Naming and shaming: 8 countries egregiously violating religious freedom


In January, Index summarised the U.S. State Department’s “Countries of Particular Concern” — those that severely violate religious freedom rights within their borders. This list has remained static since 2006 and includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. These countries not only suppress religious expression, they systematically torture and detain people who cross political and social red lines around faith.

Today the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent watchdog panel created by Congress to review international religious freedom conditions, released its 15th annual report recommending that the State Department double its list of worst offenders to include Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam and Syria.

Here’s a roundup of the systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations unfolding in each.

1. Egypt

The promise of religious freedom that came with a revised constitution and ousted Islamist president last year has yet to transpire. An increasing number of dissident Sunnis, Coptic Christians, Shiite Muslims, atheists and other religious minorities are being arrested for “ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife” under the country’s blasphemy law. Attacks against these groups are seldom investigated. Freedom of belief is theoretically “absolute” in the new constitution approved in January, but only for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Baha’is are considered apostates, denied state identity cards and banned from engaging in public religious activities, as are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Egyptian courts sentenced 529 Islamist supporters to death in March and another 683 in April, though most of the March sentences have been commuted to life in prison. Courts also recently upheld the five-year prison sentence of writer Karam Saber, who allegedly committed blasphemy in his work.

2. Iraq

Iraq’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but the government has largely failed to prevent religiously-motivated sectarian attacks. About two-thirds of Iraqi residents identify as Shiite and one-third as Sunni. Christians, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandaeans and other faith groups are dwindling as these minorities and atheists flee the country amid discrimination, persecution and fear. Baha’is, long considered apostates, are banned, as are followers of Wahhabism. Sunni-Shia tensions have been exacerbated recently by the crisis in neighboring Syria and extremist attacks against religious pilgrims on religious holidays. A proposed personal status law favoring Shiism is expected to deepen divisions if passed and has been heavily criticized for allowing girls to marry as young as nine.

3. Nigeria

Nigeria is roughly divided north-south between Islam and Christianity with a sprinkling of indigenous faiths throughout. Sectarian tensions along these geographic lines are further complicated by ethnic, political and economic divisions. Laws in Nigeria protect religious freedom, but rule of law is severely lacking. As a result, the government has failed to stop Islamist group Boko Haram from terrorizing and methodically slaughtering Christians and Muslim critics. An estimated 16,000 people have been killed and many houses of worship destroyed in the past 15 years as a result of violence between Christians and Muslims. The vast majority of these crimes have gone unpunished. Christians in Muslim-majority northern states regularly complain of discrimination in the spheres of education, employment, land ownership and media.

4. Pakistan

Pakistan’s record on religious freedom is dismal. Harsh anti-blasphemy laws are regularly evoked to settle personal and communal scores. Although no one has been executed for blasphemy in the past 25 years, dozens charged with the crime have fallen victim to vigilantism with impunity. Violent extremists from among Pakistan’s Taliban and Sunni Muslim majority regularly target the country’s many religious minorities, which include Shiites, Sufis, Christians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Baha’is. Ahmadis are considered heretics and are prevented from identifying as Muslim, as the case of British Ahmadi Masud Ahmad made all too clear in recent months. Ahmadis are politically disenfranchised and Hindu marriages are not state-recognized. Laws must be consistent with Islam, the state religion, and freedom of expression is constitutionally “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam,” fostering a culture of self-censorship.

5. Tajikistan

Religious freedom has rapidly deteriorated since Tajikistan’s 2009 religion law severely curtailed free exercise. Muslims, who represent 90 percent of the population, are heavily monitored and restricted in terms of education, dress, pilgrimage participation, imam selection and sermon content. All religious groups must register with the government. Proselytizing and private religious education are forbidden, minors are banned from participating in most religious activities and Muslim women face many restrictions on communal worship. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned from the country since 2007 for their conscientious objection to military service, as have several other religious groups. Hundreds of unregistered mosques have been closed in recent years, and “inappropriate” religious texts are regularly confiscated.

6. Turkmenistan

The religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan is similar to that of Tajikistan but worse due to the country’s extraordinary political isolation and government repression. Turkmenistan’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but many laws, most notably the 2003 religion law, contradict these provisions. All religious organizations must register with the government and remain subject to raids and harassment even if approved. Shiite Muslim groups, Protestant groups and Jehovah’s Witnesses have all had their registration applications denied in recent years. Private worship is forbidden and foreign travel for pilgrimages and religious education are greatly restricted. The government hires and fires clergy, censors religious texts, and fines and imprisons believers for their convictions.

