Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bahrain court jails demonstrator for insulting national flag

A Bahraini court has sentenced a demonstrator to three months in prison for hanging a national flag from his truck during a 2011 rally against the ruling Al Khalifa regime.

The details of the charge leveled against the man on Thursday were not clear, but prosecutors said the move is regarded as an insult under the new codes of law.

National flags are carried and waved during anti-regime marches in Bahrain.

In April, Bahrain introduced tougher penalties for insulting the Persian Gulf kingdom’s ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and national symbols. The measures are apparently meant to suppress more than two years of pro-democracy protests.

On Wednesday, a court in Bahrain sentenced six tweeters to one year in jail on charges of insulting the country’s monarch.

The Bahraini public prosecutor's office said in a statement that the six had been charged and convicted by a lower criminal court for “misusing the right of free expression.”

The statement added that the tweeters were accused of posting remarks “undermining the values and traditions of Bahrain's society towards the king on Twitter.”

The Bahraini uprising began in mid-February 2011, when the people, inspired by the popular revolutions that toppled the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt, started holding massive demonstrations.

The Bahraini government promptly launched a brutal crackdown on the peaceful protests and called in Saudi-led Arab forces from neighboring states.

Dozens of people have been killed in the crackdown, and the security forces have arrested hundreds, including doctors and nurses accused of treating injured revolutionaries.

A report published by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry in November 2011 found that the Al Khalifa regime had used excessive force in the crackdown and accused Manama of torturing political activists, politicians, and protesters.

Bahrainis say they will continue holding demonstrations until their demand for the establishment of a democratically elected government is met.

Friday, April 12, 2013

20 years of IFEX and World Press Freedom Day

IFEX and World Press Freedom Day almost share a birthday. IFEX was born in 1992, one year after UNESCO adopted 3 May as World Press Freedom Day.

UNESCO supported IFEX from its debut as a network of a dozen international free expression NGOs, and that support helped IFEX grow to be the world's leading global network of free expression organisations, with members in over 60 countries.

Each year, people everywhere turn to IFEX to find out how the world is celebrating the day. From local events focusing on specific attacks on press freedom, to online activities that attract participants from around the globe, IFEX members continue to commemorate 3 May each year in their own way.

Over the past 20 years we have launched campaigns on issues that lie at the very heart of press freedom, including the decriminalisation of libel laws, protecting digital freedom, and ending the killing and jailing of journalists, writers, activists and others who are targeted for exercising their right to free expression.

For IFEX and its members, the issue of impunity for crimes against free expression is paramount. In 2011, IFEX established 23 November - the anniversary of the 2009 attack in the Philippines that left 32 journalists and media workers dead - as the International Day to End Impunity. This campaign targets the system that enables crimes against those who speak out, and its goal is to end those violations. In 2012, UN agencies met in Vienna to work on efforts to implement the UN plan to safeguard the lives of journalists.

Press freedom is essential to democracy. Since IFEX was founded, many dictatorships have fallen – including Indonesia and Nigeria in the 1990s, or Tunisia and Egypt during the recent Arab spring uprisings. IFEX members have been at the forefront of campaigns to fight for press freedom under those repressive governments. In the 1990s, we campaigned for justice when Nigerian writer and environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa was murdered by his own government.

In January 2011, the efforts of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group - a coalition of 21 IFEX members that campaigned for free expression in Tunisia for eight years, were rewarded when journalist Fahem Boukadous was released from jail following the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They could never have imagined the new president would be human rights activist Moncef Marzouki, and that they would be marking World Press Freedom Day with him during the official UNESCO ceremony in Tunis on 3 May 2012. Tunisia is also a reminder that we can never assume that progress toward press freedom cannot be reversed, often much more quickly than those rights are attained.

The world we live in now is different from the year World Press Freedom Day was launched. While the tools we have to share information and act in defence of free expression have evolved dramatically, IFEX's commitment to defending and promoting free expression and press freedom remains constant. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Tunisia: 'Despite Challenges and Difficulties, Tunisia Remains Haven of Peace'

President of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) Mustapha Ben Jaafar said he was confident in the success of the democratic transition process in Tunisia, "in view, he said, of all the achievements made over the past two years despite the challenges, the security situation in Libya and the economic difficulties of the Euro zone."

Mustapha Ben Jaafar was addressing Thursday members of the Harvard Arab Alumni Association.

He said "despite the difficulties and disruptions it faces, Tunisia remains a haven of peace, a land of co-existence and co-operation and a transit point for Western investment destined to the Arab and African spaces."

Ben Jaafar also stressed "the impact of a successful democratic transition in Tunisia on the other Arab revolutions."

