Group of death: The worst World Cup countries for free expression

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil starts today, 32 nations preparing to battle it out across eight groups in the first stage of the tournament.

This year’s competition, like so many before it, comes with its designated group of death. For those not familiar with the lingo, it means the group containing the highest amount of strong teams. Or even more simply put, the group most difficult to progress from. (You can’t accuse the beautiful game of holding back on the melodrama).

Index has looked at the countries taking part in arguably the biggest show on earth, and put together our own group of death — the freedom of expression edition.


Cameroon FINAL

Cameroon — or the Indomitable Lions — have a solid track record in qualifying for the World Cup, having taken part seven time, more than any other African side. There were also the first African team to make it to the quarter final and are responsible for one of the most iconic moments in the tournament’s history. Their track record on free speech, however, is less impressive.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed in Cameroon’s constitution. Despite this, the government of Paul Biya — the country’s leader since 1982 — has been been accused numerous violations of free expression.

Large parts of the press are biased towards the ruling elite, while critical journalists face detainment, harassment and demands to reveal sources, among other things. Self censorship is widespread. In September 2013, 11 press outlets, including newspapers, radio stations and a TV station, were shut down for disrespecting “ethics and professional norms”. In 2010, former newspaper editor Germain Ngota, who had been investigating corruption allegations involving the state-run oil company, died in jail.

Freedom of assembly is often cracked down on. In 2012, former opposition presidential candidate Vincent-Sosthène Fouda and others were charged with “holding an unlawful demonstration”. The same year, security forces used tear against a crowd gathered to protest against Biya. In 2008, around 100 people were killed in clashes with police in anti-government riots.

Arts are not spared either. In 2013, Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s film Le President was banned in Cameroon because it discussed the end of Biya’s reign . In 2008, Lapiro de Mbanga, who criticised the constitutional change in term times that would allow Biya to stay in powers through song, was arrested.

Homosexuality is outlawed, and punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Human rights violations against LGBTI people, or those perceived to be, are “commonplace”. In July 2013, Eric Ohena Lembembe, director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS) was brutally murdered, in what friends suspect was an attack based on his pro-LGBTI advocacy.



Team Melli will hope that their fourth appearance at the World Cup will see them progress from the group stages for the first time. When he was elected almost a year ago, there was hope that President Hassan Rouhani would be a progressive force within Iran. The results so far have been mixed.

Since coming into power, Rouhani has taken some steps to improve press freedom, such as withdrawing 50 motions against journalists, and lifting some restrictions on previously banned topics. However, the government still controls all TV and radio, and censorship and self-censorship is widespread. The latest figures put the number of jailed journalists in Iran at 35. In January 2013, a group of journalists were arrested for allegedly cooperating with “anti revolutionary” news outlets abroad. Journalists’ associations and civil society organisations that support freedom of expression have also been targeted.

The internet and social media played a significant part in publicising and documenting the protests that followed the 2009 election, which many Iranians believed was fraudulent. The regime has banned Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and, recently, Instagram. The lead-up to the 2013 elections saw Iranian leaders tightening access to the web, and silencing “negative” news. While Rouhani — seemingly an avid Twitter user — has indicated plans to relax web censorship, the country’s plans to launch a “national internet” are said to be going ahead.

In May, eight people were jailed on charges including blasphemy, propaganda against the ruling system, spreading lies insulting the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Facebook. Recently, a group of young people were arrested over a video posted of them singing and dancing along to the song “Happy”, which police called was a “vulgar clip” that had “hurt public chastity”. Some commentators believe the move was meant to intimidate Iranians and discourage online criticism.


Nigeria FINAL

Brazil 2014 marks 20 years since Nigeria’s first outing at the World Cup, and the Super Eagles arrive at the tournament as reigning Africa Cup of Nations champions. The country’s leadership, however, is not a champion of free expression.

While parts of Nigerian media is controlled by people directly involved in politics, the country can also boast a lively independent media sector. However, journalists, especially those covering sensitive topics such as corruption or separatist and communal violence still face threats. Journalists have been arrested by security forces, and media outlets have been attacked by terrorists. Legal provisions such as sedition and criminal defamation also challenge press freedom. In 2011, a journalist was arrested over stories detailing alleged corruption in the Nigerian Football Federation.

The country’s freedom of information act was put in place in 2011. However, when human rights lawyer Rommy Mom tried to use the legislation to trace some 500 million of missing aid money allocated to his flood ravaged home state of Benue, he was met with threats from people connected to the state governor, and was forced to flee.

