The New Yorker: July 17, 2012
The last time I saw Eskinder Nega was in 2006, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, and what remains etched in my mind is the image of him gently rubbing his pregnant wife’s stomach during a rare, brief encounter on a dirt path on the way back to their respective prison cells. Both had been arrested and put in Kaliti prison by the Ethiopian authorities for critical reporting of a violent crackdown on protests following disputed parliamentary elections, in which, according to some reports, security forces killed nearly two hundred people. Eskinder and his wife, Serkalem Fasil, a newspaper publisher, were acquitted in 2007, but their publications were banned and the Ethiopian government denied them licenses to launch new newspapers. But Eskinder persevered. He was educated in the United States, at American University in Washington, D.C., where he studied economics and continued to write on American-based Ethiopian diaspora news sites, pursuing what he saw as his duty as a journalist: holding the Ethiopian government accountable to its democratic promise.
The couple’s son, the child who was born in that prison, is now seven years old; if the government has its way, he will be twenty-five years old when his father has his freedom again. Eskinder was arrested last September, a few days after publishing an online article criticizing the government’s misuse of an antiterrorism law to arrest independent journalists and political dissidents. (One of those arrested was the seventy-two-year-old iconic Ethiopian actor Debebe Eshetu.)
And Eskinder is not alone. More than a hundred other Ethiopians, including nine journalists, were charged under the sweeping, not to mention vague—but let’s do mention it—antiterrorism law. The law was passed in 2009, and was “a game changer,” as one journalist told me when I was in Ethiopia recently.
The specific charge against Eskinder was that he conspired with a banned opposition party called Ginbot 7 to overthrow the government. At his trial, government prosecutors showed as evidence a fuzzy video, available on YouTube, of Eskinder at a public town-hall meeting, discussing the potential of an Arab Spring-type uprising in Ethiopia. State television labelled Eskinder and the other journalists as “spies for foreign forces.” There were also allegations that he had accepted a terrorist mission—what the mission involved was never specified.
Even writing about Ginbot 7 and similar groups is apparently considered an offense. Al Jazeera was accused of “direct and indirect assistance to terrorist organizations” after an exclusive report on another organization that the Ethiopian government has formally designated as terrorist: the Ogaden National Liberation Front (O.N.L.F.), a violent separatist group in Somalia. And two Swedish journalists embedded with the O.N.L.F. were also found guilty on the same charge and sentenced to eleven years in the same prison as Eskinder. Five exiled journalists sentenced in absentia with Eskinder received in-absentia prison terms ranging from eight years to life. The leader of the opposition party, currently a professor at Bucknell University, in Pennsylvania, was sentenced to life. Many others have fled the country.
I travelled to Ethiopia recently and, with two colleagues, met with the Minister of Information in my capacity as a board member for the Committee to Protect Journalists, and asked for release of the journalists. We weren’t alone. The U.S. government—which is at the top of the list of international donors that contributed an average of $3.56 billion a year in aid to Ethiopia between 2008 and 2010—according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, condemned the sentences of Eskinder and the others. Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said that the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about Eskinder’s conviction, and that it “raises serious questions and concerns about the intent of the law, and about the sanctity of Ethiopians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.” The statement continued:
The arrest of journalists has a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression. We have made clear in our on going human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian government that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society.
While the American government has praised Ethiopia for coöperating in counterterrorism efforts in neighboring Somalia, its individual country reports on human rights found that Ethiopia had arrested “more than 100 persons between March and September  including opposition political figures, activists journalists and bloggers,” and that “the government charged several of those arrested with terrorist or seditious activity but observers found the evidence presented at trials to be either open to interpretation or indicative of acts of a political nature rather than linked to terrorism.” So the U.S. government knows that there’s a problem. There is no way of knowing whether the journalists’ case was taken up quietly at the highest levels when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi visited the United States in May, as one of four African heads of state invited to attend a G-8 Summit on food security. But the United States, in its new Africa strategy announced in June, has made the promotion of democracy a top priority. Here is a great test case.
What is baffling is that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (E.P.R.D.F.) remains the predominant political party by a wide margin. In 2010, it and affiliated parties won five hundred and forty-five of five hundred and forty-seven seats, giving it a fourth consecutive five-year term. Electoral victories like that make one wonder what is really behind the repression. What, too, is to be made of countries like Ethiopia abandoning reform and reversing years of difficult struggle for democratization? Ethiopia’s current rulers were once freedom fighters, not so different from South Africa’s A.N.C. They promised to do things differently and to be accountable to their people. Now, they risk turning into freedom’s enemies, criminalizing peaceful means for Ethiopians to exercise their constitutional rights, such as freedom of expression or freedom of association. Ethiopia has grown a lot in twenty years, but it is on the verge of living out a favorite saying of one of my old journalism professors: we learn from history that we do not learn from history.