Creating jobs, reforming the educational and security system, limiting centralisation and ensuring social balance in all its dimensions are among the challenges faced by the Tunisian government, said Mr. Ben Jaafar, highlighting the need to ensure that the new constitution meets the expectations of Tunisians.

Answering questions of participants in the 8th annual conference of the Harvard Arab Alumni Association (HAAA) entitled "the Arab World: From Revolution to Transformation", Mustapha Ben Jaafar said setting a timeline for works of the NCA and the next elections "will be made through consensus between all political formations", downplaying the risk of holding a referendum to validate the constitution.

The NCA President also rejected any foreign interference in the internal affairs of Arab Spring countries.

For his part, Provost of Harvard Jorge Dominguez deplored the poor presence of Arab students in this American university despite the 2.6 million dollars in scholarships made available.

He also expressed his astonishment at Tunisian students' aversion to participate in distance learning courses organised by Harvard in new technologies, with only 700 Tunisian students taking part in this course out of a total of 50,000 from other countries of the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The ‘quake’: Learning from the assassination of Chokri Belaid

The assassination of leftist opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, last week, was an unprecedented act of political violence in Tunisia’s recent history. Across the political spectrum and throughout society at large, it was the equivalent of a quake.

Despite the mounting tensions and increasing polarization since the revolution, nobody ever expected such a heinous crime to happen. Common wisdom, domestically, had it that “the irreversible” will somehow be avoided, always. Tunisians’ reputation for pragmatism and moderation was based on their century-old tradition of aversion to violence. Political assassinations were among the red lines which were not supposed to be crossed, ever.

When it was announced by radio stations, in the morning rush-hour broadcasts of the 6th of February, the news of the shooting was met first by shock and disbelief. Listeners, on their way to work or sitting in their offices, remained glued to their radio sets. Upon confirmation of the assassination, feelings of sadness and anxiety pervaded large segments of society. Not only were people emotionally shaken by the unprecedented violence. They were deeply anguished about their own future and that of their country.

Belaid and Bourguiba

 The event was obviously the subject of intensive media coverage, at home and abroad. Reporters were immediately present at the crime scene and at the clinic where the leftist politician was pronounced dead. The funeral procession was carried live by public and private television channels. Commenting upon the live coverage, political commentator Slaheddine Jourchi could not help but compare the continuous live coverage of Belaid’s funeral to the hindered coverage of the funeral of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president. Back in the year 2000, when Bourguiba died, the media were told that live coverage of the funeral was “technically not feasible”. A lame excuse for a lame decision to deprive the nation from bidding farewell to its charismatic leader, who despite the obvious shortcomings of some of his policies, was the most revered figure of Tunisia’s post- independence history. Nobody believed the “technical unfeasibility” explanation, since state television used to carry football games and music concerts live from all corners of the country.

This time around, coverage was unfettered and uninterrupted, for hours if not days. The public was able to mourn collectively. But, in an already-polarized political environment, accusations and expressions of blame flew left and right, exacerbating an already polarized political environment. In the radio and television talk-shows, the secular vs. Islamist divide was wider than ever. Suspicion between the two camps never seemed so acute and so dangerously-loaded.

All Tunisians had reason to grieve over this tragedy. Because of last week’s murder, their country has lost a lot of its luster, serenity and self-confidence. Children, watching the day-long funeral procession, were deeply unsettled. Today, most Tunisians are eager to hear the voices of reason which can guide them to overcoming the current challenge to their national unity. Students of Tunisian 20th century history remember how the assassination of trade-unionist leader Farhat Hached, in 1952, by a French death-squad strengthened the resolve of Tunisians and Maghrebis against French occupation. But they remember, also, how the assassination in Germany of Destourian dissident- leader Salah Ben Youssef, in 1961, by allegedly pro-Bourguiba agents, has left wounds that have yet to heal.
Aftershock tremors

Political actors have a particular responsibility managing the crisis. They need to nudge the country towards taking a step back away from the brink; and think instead of the democratic transition they must pursue and the economy they have to re-build. They should remember that there is a time for political calculus and a time for caring for the wounded soul of their country, especially that the country cannot afford protracted instability or open-ended uncertainty.

The aftershock tremors will probably continue to be felt, for a while, across the political spectrum and in society at large. The tragic death of Chokri Belaid could end up driving Tunisians further apart; but it could also usher in a national reconciliation process whose time has come. It all depends whether Tunisians can see the risks of civil strife and anarchy, which can emanate from expressions of incitement and hate. It all depends whether political protagonists can acquire the positive-sum-game mindsets that can put them on the path of peaceful power-sharing and strengthen their common resolve to achieve the goals for which the unemployed youth of Tunisia rose up two years ago. It all depends whether their common DNA of tolerance and moderation can finally prevail over current political feuds. There odds are, it will. Recent signs do show in fact that wisdom is prevailing.

