freedom of expression
Call for independent investigation into Rwandan singer Kizito Mihigo’s death
Open letter to all Commonwealth Heads of Government
Civil society organisations around the world are calling on the Rwandan authorities to allow an independent, impartial, and effective investigation into the death in custody of Kizito Mihigo, a popular gospel singer and peace activist. As your governments mark Commonwealth Day today and prepare to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali in June, we are writing to ask you to engage with your counterparts in the Rwandan government in support of this call.
Call to action to protect the democratic transition and human rights in Sudan
A military coup targeting the civilian government in Sudan took place on Monday 25 October 2021. The African Union suspendedSudan’s membership. The Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Mr. Moussa Faki Mahamat made a statement noting that the deeply concerning events occurring in Sudan have resulted in the arrest of the Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdock, who was releasedon October 26, and other civilian officials. The total number of arrests made during the coup in unknown, but it is believed all cabinet ministers have been arrested and are being subjected to torture or at severe risk of torture. Mr. Moussa Faki Mahamat calls for “the immediate resumption of consultations between civilians and [the] military” and “the release of all arrested political leaders”.
At the international level, the United Nations Special Envoy for the Sudan and South Sudan and United Nations Security Council must take urgent action to protect Sudan’s transition to democracy and the human rights situation in the country following the second military coup in so many months which targeted the civilian government today.
The UN High Commissioner strongly condemnedthe military coup in Sudan and the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency, the suspension of key articles of the Constitutional Document and the governing bodies, deplored the reported arrest of the Prime Minister, several Ministers, leaders of the Forces of the Freedom and Change and other civil society representatives, and call for their immediate release, and reminded the military and security forces to refrain from unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, to respect people’s freedom of expression, as well as the right of peaceful assembly.
It is crucial that women’s rights and the situation of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) is addressed in the international community’s response to the coup as their position is particularly worrisome and today’s events have only exacerbated their already vulnerable position. This comes as militarisation of the State and violence against protestors remain some of the biggest threats to women’s rights in Sudan.
Civil and political rights were once again violated as peaceful protesters were met with violence including live ammunition, resulting in at least five confirmed deaths and hundreds being injured. Rapid Security Forces (RSF) stormed medical centers that were providing medical care to the injured. A number of activists and protesters were arrested in several cities. Residential areas were also attacked by weapons. Further the majority of means of communication in the country have been cut off including phone lines and internet connection. Blanket internet shutdowns contravene international law. On October 26, Internet and mobile services were briefly restored for a few hours, they must be immediately restored
We call on all States at the Human Rights Council to consider urgent action, such as convening a Special Session, to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law. In addition, the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Sudan on 3 November presents one opportunity for States to bring to the fore these issues and call on the required urgent action. We urge all States to make statements during Sudan’s UPR condemning the coup and supporting the civilian-led democratic transition, and make recommendations relating to:
- reform of the military and security forces
- accountability for violence against protesters
- access to justice for women
- legal reforms combatting violence and discrimination against women
- ensuring gender equality
- ratification of international and regional instruments
- women, peace and security
- guaranteeing freedom of expression and assembly
- the protection of women human rights defenders.
Read also here a statement by the MENA Women Human Rights Defenders Coalition.
- Sudan Women’s Rights Action
- Regional Coalition for Women Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa
- International Service for Human Rights
- Global Fund for Women
- Inter Pares, Canada
- Canada for Africa Group
- Rights for Peace Foundation
- Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan
- Vital Voices, USA
- Equality Fund, Canada
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- Susan Bazilli, Director of International Women’s Rights Project
- Karen Breeck MD
- Carole Doucet, Gender/ Women, Peace and Security Expert Adviser
- Georgina Bencsik, Advisor, Consultant and Strategist
- Monique Cuillerier (WPSN-C)
Civic space in Sudan in rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor
 In March 2021 Sudan Women Rights Action, Nora Centre for Combating Sexual Violence, ISHR and the Regional Coalition for Women Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa made a joint submission to the UPR of Sudan. Read here a summary of the recommendations to Sudan on women’s rights and women human rights defenders and the full joint submission to the UPR of Sudan.
Cambodia Should Scrap Rights-Abusing National Internet Gateway
We, the following 32 human rights organisations, call on the Cambodian authorities to revoke the Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway (NIG).
CAMBODIA: ‘We need to bring back to life the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreement’
The conditions for civil society in Cambodia have continued to deteriorate. In 2018, the government imposed further restrictions on the right to the freedom of expression and grew increasingly intolerant of public protests in the run-up to elections, ahead of which the main opposition party was banned. CIVICUS speaks about these restrictions with a civil society representative who asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns. Our interviewee reflects on the conditions that should be met so that Cambodia can evolve from aone-party state to a functioning democracy.
What restrictions were imposed around the July 2018 elections, and to what extent was civil society able to work around them?
Cambodia held an election of representatives for the National Assembly on 29 July 2018. This was an election without an opposition, because after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) made unprecedented gains in the June 2017 local elections, it was dissolved by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it fostered dissent with the assistance of foreign powers. As was expected, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won nearly all the 125 seats that were at stake.
The government had initially invited international civil society organisations (CSOs) to take part in the election monitoring process. However, most declined when they confirmed that there were structural issues, including the dissolution of the opposition party and the lack of independence of the National Election Committee, that would make the elections unfair and non-inclusive.
There was very little space for civil society to engage with the government. Due to the vague requirement of ‘political neutrality’ imposed by the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), CSOs are supposed to be politically neutral even when they take part in dialogue forums related to political processes. The political neutrality clause has been repeatedly used to shut down independent CSOs or deny them registration. On top of this, the informal election monitoring platform run by civil society was banned the government. The government-approved monitoring groups, which went on to endorse the results, had close ties to the ruling party.
A number of laws and regulations were used against civil society, including but not limited to the LANGO, the Anti-Corruption Law and the Taxation Law. Anti-corruption charges against CSO activists, the shutdown of media channels and various forms of intimidation introduced additional restrictions on the operations of civil society. The government applied a regulation, Notice No. 175 - which was rescinded afterwards, in November 2018 - that required CSOs to notify the local government three days in advance of conducting any field activities. Seeing regulations being introduced and strictly enforced, civil society also resorted to self-censorship around the elections.