7. Vietnam

Vietnam’s government uses vague national security laws to suppress religious freedom and freedom of expression as a means of maintaining its authority and control. A 2005 decree warns that “abuse” of religious freedom “to undermine the country’s peace, independence, and unity” is illegal and that religious activities must not “negatively affect the cultural traditions of the nation.” Religious diversity is high in Vietnam, with half the population claiming some form of Buddhism and the rest identifying as Catholic, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Protestant, Muslim or with other small faith and non-religious communities. Religious groups that register with the government are allowed to grow but are closely monitored by specialized police forces, who employ violence and intimidation to repress unregistered groups.

8. Syria

The ongoing Syrian crisis is now being fought along sectarian lines, greatly diminishing religious freedom in the country. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, aligned with Hezbollah and Shabiha, have targeted Syria’s majority-Sunni Muslim population with religiously-divisive rhetoric and attacks. Extremist groups on the other side, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have targeted Christians and Alawites in their fight for an Islamic state devoid of religious tolerance or diversity. Many Syrians choose their allegiances based on their families’ faith in order to survive. It’s important to note that all human rights, not just religious freedom, are suffering in Syria and in neighboring refugee camps. In quieter times, proselytizing, conversion from Islam and some interfaith marriages are restricted, and all religious groups must officially register with the government.

This article was originally posted on April 30, 2014 at Religion News Service

Post-Prism leaks, where does the EU stand on digital freedom?

The EU needs to develop a coherent and comprehensive digital freedom strategy. Brian Pellot writes

Recent revelations from the US National Security Agency have shown that our fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression are being compromised on a global scale. This is true despite false assurances to the contrary and the US government’s consistent rhetoric celebrating digital freedom. Unfortunately, the US is far from alone in peddling such hypocrisy. The EU as a whole and its individual member states also promote digital freedom in press conferences yet often undermine positive words with contradictory policies at home and abroad.


Free expression guidelines a crucial opportunity for EU

As the European Commission opens a consultation on its planned freedom of expression guidelines, Index on Censorship is publishing a public note setting out what it sees as the key principles that must underpin such guidelines. 

The EU plans to use these guidelines to assess, in its varied relationships with other countries, if freedom of expression is being respected online and off. While the EU has considerable experience in setting standards for freedom of expression offline, it has been less clear until now how it plans to defend free speech online. We hope these guidelines and other initiatives set out in the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy represent effective steps in the right direction.

These guidelines are a crucial opportunity for the EU to encourage free expression. It is vital that different groups from across civil society input and argue for a full clear defence of free speech online and off.

How the European Union can protect freedom of expression (PDF)

The European Union and its member states have always been committed in theory at least to democratic principles and fundamental human rights. The EU aims to promote human rights both internally and externally, using EU influence in its external policies to push for greater human rights compliance, notably in its enlargement processes, and to a varying degree in other areas (such as neighbourhood policy (to some extent), trade policy (little) and aid policy (to some extent). All member states are signatories to the EU, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protect freedom of expression; the EU’s own Charter of Fundamental Rights is now part of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. However, the range of cases at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg tells us that the EU member states need to look at their own rights performance as well as to push for human rights internationally.

The EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy published in June 2012 calls for the EU to develop new public guidelines on freedom of expression online and off. This paper outlines key global issues and principles on free expression that Index believes the EU should consider as essential when it drafts these guidelines.

 (1) Protecting freedom of expression in a digital age[1]

There are a number of key issues the EU must consider to ensure the protection and promotion of digital freedom of expression in its foreign policies.

1.1 Internet governance

Establishing a global body exercising top-down control of the internet would risk increased suppression of speech, severely erode openness and inhibit innovation and creativity. Index believes the European Union should defend a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance to ensure an open and free internet is defended, and we welcome recent calls in the European Parliament for the Union to defend this freedom.