The most urgent task for all the new actors today should be to rise above partisan considerations and say an absolute “No” to political violence. While it is absolutely necessary that all light to be shed on last week’s outrageous crime, the consensus should be that violence cannot be allowed to engender further violence. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” said once the Mahatma Ghandi.

Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

National unity, a must to keep Egypt afloat

Running a country with an eclectic population of up to 90 million sick of heavy-handed governance and all clamoring for different things, isn't as easy as President Muhammad Mursi might have imagined. Everyone wants better salaries and improved living conditions which the president can't deliver unless he can lay his hands on a magic wand.

It might be my imagination, but it seems to me that he's lost much of his early confident swagger. Hardly surprising when public buildings, police stations and Muslim Brotherhood (MB) offices torched by angry protesters on Jan. 25 still smolder and the government has had to beef up the army and impose a state of emergency on three cities flanking the Suez Canal.

As the President says himself, violence and instability is battering an already ailing economy. Egypt's wealthiest man, media and telecommunications billionaire Naguib Sawaris, left his homeland in despair after selling his ONTV channel to a Tunisian businessman. He accused Mursi of "taking over the legislative and executive apparatuses of the state, dominating the economy and changing its identity, excluding the opposition and silencing the media."
Authoritarian measures, such as curfews, media censorship and clampdowns on public protest are not only reminiscent of the Mubarak era, they are anti-democratic - and, in any event, they are nothing more than a Band-Aid permitting fury to fester. A side effect is the emergence of underground radical organizations like Black Bloc, a right-wing militia willing to use violence to "topple the regime." Its members clothed in black, their faces hidden by bandanas or ski-masks, were visible for the first time during recent protests and have claimed responsibility for attacks on state buildings and MB offices. As yet, Black Bloc's numbers are comparatively small but it has put out a video setting out its anarchist credentials before touting for recruits. Peaceful opposition protestors are distancing themselves from this new and sinister kid on the block, fearing the authorities will seek to tar them with the same brush.

While it's arguably true that Dr. Mursi still retains the support of the majority, albeit small, he cannot afford to shutout opposition parties representing the interests of moderates, secularists, liberals, moneyed elites and Copts if stability is high on his priorities.

The opposition, that's broadly coalesced under the banner of the National Salvation Front led by Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi, will continue calling for protests until its demands are met. These include the setting-up of a non-partisan committee authorized to amend the tradition-weighted constitution, a loosening of the Muslim Brotherhood's illegitimate sway over the Mursi-administration and the cancellation of a constitutional declaration threatening the judiciary's independence.

Most crucial of all is this: "We demand the formation of a National Salvation Government that ensures efficiency and credibility, that will implement the demands of the revolution, particularly social justice after the policy of the President and the Cabinet has led to a deterioration of the lives of Egyptians."
During these troubled times when Egyptians have never been as polarized, a government of national unity headed by the democratically-elected president makes the most sense. Of course, no government can please all of the people all of the time, but one that represents the needs of most Egyptians, thus quelling fears of a Muslim Brotherhood take-over, could work wonders to calm the streets, restore investor confidence and strengthen the weakening Egyptian pound.

A national unity government with, say, ElBaradei as prime minister, Amr Moussa as foreign minister, Sabahi as minister of defense would be a force to be reckoned with; it would be empowered to issue unpopular edicts for the sake of the country because it would be shielded from charges of bias. Opposition figures would also bring experience to a table that's looking increasingly bare of knowhow and political wisdom.

Accusations by fiery young counter-revolutionaries that veteran pticians are 'faloul' or Mubarak regime remnants serve no one. ElBaradei lived abroad for much of his life. Former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa's popularity was once so great that Mubarak sidelined him to the Arab League where he could do no harm. Nasserist Sabahi opposed Mubarak and his predecessor Anwar Al-Sadat and was jailed on 17 occasions for "political dissidence."

I'm utterly convinced that a government of national unity would be an instant panacea for Egypt's woes encouraging people from all sides of the spectrum to come together with one hand and work side-by-side for a better tomorrow. However, this would require President Mursi to put his own place in history and love of country above his affiliations with the MB's Freedom and Justice Party and his seeming allegiance to the MB's supreme leader. But even if he were so disposed, he would need to steel himself against the MB hierarchy's anger. The Brotherhood's main aim is to tighten its grip on power after decades of concealment, torture and imprisonment. If Mursi had the courage to take the high road despite being out of sync with MB ambitions, he would gain everyone's respect except that of his old buddies; in their eyes he might be seen as a betrayer.

