How to Help People in AzerbaijanMany have probably heard very little about the small Eurasian country of Azerbaijan. Even fewer have considered how to help the people in Azerbaijan. With regions like the Middle East and countries like North Korea flooding mass media, major human rights violations in lesser known areas can go unnoticed and relatively unspoken of.

Does Azerbaijan need global help? Is the country in some sort of civil struggle requiring foreign assistance? If the breach of free speech and unlawful imprisonment of Azerbaijani antigovernment activists constitutes this need, then the answer is yes.

At the heart of the issue lies what the Human Rights Watch calls a lack of “space for independent activism [and] critical journalism.” Critics of the practices of the Azerbaijani government are not only given no space to speak, but are also being persecuted unfairly for crimes they did not even commit.

“In August, in the lead-up to the constitutional referendum, the government arrested eight activists on a range of false, politically motivated charges, including drug possession, hooliganism, incitement and illegal business activity,” states the Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report on Azerbaijan.

Most of this activism is in reaction to allegations made against Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan. He first gained office in 2003 in a landslide election, reportedly winning over three-fourths of the votes, and then winning twice more in 2008 and 2013 with even higher percentages of votes. A 2015 report from the U.S. State Department recognizes that Aliyev seems to have dictated both the legislative and judicial branches of government as well as his own office and calls suspicion toward the legitimacy of the 2013 presidential election.

How to help people in Azerbaijan is a difficult question to consider, as human rights violations like genocide are often more readily addressed as opposed to a lack of free speech. However, there is a way foreign aid can benefit Azerbaijanis’ rights to free speech and press.

There are strict laws governing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Azerbaijan as the Azerbaijani government sees them as a threat against governmental media control. Some of these NGOs such as the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety and the Media Rights Institute have been harassed by the Azerbaijani government through both legal and economic means. As these NGOs are meant to oversee the freedom of speech and press in Azerbaijan, it is imperative that they remain secure from the government’s mission to seize their influence.

Protecting these NGOs and organizations like them is how to assist people in Azerbaijan. This can be achieved by bringing awareness to the issue or through monetary donation. Contacting a congressperson or donating to one of these NGOs can help secure that the Azerbaijani government does not gain full control of the media and free speech in the country.

Michael Carmack

Photo: Flickr

free speech in sri lanka
The Sri Lankan government’s crackdown on NGO’s this month has initiated claims that President Mahinda Rajapakse is paranoid he will be overthrown, and is quieting critics to strengthen his control and power.

The defense ministry has banned NGO’s from disseminating press releases and holding awareness campaigns, press conferences, workshops and training for journalists. They claimed the ban was necessary in order to stop NGO’s from functioning “beyond their mandate.” The minister said the administration is worried that NGO’s will fuel criticism of Rajapakse and his family.

“The government panicked when they heard that USAID was trying to educate voters about their rights,” the minister said.

However, NGO workers claim that the ban was cracking down on dissent right before the presidential elections. They say it is unconstitutional and violates basic rights of free speech in Sri Lanka.

Civil rights groups have long highlighted problems for the media in Sri Lanka, where most journalists have to practice self-censorship due to the killings of media workers and journalists in recent years.

Activists and civil rights groups have burned notices issued by the government that demand NGO’s to not engage in activities that are “outside the groups’ mandate.” Almost 1,500 NGOs have gotten notices from the government.

Protesters chanted and carried banners during a rally that took place in the capital city of Colombo to protest against the government’s crackdown on free speech in Sri Lanka.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives said that the government’s ban violates the rule of law and the basic principles of a democracy. He said it is an attempt to hush alternative public opinions of citizens.

The United States government has voiced worry over the crackdown on free speech in Sri Lanka.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki urges the government of Sri Lanka to, “…allow civil society organizations and NGO’s, which play a vital role in supporting Sri Lanka’s democratic values, to operate freely.”

– Colleen Moore

Sources: Global Post, NDTV, UCANews, ColomboPage
Photo: Kuwait Times

Stethoscope and First Aid Kit isolated
The Chinese State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television sent out a circular to news outlets stating that it had passed new restrictions on journalists. It is now against the law for  journalists to write reports from outside their beats or regions. If they want to write a “critical report,” they have to get permission from their employer. Furthermore, journalists are forbidden to set up their own websites.