Additionally, a document produced by the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, the White Paper on the Political Situation in Cambodia, singled out several CSOs as being linked to an allegedly foreign-backed attempted ‘Colour Revolution’. Pro-government media also disseminated the idea that some CSO leaders had engagements with the Colour Revolution and the CNRP. On top of this, some CSO leaders moved from civil society into the political arena. All of these had a negative impact on the visibility of civil society to the public.
Most independent media channels were shut down or suspended. As a result, civil society lacked the appropriate channels to voice its concerns. Alternative spaces on social media also declined, as cases proliferated of social media activists being arrested for their online posts or blogs. There was a crackdown on online freedoms before the elections, and internet censorship increased. Surveillance technology was used to monitor digital communications. Lots of conversation clips involving opposition party members, civil society activists and CSO leaders were released and used as proof to support accusations against civil society.
In sum, the already-reduced space for civil society shrank even further around the elections, due to the existence of extremely limited opportunities for multi-stakeholder dialogue, the intensive use of a repressive legal framework, attacks against the image of civil society and a reduced public visibility, and lack of access to traditional media along with online restrictions and digital security issues.
What needs to happen so that Cambodia can advance towards democracy?
In my personal opinion, in order to become a democratic state with a plural regime, the government of Cambodia should, first of all, provide opportunities for the leaders of the former opposition party to resume their activities, even through new political parties. If votes could be cast for individuals rather than political parties, that could help.
Second, it needs to bring back the culture of dialogue between the ruling party and the former opposition party and see how best they can understand each other and ensure that their activities cause minimal harm to each other and to the nation.
Finally, the government should request support from the international community, and particularly from the signatory states of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement (PPA) that put an end to the Cambodian-Vietnamese War. As well as providing for a ceasefire, the end of outside military assistance and the withdrawal of foreign forces, the PPA included provisions to ensure the exercise of the right of self-determination by the Cambodian people, through free and fair elections, and on national reconciliation. We need to bring back to life the spirit of the PPA.
How is the international community helping, and what more should it do to help?
It is my general understanding that various actors of the international community have adopted different positions. Western states such as European countries, the USA and Australia have shown concern about the lack of progress towards democracy in Cambodia, as well as the lack of guarantees for the electoral process. They have made some key asks and put some pressure on the government to address their concerns. They have pressed the government by placing conditions on future collaboration, suspending Cambodia’s preferential trade benefits under the European Union’s (EU) Everything But Arms (EBA) free trade scheme and withdrawing support from specific sectors.
At the same time, China and other countries maintained their full support of the government during the electoral process and, more recently, as the EU initiated procedures to suspend Cambodia’s trade preferences temporarily. Overall, Cambodia is seen as standing between two powers and need not take either side.
It is very important to note that, besides hurting the government, any diplomatic or trade conflict between Cambodia and other countries would also have a lot of negative impacts on the public, including civil society. For example, the suspension or elimination of EBA benefits would cause several challenges as a result of its effect on the trade balance, employment and investment.
I would like to see the international community establish effective coordination mechanisms among its various parties in order to have a unified voice on the situation in Cambodia. They should use an existing powerful mechanism such as the PPA, which is still in effect, and which makes it binding for all signatory states to support Cambodia in its path towards full peace and prosperity.
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Cambodia: Stop silencing critical commentary on COVID-19
🇰🇭#Cambodia: Government authorities have arrested dozens of individuals for expressing critical opinions about the government’s response to #COVID19.— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) May 25, 2021
The virus is the enemy not journalists & social media users. Joint statement: https://t.co/VCF8ldzpFC pic.twitter.com/IPGV5jVRqE
We, the undersigned international human rights organisations, call on the Cambodian government to immediately stop its assault on freedom of expression in the context of theCOVID-19 pandemic. In recent months, the government has warned against public criticism of its actions, prevented independent journalists from reporting on the pandemic, prosecuted individuals for criticising the inoculation campaign, and threatened journalists and social media users with legal actions on the spurious grounds of provoking “turmoil in society.”
While Cambodia was spared from high numbers of severe COVID-19 cases in 2020, beginning in February 2021 there has been a spike in cases to which the government responded with disproportionate and unnecessary measures in violation of Cambodia’s international human rights obligations. This includes a campaign against freedom of expression that further constricts media freedom and promotes fear and self-censorship in the country. These measures serve to undermine, not advance, efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The Cambodian authorities placed a de factoban on independent reporting in Phnom Penh’s red zones—areas deemed to be high risk for COVID-19 transmission. On 3 May 2021, the Ministry of Information announced that only state media or journalists invited by the government would be permitted to report from red zones. The next day, the Ministry of Information issued a letter warning journalists not to disseminate information that could “provoke turmoil in society” and threatening legal action against those who disobey. The letter followed viral livestream footage from multiple Facebook news outlets of long queues of COVID-19 patients outside government treatment centres.
The government’s campaign to silence critical commentary has extended beyond journalists to ordinary people, in a manner incompatible with international human rights standards.
In a press release dated 1 May 2021, the Government Spokesperson Unit demanded the immediate cessation of social media posts intended to “provoke and create chaos” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, referring to such posts as “acts of attack” that must be punished. The press release concluded by praising the efforts of government officials to curb the spread of COVID-19 but did not provide any legal justification for imposing these possible restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.
On 30 April 2021, Kandal provincial authorities warned farmers in Sa’ang district not to post images of vegetables spoiling in their fields due to the closure of markets, stating that such communications are bad for morale. One farmer, Tai Song, was pressured by the provincial authorities to sign a document agreeing not to post such content again after he shared a photo on Facebook showing his vegetables rotting and stating that he had to clear and throw away his crops.
The Cambodian authorities have arrested dozens of individuals for expressing critical opinions about the government’s COVID-19 response, including at least six individuals for their criticism of the government’s vaccination campaign. One Chinese journalist, Shen Kaidong, was subsequently deported for publishing a story deemed ‘fake news’ in which multiple Chinese nationals reported receiving a text offering them the Sinopharm vaccine for a service fee.
Authorities have also prosecuted at least three individuals—Korng Sambath, Nov Kloem, and Pann Sophy—for posting TikTok videos criticising the use of Chinese-made vaccines under the new, overly broad and vague Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases (the COVID-19 Law).
These actions are consistent with the government’s systematic and relentless crackdown on freedom of expression and information spanning far beyond the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This latest surge contributes to the government’s broader efforts to silence all critical voices in Cambodia.