While in Ethiopia, I also met with Eskinder’s wife, Serkalem. I had seen her for the first time since our prison meeting when she accepted the PEN American Center Freedom to Write award in New York this past May. She said, with her characteristic intensity, that she had recently visited Eskinder, taking food to him in prison, and told him of our pending visit. His one request, she said, was to assure us that he was in no way associated with any terrorist group. Eskinder plans to appeal his sentence in the coming days.
Global Voices: July 18, 2012
The Malaysian social and alternative media sphere is describing an impending ‘National Harmony Act,’ as “Orwellian” and “draconian.”
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak announced that Malaysia’s Sedition Act of 1948 is to be repealed, and replaced with the National Harmony Act (NHA.)
The Sedition Act, a hangover from Malaysia’s era of colonial rule, was originally introduced to quell opposition against the British, but is infamous for its vague definitions and use by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to silence political opposition.
Rather than celebration, there is widespread concern that the new National Harmony Act will not prove any better than its predecessor. Barisan Nasional has dismantled several existing laws only to replace them with barely improved or even worse versions. For example the Internal Security Act, the Peaceful Assembly Act and the Evidence Act amendments.
Many Malaysian netizens are concerned that the NHA is yet another example of double-talk.
Mustafa K. Anuar, writing for Aliran describes it as a ‘Seduction Act in the offing’, identifying the widespread cynicism towards the new Act as predictable:
In the recent past, the promise of a repeal of certain undemocratic laws such as the equally draconian Internal Security Act turned out to be a nightmare for Malaysians, especially human rights activists, as the replacements are either the same or even worse than the laws they replaced.
A political cartoon by well-known Malaysian cartoonist Zunar, depicting what many Malaysians fear from the planned National Harmony Act. [Zunar Kartunis Fan Club' Facebook page]
Phil Robertson, the deputy director Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, also summed up this worrying legislative trend in the alternative media website The Malaysian Insider:
He said “the government should realise that change for change’s sake is not enough”, adding that the drafting of replacement laws “has gone on behind closed doors with little input from civil society.”
As reported by Malaysiakini (paywall-protected site), Catholic Bishop Dr Paul Tan Chee Ing (as well as Lim Chee Wee, head of the Malaysian Bar Council) has suggested that the government should just repeal the Sedition Act, rather than replace it with more legislation prone to selective enforcement:
“We have seen a politician or two and some religious leaders raise the bogey of Christian proselytisation of Muslims and proffer no substantive proof in support and yet they have not been hauled up for seditious speech.
“Don’t replace obsolete laws with newfangled ones, especially if you cannot be counted on to enforce them with equity,” he contended.
Commenters on the Malaysiakini article seem to agree:
Hang Babeuf: Of course, the National Harmony Act provokes scepticism. Just look at the name.
Absalom: If you want national harmony, you don’t need an Act, for that’s all it is, an act.
Ez24get: National Harmony Act – harmony for whom? Harmony for the corrupt BN as nobody could question or take away their gravy train?
Similar sentiments are expressed in yet another Malaysiakini commenter round-up:
Kee Thuan Chye: The Sedition Act should be repealed, not put into a new wine bottle with a nicer-sounding name. A repressive law by any other name still stinks just as bad.
Abasir: Deja vu! We’ve been here before. Remember how he introduced the so-called Peaceful Assembly Act following which a well-publicised peaceful assembly of citizens was deliberately trapped, gassed, beaten by gangs of unnamed men in uniform and thugs in mufti?
Kgen: Knowing Najib, the false democrat, the new Act will be even worse than the old Act. Just like the Peaceful Assembly Act, which is even harsher than the existing Police Act.
However, PM Najib Razak claims that the Act will “ensure the best balance between the need to guarantee the freedom of speech for every citizen and the need to handle the complexity of plurality existing in the country”, as reported by the state news agency Bernama:
”With this new act we would be better equipped to manage our national fault lines. It will also help to strengthen national cohesion by protecting national unity and nurturing religious harmony… and mutual respect in the Malaysian society made up of various races and religions.”
Najib also stated that the government wants to invite views and opinions from Malaysian individuals and organisations on the legislation, naming the Attorney-General’s Chambers as the agency responsible for consulting with such stakeholders.
Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, a minister in the Prime Minister’s department, stated that unlike the to-be-repealed Sedition Act, the NHA will allow for criticism of the Malaysian government:
There should be no absolute freedom to the extent we can call people pariah, pimps and so on.It is [obvious] we want to protect the Institution of the Malay Rulers. They are above politics and this country practises Constitutional Monarchy
According to Mohamed Nazri, the new Act is not expected to be tabled until next year. It is therefore likely that the Sedition Act will remain in place until after the 13th Malaysian General Election, which must be held before March 2013.
ในวันพรุ่งนี้จะมีการสืบพยานโจทก์นัดแรกคดีเอกชัย ห. คนขายซีดีสารคดีเรื่อง สถาบันกษัตริย์ไทย ซึ่งผลิตโดยช่อง ABC ออสเตรเลีย
เอกชัยถูกจับที่สนามหลวงเมื่อมีนาคม 2554 ด้วยข้อหาตามมาตรา 112 และพรบ.ภาพยนตร์ ฐานขายวีดิทัศน์ที่มีเนื้อหาหมิ่นประมาท ดูหมิ่น อาฆาตมาดร้าย พระมหากษัตริย์ พระราชินี และรัชทายาทและขายวิดิทัศน์โดยไม่ได้รับอนุญาต ต่อมา เอกชัยได้สิทธิประกันตัว
ข้อสังเกตประการหนึ่งในคดี คือ เนื้อหาของสื่อที่ทำให้ถูกฟ้องไม่ได้เป็นข้อมูลและความเห็นของเอกชัย แต่เป็นเนื้อหาสารคดีที่ผลิตและเผยแพร่ที่ออสเตรเลีย
ท่านที่สนใจสังเกตการณ์คดี สามารถเข้าร่วมฟังการพิจารณาคดีได้ที่ศาลอาญารัชดา ห้อง 802 เวลา 9.00 น. เป็นต้นไป
โดยการพิจารณาคดีจะมีขึ้นระหว่างวันที่ 17 – 20 กรกฎาคม 2555
WE URGE ALL READERS TO SPEND AT LEAST ONE MORNING OR AFTERNOON SESSION TO SUPPORT EAKACHAI AND TO STAND UP FOR FREE SPEECH.
July 17 is the first day of witness hearings of Ekkachai Hongkangwan, accused under Article 112 for selling CDs with offensive contents related to the King, Queen and the Heir Apparent. Ekkachai explained that the CDs he was selling were a news documentary about the Thai Monarchy from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He was also charged under the Film Act for selling CDs without license.
July 17-20, 9:00am, at Bangkok’s Criminal Court (San Aya) on Ratchadapisek Road near Lat Phrao MTR station, Exit 4. The trial is being heard in courtroom 802 unless public demand forces a change.
More detail: http://freedom.ilaw.or.th/case/68#detail
[CJ Hinke of FACT comments: We honestly don’t care much about Jakrapob or Sondhi but govt shows its despicable true colours by going after a fruit vendor who had the impunity to try to raise a little extra money by selling CDs of publicly aired television news in Red-land. Memo: Foo-foo is everywhere!]
Thai man on trial for selling ABC footage critical of royal family
Asian Correspondent: July 17, 2012
The trial of a Thai man accused of selling video CDs of an Australian television news segment about Thailand’s monarchy is set to begin today in Bangkok.
Akachai Hongkangwan, a 36-year-old local fruit vendor, faces a possible 15 years in prison under Thailand’s draconian lese-majeste law and Computer Crimes Act, laws which criminalize scrutiny or criticism of the revered Thai royal family.
Akachai is accused of distributing VCD copies of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) news segment produced by the network’s Foreign Correspondent program, at a red-shirt rally in March 2011.
The ABC segment, ‘Long Live the King’, was aired in Australia in April 2010. It featured a number of high-profile lese-majeste cases, including those of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, charged as moderator of comments made on a local news website; the brother of lese-majeste prisoner Darinee ‘Da Torpedo’ Charnchoensilpakul, currently serving an extended jail term, and Chotisak Onsung, who was charged with lese-majeste in 2008 for not standing during the screening of the royal anthem prior to a movie screening.
Most controversially, the ABC segment featured footage of the Thai Crown Prince Vijiralongkorn, heir to the throne, that was frowned upon by the Thai authorities.
In the introduction to the program, ABC presenter Mark Corcoran would pertinently assess the difficulties that media face in covering political issues in-country. He would note:
How do you tell the story of Thailand’s royal family when any criticism of the royals can bring (about) a hefty jail sentence in that country?… With Thailand at the crossroads, we’ve resolved that it’s time for a detailed examination of the laws that gag analysis of the laws, and their pivotal role in Thai politics.
