Brussels, 26 February 2018 - With human rights, democracy and the rule of law around the world increasingly under attack, those who stand up to defend them have an ever-more central role to play in sustainable development and conflict resolution. As civil society space closes around them, and governments use repressive tactics to impede their work, human rights defenders (HRDs) often put their lives, liberty, and safety at risk, and require support and protection in order to go on.
In a context where the level of need and demand from HRDs has significantly risen, increased support will be required in the coming years to meet the demands of HRDs operating in the context of a global backlash. The level of funding and support provided by international donor community no longer matches the magnitude of the needs of Human Rights Defenders, as observed in the ProtectDefenders.eu report on funding on support for HRDs, launched last January at a public seminar held in the European Parliament. Human Rights Defenders, in fact, are receiving declining support.
In its conclusion, this report shows the high volatility of the level of funding available for HRDs at risk, as well as worrying indications that public funding for HRDs may be set to decrease in coming years due to loss of support from traditional allies.
The main conclusions of this report are available on ProtectDefenders.eu website.
Three months to the day after the arbitrary arrest of two journalists in Phnom Penh, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is publishing a report about the tragic decline in the freedom to inform in Cambodia, where the independent media are now in ruins as a result of constant depredation by Prime Minister Hun Sen's regime.
Imprisoned since 14 November on espionage charges, former Radio Free Asia reporters Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin are above all the collateral victims of the offensive that Hun Sen has waged against the independent media for the past six months in order to pave the way for general elections in July.
The aim of the report published today is to detail this tragic reversal for the media in Cambodia. It is based on research carried out by Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, during a visit to Cambodia in October 2017 (see attached versions in English, Khmer and French).
Cambodia Daily, the country’s oldest English-language newspaper, suddenly learned on 4 August that the tax department was demanding 6.3 million US dollars (5.3 million euros) in supposed back taxes. If the newspaper couldn’t pay, it would just have to “pack up and go,” Hun Sen said. No audit had been carried out and no document was produced to support the government’s claim. In the absence of any possibility of appeal, Cambodia Daily published its last issue on 4 September.
Harassing independent media
The Cambodian authorities brazenly tried to play innocent by repeatedly insisting that Cambodia Daily’s closure was the result of nothing more than a tax problem. However, it emerged a few days ago that they told Internet service providers on 28 September to block access to Cambodia Daily’s still functioning website and to its Facebook and Twitter pages although they are based outside the country.
This clearly shows, if any proof were needed, that Hun Sen’s government persecutes independent media. A total of 32 radio stations, including Radio Free Asia’s Phnom Penh bureau, were shut down at the end of August. Their common feature was a lack of subservience towards the government. The closures have been accompanied by persecution of journalists. In fact, anything goes in order intimidate the media. This is why RSF has joined other international and Cambodian NGOs in issuing a statement (see attached) demanding the immediate release of Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who are facing up to 15 years in prison.
Mass media control
The war against independent media has left the field free for media outlets that take their orders from the ruling party. This is clear from the Cambodian Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) carried out jointly by RSF and the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media (CCIM), an updated version of which is published today. It shows that media ownership is largely concentrated in the hands of a small number of leading businessmen linked to the ruling party. This is particularly so with the broadcast media. The four main TV channels, which have 80% of Cambodia’s viewers, are all run by government members or associates.
An independent regulator should be in charge of issuing licences to broadcast media and press cards to journalists but the information ministry is responsible for these functions in Cambodia, executing them in a completely opaque manner.
New information vehicles
When the traditional media are so closely controlled, the only hope lies with the Internet and citizen-journalists. Internet and social media use is exploding within Cambodia’s young and connected population. In 2017, 40% of Cambodians got their news primarily from Facebook. However, Facebook included Cambodia in the six countries where it began trialling a new set-up in October in which the independent news content is hived off to a secondary location called the Explore feed. The effect has been drastic. In a matter of days, the Phnom Penh Post’s Khmer-language Facebook page lost 45% of its readers and traffic fell 35%.