The right to freedom of expression is protected by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia acceded in 1992, and by Article 41 of Cambodia’s Constitution.
Protecting public health is the grounds on which the government is purporting to restrict freedom of expression. While there is a legitimate need to counter the spread of misinformation online to protect public health during a pandemic, this objective must be provided by a clear and accessible law and pursued using the least intrusive means, rather than unnecessary and disproportionate measures like unwarranted arrests, detentions, and criminal prosecutions.
In its General Comment 34, the UN Human Rights Committee emphasised the essential role of the media in informing the public and stated that “in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures … the value placed [on] uninhibited expression is particularly high.” A 2017 Joint Declaration of four independent experts on freedom of expression stressed that “general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas” are incompatible with international human rights standards.
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights emphasised in General Comment 14 that the protection of freedom of expression is a key component of the right to health—enshrined in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—enabling vital information collected by the public and journalists to reach policymakers. We therefore strongly condemn the Cambodian government’s efforts to inhibit the free flow of information relevant to the pandemic. Such actions will negatively impact the quality and reliability of news reporting and undermine the government’s own ability to respond to COVID-19.
Open dialogue and robust investigative journalism are critical during times of crisis, including public health emergencies. The Special Rapporteur on the right to health has emphasised the crucial role of the media in ensuring accountability in health systems. During a pandemic, free and independent media can help identify viral hotspots or outbreaks, monitor national and international responses, and promote transparency and accountability in the delivery of necessary public health services.
The Cambodian government’s clampdown on free speech is having a chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of expression in Cambodia. The authorities’ actions are reinforcing the already widespread atmosphere of self-censorship, preventing participation in governance and public affairs, and extinguishing an important safeguard for government accountability.
We therefore call on the Cambodian government to end the harassment of independent journalists reporting on COVID-19 and individuals who voice critical opinions or fears about the pandemic on social media platforms and to take steps to ensure a free, independent, and diverse media environment. We urge the Cambodian authorities to substantially amend or repeal the new COVID-19 Law and other non-human rights compliant legislation that criminalise or unduly restrict freedom of expression and information. The Cambodian government should uphold the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information instead of using a public health crisis as an excuse to extinguish dissent.
This statement is endorsed by:
1. Access Now
2. Amnesty International
3. ARTICLE 19
4. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
5. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
6. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
7. Human Rights Watch
8. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
9. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
10. International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
11. Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
12. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Cambodia: the Council must address human rights and political crisis
Statement at 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Item 10: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia
Delivered by Lisa Majumdar
Thank you, Madame President, and thank you Special Rapporteur. The shrinking civic space and political monopolisation raised in the report has entrenched Cambodia into a de facto one-party state.
Repressive laws are routinely misused to restrict civic freedoms, undermine and weaken civil society, and criminalize individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly. Human rights defenders, trade unionists, youth activists and journalists and other critical voices are routinely subject to judicial harassment and increasing online surveillance. Environmental activists from Mother Nature Cambodia, along with political activists, have been particularly targeted. Highly politicized courts mean that those arbitrarily detained and charged are often held for prolonged periods in pre-trial detention and have no chance of getting a fair trial.
These concerns have escalated over the past two years. The COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s repressive response have exacerbated restrictions on fundamental freedoms.
The main opposition party was dissolved in 2017 and its politicians remain barred from politics. Communal and national elections, set for 2022 and 2023 respectively, are likely to take place under a political climate severely unconducive to being free or fair.
The fragile veneer of democracy engendered by the Paris Peace Accords has disintegrated past the point of no return in recent years. Those calling for human rights on the ground can no longer afford for the Council to treat the situation as business-as-usual. The Council must take meaningful action now to address the ongoing human rights and political crisis in Cambodia.
Special Rapporteur, given that the Cambodian government has indicated no political will towards democratic or human rights reform, what action must the Council and member states take to protect civic space and contribute to concrete human rights progress on the ground?
We thank you.
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as "repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor
Cambodia’s Government should stop silencing journalists, media outlets
Free Arbitrarily Detained Media Workers, Restore Media Licenses
CAMEROON: ‘The international community hasn’t helped address the root causes of the Anglophone conflict’
CIVICUS speaks with Cameroonian feminist researcher and writer Monique Kwachou about the ongoing crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The conflict emerged in 2016 out of a series of legal and education grievances expressed by the country’s Anglophone population, which is a minority at the national level but a majority in the Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions.
Monique is the founder of Better Breed Cameroon, a civil society organisation (CSO) working on youth development and empowerment, and the national coordinator of the Cameroonian chapter of the Forum for African Women Educationalists.
What have been the humanitarian consequences of the escalation of the conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions?
The crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon has internally displaced close to 800,000 English-speaking people, according to monitoring by humanitarian organisations. Many people are also emigrating to other countries in search of safety. Unfortunately, civilians have been used as a weapon so the only way they are able to protect themselves is by fleeing to safer regions within the country or fleeing the country altogether.
People are also becoming increasingly hopeless and are no longer investing in the Anglophone regions as they used to. As a clear indication of how unsafe it is right now in the Anglophone regions, before stepping out of my house I have to do a risk assessment and decide whether what I have to do is worth taking the risk.
Unlawful killings and kidnappings are now rampant and somewhat normalised: they no longer shock us as they once did and there is a general trauma fatigue that breeds apathy, which is dangerous.
As we speak, some are trying to get a hashtag trending for Catholic clergy and worshippers who were recently kidnapped in the Northwest region. The kidnappers are demanding a ransom of 30 million CFA francs (approx. US$45,000) but the church is hesitant to pay because they know if they do it once, more people will be kidnapped and they will have to continue paying. Yet most social media comments on the news encourage payment based on the idea that there is nothing else that can be done. Apathy is the result of having heard too many such stories.
Given that the security forces have a reputation for violence and contributed to the development of the crisis with their burning down of whole villages earlier on, people don’t have faith in them either.
As a teacher I think one of the saddest impacts of this crisis has been on education. I don’t think anyone is receiving quality education. Many people have migrated to other regions, particularly to Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, and Yaoundé, the capital. As a result, schools there have become overpopulated. The teacher-to-student ratio has gone up and the quality of education has dropped. In the crisis regions, the future of students is put on hold with each and every strike and lockdown and their psychological wellbeing could be affected.
What will it take to de-escalate the situation?
