideology parading itself as religious purity or geographic gain. Bring Back Our Girls remains the rallying cry, but all African human rights issues and news stories need to be given similar prominence and awareness. African lives, when hundreds – if not thousands, die or go missing, should not be consigned to small-print inside page news, but be given the weight and international importance it needs.

Raif Badawi, Waleed Abulkhair, Islamic Mercy and Saudi Justice

In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi remains in prison under threat of 950 more lashes and 9 more years of a 10 year sentence and a further 10 year travel ban upon release, as punishment for “insulting Islam”. Additionally, his trial lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair‎, who set up a human rights monitoring organisation (MHRSA) in Saudi, was also subsequently charged himself for various breaches. Both had their sentences recently increased by half again, not cut or commuted.

Waleed Abu Al-Khair

Waleed Abu Al-KhairAmong other things, Waleed Abu Al-Khair (also written as Abulkhair)‎ was accused and convicted of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and sentenced to a 15 year prison term in 2014 and a 15 year travel ban upon his release, he was already prohibited from travel since 2012.

Abulkhair had defended many people for socio-religious and political crimes in Saudi, including a British national when he was hired by the British embassy. If political is even a word that can be voiced in a state that is an absolute rather than even a constitutional monarchy. Opposition and democracy are thus, inherently illegal.

He ran, in his own home, a mixed sex politico-religious discussion group or salon called Smood (“resistance”) and used Twitter and Facebook for further discussion, somewhere he felt free at last. Indeed, Forbes magazine listed him as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Arabs on Twitter.

Social media activity is an uncensored medium that has got away from Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Arab Twitter users and a Facebook user base second only to Egypt. Perhaps the United Nation’s big #SocialUN gathering on 30 January and discussion of digital diplomacy will foster awareness of those imprisoned for freedom of speech on social media.

Yet, in all this, Waleed knows no hate. As he wrote in his last letter before prison:

“Do I hate anyone?” I wonder, particularly those who have insulted me and my family, using the foulest of words in the course of the investigations? Do I hate those who imposed a travel ban on me for years with no legal reason? Do I hate the judge who ordered that I be put in jail simply because I have a signed a statement calling for fair trials? Or should I hate the Prince, whose emissaries have continuously threatened me with being put in prison for years if I refrain from signing an affidavit? Do I hate men of religion who drafted heinous reports about me to the security agencies – full of lies and proclaiming me an apostate? Or should I hate the people using pseudonyms on new media outlets, so they could lie about me and my family so as to damage my reputation further?

I reach deep within my heart and find that I bear no grudge against anyone. I realize that I rather feel sorry for them, the same way I feel sorry for those who decided to give up their freedom, just like an alcoholic who roams aimlessly after willingly giving up his mind to liquor.

Hamza Kashgari

Freedom of expression on social media hasn’t stopped Saudi reaching beyond international boundaries to extradite and imprison one Hamza Kashgari for questioning Islam via Twitter. Thousands of Saudis backed calls for this young man’s execution for apostasy and support of the Arab Spring.  He served 2 years after apologising but was banned from writing again.

Kashgari described his original actions in the following terms:

“I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rightsfreedom of expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain. I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”

Raif Badawi

Raif Badawi Raif Badawi was arrested in 2008 and again in 2012 for apostasy and insulting Islam by electronic means, i.e., he set up the website Free Saudi Liberals to enable discussion of religion and politics. Cited charges included “ridiculing Islamic religious figures” and “going beyond the realm of obedience” – whatever that means!

The Saudi court ordered him to undergo 50 lashes every Friday for 20 weeks, publicly outside a mosque on a religious day just after prayers, only the first instalment has been delivered to date, in the middle of the square in front of Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah where a large crowd gathered to witness the flogging. Last Friday, he was again not caned  – the third time the punishment has been postponed, allegedly due to his previous wounds not having healed enough, but also likely due to international media attention on Saudi following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the death of King Abdullah.

Religion and Punishment

What kind of religion or state combines faith and flogging, prayer and punishment, in such a way? Well perhaps ancient Judaism might have done. Certainly, biblical texts of the Torah allow for the stoning of those caught in adultery, for instance, or tell of the clinical purging of an enemy for idolatry. That the populace tried to pick up stones, to stone an alleged adulteress, as recorded in the gospels, proves that the law was still known, if not in use, though there’s little record of it being enacted. Jesus intervened, in this case, and it didn’t happen. Likely as not, the Romans would have had a problem with people literally taking the law into their own hands anyway.