Meanwhile, a survey showed that the prime minister’s Facebook page received 58 million clicks in 2017, putting him third in the click ranking of the world’s politicians, just behind Donald Trump and India’s Narendra Modi. But many are sceptical, to the point that a former opposition leader recently filed a legal suit against Facebook in a US federal court in San Francisco, demanding that it hand over any information indicating that Hun Sen bought millions of “likes” from foreign “click farms” in order to boost the appearance of invincibility ahead of July’s parliamentary elections.
Pursuing the fight
There can be no democracy without independent media but media independence is in greater danger now in Cambodia than at any other time in its recent history, which still bears the deep scars of the Khmer Rouge era. The fight for the freedom to inform in Cambodia must, therefore, be pursued at all costs.
Ranked 132nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Cambodia is likely to fall in the 2018 index.
ProtectDefenders.eu's temporary relocation program for human rights defenders in danger is one of the hallmarks of the EU Human Rights Defenders mechanism. Since its launch more than two years ago, the program has been expanded and consolidated and, to date, more than more than 800 individuals have accessed financial and logistic support to find refuge away from risk, while developing productive and empowering activities during their relocation, which improves their abilities to continue their work as defenders.
That has been the case of Charles Bangbe, a South Sudanese human rights defender currently in exile in Uganda. He used to work for the South Sudan Employees Chamber, a civil society organization that protects the rights of workers. Being a new State, South Sudanese Public Services were ran by former combatants who liberated the country from the old Sudan. In 2015, the County was given authority to handle land disputes. Because of Charles' legal background, he was appointed to represent civil society on the panel charged with sorting out land matters. His firm position against unfair treatment of the victims in the cases handled made his organization and himself a target of land grabbers. The grabbed land was discovered as the commission continued its work but Charles Bangbe was looked at as a thorn to the commission members as he was blocking any unfair resolution upon the matters. As a result of his work, Charles Bangbe started receiving threats, which increased progressively to the point of being shot by an unidentified armed man who then left knowing that his target had died. He was taken urgently to a hospital in Juba, then transferred to Kampala where he has been living with his family since then.
Once in Kampala, he received DefendDefenders multifaceted emergency protection support in form of a relocation/settlement grant, medical assistance as well as support on initiating the process of asylum seeking with the Office of the Prime Minister and UNHCR. The defender and his family also received counselling given the traumatic experience they underwent following the incident. In addition, they received security tips to help keep them safe while in exile. Charles Bangbe was advised to apply to the ProtectDefenders.eu Temporary Relocation Programme for more sustainable assistance and, with the support of DefendDefenders, he was provided assistance to sustain his family for a period of one year.
Since his temporary relocation began, Charles Bangbe started a small income generating activity for the family as a way of longer sustainability after the funding ends, which is run by the wife in Kampala. He has also been able to fully register all his family members with the Office of the Prime Minister Directorate of Refugees through direct technical advice from DD and began plans to construct a small family house after purchasing land on the outskirts of Kampala so that he could solve the challenge of paying rent after the grant has run out. Moreover, he has reportedly continued his human rights back at home after an assurance that the family is taken care of and out of harm’s way.
Urgent Action Fund has released a new report on the impacts of the "closing space" on human rights defenders: Rights eroded: A briefing on the effects of closing space on women human rights defenders
The report, completed with the Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, documents the devastating effects of new restrictions on civil society and their disproportionate impact on women human rights defenders. Yet, the tenacity of defenders remains, as one defender from Russia states "when they shut the door, we come in the window." The perspectives of defenders from Bangladesh, Bahrain, Honduras, Turkey, and Kenya are included among others, including those supported via ProtectDefenders.eu. Among the key findings of this report, four dynamics have been identified:
The full version of the report is available at ProtectDefenders.eu website.