I think the government already knows what needs to be done for the situation to de-escalate. Edith Kahbang Walla, of the opposition Cameroon People’s Party, has outlined a step-by-step process of de-escalation and peaceful political transition. But the problem is that the ruling party does not want a transition. However, as it looks like their plan is to stay in power forever, it would be better for them if they made changes to benefit all regions of Cameroon.
Extreme measures have been adopted to bring attention to the problems faced by English-speaking Cameroonians. The Anglophone regions continue to observe a ghost town ritual every Monday, taking the day off to protest against the authorities. On those days schools don’t operate and businesses remain closed. The original purpose was to show support for teachers and lawyers who were on strike but it is now having a negative impact on the lives of residents of the Anglophone regions.
If the government could consider a better strategy to negotiate with secessionists, the situation could be dealt with effectively. Unfortunately, the government has made negotiation impossible since the crisis began, as it arrested those who took part in the protests. Who is the government going to have a dialogue with now? They claim they won’t negotiate with terrorists while forgetting that they created the monster. They should acknowledge the root causes of the problem or otherwise they won’t be able to fix it.
What challenges does civil society face while advocating for peace?
Civil society is a victim of both sides of the ongoing conflict. CSO activities geared towards development have been greatly affected by the crisis, as CSO work is now geared mostly toward humanitarian action.
On one hand, the government is undermining Anglophone activism through arrests and restrictions on online and offline freedom of speech. Anyone who speaks up against the government and what the military are doing in the Anglophone regions may be in danger. For example, journalist Mimi Mefo was arrested for reporting on military activity and had to leave Cameroon because her life was threatened.
On the other hand, peace activists advocating for children to go back to school are also being attacked by secessionist groups who think their activities are being instrumentalised by the government. Hospitals have been attacked by both the military and secessionist armed groups because they helped one or the other.
Aside from the challenge of danger that CSO members face in the course of their work, there is also the challenge of articulating messages for peace and the resolution of the crisis without being branded as pro-government nor pro-secessionists, particularly as the media tries to paint the conflict as a simply black-or-white issue. This has not been an easy task. Limited resources also make it difficult to carry out peacebuilding work.
How can the international community support Cameroonian civil society?
Humanitarian organisations started becoming visible in the Anglophone regions during the crisis. They are giving humanitarian aid, but it is like a plaster on a still-festering wound, because it happens after the damage has been done: it is in no way addressing the crisis.
I have not seen the international community help Cameroon address the root causes of the conflict. It could help, for instance, by tracing the sale of arms to both sides of the conflict. Our main international partners could also use their influence to pressure the government to move towards actual inclusive dialogue and ensure the adoption of effective solutions to the crisis.
Civic space in Cameroon is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor
Case of Zambia’s 42-for-42 tests freedom of expression and assembly
On May 17, six Zambia activists, civil society leader’s and a musician will appear before the magistrates in Court 3 in the capital Lusaka. This is not the first appearance as their case has been postponed several times. The six (pictured) are jointly charged with disobeying lawful orders after they held a protest last September questioning the government why it has used 42-million Kwacha to purchase 42 firetrucks, a cost that the six say is exorbitant. Laura Miti of theAlliance for Community Action who is also one of the six accused tells CIVICUS briefly about the case and why it is important.
1. Can you tell us more about the court case in which you are appearing for in court on May 17?
The court case is the result of a peaceful protest that the Alliance for Community Action led on Parliament on 29 September 2017. The protest was called for together with civil society organisations and the general public to demand that accountability for a purchase by government of 42 fire trucks for 42 million Kwacha. Protesting and freedom of expression are both values enshrined in our Constitution so we were not breaking the law. The protest was broken up by the police and 6 protesters arrested and charged with disobeying lawful orders. Instead we were arrested and held for 10 hours and later released after being charged.
2. What does this case mean for the state of the freedom to protest and freedom of expression in Zambia?
By misapplication of the Public Order Act, Police in Zambia routinely prevent or break up protests that are even mildly critical of the government. However, protests or marches in support of government are allowed to go on even if the protester are openly breaking the law by being carrying weapons and being violent. The way this case has been held is an assault on both freedoms and it is concerning for us.
3. What challenges do you face as a woman human rights defender?
The terrain for women who speak out and challenge authorities is not easy for activists and it is even tougher for women due to the patriarchal nature of our society. As happens with all female activists, those who are unhappy with my work tend to attack my person and speak about my private life rather than engage with the issues at hand. This then discourages other women from speaking out and holding the state to account.
4. How can international civil society support you and the other 5 you are jointly charged with?
The defence of human rights in Zambia is for Zambians to ensure but a breakdown of human rights anywhere in the world, affects us all. We therefore believe that the excesses of the Zambian government should be called out by all who believe in a just world. When representatives of the Zambian government travel to international fora, they should be asked to explain the steep degeneration of the Zambian democratic space and respect for human rights in the last few years.
5. Please describe in one paragraph what you or your CSO does in Zambia
The Alliance for Community Action (ACA) works to grow the routine demand and supply of public resource accountability in Zambia, with focus on instituting the demand in the general public. The ACA would like Zambians to routinely link the quality of services they access to the budgetary and expenditure choices made by government and to demand accountability. The ACA encourages Zambians to speak up and ask targeted questions about how public money is spent and capacitates ordinary citizens to do so.
CIVICUS concerned as Uganda replicates Ethiopia's authoritarian approach in the run up to the elections
Johannesburg. 12 May 2010. In the run up to the 2011 general elections, the legal and political environment for civil society in Uganda is rapidly deteriorating, and beginning to follow the trajectory of Ethiopia facing elections later this month.
As the 23 May elections in Ethiopia near, the administration has virtually left no stone unturned to silence the local media and civil society groups. To curtail the ability of civil society to effectively monitor the present elections, the Ethiopian authorities have over the past two years introduced a raft of restrictive measures, many of which are being replicated by the Ugandan authorities.
CIVICUS condemns conviction of Reuters journalists on trial in Myanmar
Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, believes the conviction of two journalists employed by global news agency, Reuters, who have been on trial in Myanmar is a dark day for press freedom in Myanmar. The two journalists have been sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on December 12, 2017 under the country’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The reporters, who were facing up to 14 years imprisonment if convicted, were arrested after being handed documents by police officers during a dinner meeting, that turned out to be secret government documents relating to Myanmar’s western Rakhine state and security forces, according to the country’s Information Ministry.