The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act 2013 outlawing gay marriage and relationships, was signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in January. The unpublished law makes it illegal for gay people to hold meetings, and outlaws the registration of homosexual clubs, organisations and associations. Those found to be participating in such acts face up to 14 years in jail.

Nigeria has come under international attention in recent months for abduction of the Chibok school girls by terrorist group Boko Haram. Among other things, Nigerians responded with the powerful #BringBackOurGirls campaign. In June however, authorities seemed to ban an offline protest against the kidnappings, before quickly backtracking. It is also worth noting that the Nigerian government has targeted journalists in their “war on terror”.


Russia FINAL

Team Sbornaya travel to Brazil in the knowledge that next time in the World Cup rolls around, they will be playing on home soil. Russia of course, recently hosted another international sporting event — the 2014 Winter Olympics. However, global attention did not improve the country’s poor record on freedom of expression. In fact, experts predicted a rise in censorship ahead of the Olympics.

Press freedom has long been under attack by Russian authorities, with TV news currently providing little beyond the official government line. In the last few months, the relatively well-respected TV channel RIA Novosti was liquidated following a decree by President Vladimir Putin, and replaced by a new press agency headed by a Kremlin-loyalist. In January, Dozhd, a popular independent TV channel was dropped by satellite and cable operators over a controversial survey. For the remaining critical journalists, Russia — one of the countries with the highest number of unpunished journalist murders — is a dangerous place to work.

The crackdown on the internet is widely believed to have started with the protests surrounding the elections securing Putin’s third term in power, organised partly through social media, but it has recently intensified. The Duma has adopted controversial amendments to an information law, targeting bloggers with blocking and fines for anything from failing to verify information posted, to using curse words. Also recently, the founder of “Russian Facebook” VKontakte says he was forced out, with the son of the head of Russia’s largest state-run media corporation predicted to take over as CEO. In 2013, the Duma approved legislation allowing immediate blocking of websites featuring content deemed “extremist”.

Public protests are discouraged through forceful responses by police, arrests, harsh fines and prison sentences. The country’s recent anti-gay legislation also pose a big threat to free expression and assembly. The ban on “promotion” of gay relationships, means that any form of expression deemed to be “gay propaganda” can be shut down. The law has also lead to physical attacks on Russia’s LGBT population.

An earlier version of this article stated that Brazil 2014 marks ten years since Nigeria’s first outing at the World Cup. This has been corrected. 

This article was published on June 12, 2014 at

Nigeria: Journalists targeted in “war on terror”

(Photo: BBC via YouTube)

(Photo: BBC via YouTube)

The Nigerian government has faced criticism over their crackdown on Boko Haram, the terrorist group among other things responsible for the recent kidnapping of around 276 school girls from Chibok in Borno state. The efficiency of the state’s strategy, which has included extrajudicial executions, mass imprisonments and indiscriminate targeting of any young Muslim Nigerian who might fit the profile of a Boko Haram member, has been questioned — and the “war on terror” has also been used to target the country’s journalists.

In the first half of 2013, according to Amnesty International, over a thousand detainees, many of whose affiliation with Boko Haram was never confirmed, died in police detention. The human rights organisation has condemned the government’s crackdown. Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states were put under a state of emergency, countless homes, businesses and mosques were raided, and thousands of men and boys were arrested, loaded into trucks and thrown in prison. According to many of their families, the arrests have been indiscriminate.

In 2009, Nigerian police claimed the killing of Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of Boko Haram at the time. The government said Yusuf, who was blamed for violence that killed hundreds of people in northern Nigeria, was shot dead following his capture. The official line was boldly unrepentant about the lack of judicial process. “He has been killed. You can come and see his body at the state police command headquarters,” said Isa Azare, spokesman for the police command in the northern city of Maiduguri.

In 2010, footage obtained by Al Jazeera showed deceased and unarmed Boko Haram prisoners who appeared to have been killed by government troops after “crackdown” fighting had ended. Elements of the police and army reportedly staged a follow-up operation in which house-to-house searches were conducted and individuals were apparently selected at random and taken to a police station.

The efficiency of the government’s strategy to eliminate Boko Haram has been severely questioned by security experts.

“So many young men were killed and beaten in the crackdown against Boko Haram,” said Virginia Comolli, Research Fellow for Security and Development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “ that police or soldiers might have developed sympathies for the group, if one of their relatives was caught up in this.”

“You wonder whether there could be complicity,” Comolli speculated.

Bala Liman, a PhD candidate at School of Oriental and Africa Studies in London and an expert on Boko Haram, pointed to further flaws in the crackdown. “Look at the $8 billion which was provided to the security forces in 2011,” he said, “most of the money was lost to corruption rather than going to fight Boko Haram. Most of the soldiers I speak to nowadays are still under-equipped.” With corruption so widespread, Liman also suggested that bribery could have been a motivation behind collusion with Boko Haram.