(Geneva, Paris) The report being released by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (an FIDH-OMCT partnership) - with the support of ProtectDefenders.eu - is a far cry from the media frenzy that was caused by the announcement of symbolic reforms, such as that set out in the September 2017 Royal Decree (at last) giving Saudi women permission to drive. This report casts a harsh light on the scandalous situation of Saudi women human rights defenders who still have to cope with major restrictions on their rights. As women, they are subjected to a patriarchal regime that is steeped in gender inequality, and they must cope with a context that severely represses all voices of dissent. Women who report domestic violence or stand up as activists are confronted with unrelenting repression. Since they are not allowed to form movements or associations, they take refuge in social networks.
Check out the special webpage created for the report:
Saudi Arabia is well known for the severe limits it imposes on women’s rights – the legal status of the woman being inferior to that of the man – in all fields, even in the simplest acts of daily life. Nonetheless, because of the economic necessity to end total dependence on oil, and because of the aspirations of young people who are taking over much of the social media, the authorities have announced that they would gradually make some concessions.
Yet, since 2016, the country has been experiencing unprecedented mobilisation by women standing up for their most basic rights, especially since they can now do it through social networks. There are now thousands of cyber-activists on the networks, most of them using accounts anonymously out of fear of reprisal.
Although in recent years the government has given indications of more openness, especially since the arrival of a ‘new generation’ of leaders, represented by the Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, women are still exposed to a double vulnerability.
One is their status. The maintenance of the ‘male guardian’ status perpetuates gender inequality and condemns women to a minority status for their whole life. The Royal Circular of April 18, 2017 reforming this status raised great hope among women defenders, but little has changed. Women still must have the authorisation from a male guardian to travel abroad or to obtain a passport. And some women fear that nothing will ever change. Going beyond the texts, which are often unclear, the police and legal authorities can be especially brutal and discriminating, especially in the case of domestic violence.
The other area concerns the promises of the Saudi authorities to introduce reforms, which is still countered by the reality of the situation of human rights in a country that continues to repress all dissenting views, especially those of human rights defenders who are calling for far-reaching societal reforms.
The law still does not guarantee respect for basic rights such as freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly. Any attempt to set up a movement or an association is brutally crushed. Saudi law is not only rife with vague concepts that leave great leeway for the judges, but the laws meant to fight criminality and terrorism are deflected to criminalise the legal expression of any dissenting opinion. Dozens of defenders, bloggers, lawyers, and activists have been accused of ‘apostasy’, ‘atheism’, ‘insulting religion’, ‘terrorism’, ‘destabilising the State’, ‘attempting to influence public opinion’, or even ‘creating an illegal organisation’, and are now spending long years in prison.
The report published by the Observatory today speaks of the fight for the emancipation of women in Saudi Arabia in a tightly circumscribed human rights environment.
It traces the symbolic path of some of them. Most of them are cyber-activists who use social networks anonymously in order to denounce all the arbitrary treatment they must deal with. There are also activists who publicly announce their position as human rights defenders and become involved with emblematic causes like putting an end to male guardianship, or with the possibility of setting up an association for the defense of women’s rights or, more broadly, human rights, or running in the municipal elections. All of them are taking risks and are very vulnerable.
In November 2017, blogger Naimah Al-Matrod was sentenced to six years in prison for participating in a peaceful protest movement in the eastern coastal part of the country about economic, social and political claims, and for having called for the release of political prisoners and for democratic reforms.
All these women are already subjected to pressure from their families and are now forced into a silence imposed by the government. They may be threatened with prosecution, arbitrarily arrested, put in prison, banned from travel and forbidden to speak in public. Following the opening of legal proceedings, most of them see the sword of Damocles hanging over their head for several years in order to keep them silent.
FIDH: Audrey Couprie : +33 6 48 05 91 57
OMCT: Delphine Reculeau: +41 22 809 49 39
The Senior Campaigns Coordinator of APCOM is one of the 25 LGBTI human rights defenders who joined a training around digital security conducted by ILGA in Bangkok in July 2017 with the support of ProtectDefenders.eu. Our partner ILGA met him to learn more about his work.
Watch the full interview and read more about his story
Paris-Geneva, January 25, 2018 - The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a FIDH-OMCT partnership) is publishing a report describing the shrinking workspace for independent civil society in Morocco, which affects a growing number of human rights organizations. Constraints and administrative harassment undermine the constitutional gains of 2011, achieved in the wake of the "February 20" Movement and the "Arab Spring".