At the time of their arrest, the journalists, who both pleaded “not guilty” to charges, had been investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in Inn Din village in Rakhine during a brutal military crackdown in that state against the Rohingya minority that began last August. During the trial, a police captain, admitted in court that a senior officer had ordered his subordinates to “trap” the journalists by handing them the classified documents. He was subsequently sentenced to a one-year prison term.
In recent months, there have been continued attacks on fundamental freedoms in Myanmar with dozens being arrested and charged for peaceful protests or for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
“We believe the verdict in this trial is a travesty of justice and sends a chilling message to all journalists in the country,” said Clementine de Montjoye, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at CIVICUS:
“Prosecutions on spurious grounds serve to intimidate local journalists and activists, and this trial is representative of the Myanmar government’s repeated attempts to cover up its actions,” said de Montjove.
“Given the state-sponsored atrocities being committed in Myanmar today, the government’s crackdown on independent investigations and dissent is hardly surprising”.
In an End of Mission report issued in July, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said “the democratic space in Myanmar continues to sharply deteriorate”. Her report also highlighted concerns about the use of repressive laws to suppress political dissidents, youth, human rights defenders and activists and the arrest of demonstrators around the country.
The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society across the globe, has rated civic space in Myanmar as repressed. CIVICUS stands in solidarity with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and all Myanmars who work to promote democracy and the protection of fundamental freedoms.
For more information, contact:
Clementine de Montjoye
CIVICUS condemns crackdown on Civil Society in Bahrain
Johannesburg. 10 December 2010. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is deeply concerned about the deteriorating operating environment for civil society in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The past few months have been marred by growing intolerance towards dissenters, which began in the run up to the October elections and continues in the post election phase.
Authorities in Bahrain are waging a relentless campaign against activists whose views are not in line with the official position. Currently, 24 prominent human rights defenders are facing trial under Bahrain's anti-terrorism laws. They have been charged with collaborating with foreign organisations and circulating false information. They have also been accused of forming terrorist networks, destruction of public and private property and defaming the authorities.
The arrested activists have complained about torture and abuse meted out to them by the National Security Agency. They have so far appeared in court on four occasions and the next hearing has been scheduled for 23 December. During their first appearance in court on 27 October, detainees informed the court that while in detention they were beaten, electrocuted, verbally and physically assaulted and denied adequate sleep. Those detained were not allowed access to legal representation during interrogation and some family members did not know where they were being detained for two weeks after their arrest. It has also been reported that prior to, during and after the elections about 350 other activists have been arrested.
"In a worrying trend, it has become commonplace in Bahrain to arrest activists for writing articles and delivering speeches which are critical of the government's discriminatory policies and official corruption," said Netsanet Belay, CIVICUS' Director of Policy and Research. "Persecution and torture of public-spirited individuals offering legitimate criticism against official policies and the clampdown on their organisations amounts to a repudiation of Bahrain's accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture."
The Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS), a CIVICUS partner for the Civil Society Index and one of the few remaining independent groups striving for the protection of civil and political freedoms in the country, has been targeted in the recent crackdown. On 6 September, the Ministry of Social Development issued an order to dissolve the Board of the BHRS and went ahead to appoint an administrator 'an employee from the Ministry' to lead the BHRS. The BHRS has had to go to court in response to these arbitrary actions and its fate currently depends on the court's response. The first hearing of the case scheduled for 26 October has been postponed to 4 January 2011.
According to Abdullah Aldorazi of BHRS, "The unfair order issued by the Ministry of Social Development to dissolve the Board of the BHRS is a security strategy aimed at preventing the documentation of atrocities carried out by the authorities during the crackdown and preventing families of the detainees from using the society as a safe haven."
CIVICUS urges the authorities of the Kingdom of Bahrain to live up to their commitments under international law and guarantee civil society the space to freely express, associate and assemble.
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global movement of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries. The Civil Society Watch (CSW) Project of CIVICUS tracks threats to civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly across the world.
For more information please contact CIVICUS:
CIVICUS House, 24 Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, Newtown 2001, Johannesburg, South Africa
PO Box 933, Southdale 2135, Johannesburg, South Africa
tel: +27-11-833-5959 | fax: +27-11-833-7997 | email:
CIVICUS expresses solidarity with embattled Swazi Civil Society
Johannesburg. 17 November 2010.The Swazi Trade Union Movement is undertaking Global Days of Action on 16 and 17 November to raise awareness and demand for human rights and justice for the people of Swaziland. CIVICUS extends its whole-hearted support to Swazi civil society in this endeavour and remains deeply concerned about the freedom of civil society in the country.
“Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy and the government’s tight control and frequent crackdowns on opposition parties and pro-democracy movements are unacceptable in today’s world,” said Ingrid Srinath, Secretary General of CIVICUS. “It is high time the government accepts the legitimate aspirations of the people of Swaziland to enjoy democratic rights.”
The space for civil society to freely express, associate and assemble remains constrained in Swaziland. Statements in the press on 19 October by Swazi Prime MinisterBarnabas Sibusiso Dlamini outlined his intentions to propose legislation to force columnists to request prior permission before publishing comments that criticise the government. The Prime Minister stated that columnists write pieces that are harmful to the image of the country and that they receive compensation from foreign sources with interests in Swaziland. The Prime Minister’s statement insinuates that newspaper pieces which are critical of the government will be censored before they are published.
Enactment of such a law will breach freedom of expression guarantees in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the country’s own Constitution. Moreover, it would repudiate the aims and objectives of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Commonwealth, of which Swaziland is a member.
“CIVICUS remains deeply concerned about the censorship of the press in Swaziland and the frequent government crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrations organised by civil society groups,” says David Kode, Policy Officer at CIVICUS. “The Swazi security forces have used the Suppression of Terrorism Act, enacted in November 2008, to justify the use of force and intimidation in suppressing dissent, including demonstrations.”
In September 2010, security forces disrupted pro-democracy demonstrations, detaining and releasing some activists without charge and deporting foreign human rights activists and trade unionists in the country to show solidarity with Swazi civil society. The government approved these actions, claiming that intimidation and torture are tools for government use to suppress opposition to the state and those acting on behalf of foreign forces.
CIVICUS urges the Swazi government to respect the rights of the people of Swaziland to express democratic dissent and demand the reform of authoritarian institutions.