So, just because Jesus stopped a public punishment, does that place Christianity above Judaism in ethics? Far from it. Church history records the Crusades and the Inquisition, brutal tortures, executions, burnings of heretics, witches, liberals. Some countries and US states continue to commend the death penalty based upon biblical texts.

Islam – Peace or Violence?

Ironically, whilst Islam means “submission” it stems from the same root as the Arabic salām سَلاَم‎ meaning “peace”. Numerous people have referenced its over 100 verses suggestive of killing varieties of “unbelievers”, yet it also condemns the taking of a single “innocent life” as equivalent to murdering the whole world. Like all religions, it seems, there is plenty of Scripture to cut and paste and formulate one’s own intolerant beliefs, or to foment and indoctrinate via human interpretation.

Just compare the negative Quran quotations with some of the more positive verses, including:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God hears and knows all things.” – Qur’an, Al-Baqarah, 2:256

Indeed, all three monotheistic religions have scriptures calling for tolerance, mercy, love and peace. What we choose to focus on, judge by, is therefore, a function of our beliefs, not something we can justify by selective religious reasoning.

State Sanctioned Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of not only Saudi Arabia, but those nations and leaders that visited the country in the wake of the recent death of the king, even flying flags at half-mast, like England but not Scotland, is visible to all. Transparently and desperately trying to get in with the new king to gain access to oil, defence, and trade agreements.

As Abulkair has written:

“As long as the oil keeps flowing, the world will turn a blind eye if Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on freedom and human rights.”

Saudi’s own hypocrisy lies in not exercising mercy and tolerance in order to deserve the same, principles cited by Muhammad himself:

“No mercy would be shown to him who does not show mercy”, Muhammad in Sahih Al-Bukhari and in Sahih Muslim

“Be tolerant to be tolerated”, Muhammad narrated in Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad 1/248.

Tolerance, or samah, in Islam is considered to also mean leniency.

Furthermore, it has been pointed out that they extreme flogging sentence breeches even the grounds and interpretation of Quranic and Sharia punishments.

Human Rights Campaigns

Various Change.org and Amnesty International campaigns are keeping the pressure up, but governments are turning a blind eye to Saudi, tolerating one form of extremism over another, Islamic State. Mainly, it seems, because IS (ISIL/Daesh) is missionary, i.e., wanting to expand and conquer, whilst Saudi is content to rule its own citizens with an iron rod, beheader’s sword and flogger’s cane.

Other international human rights, humanitarian, peace and journalists organisations have continued to publicise Badawi and Abulkhair, giving them prizes and awards to draw attention to their plight and honour their fight. For instance Badawi has been awarded the PEN Canada One Humanity Award 2014, the Reporters without Borders Netizen Prize 2014, and Aikenhead Award 2015 of the Scottish Secular Society.

Whilst the حديث‎ ḥadīth or saying(s – technically أحاديث ʾaḥādīth is the plural) of the Prophet are outside the Quran, they like the Mishnah and Talmud for Jews, form a significant part of traditional interpretations for Muslims. Indeed, much Shariah law is derived from the Hadith. For those campaigning for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair you could do no worse than to quote the following hadith to them:

“It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.” – Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1011.

In fact it is an injunction of one hadith to call Islamic oppressors to account:

Allah’s Apostle said, “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed,” A man said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I will help him if he is oppressed, but if he is an oppressor, how shall I help him?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing (others), for that is how to help him.” – Sahih Bukhari 9.85.84

The latest Amnesty International petitions can be found here: http://amn.st/6182IYIa and http://amn.st/6185IYIL. Twitter campaigns here: #FreeRaifBadawi and #FreeWaleedAbulkhair

Abulkair finished his final letter pending imprisonment with this:

“…freedom is cultivated, its seeds are those who have sacrificed a lot and have made the sky the limit to their sacrifice… There will always be free souls in this world who will not be silenced by oil!”

Please, and especially in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, do not forget those in prison for standing up for freedom of expression in the Arab world. Keep the pressure on governments, agencies and media alike to Free Raif Badawi and Free Waleed Abulkhair.