The authorities claim the new rules were a direct result of recent scandals involving a few journalists participating in extortion and bribery. However, the cases were only related to small local news outlets. Journalists are worried that the government is using these scandals to create more far-reaching restrictions than to simply protect against bribery.

For example, if a journalist writes a report that is outside their region and it involves exposing government corruption or simply makes the government look bad, the authorities can arrest said journalist based on the new rules.

The circular stated, “journalists who break the law must be handed over to judicial authorities and [they] will be stripped of their license to report.” The new rules make it easier to imprison journalists who speak out against the government because journalists often have to write reports using sources from outside their regions.

A Hong Kong-based journalist named Ji Shuoming said that “aggressive investigative journalists will find it hard to write articles without venturing outside their beats or regions.”

These new restrictions are yet another attack on freedom of the press in China. Since the country is already ranked 173 out of 179 countries by Reporters without Borders, this new development further exacerbates an already dire situation. There have been other restrictive rules enacted recently as well.

In 2013, Chinese journalists had to follow rules restricting reports on “rumors.” This means that it is illegal to post any false rumor that is read 5,000 times or shared on social media more than 500 times. Of course, a rumor could be anything the government decides it does not like. The most recent use of this rule occurred this past April, when a Chinese blogger was sentenced to three years for posting a story related to corruption in the government.

Some Chinese journalists remain optimistic though. Despite recent restrictions, many journalists have been able to report on scandalous stories. For example, the magazines Southern Weekend and Caixin have still been able to report on stories that follow the money trail of government officials. They break stories of corruption and other serious issues in Chinese society such as climate change and inequality.

The worry now is whether or not the most recent set of rules will hurt investigative reporting. The following months will show how far the government is willing to go in order to silence journalists and abuse these rules for their own agenda.

– Eleni Lentz-Marino

Sources: New York Times, Foreign Policy, LA Times, Reporters without Borders, Reuters
Photo: Worldcrunch

Prominent human rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan was recently convicted for tax evasion in Vietnam in another example of Vietnam’s arbitrary detention practices aimed at those criticizing the Communist Party.

This is not the first time Le Quoc Quan has run afoul with the Vietnamese authorities.

In 2007, Quon returned to his home country after spending several months researching civil society and economic development in Washington, D.C., at which time he was promptly arrested on trumped up charges of subversion. After much public anger over his arrest he was released, but the authorities kept close watch of his activities.

His most recent run-in with the law came in December 2013, when he criticized Article 4 in the Vietnam constitution, which enshrines the superiority of the Communist Party.

The court convicted him of tax evasion, a common charge for those who are considered political dissidents by the Communist party. He is currently imprisoned in Hanoi.

Despite the seeming hopelessness of his situation, Le Quoc Quan has not lost his vigorous penchant for dissent. As of February, he is currently on a hunger strike within prison.

His situation has garnered international attention, specifically from the United Nations, who has called for his immediate release or for an independent court to conduct his trial.

Unfortunately, Quan’s predicament seems to be too common of an occurrence in a country that rests in the firm grip of the Communist Party; the only legal party in Vietnam.

The list of episodes exhibiting Vietnam’s unwillingness to support basic human rights enjoyed in more developed nations is quite lengthy. For instance, no independent media is permitted; freedom of assembly, expression and religion are extremely restricted.

Also, workers who toil away in factories are not allowed to speak out against the harsh working conditions they endure. In 2010, several factory workers were convicted and imprisoned with sentences ranging from seven years to nine years simply for organizing their fellow workers in the shoe factory that employed them.

Le Quoc Quan’s future seems uncertain, but not without a glimmer of hope. The appellate division of the Hanoi Supreme People’s Court will hear his case on February 18.

The international attention Quan has gained could tip the court’s ruling in his favor. But despite the possibility of a small victory, Vietnam has significant steps to take before their human rights situation improves.

In a brazen display of hypocrisy, the Vietnamese government announced several lofty goals at its Universal Periodic Review conducted by the UN Human Rights Council. The country’s representative stated that protecting human rights through judicial reform is a chief government concern.

Several of the measures stated such, as the right to a fair trial, providing independent judges to serve on courts and allowing lawyers to freely defend their clients would be a welcome change. But many nations remain skeptical of the government’s alleged enthusiasm for initiating these much needed reforms.

– Zachary Lindberg

Sources: Human Rights Watch, The Diplomat
Photo: Front-line Defenders