In 2011, Morocco adopted a new constitution by referendum which guarantees more freedoms and human rights. It includes the freedoms of opinion and expression; association; gatherings and peaceful demonstrations. The Kingdom is also bound by the legal obligations contained in the many international conventions it has ratified.
However, because of the subjects they defend, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for the defence of human rights operate in an ever more unfavorable context, the rights enshrined in the Constitution being less and less respected by the administrative and police authorities. This deterioration accelerated in 2014, following the speech of the Minister of the Interior in Parliament. He accused human rights groups of receiving funds from abroad to carry out actions that undermine the security and image of Morocco.
The report details how three processes are used by the Moroccan authorities to hinder their activities. Barriers in registration procedures (refusal of filing, time limits), including for emblematic human rights organizations in Morocco, prevent them from existing legally, to open a bank account to obtain a place and to sue. In addition, activities (events, public meetings) organized by NGOs are regularly prohibited. Finally, their access to finance is hindered by the lack of registration or final receipt, preventing NGOs from opening a bank account and limiting their access to funding. This access has become even more problematic with the new obligation for international donors to contact the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs before any funding is given to Moroccan associations. While this new mechanism of March 2017 officially aims to fight the financing of terrorist groups, it is feared that it can be used to control the funding of independent NGOs critical of the human rights situation in Morocco.
This gradual smothering of independent associations is taking place as the country faces new social movements since the end of 2016.
" While protests and demonstrations in the Rif are likely to degenerate into further violence, it is essential that the country respect its own Constitution and its international commitments on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Morocco must also guarantee the safety of members and local human rights NGOs, " said Hafidha Chekhir, vice president of FIDH.
Finally, despite favorable jurisprudence for human rights NGOs, the Moroccan authorities almost systematically prohibit the activities of foreign NGOs or their Moroccan branches. For example, Transparency Morocco, an anti-corruption organization, has seen its activities banned several times since 2013. Several legal experts and international observers have been expelled. For example, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are no longer allowed to conduct their investigations in the country.
" Government rhetoric voluntarily conflates the work of human rights NGOs with terrorism and religious extremism. The hostility against them, which sometimes takes the form of judicial harassment, must stop immediately " denounced Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of OMCT.
The Observatory calls on the Moroccan authorities to put an end to the obstacles to freedom of association and to respect all the rights guaranteed by the international and regional human rights instruments ratified by Morocco, in particular with regard to freedom of association, assembly, assembly, peaceful protest, and expression.
Directors of the publication: Dimitris Christopoulos, Gerald Staberock
Authors of the report: Marie-Aure Perreaut, Hugo Gabbero
Editing and coordination: Marie-Aure Perreaut, Hugo Gabbero, Juliette Cheanne
Within the framework of ProtectDefenders.eu, OMCT provided a grant In February 2018 to a Bolivian woman human rights defender, in order to support her temporary relocation within the country. This WHRD, a lawyer and NGO member, committed her life to the defence of women’s rights and in particular of women deprived of their liberty, offering pro bono representation to victims of negligence, mistreatment and corruption.
As a result of her work, two strongly influential local Public Prosecutors were found guilty of mistreatment against women deprived of liberty and subsequently dismissed. Since then, her life drastically changed as she began receiving threats against her own life and her three-year-old son. The threats have been intensifying since the end of 2017, when she started receiving threatening calls daily, was subjected to stalking, and endured an attempt to kidnap her and her son. Her situation became unbearable and she finally decided to resort to temporary relocation in order to protect her son’s life and to be able to continue her work free from threats.
Thanks to the financial support of OMCT in the framework of ProtectDefenders.EU, the WHRD is now living safely in another region of Bolivia with her son, with the hope to be able to resume her human rights activities shortly.