With the ABC’s Bangkok bureau evacuated prior to the screening, featured journalist Eric Campbell explained that ”it’s basically a story that can only be done by people who don’t live and work in Thailand.” For him, “the downside is unfortunately I can never go back”.
Thailand’s Ambassador to Australia would later complain to ABC executives “that an organization of the ABC’s stature has lowered its own standard by airing the said documentary, which is presented in a manner no different from tabloid journalism.”
‘Local’ media in an online world
Made available on the ABC website with international ‘blocks’ in place, it is clear that the segment had been intended only for viewing by Australian audiences. Yet the segment would be quickly uploaded to the internet, where Thai censors hastily sought to ban digital access (the video, while regularly uploaded to YouTube before being removed under copyright restrictions, cannot be viewed in Thailand). Yet it is clear that international ‘blocks’ and local efforts to censor aside, once online such material does tend to proliferate.
It is no secret on the streets of Bangkok that material which scrutinizes the Thai royal family are broadly distributed among those ‘in the know’. (This journalist was once accosted by a local motorcycle driver who’d downloaded the ABC segment to his iPhone).
Akachai and the ABC
Sources close to Akachai say that, in the weeks following his arrest, he approached ABC staff in Bangkok. The local fruit vendor “thought to advise them of what had happened, and that he was out on bail. In effect, he was told: ‘go away: consider yourself lucky that we don’t sue you for IP violation.’”
In July last year, staff who’d assisted the crew in Bangkok wrote to program producers. Concerned that Akachai’s case would go unnoticed, they asked that the ABC consider making a public statement. “That the producers was (sic) not intended to ‘insult’ or ‘disdain’ the institution (of the monarchy),” they wrote, “but to fairly criticize and present fair views as journalists.” They received no reply.
“It boils down to, well, ‘why are we journalists?’” says Hinke, a Canadian who himself has lived in Thailand for over 20 years. “Why are we reporting on news? We’re journalists because we want to expose that which wouldn’t otherwise be exposed. Why is the ABC producing such shows if they don’t care if people watch it or not, in the places where people are the most concerned?”
Sources close to Akachai say he remains hopeful that the ABC will make a public statement condemning the charges brought against him.
“If they won’t make a statement, at the very least, they should attend the trial,” says a source. “It’s too dangerous for people to speak out in his defense,” says another. “But not for the ABC – they’re already persona non grata.”
In the digital age, questions of distribution are key. Can journalists expect that what they produce for a single, localized audience, remain that way? Are there any such obligations that our information-gathering extends to those prosecuted?
The case will be heard throughout the week, and a verdict expected soon thereafter.
Lisa Gardner is an Australian freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow her on Twitter @leesebkk
July 17, 2012
[CJ Hinke of FACT comments: We admire PPT’s forthright reporting of news no Thai media will touch. Unfortunately, all freedom of expression groups in Thailand have been painted into a corner where other human rights issues and censorship have been eclipsed by profligate, political lèse majesté prosecutions. We rely on PPT’s opinions in our own coverage to these issues which are crucial to Thailand’s development and future. Thank you, PPT!]
Political Prisoners in Thailand: July 14, 2012
PPT has just reached a milestone: one million hits at this site and at our other site that mirrors this one and which seems more accessible at times in Thailand. The government in Thailand continues to block us in a seemingly random manner.
It is a kind of sad anniversary. The collective that got together in 2009 to set up PPT didn’t imagine that we’d still be at it today.
At the time we began, we said that PPT was dedicated to those who are held in Thailand’s prisons and those accused and charged with political crimes. Our focus remains, as it was back then, on the contemporary period where political cases revolve around the use of Thailand’s lese majeste law and, increasingly, the Computer Crimes Act.
The blog has been authored by friends of Thailand who oppose the jailing of opponents for political reasons. We support the expansion of free speech in Thailand.
Because this blog has included material that is banned in Thailand and might land us in jail as political prisoners, we have remained anonymous. We hope that we have been able to raise the international profile of the issues of political freedom and lese majeste.
We had hoped that, after three years and more, lese majeste would have been a political issue of the past and that our blog would have been unnecessary. We were wrong and so we keep going. While there have been no new charges since the end of the royalist Abhisit Vejjajiva regime was voted out. In fact, though, in the next few days we plan to update our list of lese majeste cases, with new details we have received from readers.
