Israel’s civil and human rights are under siege

Almost six months to the day since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, the Israeli government made a decision to shutter the Al Jazeera bureau in Jerusalem. The Knesset vote was an overwhelming 71-10. “The ability of the Communications Minister to shutter press for political motivation is a complete and utter threat to democracy in Israel,” said Noa Sattath, the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Israel’s leading human and civil rights organisation. “We want a journalist to be thinking about the truth, not about what a minister is thinking about them—this is a chilling effect. “

In addition to the attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the new law also effectively precludes the court from intervening in decisions regarding the closure of media outlets. In addition to closing Al Jazeera’s offices, the law allows removing its website and confiscating the device used to deliver its content. Al Jazeera, termed a “propaganda machine” not a news organisation by many in the Israeli government, was an easy target perhaps, especially during wartime, but it is especially in wartime that a democracy’s fortitude is tested.

In a new sixth-month survey of the impact of the war on human and civil rights in Israel, ACRI makes these points: “Even before the terrorist attack Hamas perpetrated on 7 October, and before the war broke out, Israeli democracy was facing severe threats. Combined together, laws designed to take over the judicial system [what Prime Minister and his government called ‘judicial reform’, but what opponents called a ‘judicial coup’ attempt] and a slew of other initiatives in different areas crystallised to produce a judicial overhaul, as part of which the government sought to undermine the pillars of democracy and reduce human rights protections. Some initiatives to take over the judicial system have been put on hold since the war began, partly because this was put forward as a condition for expanding the government [by member parties]. Other initiatives that threaten democracy have also been suspended.”

Yet, there are enough new curbs and potential curbs on human and civil rights to warrant a 14-page document from ACRI. Sattath, the ACRI director, explains: “The government has pushed forward with existing trends such as targeting Arab society, restricting freedom of movement, increasing the prevalence of firearms in public spaces, and accelerating the annexation of the West Bank. Given the general climate in a time of war, these efforts are met with less resistance. In other fields, such as prisoners’ rights, the state of human rights has taken a significant turn for the worse, while the public remains entirely indifferent. Human rights violations are often carried out via emergency regulations (Hebrew), an undemocratic tool that allows the government to enact laws, seriously violating the principle of separation of powers.”

In addition to the actual censoring of media, the mainstream media has self-censored in Israel, aware of—and even setting—the tone among the public. Nightly newscasts cover soldiers in the field, the hostages, and other security concerns but rarely focus on the situation for Palestinians, including the humanitarian concerns in Gaza.

Additionally, people have been detained by the police for a “like” on social media after the Ministry of Justice removed the State Prosecutor’s oversight on charges for offences of freedom of expression during the war, so that police don’t need approval before investigating such cases. Police were directed to detain people for social media posts until the proceedings’ end and prosecute them even for a single publication. This change led to a surge in arrests of Arab citizens regarding social media posts; arresting without cause.

Meanwhile, there is a proliferation of widespread hate speech online incriminating Jewish social media spots promoting hate against Arabs, but enforcement disproportionately targets Arab citizens and residents.

By November, there were 269 investigation cases for incitement and support for terrorism, resulting in 86 expedited indictments for incitement to violence and terrorism. Suspects faced prolonged detention and even remand until trial, a departure from due process.

Additionally, there are significant violations of policing of peaceful demonstrators, along with unlawful detentions of protesters and unauthorised visits to the houses of suspected protest organisers by the police. The police (which is federalised in Israel), led by far-right minister Itamar Ben Gvir, seem to be pre-imagining what steps he anticipates for them and taking them–all with no retribution so far.

Security prisoners in Israeli prisons have faced much worse, with protocols, including lawyers’ visits, upended. Meanwhile, there is a proliferation of guns in the streets with a free-for-all dispensation by Ben Gvir’s office to create private militias both inside Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where actions by Jewish settlers against Palestinian residents have multiplied.

These are just a few key examples of what Israelis are facing. Even when the war ends and when the current government falls, much of the backtracking in Israeli society will be hard to reverse.

Evan Gershkovich: We must be as loud as possible

This Friday, 29 March, marks the one-year anniversary of Russia’s arrest and unlawful detention of my colleague, Evan Gershkovich, of The Wall Street Journal. That’s one year that Evan has been deprived of his basic rights and confined to a cell 23 hours a day, held on a charge of espionage which he, the US government and the Journal vehemently deny. One year that his parents and his sister have been deprived of their son and brother.  And one year since a mass chilling effect descended on the foreign press corps in Russia because of this brazen assault on the freedom of the press.

Evan’s detention is a singular outrage but also part of a much broader pattern. Last year and this year have been brutal for the safety of journalists working to get the facts from dangerous places across the globe, as chronicled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and others.

Even within Russia, Evan is not alone: Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was seized by Russian authorities on a trip to visit her mother and has been in prison since October. Paul Whelan, of course, has been detained there for five years.

After Evan’s arrest, many news outlets withdrew to cover Russia from Berlin, Warsaw and elsewhere given that Vladimir Putin’s regime has made what you and I understand to be fair and independent reporting effectively a crime.

So we are deprived of fact-based news from a country that is central in defining the future for the USA and other democracies. If we don’t stand up and protest against the silencing of the media on such a vital story, when will we decide the time is right to be loud?

