Middle East and North Africa: Information and Interior ministers must tackle clampdown on freedom of expression

'Measures to prevent 'terrorism' can be effective only if they also respect and protect human rights. Security and human rights go hand in hand - and are not alternative options' Amnesty International said.

Yet since the adoption of the Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism (the Convention) in 1998 it seems that respect for human rights has been further eroded in the name of 'national security'. Some provisions of the Convention clearly threaten the right to freedom of expression, including those measures that, according to the Convention, aim to strengthen the 'media services' of the security forces.

This latest meeting of Arab ministers who met to agree a strategy to combat 'terrorism' has left the way open to broaden provisions of the Convention dealing with the media to include the internet. In particular it was agreed that printing or publishing anything which might promote or encourage 'terrorism' should be a criminally punishable offence. In the absence of a clear legal definition of terms like 'terrorism', 'violence', terrorist 'purposes' and 'attacks', there is a risk that the Convention will be, and is already being, further abused to punish people for non-violent acts, including those related to freedom of expression and human rights related work.

'Anyone detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression is a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally,' the organisation urged.

Amnesty International reminds governments of their obligations to respect and protect freedom of expression and information, as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which many Arab states are party.

Amnesty International specifically reminds Arab governments of their responsibilities and duties to protect and promote human rights under the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Article 6(b) of the Declaration recognises the right of everyone, individually and in association with others to 'freely...publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms'.

Amnesty International is concerned that the suggested measures agreed by the meeting in the field of media would seriously infringe on the freedom of expression already eroded by censorship, routine intimidation and persecution of journalists, publishers and proprietors of independent media organs. The following are among the many current cases related to freedom of expression in the region that are the subject of Amnesty International's campaigning:

EGYPT

On 26 December 2002 two human rights activists - Hani Riyadh and Tamer Sulaiman - were arrested during a research mission to the Sohag governorate on behalf of the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights (ECHR). The men, who were released and then re-arrested on the same day, were detained until 6 January 2003 on several charges, including 'inciting civil strife' and 'practising a profession without authorisation', a reference to an accusation that they were masquerading as journalists. However, the men assert that when stopped by the state security officers, they clearly presented themselves as ECHR representatives. Hani Riyadh had been arrested earlier that week and detained for three days for allegedly disseminating leaflets advertising a demonstration before the Qatari Embassy protesting against Qatar's involvement in the possible war against Iraq. During detention, Hani Riyadh alleged that he was beaten, insulted and threatened.

JORDAN

On 1 January 2003 members of the Jordanian Security Forces arrested Ala'Abdul Jawad Baraqan, a public relations officer at the Jordanian Professional Trade Unions (JPTU) at his home in Zarqa. Since then he has been held in incommunicado detention. Ala'Abdul Jawad Baraqan was a former Secretary of the recently banned Anti-Normalization Committee of the JPA, whose supporters were highly critical of the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression. The detention of Baraqan follows numerous arrests of government critics in recent months including trade-unionists and journalists.

KUWAIT

In October 2002, the Gulf Cooperation Council Information Ministers criticised the contents of some of Al-Jazeera's programmes and warned the channel that it could face a boycott if it does not tone down its controversial programming. Kuwait closed down the local office of al Jazeera TV on 2 November for alleged lack of objectivity in its coverage.

LEBANON

The Television channel MTV was closed down by the government for its alleged association with the opposition in November 2002, and remained closed by order of the Court. Another channel, the New TV was also temporarily ordered off-air for broadcasting a programme critical of Saudi Arabia.

SAUDI ARABIA

Salih Bilhareth al Yammi, a journalist in al Yum newspaper was reportedly arrested in Rahima in the Eastern Province in June/July 2000 for reporting to al Jazeera TV news relating to clashes between Ismailis and the Saudi Arabian authorities. It was reported that Salih was sentenced to seven years imprisonment, and that he is currently detained in al Dammam prison.

SYRIA

On 23 December 2002, Ibrahim Humaydi who works as a correspondent for the London based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat was arrested by members of the Security Forces and has since been held in incommunicado detention on charges of 'publication of false information'. His arrest is related to an article he published on 20 December about Syria's preparations for the arrival of Iraqi refugees during a possible war. The case has reportedly been referred to the State Security Court. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression.

TUNISIA

On 4 June 2002 in Ben Arous, Zouheir Yahiaoui, aged 34, was arrested in Ben Arous in the outskirts of Tunis. Zouheir Yahiaoui, using a false name Ettounsi (The Tunisian), was an operator of the website TUNeZINE, a forum of exchange of information on Tunisia. He was reportedly brought to the Ministry of Interior and tortured before being remanded in custody. When the trial opened on 20 June, the court failed to call for an investigation into the allegations of torture. Despite these and other grave breaches in the legal proceedings, Zouheir Yahiaoui was convicted and sentenced to 2 years and 4 months' imprisonment (reduced to 2 years' imprisonment in appeal) on charges of spreading false information and misuse of telecommunication lines. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience.

Background

In 2002 Amnesty International issued a report on the Convention entitled: 'The Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism: A serious threat to human rights' (AI Index: IOR 51/001/2002)

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