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IFEX members honour free expression defenders on Human Rights Day

Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo's empty chair held his prize at the Oslo ceremony.
Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo's empty chair held his prize at the Oslo ceremony.

An empty chair was reserved for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo at this year's ceremony in Oslo on 10 December to signify his inability to accept the prize in person. His continued imprisonment for demanding human rights and political reform in China is emblematic of all human rights defenders and journalists who are persecuted for seeking justice. Poignantly marking International Human Rights Day, IFEX members praised Liu Xiaobo's courage and highlighted rights defenders worldwide.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee cancelled the awards portion of the ceremony after Chinese authorities barred family members from travelling to Oslo to accept the award on his behalf. His wife Liu Xia has been under house arrest since 8 October. The Chinese government also intimidated other governments into not attending the Nobel ceremony, report Human Rights Watch and Freedom House. Nineteen countries bowed to the pressure: Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Vietnam, Serbia, Morocco, Pakistan, Venezuela and Sri Lanka.

News of the prize inside China was heavily censored by authorities, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). According to news reports, many people do not know who Liu Xiaobo is.

Beijing has reacted to the attention by tightly monitoring other dissidents, report Human Rights Watch and IFJ. The co-authors of Charter 08 - the document Liu Xiaobo helped create, which outlines gradual political reforms - have been prevented from meeting each other, giving media interviews or travelling abroad. Countless other activists have been harassed and summoned for interrogations by security officers. Well-known scholars, lawyers and artists have also been prevented from leaving the country.

"Beijing's repressive escalation in response to the Peace Prize vindicates the Nobel Committee's decision to highlight China's human rights reality," says Human Rights Watch. The PEN American Center paid tribute to Liu Xiaobo's "quiet courage." Estimates for the number of political and religious prisoners in China ranges in the thousands.

Freedom House commemorated International Human Rights Day with profiles in "Foreign Policy" magazine of Liu and 15 other prominent political prisoners worldwide. It includes U Gambria, a Buddhist monk and former child soldier who is currently serving a 63-year sentence. The list also mentions the incarceration of about 200,000 unknown political prisoners in a Gulag system of prison camps in North Korea, where inmates are subject to torture, public executions and slave labour. Asia figures prominently on the list, which also includes Chinese dissident and AIDS activist Hu Jia and Vietnamese Monk Thich Quang Do.

Prisoners from other parts of the world include Bahraini opposition blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace, Syrian rights lawyer Haitham Al-Maleh, Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, Uzbek poet Yusf Juma, Kazakh rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, Belarussian rights activist Nikolai Avtuhovich, Cuban dissident physician Óscar Elías Biscet, and Gambian journalist and rights activist Edwin Nebolisa Nwakaeme, among other cases covered by IFEX members.

ARTICLE 19 marked the day by urging states to hold accountable anyone causing harm to human rights defenders. "The denial of human rights defenders' rights leads to a 'chilling effect' on their right to freedom of expression, impedes the public's 'right to know' and is a significant restraint upon their ability to hold state and non-state actors accountable for abuses."

On 10 December, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) took the occasion to point to the significant increase in attacks on Palestinian journalists. Last year, MADA reported 173 attacks committed by Israeli occupation forces and Palestinian security services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This year media freedom violations will number more than 200. MADA called for the immediate release of detained journalists.

The insecurity of working conditions for Somali journalists was covered in a report launched on International Human Rights Day by the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ): "The untold tales of deep misery: Somali journalists and their precarious work". Journalists are poorly paid, insecure, unprotected and cannot support their families, says the report. Discrimination and sexual abuse of women journalists is also a major issue.

The Eastern Africa Journalists Association (EAJA) drew attention to the increased persecution of the media under the guise of a war on terror. Seven journalists have been killed this year, with Uganda and Somalia recording the highest number of the casualties. "Our concern is the heightened political temperatures in Uganda, Sudan, the Comoros, Djibouti and Seychelles as a result of impending elections and a referendum. We are afraid that political agenda, machinations and criminality are being used to curtail all civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of the media," said Omar Faruk Osman, EAJA Secretary-General, who is also head of NUSOJ.

In Azerbaijan, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) condemned the government for ignoring International Human Rights Day and pointed to the case of imprisoned journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who remains behind bars despite the ruling of the European Court for Human Rights for his release. IRFS also remembered several prisoners of conscience, arrested in the aftermath of the 2005 parliamentary elections, who continue to languish in prison.

The South and East Europe Media Organisation, an affiliate of the International Press Institute, (SEEMO-IPI) chose International Human Rights Day to honour political cartoonist Christo Komarnitski, working for the Bulgarian daily "Sega" (Now) and two weeklies, "Sofia echo" and "Starshel" (Hornet), with its human rights award.

International Human Rights Day marks the anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly's adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

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