While international observers may have the luxury of pointing out the fallacies in such a brutal crackdown, as well as corruption (or sheer incompetence) amongst the police and military, Nigerian journalists do not: Security agents have abused the pretext of their own “war on terror” to threaten, harass, arrest, detain, and seize the equipment of local reporters.

In one case in December 2013, security forces assaulted broadcast journalist Yunusa Gabriel Enemali on the pretext he was a Boko Haram suspect, after he took photographs of a policeman demanding a bribe. “I was fortunate to come out alive,” Enemali told the Committee to Protect Journalists at the time.

In December 2012, the State Secret Service (SSS) unlawfully detained and seized the equipment of Aliyu Saleh, a reporter with the weekly Hausa-language Al-Mizan newspaper, and Musa Muhammad Awwal, the paper’s editor, allegedly over a story questioning the government’s extra-judicial imprisonment of people in Northern Nigeria.

Peter Nkanga, the Commitee to Protect Journalist’s West Africa correspondent, told Index on Censorship: “Awwal was twiced arrested and on both occasions had his equipment seized by the State Security Service. It is now over a year ago yet the SSS have refused to return his two laptops and two phones, alongside five other phones seized from his wife and children.”

Journalists covering protests since the kidnap of the Chibok schoolgirls have also been targeted. Hir Joseph of the independent Daily Trust newspaper was arrested on 9 May after he wrote a story detailing how female police officers and other security officers had joined with protesters calling on the government to do more to rescue the girls.

“Joseph refused to disclose his source for a story,” Nkganga told Index. While in custody, two police officers kicked Joseph, locked him in a cell “with hardened criminals” and was also told to simulate sex with a wall while being interrogated. The police charged Joseph in court on 12 May, accusing him of publishing “injurious falsehood”. Joseph pleaded not guilty and the case has been adjourned to 19 June. He faces up to two years imprisonment if convicted.

“Targeting a journalist for reporting on issues of public interest,” says Nkganga, “is tantamount to deliberately denying the public the right to be adequately informed about issues affecting their commonwealth. This is an attack on the society. By extension, this goes against the freedom of expression Nigerians are universally and constitutionally guaranteed.”

This article was posted on June 3, 2014 at

Rommy Mom: Nigeria’s gay marriage law is misleading and harmful

Rommy Mom

Rommy Mom (Photo: Sean Gallagher/Index on Censorship)

The wording of Nigeria’s recent anti-gay marriage law is misleading and has provoked a spike in hate crime towards the homosexual community, according to leading human rights lawyer Rommy Mom. The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act 2013, which is yet to be published since it was signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in January, outlaws gay marriage and relationships. It also makes it illegal for gay people to hold meetings, and outlaws the registration of homosexual clubs, organisations and associations. Those found to be participating in such acts face up to 14 years in jail.

Mom, who was nominated for the Index Freedom of Expression Advocacy Award for his work with Lawyers Alert, visited the Index office to speak about the current situation in Nigeria and the problems facing the LGBT community. “When the title is ‘Same Sex Marriage’ it’s not something many people are able to wrap their heads around…what it has done is to stir up some hate crimes against persons of different sexual preferences,” explained Mom. At the same time, the public are failing to take note of the other implications of the law to homosexuals hidden behind the title.

Mom referred to an attack on a group of at least half a dozen young men in a village on the outskirts of capital Abuja recently after the law was passed.  The men, dragged from their homes in the middle of the night by villagers, were assaulted and battered, before the local police detained them. “We have a constitution where people are innocent until proven guilty,” Mom told Index, but that wasn’t the case here, and hasn’t been in many other recent cases.

But why has one word — “marriage” —  resulted in an increase in violent crimes against the LGBT community? As Mom explained, the idea of same-sex marriage is a very Western notion (although, as he pointed out, only 19 states in America have legalised the act of civil unions) and is something the Nigerian people are uncomfortable with.

While same-sex marriage was not legal prior to the law coming into force, in some Nigerian cultures, including that of the Igbo people, women have been marrying other women for centuries for the benefit of their husbands — be it for economic or reproductive reasons. “It’s a situation that before now wasn’t there. Sexual differences have always been with us in Nigeria, we’ve lived with it and we’ve accepted it. It might come with some social stigma but people were not going out of their way to want to harm [homosexuals] or to incite hate,” Mom said.

“People have died because someone has labelled them a lesbian or a gay. But that’s what the law has cost in Nigeria.”