July 17, 2012
LESE MAJESTY LAW
Whereabouts of Gordon unknown
The Nation: July 13, 2012
Though he has made international headlines, the whereabouts of former lese majeste convict Joe Gordon are not known and the media has not heard from him or his lawyer since he was granted a royal pardon on Tuesday afternoon and the US Embassy reportedly whisked him away.
Gordon, who holds dual Thai-US citizenship, was arrested last May and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison in December for translating and posting excerpts from the banned book “The King Never Smiles” while in the United States. The book was written by journalist Paul Handley and published by Yale University Press.
Gordon’s lawyer, Arnon Nampa, told The Nation that he understands Gordon is being “cared for” by the US Embassy since being released on Tuesday and will be leaving for the United States soon.
“I think they want him to leave quietly. It’s a diplomatic move,” Arnon said, adding that Gordon had told him several times while in prison that he did not feel like a Thai and wanted to return to the US once out of jail.
However, there has been some speculation as to whether Gordon is being barred from speaking to the media while in Thailand in order to prevent bilateral relations from being strained.
US Embassy spokesperson Walter Braunohler said yesterday that there was a lot of “speculation” about Gordon, but the embassy “unfortunately” would neither confirm nor deny anything about his whereabouts or say anything about the speculation that he is being prevented from speaking to media out of concerns for Gordon’s privacy.
Arnon said he does not think that the 55-year-old Thai-born US citizen, who is also known as Lerpong Wichaikammat, is being restricted by the US Embassy in any way.
Asked if Gordon had been forced to confess, Arnon only said that his client had admitted to translating and uploading excerpts of the book after his request for bail had been denied eight times.
July 17, 2012
[FACT comments: We wouldn’t blame Joe Gordon for turning his back on Thailand. Unlike other foreign lèse majesté convicts, Thai govt has always treated Joe as Thai and therefore cannot deport him. We’d really like him to stay and campaign against censorship and injustice.]
Political Prisoners in Thailand: July 11, 2012
Earlier PPT posted that Twitter, Facebook and emails are flying about suggesting that lese majeste convict Joe Gordon has been released. More details were promised.
Here’s a list of stories that have appeared. In reading them, it needs to be remembered that Joe was essentially forced to plead guilty to lese majeste but never admitted the offense as charged. Even if he had, translating a legal book in the U.S. was not illegal. In essence, the Thai government made a legal act in another country illegal in Thailand. One journalist reports that the pardon was related to a fear that the case would be raised at an ASEAN meeting:
AFP – Joe Wichai Commart Gordon, a car salesman from Colorado, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in December under the kingdom’s strict lese majeste laws, which rights campaigners say are used to stifle freedom of expression.
The Irrawaddy News Magazine - Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is revered in Thailand and is widely seen as a stabilizing force. But Thailand’s lese majeste laws are the harshest in the world.
Reuters India - The case highlighted Thailand’s extensive use of the world’s most draconian lese-majeste laws to stamp out even the faintest criticism of 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
The Guardian – The Thai government would be keen to avoid attention being drawn to Gordon, who was first detained in May 2011, and others who have fallen foul of lèse majesté laws.
The Australian – There was no immediate word on Gordon’s whereabouts or whether he would return to the US. Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is revered in Thailand and is widely seen as a stabilizing force [repeating the usual nonsense].
Asian Correspondent – Bangkok Pundit blogged on the Thai-born naturalized American citizen Joe Gordon who was arrested in May 2011 on lese majeste charges, then later blogged when the US expressed disappointment when he was actually charged in …
BBC News – Strict Thai laws against defaming the monarchy allow for sentences of up to 15 years in prison. No reason was given for the pardon….
Bloomberg – A Thai group submitted a bill to Parliament in May to amend the law with 30000 signatures from members of the public, reflecting growing opposition to the statute even as political parties decline to endorse changes.
CNN International – The charge of writing and posting articles insulting the monarchy under the Southeast Asian country’s lese majeste laws can yield a sentence as high as 20 years in prison in the Buddhist country….
Voice of America – “We urge Thai authorities on a regular basis, both privately and publicly, here in Bangkok and also in Washington to ensure that freedom of expression is protected in accordance with international obligations.”
Aljazeera.com – He was detained in May last year during a visit to Thailand, where he had returned for medical treatement. After being repeatedly denied bail, Gordon pleaded guilty in October in hopes of obtaining a lenient sentence.
Deutsche Welle – In the book, author Paul M. Handley alleges that the king has hindered progress towards democracy in Thailand by the consolidation of royal power. Under the country’s “lese majeste” laws, anybody found guilty of insulting key figures in the royal family….