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global movement of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries. The Civil Society Watch (CSW) Project of CIVICUS tracks threats to civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly across the world. In 2009, CSW tracked threats to civil society in over 75 countries around the globe.
David Kode (david.kode@civicus,org, +27 73 775 8649), Policy Officer
Office Tel: +27 11 833 5959
CIVICUS Monitor: a new effort to study civic space
After two years of deep thinking and hard work, the global civil society alliance CIVICUS has launched the beta version of the CIVICUS Monitor – the first ever online tool specifically designed to track and rate respect for civic space, in as close to real-time as possible.
CIVICUS urges Iran to stop persecuting human rights defenders and implement Universal Periodic Review recommendations
Johannesburg. 22 June 2010. Earlier this month, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and a number of civil society groups censured Iran at the UN Human Rights Council for outright refusal to accept key recommendations made during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
Iran rejected 45 of the 188 recommendations made to it by diplomatic delegations of different states and took back 20 recommendations to Tehran for further review. Notably, the rejected recommendations included "end to severe restrictions on the rights to free expression, association and assembly" (United States) and the "end to the detention and trials of writers solely for the practice of their right to freedom of expression" (Slovenia).
Civil Society deeply concerned about roll back in democratic freedoms in South Africa
12 August 2010. Johannesburg. Civil society organisations express deep apprehension at the recent attempts to strangle the media and the freedom of expression in South Africa. On 3 August, Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested by a large posse of policemen in what appear to be intimidating tactics. He was arrested without a warrant for purportedly being in the possession of a forged letter announcing the resignation of the premier of Mpumalanaga province. He had recently authored a media report on 1 August in which he questioned the police chief's decision to lease a building to house the top brass of the police at a sum of 500 million rand for ten years.
Relations between the government and independent media groups have been strained of late particularly in respect of the controversial Protection of Information Bill which impedes access to information, and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal to adjudicate perceived misleading reports by the media.
Civil Society Organisations Call for the Draft Law on Public Order to be Immediately Discarded
Phnom Penh, 13 August 2020 – We, the undersigned national and international organisations and communities, call on the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) to immediately discard the repressive draft Law on Public Order and uphold its obligations under international human rights law. The draft law contains an extensive array of provisions that effectively criminalise the legitimate everyday activities of many within the Kingdom of Cambodia (“Cambodia”), in violation of their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and other protected human rights. If enacted, the draft law will become yet another piece of repressive legislation in a legal framework that severely undermines human rights.
Civil Society Organisations condemn the continued investigation of ex-RFA journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin
Phnom Penh, 07 October 2019 -We, the undersigned civil society organisations strongly condemn the decision by the Municipal Court judge to continue the investigation into unsubstantiated espionage charges against Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin. The pair were arbitrarily arrested, detained and charged for the peaceful exercise of their freedom of expression and for their work as investigative journalists on issues of social justice. Yesterday’s hearing showed that there is a complete lack of evidence in support of these baseless charges exposing fair trial rights violations and highlighting the trial as a blatant affront to freedom of expression and media freedom in Cambodia. We urge the authorities to immediately drop all charges against the pair.
Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, were arrested on 14 November 2017 and detained in Prey Sar prison. They were provisionally charged four days later with ‘supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence’, under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. The pair – who worked for RFA’s, now closed, Cambodia bureau – were denied their first bail application on appeal before the Supreme Court on 16 March 2018 and soon afterwards were charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with the alleged production of pornography under Article 39 of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. As a result of the accumulated charges, each face 16 years in prison. On 21 August 2018 they were both released from Prey Sar prison on bail, after more than nine months in pre-trial detention, however remain under judicial supervision.
The original verdict hearing was scheduled for 30 August 2019 but on the morning of the hearing it was delayed due to an unannounced absence of the judge. It was subsequently scheduled for 03 October 2019, however the Phnom Penh Municipal Court again failed to deliver a verdict on the grounds that further investigation was required. The failure to reach a verdict is indicative of a lack of credible evidence against the pair and as such illustrates that there is insufficient evidence to hold them criminally liable as per the burden of proof standards enshrined in Article 38 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia (Constitution). Throughout the process of their arrest, detention, and ongoing trial, Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin have been denied the rights to fair trial, liberty and security protected under domestic and international human rights law.
Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), incorporated into domestic law by the Constitution, states that ‘no one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as are established by law.’ Article 14 thereafter preserves the rights to ‘be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law’ and to presumption of innocence. The charges levelled against Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin are unsubstantiated and lack a clear legal basis. Instead, they have been employed as a means to punish the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and silence journalism critical of the government. The pair had previously reported on a wide range of human rights issues.
In addition to baseless charges, the holding of these two men in pre-trial detention in deplorable conditions for more than nine months, and their continued placement under judicial supervision of already 12 months, violates their right to liberty and to a fair trial guaranteed under international law and the Constitution. International law stipulates that people charged with criminal offenses should not, as a general rule, be held in custody pending trial - a requirement not adhered to in Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin’s case.
In May 2019, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion on the case, finding that the Cambodian government had failed to (1) establish a legal basis for arrest and detention, and (2) provide proof that it had considered alternatives to pre-trial detention. Concluding that the pre-trial detention of the journalists resulted from their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of association and the freedom of expression, the Working Group found their deprivation of liberty to be arbitrary.
The prosecution of Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin is but one piece of the broader legal assault on journalists, human rights defenders, members of the political opposition, union leaders, activists, civil society representatives and individuals expressing their views on matters of public interest, including expressions of critical dissent. While the situation of press freedom was already constricted prior to 2017, since then Cambodia has seen almost all of its independent and local media silenced. Critical Khmer-language media outlets have had their activities severely restricted, including via the closure of 32 radio stations relaying RFA, Voice of America (VOA) and Voice of Democracy (VOD). RFA closed its Cambodia bureau in September 2017, citing the repressive environment and ongoing harassment of their journalists. The change of ownership of the Phnom Penh Post in May 2018, Cambodia’s last remaining independent English-Khmer language daily, was widely regarded as the last blow to press freedom in Cambodia. The space for freedom of expression online is also severely curtailed, illustrated through the increase in harassment of individuals who merely peacefully dissent or express their opinions through shares, posts or likes on Facebook.
