Human Rights Watch
World Report 2007
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Audio Commentary

Press Conference

Photography - Year in Review

News Release





When one speaks of the danger to the norm against torture since 9/11, it is fairly obvious what that means. Torture, after all, draws up rather specific images of the individual under assault, despite the Bush administration’s attempts to muddy the issue. But the same is not true for freedom of expression, a norm that applies to an expansive range of human activity.

The right to free expression protects everyone from the man on the public soapbox to the anonymous blogger; from the woman who prefers hijab to the cross-dresser; from the persecuted defender of human rights to the repellant genocide denier. The erosion of the norm against torture is alarming precisely because the norm is absolute: under the law, there are no other interests to balance. But the right to free expression can be qualified in light of public safety, national security, public order, morality, and the rights of others. The communities concerned with these many aspects are often fragmented, and the precise contours of the right are more fluid. It is easy to lose track of the whole picture.

This is why some five years after 9/11 it is especially important to try to take stock of the scope of free expression. The view is not reassuring. Responses to terrorism combined with dynamics that long predate 9/11 have produced an array of threats to free expression.

From Iraq to Russia to the Philippines, journalists are being treated as partisans, even combatants, and are now more frequently targeted for attack than at any time in recent memory. Global migration (witness the tensions surrounding the integration of Muslim immigrants in Europe) and the steady growth of civil society in many formerly closed countries (witness conditions in Russia and China) are fueling governmental urges to restrict expression. Counterterrorism has given new vigor to some old forms of censorship, and created new ones. Crimes of “glorification” of terrorism, once rare, are proliferating, and hate speech is increasingly becoming the rationale for imposing criminal or administrative sanctions against those thought to be extremists. Despite (or because of) the continuing cyber-revolution, states are also moving quickly to fence and filter the internet, and new technologies are fueling an explosion of state surveillance, often justified in the name of counterterrorism.

Cataloguing the new rents in the fabric of the right to free expression is important in itself but then we need to step back to understand better how these affect the cloth as a whole. When communications are subjected to unwarranted surveillance, or when new speech-based crimes are created, the entire context for deciding whether an article can be published, a sermon preached, or a certain garment worn is changed. Moreover, the effect of new restrictions in states with long records of protecting free expression is global; restrictive precedents give fresh cover and encouragement to states with a history of trammeling this right. The effect of these developments is greater than the sum of discrete instances.

With this in mind, it is plain that mending the fabric will require more than just a patch here and there. This essay sketches some of the damage and suggests ways to respond. We must overcome the tendency to look at each restriction in isolation from others and only in local context. And we must be vigilant in responding to each assault on this freedom, systematically and repeatedly, if we are to protect all other rights.

Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and publisher, spoke to what is at stake:

Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power.1

Journalists in the Crosshairs

The press has often been subject to attack, both physically and legally. But there is reason to believe that both contemporary armed conflicts and the so-called war on terror have rendered it more precarious than ever to be a journalist.

In Russia, it has become extremely dangerous to report on the conflict in Chechnya in any way. Most recently, the world was shocked by what seemed like the contract killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaia on October 7, 2006, potentially in retaliation for her searching and critical writing on Chechnya. Earlier in the year, the government had convicted the director of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society of “inciting racial hatred” through articles he published in the group’s journal, and then shut down the nongovernmental organization itself for good measure.

Though war correspondents enjoy immunity under the laws of armed conflict, they work in precarious circumstances and are vulnerable. Even so, the toll on journalists in Iraq by any measure has been extraordinary, with 137 journalists and media assistants killed since March 2003, sometimes in attacks specifically directed at reporters and media organizations.2 Also troubling is the frequency with which Iraqi and coalition forces have detained journalists without charge.3

In the larger view, it is undeniable that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein enabled independent journalism to become established in Iraq, despite general security conditions that make it a life-threatening enterprise. But even there the picture is mixed. During both coalition and subsequent Iraqi administrations, authorities have laid limits on reporting news that could in any way be seen as promoting the views of insurgents or adherents of Saddam Hussein.4

For the purpose of taking stock, the practices of the US with regard to press freedom are important to examine, as historically the US has often been on the cutting edge of legal protection for speech, its constitutional standards often exceeding other countries’ legal safeguards. Unfortunately, under the Bush administration, there have been significant steps backwards.

