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SIXTY YEARS LATER, FIGHT FOR FREE EXPRESSION GOES ON

Human Rights Day, which marks the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is celebrated throughout the world every year on 10 December. Perhaps even more so this milestone year, the 60th anniversary of the declaration. And yet the day was marked in China by the arrests of several human rights activists who were organising activities around the anniversary, report PEN American Center and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

IFEX members and other rights groups are commemorating the occasion by standing up for these activists in China, along with other human rights defenders, journalists and others who speak out for their right to free expression - as enshrined in Article 19 of the declaration - in the face of increasing repression. Here is a sampling of the global events and celebrations.


AFRICA


The independent trust Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ) notes with disappointment that Zimbabwe's restricted media landscape has remained unchanged since Human Rights Day last year. Repressive media laws are still being used to gag alternative sources of information, the country is still without any private daily newspapers, community radio stations or independent television, and journalists are still harassed, unlawfully detained, tortured and murdered, says MMPZ. All these violations are despite the power-sharing agreement signed in September by Zimbabwe's major political parties acknowledging the need for a free and diverse media environment. Among other recommendations MMPZ is urging whichever government that emerges to repeal the draconian laws. Read them here: http://www.mmpz.org


AMERICAS


"What you don't know CAN hurt you," say ARTICLE 19 and the National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS), who have launched a campaign for the protection of journalists in Mexico. Yes, Mexico - a country that many saw as a model of democracy and economic growth - is now the most dangerous country to practise journalism in the Americas. See more on the campaign here: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/99240/

The World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) secured top First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams to speak at its annual lecture, held at the United Nations in New York on the eve of Human Rights Day. Abrams tackled the heady topic of religious defamation, arguing that if the UN adopts recent recommendations to criminalise defamation of religion, it would be undermining its own free speech provisos as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The full text of Abrams's talk will be made available on the WPFC website: http://www.wpfc.org

Those who stuck around could see Freedom House's senior scholar Leonard R. Sussman be crowned the first champion of the Dana Bullen Press Freedom Advocacy Prize, named in honour of WPFC's first executive director. Sussman, who was Freedom House's ED for 21 years (1967-88) and has written 10 books on press freedom, is the man behind Freedom House's respected annual press freedom survey. See: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/99071/

Human Rights Watch was also in New York celebrating a personal achievement on 10 December: they were one of five winners of the 2008 United Nations Prize for Human Rights for their "outstanding contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights." Executive director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth said the prize would help Human Rights Watch in its campaigns to stop the killings in Darfur, end the use of cluster bombs worldwide, shut down Guantanamo, free child soldiers and protect civilians during armed conflict. "By raising the cost of abuse, we make governments think twice about violating the rights of their people. In the process, we save lives and promote fundamental freedoms," Roth said. Human Rights Watch is also celebrating its 30th anniversary. Check out some of their achievements: http://tinyurl.com/5u8nar


ASIA


On 8 December, prominent Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo and fellow activist Zhang Zuhua were arrested at their homes. While Zhang was released the following day, Liu faces subversion charges and faces up to three years in jail. Their crime? They were some of the many signatories of Charter 08, a declaration sent round on the eve of Human Rights Day that outlines bold political reforms and calls for greater human rights and democracy in China. American Pen Center is calling for Liu's release: http://tinyurl.com/5v6p75 . Read Charter 08 here: http://tinyurl.com/66ga72

Meanwhile, police have detained, interrogated and harassed plenty of other activists to prevent them from participating in activities that commemorate the 60th anniversary of UDHR. RSF reports on the arrests: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29627 , as does PEN American Center: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/99205/

The International Federation of Journalists' affiliate the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) observed the anniversary by holding a candle-lighting ceremony in memory of slain journalists. In the Philippines, 98 journalists have been killed since 1986, 62 since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to power in 2001, and seven this year alone, says NUJP. See: http://www.nujp.org/

Defamation was the hot topic in Indonesia this year, thanks to some recent legislation that cements it in the criminal code - like the new Internet law that makes spreading defamatory material online punishable with up to six years in jail and a US$15 million fine. So to fight back, an alliance of Indonesian journalists, lawyers and press freedom groups are using Human Rights Day to call on the government to remove defamation from the criminal code, and for parties to use civil defamation law instead. Read more on the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) website: http://www.seapabkk.org/newdesign/newsdetail.php?No=1005