The right to freedom of expression, protected by Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 41 of the Constitution, is essential for the guarantee of the exercise of all human rights, including the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of information, and the right to develop one’s personality and private life. As such, the importance of creating an enabling environment in which journalists are free to conduct their work – including by exposing corruption, expressing diverse viewpoints and shedding light on human rights violations – cannot be understated.
The failure to vacate the charges against Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin strikes yet another blow against what little remains of freedom of expression and media freedom in Cambodia. This case sends a clear warning to individuals who dare to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression and fosters an environment of intimidation and censorship. The legitimate and invaluable work of these individuals should be recognized, in line with Cambodia’s human rights obligations, and they should be able to carry out their activities in the future without fear of reprisal, obstruction or threat of prosecution. We encourage the Royal Government of Cambodia to cease its intimidation and harassment of all individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression and to re-establish an enabling environment for a free and pluralistic media and a thriving civil society in line with its obligations under the Constitution and international human rights law.
This joint statement is endorsed by:
- Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT)
- Amnesty International
- Article 19
- ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
- CamAsean Youth’s Future (CamASEAN)
- Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)
- Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM)
- Cambodian Food And Service Workers Federation (CFSWF)
- Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
- Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA)
- Cambodian Volunteers for Society (CVS)
- Cambodian Youth Network (CYN)
- Coalition for Integrity & Social Accountability (CISA)
- Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL)
- Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)
- Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- Human Rights Watch (HRW)
- Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)
- Independent Trade Union Federation (INTUFE)
- Indradevi Association (IDA)
- International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
- International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
- Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA)
- Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of Naga World (L.R.S.U)
- Minority Rights Organization (MIRO)
- People Center for Development and Peace (PDP-Center)
- Ponlok Khmer (PKH)
- Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
- Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)
- Urban Poor Women Development (UPWD)
- World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
- Youth Education for Development and Peace (YEDP)
- Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP)
Closed and repressed: No space for democracy to take root in Eritrea
CIVICUS interviews a human rights defender from Eritrea, who speaks about the nature of the government and its complete disregard for fundamental human rights. The human rights defender asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
1. What is the overall state of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Eritrea?
Unlike in the neighbouring countries, the regime in Eritrea is unique and arguably has no match in the world. It is the most repressive regime in the world, ruling the country with no Constitution and national assembly. There is no political pluralism and no elections have been organised since independence. The ruling party exists only in name with most of its leaders in the executive and legislative arms of government are either languishing in unknown detention centres or have abandoned the party. Since 1994 the party has never held any congress or elected new leadership. Hence power has been concentrated in the hands of a single man, President Issias Afwerki, who rules the country alone and as he wishes.
The absolute power he enjoys combined with his sadistic, cruel and arrogant character has driven him to the extreme. His regime violates every aspect of human rights and inflicts unbearable suffering on the Eritrean people. The regime has no regard for human rights and international law. Almost the entire population of Eritrea has been subjected to indefinite national service, forced labour and slavery. Families have disintegrated and societies destroyed by migration as citizens seek to escape the repression. Those who escape the country are exposed to human trafficking, hostage taking for ransom, torture and other inhumane treatment.
The regime has made Eritrea a closed and an isolated country with no independent and foreign media outlets; civil society activities are banned in Eritrea thus there are no local CSOs or international NGOs of any kind in the country. In addition, the report of the UN Commission of inquiry on the situation of human rights in Eritrea in June 2016 revealed that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea by the Eritrean regime.
2. What is the state of the media?
Between 1997 to 2001 private press in the form of print media operated in Eritrea but this was under a restrictive legal domestic framework. There were eight private newspapers until September 2001. In 2001 senior government officials known as “G-15” demanded democratic reforms and the enforcement of the 1997 ratified Constitution. In September 2001, the government clamped down on 11 members of the “G-15” accusing them of treason and said they were a threat to national security. The government proceeded to close private newspapers and imprisoned 18 journalists for providing platforms to the “G-15” to express their views. Since then both the political prisoners and journalists have been held incommunicado in secret prison facilities without charges. Many of the journalists and writers are believed to have died in detention. In effect, since September 2001 no private media has existed in Eritrea. Only state-owned and state-operated media exists in the country. These include TV, radio, and print outlets.
Freedom of expression, exchange of information and communication in public places such as tea shops, buses, taxis, restaurants, bus terminals, offices, schools and colleges, public, social and religious events are closely monitored by spys working for the regime. Even people who are out of the country are afraid to express themselves publicly for fear of reprisals against their relatives at home in Eritrea. Journalists who work for public media outlets and manage escape still fear that their families back home will be targeted as the Eritrean government punishes family members because of association.
3. How does the compulsory national military service exacerbate human rights violations in Eritrea?
According to the National Service Proclamation of 1995, Eritreans are required to serve 18 months of national service which includes six months of military training and 12 months of service in the army and civil service. The proclamation notes that military service is compulsory for males and females who are between 18 to 40 years old. However, contrary to the national proclamation, in reality the national service is indefinite. Those who were recruited in the first round, for example in 1994 have not been released up to now. The whole productive section of the society has been locked up in the national service without any pay, proper feeding or clothing. Even children are recruited into national service. All students have to go to the military training camp of Sawa to do their final year of education in the secondary level and complete military training. Conditions there are very miserable. The national service recruits are treated worse than slaves. They are deprived of opportunities to start families and from undertaking economic activities. They are deprived of moving freely, expressing themselves and from practicing the religion of their choice. In addition, those who desert and evade national service are detained, tortured or fined. Also women are used as sex objects by the military officers and work as house maids or slaves to provide forced services to the officers.
4. Tell us about the failure of the government to implement the 1997 Constitution
The government does not have any desire to implement the 1997 Constitution. In May 1998, one year after the ratification of the Constitution, the Eritrean government ignited a border war with Ethiopia. It developed into a full-fledged conflict that came to end in 2000 after the loss of about 100 000 lives on both sides and huge damages to properties and a huge humanitarian crisis and displacement. The Algeris agreement ended the war and a border commission was formed to delineate and demarcate the border but the border has not yet been demarcated. A “no war and peace state” prevails now. Although there are no links between the border and the Constitution, the Eritrean government claims that it is not implementing the Constitution because the border has to be demarcated first.
5. What are three things that need to change for democracy to take root in Eritrea?
For democracy to take root in Eritrea: there needs to be
- Change of the existing government;
- Crimes committed so far have to be addressed and perpetrators brought to justice;
- The international community needs to support Eritreans both in the diaspora and those in Eritrea in leading a transition to democratic rule.
