Once again Human Rights Day, marking the launch of Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the General Assembly in Paris in 1948, came and went on 10th December without raising a ripple. Perhaps the cynics who described it as just no more than a bundle of pious homilies – “an ineffectual expression of Samaritanism”, one commentator put it – may have a point. Today with conflict in almost every corner of the world, too many of our colleagues, some of the bravest and the most determined – those who are prepared to sacrifice their personal and professional lives for the public good – are in jail or in detention.
And it is not just individuals in some wretched corner of authoritarianism who have lost their freedom for their belief or what they have written, we can see now mass imprisonments of journalists that have swollen the grim statistics, breaking all previous records.
States like Turkey, a member of NATO branded as the model Muslim nation, is now the highest on every list of jailers by keeping 73 journalists behind bars. Historically successive governments had always a chronic problem in tolerating a free press. Today, Turkey rulers openly prosecute journalists on criminal charges related to newsgathering, use pressure to instill self-censorship and refuse to reform vaguely-worded penal and anti-terror statutes which they apply routinely against journalists.
Acting against national security seems to be the preferred charge used freely by many authoritarians regimes like Iran and China, holding a record number of journalists in jail. In Iran, more than 160 journalists have been jailed since the 2009 presidential elections and about the same number have been forced to flee Iran. Our union, the Association of Iranian Journalists (AoIJ) has been closed down since August 2009 and its offices in Tehran sealed on the order of the government's general prosecutor.
Today 25 journalists remain in Iranian jails, some of them since 2009. There isn’t any legal process for the detention of journalists. They are jailed because they are deemed to have “acted against national security”. Two AoIJ board members are in prison (Mr Rajaei and Mr Mogheseh) and two others are out on bail waiting for their appeal (the union’s General Secretary Mrs Badrossadat Mofide and its Vice-President Shamsolvaezin Mashaallah). One of the journalists Mr Hoda Saber, freelance journalist, who was in the jail since August 2010, died on 11th June 2011 during his hunger strike. More recently the Iranian Revolutionary Court announced that Ali Mazrooei, the director of the AoIJ who fled Iran more than two years, was given a 1 1/2 year prison sentence.
China also holds big numbers in jail focusing on on-line dissidents and journalists writing about ethnic unrest. Eritrea also ranks high although its rulers refuse to confirm if any journalist is in jail or give any information about them, even about those reported having died in prison. It was joined recently by Syria which is using its civilian conflict to grab journalists and refuse to account for them.
One of the most heart-wrenching stories remains the terrible ordeal of broadcaster Hassan Ruvakuki, reporter for local station Bonesha FM and also for French RFI, jailed for life in Burundi. A High Court found him guilty of "participating in terrorist attacks" under the country's penal code and his lawyers seem to have lost all hope in getting redress. Hassan was visited in jail a few days ago by the French SNJ General Secretary Dominique Depralié, acting on behalf of the IFJ. This IFJ is committed to keep on fighting until Hassan is free and has set this visit as a springboard for IFJ unions to reinvigorate the campaign to overturn the verdict.
The IFJ and its unions worldwide are battling everywhere to free journalists from jail. But this is a crisis that cannot be solved by journalists alone and we should harness the strength of civil societies everywhere to get these journalists out of prison. More than sixty years on since the launch of the Declaration we should act beyond an annual celebration, and ensure that its lofty words are fought for and implemented.