World Press Freedom Day – Journalism is essential to political accountability and personal liberty

May 3 is the twentieth World Press Freedom Day, a day to be celebrated, whether you like the media you read or not. Doing their job and trying to write free of political pressure or censorship has meant 200 journalists are currently imprisoned worldwide in countries like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Iran, Palestine, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Freedom of the press means several things. Firstly it should be free of government influence, free to criticise in-power politicians, free to champion the causes of out-of-power ones and those who may have become political prisoners. As the recently deceased Tony Benn MP once said of democracy and those in power: “To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you?” – surely one of the tools of challenging politicians is a free Press which should go hand-in-hand with democracy. Tony Benn power democracy quote 2005 No journalism will ever be completely free of personal or political influence, therefore to be truly free, we need journalism of all flavours, passions and persuasions. From long established broadsheet papers like The London and New York Times, The Telegraph, Washington Post and Guardian, to Internet HuffPost, Wikileaks and even tabloid or so-called “gutter press” papers, and combative Radio 4 Today Programme and interrogative Paxman Newsnights – they are all necessary. If we believe in freedom of speech/writing then we cannot seek to control that based upon personal preference for a different style of news or belief on what constitutes news.

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” – Thomas Jefferson

Journalists should equally be free to write without editorial or media-owner pressure to toe a particular line. Any piece that bears their name should carry their opinion and theirs alone. They should even have input and a veto on headlines, which are so often written by others after their piece has been edited and approved. This is a part of journalistic transparency which we should be able to see in every article or story. Either in tandem with this, or in addition, there should be rules preventing monopoly and/or government ownership of the Press.

A sad but now inherent part of newspaper history was the so-called “Yellow Journalism” of the 1890s as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer II of Pullitzer Prize fame battled it out for readership, lowering the tone and truth of reporting in the process of pursuing profits over accuracy. We would now call much of this “Tabloid Press” now, though the shape and size of a paper need have no bearing on its quality of content. The “Yellow Press” has, however, still been responsible for bringing people and politicians to account, even if it can also be blamed for causing offence, ‘outing’ people – whether their sexuality, gender or infidelity, it has been cited in cases that have led to suicide – so I am not saying that the media is perfect, just that it is necessary in an open, if not for, an open society.

“Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose” – George Orwell

Whilst writing should, in principle, be free of ‘hate’ speech, libel and slander, it must, however, be free to express opinion and should only incur sanctions when breaking human rights, equality and defamation laws. A right to disagree and be disagreed with is paramount to press freedom and journalistic integrity. That said, opinion pieces should have a right to reply and/or comment with moderators being sure to only police hate speech, insult and injury, and not rights to express personal, political or religious beliefs. Noam Chomsky said that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”, it is freedom for all or it is censorship. “You can’t pick and choose which types of freedom you want to defend. You must defend all of it or be against all of it.”, as Scott Howard Phillips said, albeit concerning the US 2nd Amendment and right to bear arms. In John Stuart Mill’s 1859 book, On Liberty, he wrote much that holds as true today, if not more so, as 150 years ago:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

In the Danish political drama, Borgen (Season 2 Episode 2), the female PM, Birgitte Nyborg, is encouraged by her faithful friend and gruff colleague Bent Sejrø that a clever politician gathers around themselves people who may disagree with you. Not just as part of the episode’s Sun Tzu “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer” theme but in order to create better policy. Only surrounding yourself with people who agree with you will not save you from mistakes.

World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day was declared at the end of 1993 by the UN General Assembly. It is commemorated on 3 May, the anniversary of the 1991 Declaration of Windhoek (Namibia) to promote “Independent and Pluralistic Media”. Among other principles Windhoek declared that:

  1. Consistent with article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.
  2. By an independent press, we mean a press independent from governmental, political or economic control or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines and periodicals.
  3. By a pluralistic press, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community.

Back in 1946, the UN had declared “freedom of information” to be a “fundamental human right”. Press Freedom Day, therefore, seeks to:

  • Celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
  • Assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
  • Defend the media from attacks on their independence;
  • Pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize

On 2 May an independent panel of media professionals declared Turkish journalist Ahmet Şik the 2014 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize winner. An investigative reporter and exposer of human rights abuses and corruption, Şik was injured whilst covering the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul last summer.

Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom Award

On 1 May Al Jazeera English Egypt producer Mohamed Fahmy, who is currently under arrest and detention, was awarded the Canadian Press Freedom Award for a “Canadian journalist who has made an outstanding contribution to the right to freedom of expression in the face of inordinate persecution.” Fahmy had previously worked for the BBC and CNN, and wrote an account, Egyptian Freedom Story, of the Arab Spring of 2011. Fahmy has donated the $2000 prize money to the family of another journalist, Mayada Ashraf, who died whilst covering political demonstrations in Egypt last month.

Al Jazeera Journalists detained in Egypt

Journalism is not a Crime, Amnesty International #FreeAJStaffAmong the hundreds of journalists gagged, detained, or killed, worldwide, are two other Al Jazeera English staff – former BBC journalist, Australian Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed, held in detention by Egypt for “broadcasting false news” – for “false”, whatever your opinion, read “disapproved”. In the prison where they are being held pen and paper are banned yet the power of journalistic truth and persuasion won Fahmy access to them and he was able to smuggle out a letter this week:

“I hereby appeal to the global advocates of press freedom not to hold Egypt, the country of my birth responsible for our wrongful detention. Only certain individuals in the system who lack the understanding of the fundamentals of journalism are to be held accountable. One way to reverse this misunderstanding is to start with the man next to you, and in my case that would be the illiterate prison guard convinced that by broadcasting protests in Egypt to the Western world simply makes me a traitor. His more educated disgruntled boss who has prevented me from having a pen and paper in my cell has become more lenient by time when I continuously highlighted certain values of journalism like transparency and the importance of having a watchdog to question the government that pays his salary and evaluates his performance. The metamorphosis has begun and the fact that this letter has been released from prison and published is in itself a victory to be celebrated and hopefully not the last.”

Another Al Jazeera journalist, Arabic correspondent Abdullah Elshamy, has been imprisoned without trial since last August and has now been on hunger strike for weeks and lost nearly 35kg and not received medical attention. [Update: Elshamy was released on 17 June after 10 months in prison without charge or conviction.]

Fahmy described this as a blatant “breach of human rights” and added in his letter:

“I see no better occasion than today to remind the world about the plight of these men and that there are dozens of respected, local Egyptian reporters and citizen journalists who are suffering in prison awaiting trial, they are simply prisoners of conscience.”

(See and hear the letter read out in an Al Jazeera English video) The Egyptian judge at the 3 May bail hearing wished the 3 detained Al Jazeera journalists a happy Press Freedom Day then refused bail with no sense of irony at all. At the hearing Peter Greste said for the benefit of other reporters present: “You can’t have a free society without a free press. In Egypt today you know that you can’t provide balance as long as you can end up in prison like us.”

[Update: Sadly, the 3 reporters – Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, were handed down guilty verdicts on 23 June for 7 years for spreading “false news” and supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, charges they continue to deny and say they were only carrying out their duties as journalists and reporters. Nine other defendants tried in absentia, including three foreign journalists, received 10-year sentences, two have been acquitted. Of the twenty defendants in total nearly half are Al-Jazeera journalists. #AJTrial]

[Latest: Fahmy and Mohamed are among 100 prisoners to be released and/or pardoned today as part of Islam’s Eid al-Adha holiday and Egypt’s attempt to re-legitimise its Western standing]


Early 20th century Ukrainian-Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov – he was born in Kiev, but moved to Moscow – managed to simultaneously both offend and please Joseph Stalin and have books and plays not only banned but also protected by him! He superbly put that a journalist without freedom is like a fish without water:

“To struggle against censorship, whatever its nature, and whatever the power under which it exists, is my duty as a writer, as are calls for freedom of the press. I am a passionate supporter of that freedom, and I consider that if any writer were to imagine that he could prove he didn’t need that freedom, then he would be like a fish affirming in public that it didn’t need water.”Mikhail Bulgakov, Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Mikhail Bulgakov A Life in Letters and Diaries


If Press freedom is like water for journalists, just as the air all of us breathe, it is not something that can be restricted. The right to free expression and opinion is a universal human right. I’ll end with the infamous non-quote by Voltaire:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This was actually said by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire, 1906. What he did say in a 1770 letter, was:

“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

Many have given their own lives in order to report the news or their views, whether professional or “citizen journalists”, but Press freedom means supporting the freedom to express even the views we may detest or disapprove of. Press Freedom Day means reminding the powers that be that the “world will be watching” their treatment of journalists and freedom of speech.

This article was first published on Bubblews and subsequently a version was published on my Google blogger/blogspot account.