Persecution and Torture of Journalists Exists Worldwide
By Léonce Byimana
In the aftermath of the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, we cannot lose sight of the fact that brutality against journalists is not isolated to any one country but occurs regularly worldwide under repressive governments whose political leaders deliberately target journalists to silence the truth.
Khashoggi’s murder is another sickening reminder that in countries from Egypt, Eritrea and Mexico to the Philippines, Ethiopia and Turkey, journalists are harassed, persecuted, tortured, kidnapped, “disappeared,” and killed by state security, police and criminal cartels for reporting unwanted truths about conditions in their countries.
Reeyot Alemu understands this well.
Alemu, a journalist from Ethiopia, criticized the government in her writing, was falsely convicted of “terrorism” in 2012, jailed for three years and tortured during her imprisonment. She was released in 2016.
Another journalist, Nanythe Talani, from Congo-Brazzaville, in West-Central Africa, testified last May before Congress that she was harassed and threatened and ultimately psychologically tortured for her reporting that angered her government.
Talani said: “When you are constantly afraid because you could be attacked, assaulted, raped, jailed or even killed by people who will walk away with impunity, what kind of professionalism can you display as journalist? This is what I was facing in Congo. This is what other journalists are facing.”
Eritrean journalist Angelsom Teklu, who was arrested and tortured for running an outlawed “underground” news organization in 2016, and fled to the United States in 2017, continues to speak out on behalf of 23 journalists in Eritrea, detained since 2001. “Their families have no idea where they are or even if they are alive,” said Teklu.
Alemu, Talani and Teklu will be among several journalists who will speak out at a public forum on Nov. 2 in Washington about the torture they endured. The forum, to be livestreamed ( https://www.facebook.com/tasscinternational/videos/315060139081539/), has been organized by the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition. You are invited to join us: https://www.tassc.org/persecutedjournalists
As a psychologist who leads TASSC and works with torture survivors, I’ve witnessed the scars and trauma that torture leaves, sometimes for life.
Amnesty International has documented torture in 141 countries— nearly three-quarters of the world.
My organization works with hundreds of survivors of torture every year, including persecuted journalists who’ve fled to the United States seeking asylum, as well as advocates overseas for embattled journalists.
They share harrowing stories about the inhumane treatment they endured.
Worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists documented the killing of 46 journalists and the jailing of 262 in 2017.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia is severely hostile to press freedom. It has detained journalists at an alarming rate, even by the kingdom’s repressive standards, according to the CPJ. Before Khashoggi’s murder, Eman Al Nafjan, a blogger and advocate for ending the kingdom's ban on women driving, was arrested in May and columnist Marwan al-Mureisi was also arrested this year, CPJ reported.
While the world rightfully reacts with outrage and condemnation over Khashaggi’s murder, the journalists who will participate in the upcoming forum want to make it clear that brutality targeting journalists exists across the world.
Turkey is another example, which, according to Reporters Without Borders, is the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists, with members of the press spending more than a year in prison before trial and long jail sentences, even life, imposed.
We owe it to brave journalists to speak out when they come under assault by governments intent on silencing a free press.
In remarks to Congress last May, Talani said: “I hope that someday we have press freedom in my country like you do in the United States, where journalists don’t have to be afraid of exposing the truth.”
Talani’s hope for a free press in her country and her admiration for press freedom in the United States should be a wake up call for Americans as they witness vitriol aimed at journalists by U.S. leaders. Every country that values a free press must reject attacks that threaten its existence.
Attacks on the U.S. media reverberate overseas, heard loud and clear by leaders who already harass, brutalize and jail journalists. And we have seen how hateful language can incite violence. Rhetoric that accuses journalists of being “enemies of the people” and spreading “fake news” can encourage hostility and violence here in the United States and torture or murder elsewhere.
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said in 2016: “International journalists know only too well: First the media is accused of inciting, sympathizing and associating, then suddenly they find themselves accused of being full-fledged subversives and even terrorists. They end up in handcuffs, in cages in kangaroo courts, in prison--and then, who knows?”
Hostile words can have deadly consequences, and journalists know this all too well.
Byimana is executive director of the Washington-based Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, the only organization in the U.S. founded by torture survivors.