journalists jailed in myanmar
Public demonstrations and collective anger arose mid-July after the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, handed down 10-year jail sentences to five journalists accused of violating state secrets.

The four reporters and chief executive of current affairs at magazine Unity Weekly published stories in January alleging that the government had grabbed large swaths of land to construct a chemical weapons factory.

The government convicted the journalists on the grounds of a 1923 State Secrets Law, a law from the British colonial days. United Weekly has since been shut down.

A January 25 story published in Unity Weekly referenced local villagers that stated that Chinese technicians frequently appeared at a facility that was creating chemical weapons.

The Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement July 10 expressing outrage at the conviction and the sentence.

“The conviction should shatter any illusions that President Thein Sein’s government grasps the role of a free press in a democracy,” CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz said.

Dietz said the international community should act in response to the verdict to “not only get this decision reversed, but to impress upon the government that its anti-media stance will jeopardize future economic assistance.”

To many observers, the move on behalf of the government to implement strict punishments to the journalists is a disparaging albeit curious decision. In recent years, the Myanmar government promised to enact substantial reforms to promote freedom of the press within the country.

President Thein Sein has enacted a number of attempted reforms since taking the oath of office in 2011. These include the release of journalists jailed under the previous military regime, the ending of pre-publication censorship of local press and the lifting of some Internet restrictions.

Yet some, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have expressed doubts as to whether Thein Sein’s reforms are legitimate and long-lasting, especially in the face of last week’s conviction. Currently, Myanmar is ranked 145 out of a possible 180 in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, an aggregate of the press freedoms of 180 different countries.

Barring domestic protests and calls for reform, the coming weeks and months will determine whether international reaction and pressure will play a role in reshaping the government’s policies.

– Ethan Safran

Sources: The New York Times, CNN, CPJ 1, CPJ 2
Photo: TodayOnline

saudi activist
Walid abu al-Khair, a well-known human rights lawyer and Saudi activist, has received a jail sentence for 15 years for undermining the state of Saudi Arabia and insulting its political system.

The Saudi activist’s charge stems from the apparent violation of a recent anti-terrorism law which prohibits any civil act that, “disturbs public order, shakes the security of society, or subjects its national unity to danger, or obstructs the primary system of rule or harms the reputation of the state.”

This is not the first time al-Khair has faced the threat of jail time. On multiple occasions, the Saudi activist has been sentenced to varying amounts of time, though it has never reached a degree as intense as that of this most recent conviction. In his statement, al-Khair declares that he will not appeal the sentence because he does not see the legitimacy of the claim, and therefore believes it will fall apart when it comes time to book him.

The international reaction to the jailing of such a prominent voice has been negative thus far, with the Saudi researcher for Human Rights Watch saying, “Walid Abu al-Khair’s harsh sentence shows that Saudi Arabia has no tolerance for those who speak out about human rights and political reform and it will go to any length to silence them.” Saudi Arabia’s reaction simply shows the rest of the closely watching world that freedom of speech is less than valued.

By showing dissent from the Saudi king, al-Khair put himself in the crosshairs of the government. The Saudi activist has brought international attention to Saudi Arabia and this action has upset the government to the point that they believe he has represented them falsely and in a harsh light.

This incarceration demonstrates Saudi Arabia’s fear of the people, and the movement they could start if enough voices show disagreement. Countries that strive for a democratic state should allow the citizens to voice concerns; however, it appears this is not the case in Saudi Arabia. With reason, multiple countries, including the United States, have shown concern for the blatant disregard of human rights in this ongoing debacle with al-Khair, and begin to question the stability of the country.

Elena Lopez


Sources: CNN, Reuters, Aljazeera
Photo: Gulf Center for Human Rights

The existence of private prisons has become, in recent years, a focal point of controversy in the United States. Proponents stress that privately owned prisons operate with efficiencies not present in the U.S. government’s vast bureaucracy and due to those efficiencies, have lower costs.

However, when examined closely, the benefits that proponents point to seem to evaporate quite rapidly.

First, the very concept of private prisons carries a disturbing incentive to both ensure criminal sentencing remains harsh while ensuring that the prison population remains high. Though there is little evidence of companies in the prison industry giving money directly for this purpose, there is no lack of funds sent directly to members of both political parties.

It is difficult to believe that vast amounts of money sent to United States representatives has no effect on whether they vote a certain way regarding criminal laws. Senator John McCain, House Speaker John Boehner and Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist received $71,000, $63,000 and $58,500 respectively from companies running private prisons.

Altogether, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), The GEO Group and Management Training Corporation (MTC) have spent $45 million on campaign donations and lobbying.

There is also the issue of transparency. As in, many private prisons are not subject to various transparency laws that state institutions adhere to.

Recently in Vermont, the Human Rights Defense Center submitted an open records request to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and was stonewalled. CCA argued that since it is a private company, it did not have to obey Vermont’s transparency laws. However, a Vermont judge later ordered CCA to open their records due to the fact they are providing a public function.

Furthermore, though proponents argue that privatizing prisons can be a cost saving measure for budget strapped states, Arizona serves as a prime example that the cost savings promised by these prisons are seldom realized. Arizona law demands that private prisons seek cost saving measures, but state data shows that inmates in privatized prisons cost up to $1,600 more per year as compared to state prisons.

As a result, a research team at the University of Utah concluded that the cost savings promised from the use of private prisons seems minimal.

Again in Arizona, Management Training Corp required that prison beds remain at 97% capacity otherwise they would fine the state of Arizona for empty beds. When the prison capacity eventually dipped below 97%, MTC sent a bill to the Arizona state government.

After the state refused to pay the bill, MTC sued. A settlement was eventually reached, a consequence of which was the billing of Arizona tax payers for $3 million dollars.

While these companies claim that they do not participate in lobbying for harsher criminal laws, it is hard to image that the money sent to U.S. Congressmen does not inherently possess that request. It is also irresponsible for these private institutions to operate outside the expectation of the transparency expected of public institutions. As the judge in Vermont stated, these prisons conduct a public function.

This is not to condemn privatization as a whole, however. The majority of private companies operate more efficiently than government bureaucracy, but the very nature of incarceration demands that it remains in the hands of the state.

Zack Lindberg

Sources: The Economist, CBS, Forbes, The Huffington Post
Photo: American Friends Service Committee