Due to the defence work for the economic, social and cultural rights, the organizations dedicated to the investigation and to the litigation, and in particular the CCJ, have been subjected to attacks promoted by violators of human rights in the press, in the Senate and by any other means. It has been recently discovered that, between 2003 and 2005, human rights organisations were subjected to illegal persecution by the intelligence agency of the Presidency of the Republic - the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) - which constituted a group to harass human rights defenders, magistrates, journalists and political opponents, all of which is subject to investigation by Colombian criminal justice.
Within the situation of violence in the country, such attacks represent clear threats to the integrity of its members as they are often the target of threats and various security incidents related to the monitoring and surveillance of their activities in the field, in zones of control by illegal actors; to the theft of information of the different cases of human rights violations that they represent, and even more in a post-agreement context where many of these cases in which they have worked historically will be presented to the newly formed Truth Commission.
In this context, PBI received the request to start a cycle of self-protection workshops, digital security and self-care spaces to preventively and reactively address the protection and security of the organization. During February 20, the first working day was held, holding workshops on self-protection and digital security. On the 22nd of this same month, the people in charge of the area of reconstruction of the social fabric in charge of them organized a follow-up meeting with the Board of Directors of the organization.
The result that these workshops can have in the management of the security of the CCJ will be of greater relevance if the impact on the country and the Colombian justice is taken into account, the presentation before the truth commission and the eventual resolution of their cases.
On 7, 8 and 9 February 2018, Reporters Without Borders held in Paris a three-day meeting with its 12 partner organizations, from Syria, Morocco, DRC, Turkey, Cambodia, Pakistan, Mexico, Thailand, China, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, all in common sharing the same commitment to freedom of the press and protection of journalists. The objective of this meeting was to train them on advocacy and to define with RSF an action plan for 2018.
The opportunity was also seized to allow them to meet to confront the challenges they can face in their respective and to share ideas and good practices. The meeting started with each of the partners exposing the situation and the global strategy of their organizations vis-à-vis the freedom of the press in their countries. Around the table, questions were jostling and synergies already beginning to emerge. At the coffee break, the Pakistani representative approached the Mexican participant: "If your pilot project works in Mexico, I think that can be replicated in Pakistan." Throughout the session, ideas were coming together and common projects were flourishing.
The participants then followed a training on advocacy, the UN Human rights mechanism (Human Rights Council and UPR) and reaching diplomatic community and how to address national governments and authorities. It emerged that many of these organizations already do advocacy but not in a formal way and without being aware that what they do constitutes advocacy. A part of the training was also dedicated to improve technical and writing skills.
Then, the practical session, all organizations started to work on an action plan, highlighting activities to be carried out and objective to achieve in 2018. The aim is to align the four cross-cutting strategic axes of RSF (1. Defend and protect journalists investigating major subjects of public matter; 2. Provide tools for the independence of journalism; 3. Digital censorship – Accountability; 4. Resist counter models of information control) with the reality on the ground and needs of each country. Common activities with proven effectiveness, such as joint advocacy campaigns and the organization of physical and digital security training for journalists, were elements that were repeated in most strategies.
Those documents will serve as a basis to follow up RSF’s partners work, and monitor the progress made. Beyond drafting such a strategic document, this meeting, first of its kind of also a great chance for organizations that could have never met to meet, exchange, share, create a sense of belonging to wider network and to feel less isolated when it comes to fight human rights violations. "I came here a few days to discover Paris," said the member of the Thai organization. But, during this meeting, I discovered the world. "
ProtectDefenders.eu has allocated comprehensive grants through PBI Indonesia, for 10 grassroots organizations from West Kalimantan, East Nusa Tengara, Papua, West Papua and Central Sulawesi. This set of grants allows sending human rights defenders to Jakarta, in order to participate in a four-month intensive training on how to improve safety and quality standards in human rights field research. As recently reported, in the first six months of training a wide variety of topics have already been covered, including sessions on digital security, dealing with aggression, nonviolent communication and negotiation, basic human rights theory and law, social analysis, interviewing techniques, writing for human rights reporting, and risk analysis and mitigation. The trainees will also conduct a short field visit with a Javanese farmers' union to sharpen some of these skills before beginning to plan their own research projects,