This article was originally posted on May 30, 2014 at

Boko Haram: “If it can happen in Nigeria, it can happen here in Pakistan”

More than three weeks after the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls from the northern Nigerian town of Chibok by Boko Haram (BH), an Islamist militant group, the world is finally awake to the tragedy.

While Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself displaying the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, Angelina Jolie said she was “sickened” by the “unthinkable cruelty” and has expressed her anger.

“I heard about it just a few days back when a friend posted an article on Facebook. I was stunned beyond words,” said 19-year old college student Iqra Moazzam, in Karachi, who cannot get over the fact that the girls may have already been sold.

Last week, BH’s leader Abubakar Shekau, threatened to “sell [the girls] in the market” into slavery.

“Not only was the Muslim community slow to respond but the West was also slow to respond,” pointed out Aurangzeb Haneef, who teaches Islamic Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He said there was also some discussion on whether the response would have been quicker had the girls been white.

Boko Haram came about in 2009 in an attempt to impose Islamic law in all 36 Nigerian states. It has been behind killing of thousands of people in Nigeria in recent years and known to have links with other radical Islamist groups in North Africa and Sahel.

“I think they have defiled the name of Islam and added one more stain on the Muslim Ummah. I’m infuriated they are calling themselves Muslims; there is not a shred of Islam in their evil deed,” Moazzam said.

And yet surprisingly, there has been no word of condemnation from any religious institution, no indignation from the pulpit by imams during the weekly Friday sermons and no remonstration from the people in the Islamic world.

In September 2012, video-sharing website YouTube put up a 14-minute clip of Innocence of Muslims, produced by an American that was disrespectful of Islam, Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad, which sent a wave of protests throughout the Muslim world. In Pakistan, complete mayhem broke out: 30 people were killed and over 300 were injured.

The 12 cartoons published on 30 September 2005 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten of Prophet Muhammad, and which the Muslims found extremely and deliberately offensive, led to attempts on the life of the cartoonist and arson attempt made on the newspaper office.

Khalid Zaheer, an eminent religious scholar and vice-president of Al-Mawrid, a foundation for Islamic research and education, explained: “People come to the streets for issues about which they are sensitised by their scholars. Blasphemy is a topic that concerns the ulema (scholars) more because they have literature speaking against it.”

But he said: “Killing in the name of Islam is either considered an exaggerated propaganda, justified jihad, or atrocities done by some enemies who have conspired to malign Islam.” He said the narrow view of the world that is taught in madrassas and promoted in mosques causes non-issues to be made a matter of life and death and real issues to be ignored as if they don’t exist.

Haneef also attributed the inaction on the street to lack of response to the episode by the religious parties. He added: “Since the victims in this case are not Muslims (although some reports suggested that a few of them were Muslims) and since the accused here claim some kind of Islam, therefore, there has been understandable inertia on the part of Islamic parties to criticise BH.”

Unfortunately, pointed out Haneef: “Common Muslims are reluctant to take up issues involving atrocities against non-Muslims. Few people understand that these atrocities are in the name of Islam — Islam is being hurt here — yet they don’t feel compelled enough to raise their voice against BH.”

The same sentiment was endorsed by peace activist, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, who is also an academic. “I am sure that most Muslims do not approve of Muslims killing non-Muslims or other Muslims, but this does not raise passions in the same way.”

He also said: “Most Muslims today do disapprove of the mass abduction and sale of the Nigerian girls, but they prefer silence. There is vague discomfort that being too loud might cause Islamic fundamentals to come under scrutiny, something that is best avoided in these dangerous times.”

Hoodbhoy explained that with BH at war with those they consider infidels: “Women captured during tribal wars were part of the war booty and the Holy Quran is completely explicit on the distribution of every kind of booty, including women. Of course, as with slavery, most Muslims regard these verses as meant for those times only.” He said that was the takfiri (a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy) philosophy of the BH.

Khadeja Ebrahim 12, studying in Class 7, at a British school in Karachi likened the Nigerian militant group to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). “They seem like the Taliban we have in Pakistan, who attacked Malala and believe those seeking western-style education are committing a sin,” she told Index. Asked if she felt scared she nodded saying: “If it can happen in Nigeria, it can happen here in Pakistan and in Karachi too.”

Still, Hoodbhoy, finds the Taliban quite gentle when compared to the BH. “While the TTP does mount suicide attacks, and makes video tapes football matches played with the heads of decapitated Pakistan soldiers, the techniques employed by BH are brutal beyond description.”

This article was updated at 11:46 on 13 May, 2014.

This article was posted on May 13, 2014 at