Freedom Alert

In a vote that was widely considered free and fair, Zambians elected Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front (PF) as its newest president on September 22, garnering 43 percent of the vote and displacing current president Rupiah Banda of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). The MMD has effectively ruled the country since multi-party elections were first permitted in 1991. Opposition parties have been free to operate since 2001, following ten additional years of de facto one party rule. While opposition candidates have experienced occasional harassment, electoral violence, and disruption of rallies, they have nonetheless mounted increasingly successful nationwide campaigns, none more evident than this year, with the PF sweeping to power in both the parliament and executive office.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia discussed the country’s successful transition to democracy as the country celebrates the 20th anniversary of its independence (highlighting Estonia’s Free rating in Freedom in the World). He expressed concern at the challenges that continue in many countries of the former Soviet Union and hopefulness at the democratic movement currently sweeping the Middle East as its people strive for freedom.

The African National Congress (ANC) will reschedule its September 20 debate on the Protection of Information Bill to next quarter due to public outcry and accusations that the legislation threatens freedom of expression. The ANC is divided on the bill and plans to consult with groups against the bill before resuming debate—the groups hope to rewrite the bill, which has no “public interest defense,” threatening journalists who disclose protected information. The Protection of Information Bill would regulate the distribution of state information, “weighing state interests against transparency and freedom of expression.” On August 31, the ANC told a special committee that it would not add a clause to protect the public interest, because it did not consider journalists a separate class.

Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist with Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, was denied his appeal on September 20 after being arrested in April 2011 for “defaming” Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenka and sentenced to two years in prison. Poczobut argued that investigators and prosecutors “violated his rights,” forbidding witnesses and the lawyer he selected from appearing in the courtroom. Poczobut is a Belarusian citizen from Poland, and one of the leaders of the Union of Poles in Belarus (ZPB). In February 2011, he served a 15-day sentence for participating in protests surrounding Lukashenka’s reelection. In the past, Poczobut had his accreditation revoked and faced harassment in response to his journalistic activities.

In its International Religious Freedom Report issued on September 13, the U.S. State Department failed to designate Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) despite the significant deterioration of religious freedom in the country. Iran, China Saudi Arabia, Burma, Eritrea, North Korea, Sudan and Uzbekistan were noted in the report as having governments that “engage in or tolerate ‘particularly severe violations’ of religious freedom, where the abuses are “egregious, ongoing, and systematic.” In a May 2011 letter, Freedom House joined other human rights groups in calling on the State Department to designate Pakistan a CPC given the pervasive violence against religious minorities and the impunity that is enjoyed by militant groups. The State Department’s decision to leave Pakistan off the list sends the wrong signal to those that espouse religious intolerance and undermines the message that the Pakistani authorities are obligated to protect their citizens and uphold the rule of law.

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Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced September 15 that the government will repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA), along with three emergency provisions, and replace them with two laws to prevent “terrorism, subversive activities and maintain public order.” The ISA and emergency declarations currently allow detention without trial for up to two years, and students, activists and opposition leaders have been arrested as a result. However, the government claims once the ISA and other acts are repealed citizens will no longer be detained strictly based on ideology. The government will also amend the Police Act to better promote freedom of assembly—although street protests would still be considered illegal— and the Printing Presses and Publications Act, to make it easier for outlets to keep their licenses by not requiring annual renewal.

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On September 13, Indonesian radio station Radio Era Baru was shut down by police and had equipment confiscated. The raid is widely thought to be because of the station’s Falun Gong ties and outspoken views against China for its human rights abuses. On September 6, station manager Gatot Machali was sentenced to six months in jail and a nearly $6,000 fine for broadcasting without a license. Machali had ignored repeated requests from the government to halt broadcasts. Radio Era Baru is linked to the Falun Gong religious movement, and as a result, Machali claims the Chinese government has pressured Indonesian authorities to stop broadcasts. Authorities have on numerous occasions –in 2007 and 2008—imposed restrictions on the station, refused to grant it a license, and in March 2010 shut the station down.

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The bodies of a man and woman were found mutilated and dangling from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, both apparently murdered for Twitter posts denouncing drug cartels. A poster found at the scene of the crime warned social media users against reporting on the drug war and was signed “Z,” likely referring to members of the Zetas drug cartel. The poster specifically mentioned blogs “Al Rojo Vivo” and “Blog del Narco,” highly critical of drug cartels. The identities of the two have yet to be determined or linked directly with the blogs and no witnesses have come forward.

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Iraqi journalist and radio commentator Hadi al-Mehdi was shot to death by gunmen in Baghdad on September 9. His killing is thought to be related to his public criticism of the government. Al-Mehdi mobilized Facebook followers on a weekly basis to protest in Tahrir Square. He also hosted radio show “To Whoever Listens,” airing three times a week, but left the show in July fearing for his safety. Al-Mehdi has been attacked before, recently had been receiving daily phone, texts, and social media threats, some threats warning him not to return to protests. In February 2011, Army troops arrested, tortured and later released al-Mehdi and several other journalists. In 2009, gunmen attempted to kill al-Mehdi, and shot him in the neck and head.

Syrian security forces forced 18 patients, including five in the operating room, out of the al-Barr hospital in Homs and prevented doctors from accessing the wounded on September 7, according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch. According to reports, security forces asked for a list of the wounded, and then proceeded to remove from the hospital all patients with bullet wounds. The same day, nearly thirty people were killed in resulting violence from military operations.

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