1.2 State censorship

Authoritarian states continue to be active in online censorship, from China’s Great Firewall to Iran’s plans for a “halal internet”. States should not institute network-wide filters or firewalls that create national intranets. The excessive and inappropriate use of takedown requests by governments can also have a negative impact on online debate, on social media, comment threads and beyond. Index believes that, in parallel with free speech offline, any limits made on online speech must be necessary, limited, transparent and proportionate, and takedown requests should always be backed with a court order.

1.3 Corporate censorship

Private companies face the challenge of expanding internationally while obeying national laws and respecting fundamental human rights. Meanwhile, companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google are playing a greater role in delineating the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ speech through their own terms of service. National-level libel and privacy laws often make internet intermediaries, who are not the authors or publishers of content, judge and jury over censoring content. Index believes intermediaries should not be liable for content they have not authored. In addition, national laws must not disproportionately impact upon freedom of expression, and private companies should fully respect their human rights obligations in their operations around the world.

1.4 Criminalising online speech

Increased capability to share content online means that messages some groups might find offensive can spread quickly to large audiences. Online speech deemed “offensive” is increasingly being criminalised, especially on social media platforms. This trend must be reversed. Efforts to restrict speech based on perceived offense must be narrow and limited, as outlined in the UDHR. Public prosecutors should not criminalise content based solely on real or perceived offense.

1.5 Net neutrality

Net neutrality – the principle that all data should be treated equally on networks – is an essential prerequisite for a free and open internet. Net neutrality should be written into statute. The European Parliament’s Draft Report on a Digital Freedom Strategy in EU Foreign Policy called on both the Commission and Council to codify the principle of net neutrality in appropriate regulation, “so as to strengthen its credibility in terms of promoting and defending digital freedoms around the world.” Index echoes this call.

1.6 Surveillance and privacy

Mass monitoring, surveillance and the unnecessary storage (with state access) of citizens’ use of digital communications are unacceptable breaches of fundamental human rights. The right to privacy and freedom of expression are closely linked: if individuals’ communications are monitored, that will directly chill their free expression and encourage self-censorship. Governments should not store unnecessary amounts of their citizens’ communications data. Government access to data should be limited in scope with as few bodies able to access the data as strictly necessary; transparent, subject to judicial oversight and legally defined.

A related threat is the role western technology companies are playing in producing and exporting surveillance equipment that allows governments to retain data and spy on citizens. Index welcomes the European Parliament’s recent endorsement of stricter European export controls of such “digital arms”, as proposed by Marietje Schaake, and urges the EU to follow this lead.

1.7 Copyright

Attempts to enforce traditional copyright models in the digital world risk criminalising and censoring individual users. Copyright laws should not be used to block individuals’ access to the internet. There is a need for an open debate that looks at new business models that work for both creators and users.

1.8 Access to free expression online

The latest statistics suggest 63 per cent of Europe’s population is online. As the digital world becomes an increasingly key part of social, economic and political life, access to digital communications is fundamental. The digital divide needs to be further overcome in the EU and around the world. Online censorship should not close down these spaces, and nor should other obstacles to free expression online be allowed to persist, including illiteracy, marginalisation and poverty, or discrimination by gender or by ethnicity.

1.9 Support for human rights defenders and citizen journalists

The technological innovations that have transformed the work of activists have also facilitated attacks on bloggers who push back against established networks of control. Index contends that online and citizen journalists must be given the same protection as mainstream and offline media organisations.

(2) Protecting free expression offline

2.1 Media freedom

In any democracy, citizens must be free to challenge authority. Restrictive legislation, over-regulation and a lack of plurality diminishes the media’s ability to act as a public watchdog holding power to account. Media freedom in recent years has been restricted by anti-terrorism laws, classified government documents, secrecy laws and corporate bullying of the media. Restrictions on laws that govern the press must be transparent, limited and proportionate; anti-terrorism legislation must not reduce the fundamental principle of confidentially of sources, which makes investigative journalism possible; state secrecy laws should contain a public interest defence; and commercial privacy should be limited when corporate malfeasance needs exposing in the public interest.

2.2 Media regulation

Statutory regulation of print media is inappropriate bringing politicians too close to interference in newspapers’ editorial freedom. Independent or self-regulatory regulatory bodies are the appropriate routed alongside high media standards and ethics. Where there is limited media capacity (such as terrestrial television and radio), state licensing can be justified as long as it is not used to silence critical voices. States should encourage media plurality and not limit competition but intervene to prevent media monopolies.