A 1998 media freedom law in Mongolia forbids censorship and state ownership of any media, and now, there are almost 400 media outlets across the country. But Globe International, IFEX's member in Mongolia, registers about 40 free expression violations of free expressions every year: many of them government denials of access to information requests, or pressure on journalists to reveal their sources. Globe held a roundtable on "Article 19 and Independent Journalism" on 8 December to tackle these challenges. Email: globe (@) globeinter.org.mn


EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA


Freedom House is urging Uzbek President Islam Karimov to release all human rights defenders in Uzbekistan "as a sign that he is committed to upholding the declaration." Read the letter: http://tinyurl.com/68mbam

Kudos to Panayot Elias Dimitras, the spokesperson for IFEX member Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM). He has picked up the first Human Rights Champion Award, given by the Macedonia-based Civil Society Research Center. The pure gold medal is conferred to an individual from southeastern Europe who reflects the ethos of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Through GHM, Dimitras has advocated for human rights of marginalised groups in Greece and Europe, particularly of Roma, and contributed to their protection. Email: csrconline (@) yahoo.com


MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA


There's not a lot to celebrate in the Middle East and North Africa, says a new report by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). "From Exporting Terrorism to Exporting Repression" documents the human rights situation in 12 Arab countries, and finds that attacks on the already limited freedoms in the region have actually increased. Read snippets of the report here: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/99187/

And in the year when the concept of religious defamation is being hotly debated at the UN, CIHRS, as well as nearly 100 Arab intellectuals and rights organisations, is appealing to religious institutions and movements in the region on Human Rights Day to set aside "the religious perspective" when considering free expression. "We are convinced that disentangling religion and freedom of expression is one of the main prerequisites for the resurgence of our Arab societies, which will enable us (to) join the march of history instead of being excluded from it," said the signatories. Read the full statement: http://www.cihrs.org/English/NewsSystem/Articles/543


INTERNATIONAL


RSF marked the 60th anniversary by releasing a damning report on the effectiveness of the Human Rights Council. "States with repressive governments are elected to the council and thus tasked with ensuring respect in other countries for rights they themselves are abusing on a daily basis. Until this absurd situation is ended, the United Nations cannot be said to be fulfilling its goal of protecting human rights," RSF said. The council has hardly challenged the worse abusers, such as China and Burma, and Iran and Uzbekistan have escaped sanctions, says RSF. Meanwhile, the dangerous concept of defamation of religion continues to be added to council resolutions. Read more criticism of the main UN human rights body in the report, and RSF's recommendations on how the council can redeem itself: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29587

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) knows that free expression is a fundamental human right enshrined in international law - and wants to ensure the world knows it too. IAPA has kicked off a public awareness campaign under the slogan "One word can make a thousand changes in your life, and you have the right to say the next one." For materials, see: http://www.sipiapa.com/banner/regi/index.php?idioma=us

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), is asking people not to forget that this December also marks the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Thanks to the declaration, the Observatory says local and international organisations haven't been afraid to carry out protective actions, resulting in the release of defenders or the end of threats and harassment against them. But the situation of human rights defenders remains extremely worrying in a number of countries, says the Observatory - consider the arrest of Uzbek and Chinese activists involved in preparing local events to celebrate Human Rights Day. See: http://tinyurl.com/6ftelq

The Special Rapporteur on the situation for Human Rights Defenders issued a similar warning - as well as "10 messages to know defenders better". Did you know, for example, that there is not a regional human rights mechanism for the protection of defenders in Asia? Read all the messages here: http://tinyurl.com/69lb9n

If you have made it this far, it's time to take action. Amnesty International is asking you to "Fire Up!" Join thousands of people around the world and light a candle, fire or flame as part of a mass demonstration in support of human rights. There are confirmed Fire Up! events happening in 27 countries with more than 100 cities and towns taking part. Candles will also be lit online by people taking part in Fire Up! on their websites and blogs. See your country's local Amnesty International website for more details. While you're there, "Sign Up!" by adopting the Passport for Human Rights - the belief that that everyone has rights, regardless of their race, colour, creed, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or age. See: http://tinyurl.com/6qbpml

Finally, check out the UN's "Dignity and Justice for All of Us", a worldwide campaign to stop human rights abuses by governments, businesses and others. "The declaration remains as relevant today as it did on the day it was adopted," said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he announced the campaign last December. "But the fundamental freedoms enshrined in it are still not a reality." For the official version of events on International Human Rights Day, visit: http://www.un.org/events/humanrights/2008/

(Photo: Woman takes part in Amnesty International's Fire Up! campaign and lights a candle in support of human rights. Photo courtesy of Amnesty)

(10 December 2008)

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