President Mursi is cornered in an unenviable position. Should he sacrifice the approval of his co-ideologues for the sake of the nation or continue down the same path, destination chaos and hunger, which will ultimately lead to an anti-MB public backlash? For a true statesman and patriot with his people's well being at heart that choice would be no choice at all.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

SKorean president-elect vows deeper NKorea engagement, but Pyongyang may be wary

Park Geun-hye promises to reach out to North Korea with more humanitarian aid and deeper engagement after she moves into South Korea's presidential Blue House on Feb. 25. Pyongyang, however, may be in no mood to talk anytime soon.

Park's declarations ahead of Wednesday's election that she will soften five years of hard-line policy rang true with voters, even as they rejected her opponent's calls for a more aggressive pursuit of reconciliation with the North.

A skeptical North Korea may quickly test the sincerity of Park's offer to engage — possibly even before she takes office. She is both a leading member of the conservative ruling party and the daughter of the late anti-communist dictator Park Chung-hee, and Pyongyang has repeatedly called her dialogue offers "tricks."
Outgoing President Lee Myung-bak's tough approach on North Korea — including his demand that engagement be accompanied by nuclear disarmament progress — has been deemed a failure by many South Koreans. During his five years in office, North Korea has conducted nuclear and rocket tests — including a rocket launch last week — and it was blamed for two incidents that left 50 South Koreans dead in 2010.

But reaching out to North Korea's authoritarian government also has failed to pay off. Before Lee, landmark summits under a decade of liberal governments resulted in lofty statements and photo ops in Pyongyang between then-leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean presidents, but the North continued to develop its nuclear weapons, which it sees as necessary defense and leverage against Washington and Seoul.

Analysts said Park's vague promises of aid and engagement are not likely to be enough to push Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions, which Washington and Seoul have demanded for true reconciliation to begin. To reverse the antipathy North Korea has so far shown her, Park may need to go further than either her deeply conservative supporters and political allies or a cautious Obama administration will want.

"North Korea is good at applying pressure during South Korean transitions" after presidential elections, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. "North Korea will do something to try to test, and tame, Park."

Even the last liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, a champion of no-strings-attached aid to Pyongyang, faced a North Korean short-range missile launch on the eve of his 2003 inauguration.

North Korea put its first satellite into space with last week's rocket launch, which the U.N. and others called a cover for a test of banned ballistic missile technology.

Despite the launch, Park says humanitarian aid, including food, medicine and daily goods meant for infants, the sick and other vulnerable people, will flow. She says none of the aid will be anything that North Korea's military could use. She's open to conditional talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The aid won't be as much as North Korea will want, to be sure, and it won't be as much as her liberal challenger in Wednesday's election, Moon Jae-in, would have sent. Park's conditions on aid and talks also could doom talks before they begin.

Pursuing engagement with North Korea "really would have to be her top priority for her to be a game-changing kind of leader on the issue," said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University. He added that Park is more likely to take a passive, moderate approach.

"In the inter-Korean context, there's not a big difference between a passive approach and a hostile approach," Delury said, "because if you don't take the initiative with North Korea, they'll take the initiative" in the form of provocations meant to raise their profile.

North Korea was not a particularly pressing issue for South Korean voters, who were more worried about their economic futures and a host of social issues. But it is of deep interest to Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, which had been holding off on pursuing their North Korea policies until South Korean voters chose their new leader.

The next Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a hawk on North Korea matters who has supported tighter sanctions because of the rocket launch.

The U.S. had attempted to warm relations with North Korea with an aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal reached with Pyongyang in February, but that collapsed in April when the North conducted a failed rocket launch.
Washington could use a new thaw on the Korean Peninsula as a cover to pursue more nuclear disarmament talks, analysts say, but the Obama administration will also likely want a carefully coordinated approach with Seoul toward Pyongyang.

Park's North Korea policy aims to hold talks meant to build trust and resolve key issues, like the nuclear problem and other security challenges. Humanitarian assistance to the North won't be tied to ongoing political circumstances, though her camp hasn't settled details, including the amount.

Park also plans to restart joint economic initiatives that were put on hold during the Lee administration as progress occurs on the nuclear issue and after reviewing the projects with lawmakers.

Park's statement that she's willing to talk with Kim Jong Un "practically means she's willing to give more money to North Korea," which is Pyongyang's typical demand for dialogue, said Andrei Lankov, a scholar on the North at Seoul's Kookmin University.

But the heart of the matter — North Korea's nuclear program — might be off limits, no matter how deeply the next Blue House decides to engage.

"North Korea isn't going to surrender its nukes. They're going to keep them indefinitely," Lankov said. "No amount of bribing or blackmail or begging is going to change it. They are a de facto nuclear power, period, and they are going to stay that way."