The Bush administration was notably more hostile to releasing information to the press than prior administrations, moving to reclassify information that had been in the public domain, to reverse the presumption toward disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, and to greatly restrict public access to presidential papers, an important source of information on public policy.5 The government also showed an unusual determination to force investigative reporters to disclose confidential sources, while Congress yet again failed to create a federal “shield law.”6 When scandals surfaced that could impugn the administration, its first reaction was to retaliate by announcing leak investigations against the press, as when the Washington Post revealed the existence of secret Central Intelligence Agency detention centers (“black sites”), and when the New York Times disclosed that the National Security Agency was illegally snooping on millions of domestic and international calls.

In the US, reporters on the receiving end of official leaks generally do not face prosecution, but there were signs that this may change. Figures in both the administration and the political right-wing press called for espionage prosecutions of newspapers in the wake of these scandals. In August 2005 the federal government indicted two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for receiving leaked national defense information from a US official and then repeating it to foreign officials and reporters. The AIPAC case raised concern as a stepping stone to future prosecutions of journalists, as it involves a novel application of a 1917 law that has typically been interpreted as applying only to leakers, rather than recipient publishers, of national defense information.7

It is important to remember that apart from these particular fronts, the press remained in the crosshairs of rights-abusing governments the world over. Cuba in 2006 held some 25 journalists in prison for political crimes, and in Venezuela the Chavez administration further restrained critical reporting through “gag” laws and control of the courts.8 In Sudan, security forces have been arresting and detaining journalists, banning newspaper editions and performing pre-print inspections—and this is apart from routine restrictions on media reporting on Darfur.9 Burma, Turkmenistan, and North Korea continue to be black holes for press freedom (and many other freedoms besides) while Iran and Saudi Arabia have kept journalists on a tight leash even as online communications have taken off. The list of literal and legal attacks on the press goes on and on, with Reporters Without Borders listing, at this writing, 95 journalists and media assistants killed in 2006, an increase over the prior four years, and 135 imprisoned.10 A rare bright spot was a decision by the UK House of Lords to restore a measure of balance to that country’s notorious libel law by providing greater protections for information that is of public interest.11

1 Frederick Douglass, speaking in the Boston Music Hall after an anti-slavery meeting had been broken up. David J. Brewer, World's Best Orations (St. Louis: Ferd. P. Kaiser, 1899), vol. 5, pp.1906-1909. Also at

2 Reporters Without Borders, “War in Iraq,” undated,

3 Ann Cooper, “Jailing Iraqi Journalists,” Dangerous Assignments, October 4, 2005, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a CBS cameraman, was held by US forces without charge for almost a year and his case ultimately dismissed in April 2006 for lack of evidence. Bilal Hussein, a photojournalist with Associated Press whose pictures of Fallujah won the Pulitzer Prize, is in his seventh month of detention by US forces at this writing.

4 See, for example, Mariah Blake, “From All Sides: In the Deadly Cauldron of Iraq, Even the Arab Media are Being Pushed Off the Story,” Columbia Journalism Review (2005),, and Committee to Protect Journalists, “Iraq: Government instructs media to promote leadership’s positions,” November 12, 2004, Most recently, the authorities closed two television stations for broadcasting images of Iraqis protesting the sentencing of Saddam Hussein to death, adding to the media blackout caused by temporary official suspension of the major newspapers. Reporters Without Borders, “Two TV stations closed for showing Iraqis protesting against death sentence for Saddam,” November 6, 2006,

5 See Floyd Abrams, “The State of Free Speech,” New York Law Journal, vol. 236 (2006).

6 Although a majority of states have enacted “shield laws” to protect reporters from having to disclose their confidential sources, various bills to provide a federal privilege have been stuck in both houses of Congress. For an account of both legislative developments and various reporters who have been jailed for refusing to divulge their sources, see Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “Special Report: Reporters and Federal Subpoenas,” October 13, 2006

7 Adam Liptak, “In Leak Cases, New Pressure on Journalists,” New York Times, April 30, 2006.

8 “IAPA meeting ends with severe criticism of press freedom in the hemisphere,” Inter American Press Association news release, March 14, 2005,

9 “Sudan: Press Under Pressure,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 6, 2006,

10 Reporters Without Borders, “Press Freedom Barometer,” covering data from January to October 2006, The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 46 confirmed cases of journalists killed in 2006 as of November 7, 2006,

11 Jameel v. Wall Street Journal Europe, UKHL 44 (October 11, 2006).