2.3 Libel

Archaic libel laws chill freedom of expression in too many countries around the world. The most significant chill comes from the use of criminal defamation to imprison those who criticise government officials or politicians. The use of criminal defamation laws is unjust and disproportionate, and countries should decriminalise libel in line with the recommendations of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression.

Civil defamation laws can also chill freedom of expression. Civil defamation laws must not give rise to excessive costs or damages and have adequate defences to protect the public interest, truth and fair comment.

2.4 Balancing privacy and freedom of expression

Freedom of expression and privacy are often complementary as human rights. Free speech can be chilled if individuals fear speaking out on controversial issues because they are being watched or listened too. Privacy and anonymity are important in protecting free expression in many circumstances. At the same time, the right to privacy and the right to free expression can sometimes come into conflict: investigative journalism exposing corruption, wrong-doing, abuse of power etc, must have accessible public interest defences that allows in such circumstances some invasion of privacy that would otherwise be deemed inappropriate.

2.5 Hate speech, offence and religious freedom

Hate speech and incitement to violence are increasingly confused with offence and blasphemy. There should be a very high threshold for prosecuting hate speech. Open debate can be an effective response to intolerance.

Blasphemy laws should be repealed, in particular criminal blasphemy laws that have a significant impact on religious minorities. With the expansion of the internet, content that some religious believers find blasphemous is increasingly available. Blasphemous or offensive content is neither an incitement to violence nor a reason to respond with violence. Demands to censor offensive material also present major challenges to online hosts of user-generated content, such as YouTube, Facebook and others. Offensive speech is a subjective concept – one person’s interesting idea is another’s offensive comment – and there is no right not to be offended. Moderated sites can create their own rules as to acceptable content – just as clubs or newspapers or broadcasters do, as editorial choices – but free speech means tolerating views you do not like or find offensive.

2.6 Freedom of information

Freedom of information law is an essential component of the right to freedom of expression. Countries should have freedom of information laws that prevent the over-classification of information, reduce secrecy, have a right to appeal where governments refuse information and are low-cost for citizens to use.

2.7 Freedom of assembly

Increasingly governments have introduced fines to prevent legitimate protest without licenses or permits (that are often refused). It has become a method to reduce visible, public freedom of expression. Freedom of assembly is a human right that should only be restricted in very limited circumstances for instance the protection of other human rights.

[1] A fuller version on protecting online freedom of expression can be found in the note, Standing up to threats to digital freedom

Please let us know what you think are the greatest global challenges to free speech — and let the EU know too — by leaving a comment below.

Digital freedom, internet governance on agenda at two key meetings

It’s a big week for digital freedom and internet governance, with two key summits taking place in Geneva ahead of World Telecommunication and Information Society Day on Friday, May 17, Brian Pellot reports.

The week-long World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum bills itself as the “largest annual gathering of the ‘information and communication technologies for development’ community”. This multi-stakeholder UN forum brings together government, business and civil society to discuss internet policy and governance issues.

The forum’s agenda this year will address infrastructure, education, gender, disability, literacy and development — all important digital access issues for freedom of expression. Most country-specific sessions are organised by their host states, which include Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These countries’ troubling track records on digital freedom of expression call into question how useful these sessions will be in addressing the most sensitive local issues.

The first WSIS took place in 2005. Annual fora and the ongoing WSIS+10 review process will culminate in 2015 when the initial action plan’s success will be evaluated on a range of issues including connectivity and access.

Also in Geneva, the three-day World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF) on internet policy issues starts tomorrow. WTPF is less inclusive than WSIS, bringing together the International Telecommunication Union’s member states and sector members but leaving civil society on the sidelines. Unlike December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai, decisions made at WTPF will not be binding but are expected to guide the future direction of internet governance discussions over the next two years.

The push for a top-down government-led approach, which Index on Censorship has opposed, may be a key issue at WPTF. Index set out its positions on digital freedom in this note. Similar points are made by the Center for Democracy and Technology and Access Now in a joint statement. The open and inclusive multistakeholder model of internet governance will be called into question again. Net neutrality, affordable access, development, privacy and other fundamental rights will also be up for discussion. To combat the lack transparency and civil society’s exclusion at WTPF, is once again hosting leaked preparatory documents ahead of the summit.

Check back for more posts on WSIS and WTPF throughout the week.