Closure of Himal magazine part of ongoing onslaught on free expression in the South Asia region
CIVICUS speaks to Aunohita Mojumdar the editor of Himal Southasian, a review magazine of politics and culture based in Nepal and run by the not-for-profit Southasia Trust. Aunohita Mojumdar speaks on the suspension of the magazine from publishing and freedom of expression in the region. She has spent 25 years reporting from parts of South Asia. Before arriving in Kathmandu in 2012, Mojumdar was based in Kabul, Afghanistan for eight years as a freelancer. She is currently working for the re-launch of the suspended magazine
1. Please tell us about Himal Southasian and what makes it unique?
Himal is unique in a number of ways. It has a regional outlook, covering the whole of Southasia; it functions as a bridge between academia and journalism by making in-depth reporting and research accessible to a wider audience; and it challenges the jingoism and ultra-nationalism that obstructs a clear-eyed view of the region and its challenges.
Though the South Asian region has strong independent media outlets, reportage and analysis are invariably dominated by the national perspective, whether it is in the selection of issues the media covers or the manner in which issues are reported. The hostile rhetoric strengthens the confrontational postures based on jingoism rather than fact-based discourse and debate. As evident in the coverage of Indo-Pak issues. Reporting is also overwhelmingly event-based reporting and Himal has been unique in the kind of context it provides, thus answering the critical question of journalism that is often ignored – the why.
Though significant path-breaking scholarship exists in the region, much of this remains confined to academic texts which remain inaccessible to a wider audience because of stilted jargon or language. Himal seeks to bring this scholarship into the public domain on the premise that informed debate and discourse is a necessary element of democracy.
Despite the rise of ultra-nationalism, most media are unwilling to undertake critical reporting on this issue for fear of being branded as being anti-national. Himal’s contribution in this of expanding the scope for debate and discourse on this is well-established, a recent example being the controversy over Himal’s signature map. (See map is pictured above. Readers note, the map is rotated intentionally by the editors of Himal to reconceptualise regionalism and put a focus on people and not nation-states).
2. Himal Southasian has been forced to cease its operations due to bureaucratic reasons. Could you shed some light as to what happened?
Small organisations are sometimes challenged by the lack of money, staff, professionalism or administrative weaknesses. It is worth mentioning that Himal has met all these challenges and risen above them. The magazine’s suspension in November 2016 was caused by a new but growing expression of intolerance which uses bureaucracy to silence individuals and organisations which are troublesome to regimes, governments and states.
Often this tactic is through investigations, never-ending and ambiguous, and it is the process rather than the outcome which kills. In the case of Himal the method was even simpler. Himal was never investigated nor even questioned. The simple expedient of withholding permission for us to use our grants and to secure work visas for our staff as well as a slow-down of other regulatory processes paralysed our functioning.
These methods clearly work much better than direct censorship or attacks, both because there is no obvious attack and it is long drawn and because it is nearly impossible to mobilise public opinion on it. The low-level but high-value attrition of these methods is making them an increasingly popular form of clamping down on civil society.
3. How would you characterise the environment for civil society in Nepal? Is freedom of expression respected?
As a non-Nepali I cannot hope to speak to the entirety of the situation in Nepal but our experience suggests that there is a high degree of self-censorship. Very few civil society groups spoke out on our behalf after the suspension and even some media organisations whose mandate is the protection of journalists have been reluctant to speak out, let alone other media outlets.
4. Are you hopeful about the future of freedom of expression in South Asia? Is it being respected at present?
Freedom of expression throughout Southasia is facing a major challenge and in fact our last issue published out of Nepal documents the shrinking space in almost the entire region with a few exceptions. There are multiple challenges to freedom of expression. We have increasingly intolerant governments, which are using direct or indirect means to curb media and civil society. We have vigilante groups who are carrying out violent attacks on writers and journalists who are either being actively encouraged by the governments or are encouraged by the impunity the government inaction offers.
Governments are also using more sophisticated methods of control detailed earlier. In fact the challenge to Himal has made us aware of the extent of control exercised on routine functions. There is nothing, for example, in the rules and procedures which force the Nepal government to either give permission or show cause why the permission is being withheld. We see similar actions against NGOs in India where a large number of organisations critical of the government are losing the permission to operate or losing the ability to accept grants. Many non-commercial organisations rely on grants for their function and the reasons to deny them the permission appears arbitrary, linked not to their performance but to their perceived opposition to the government.
Even where media are not directly attacked, the corporatisation of media has led to media reporting more and more on selective subjects catering to audiences with purchasing power. As media emerge more as carriers for advertising they are required to create a feel-good audience for their readers, leaving out the vast majority of the citizens who do not have the purchasing power to drive advertising spend.
Self-censorship is being exercised by the media to avoid any confrontation that could damage the corporate interests while the profit motive of media companies has taken away resources from the actual task of journalism.
While the trends in Southasia are not very different from global trends, the weak rule of law and poor governance in Southasian countries poses additional challenges and is a threat to the small number of independent outlets that exist.
5. How can international and regional civil society support you in carrying out your mandate?
With increasingly complex and sophisticated threats emerging to the survival of independent media, the support structures and strategies also need to evolve. While there are robust processes in place to provide safe havens to activists who are threatened, to relocate them in exile, there are few processes in place for supporting activists and organisations who wish to remain in situ and work. There are few processes to support organisations who may not be physically at risk but whose work is being threatened or compromised. There are absolutely no initiatives which are examining and questioning the new methodologies of attack where organisations and individuals are being targeted by financial investigations even though there is, by now, a pattern of such victimisation.
In our case for example it would have helped if there had been questions asked of the government on the refusal to process permissions. Indeed given the suspension of Himal and the closure of its offices in Nepal after nearly 30 years of public service journalism such questions could still be asked so that governments know they will be held accountable.
While Himal remains ready to resume its editorial work as soon as it is able, it is currently seeking to establish the administrative and financial structures that will allow it to function. Support that would enable this would be welcome.
About Himal: Himal Southasian, a review magazine of politics and culture, is the only regional magazine of its kind. Stretching from Afghanistan to Burma, from Tibet to the Maldives, this region of more than 1.4 billion people shares great swathes of interlocking geography, culture and history. Yet today neighbouring countries can barely talk to one another, much less speak in a common voice. For over three decades, Himal Southasian has strived to define, nurture, and amplify that voice.