We have been making noise for a year now, to ensure we are drawing as much attention as possible to Evan’s predicament and this broader outrage. We did so in part because journalists run at the story. But we also did so because, in the very early days after Evan’s arrest, we received advice from a trusted source that there will be times to be loud and times to be quiet and this was a time to be loud. Put another way, until there is reason to be quiet – which might suggest a sensitive breakthrough is near at hand – be loud.

We also didn’t have a choice. There may be times when quiet diplomacy can be effective to resolve such hostage issues. In our case, the Russian government had publicly accused our innocent colleague of spying, a message we had to counter as forcefully and as quickly as we could.

In that, as in so many other things over the course of the past year, we were greatly aided by outside help.

The White House, the State Department and the US Senate Intelligence Committee immediately made clear Evan – an accredited reporter in Russia – is not a spy. And in the days, weeks and months that followed, we have benefitted hugely from the interest and support of other news organisations, the international community of journalists and well-wishers the world over to keep awareness of Evan’s situation high.

We know that The Wall Street Journal won’t directly negotiate his release – that is the responsibility of governments. But we are convinced keeping Evan in the spotlight will help set the stage for successful negotiations at the right time. We hope that time is very soon.

Within the Journal, we have learned that being loud is a companywide effort. I don’t think there is a department at Dow Jones & Co., the Journal’s parent, that hasn’t in some way been involved.

The company’s leadership, legal team, the newsroom and communications department would be obvious. Less so, maybe, the marketing team, which we rely on to create ads that we and other newspapers have run on milestones such as 100 days of Evan’s incarceration. Or the advertising department, which has used barter ads to push Evan’s cause on social media. Or government affairs, which has launched a campaign of awareness on Capitol Hill in Washington. Or technology and circulation, which have built a page outside of our paywall on so readers can learn about Evan free of charge. Or our Standards team, which ensures that our advocacy work and our news reporting are kept appropriately apart. Or our individual reporters, who have taken it upon themselves to organise runs, swims, read-a-thons and letter-writing campaigns to highlight Evan’s work and interests.

Yet we also realise all this has yet to pay the one dividend that matters: Evan’s safe return.

So on his one-year anniversary we also ask that you take the time to think of Evan, to talk about him, to amplify stories about him with the hashtag #IStandWithEvan, to explore his work at, and to dig in with us so that the light we shine on Evan and the broader cause of press freedom is brighter than ever.

Mexico: Obrador’s attacks on freedom reach new heights

In a world where there are too many tyrants and our politics seems increasingly divisive it is all too easy to look away, to turn off the news, to refuse to engage.

Yet there is a responsibility on all of us to bear witness. To hear people’s stories and to stand with those dissidents who are brave enough to speak truth to power.

In recent weeks, we have been reminded of how important this is, in countries that don’t always dominate the headlines.

In the ongoing battle for genuine freedom of expression in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s relentless attacks on journalists and democratic institutions have reached alarming heights, posing a severe threat to press freedom and democracy in the country.

The latest incident involved an investigation by a New York Times journalist into the Obrador administration’s alleged connections with drug cartels. The report led to Obrador sharing the journalist’s telephone number during a televised press conference  – this is a blatant attack on freedom of the press. By exposing a journalist to potential harm, Obrador is sending a chilling message to the media: report critically at your own risk.

These actions would be bad enough – but are compounded by Obrador’s proposals to overhaul democratic institutions, such as the election authority INE and the Supreme Court. Obrador is seemingly seeking to consolidate power and the democratic checks and balances which exist in any healthy democracy.

His proposal to directly elect both board members of the INE and Supreme Court judges threatens to politicise these institutions and erode their independence. Civil society groups, academics, and the opposition have rightly warned that such changes would undermine the very foundation of democracy in Mexico.

The widespread protests that erupted last Sunday, with thousands of Mexicans taking to the streets to reject Obrador’s vision, are a testament to the growing dissatisfaction with his authoritarian tendencies and for me a celebration of freedom of expression against one of the world’s less well known tyrants.

Obrador was faced by a sea of pink — the colour of INE’s logo — and thousands of national flags demonstrating a united front against the erosion of the democratic principles which the people of Mexico seem rightly reluctant to abandon.

I stand with the people of Mexico who will not bend to a tyrant. Obrador seeks to be a strong man – his actions show us exactly what he is a weak man – afraid of his citizens.

At the beginning of last year Obrador was voted Tyrant of the Year 2022 in Index on Censorship’s public vote. This recognition was based on his appalling record on media freedom. His response to our public poll was to attack the messenger rather than consider the message – again at a televised press conference.

Behind each action taken by Obrador to consolidate power is a victim. It may be a journalist, an independent member of the judiciary or an observer of Mexico’s elections. Each one embodies the democratic rights that we hold dear. Each of them wants to live in a thriving Mexico that can stand proud in its belief in freedom of expression for all. I stand in solidarity with the journalists and citizens of Mexico who are bravely speaking out against censorship and authoritarianism. I stand with those people exposing his authoritarian nature. And I stand with those who bravely seek to speak truth to power.

Index will continue to shine a spotlight on Obrador’s assault on freedom of expression because the future of Mexico’s democracy demands our attention.

‘There simply is no moral high ground anymore’ – Stella Assange

Julian Assange’s fight against extradition to the USA is entering its final stages. Speaking to Index on Censorship, Assange’s wife Stella says that “this really is the endgame”.

Her concern that time is running out follows the June decision by British High Court judge Jonathan Swift that her husband’s case should not be allowed to go to appeal, a decision she calls extraordinary.

The USA has been seeking to extradite Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to face charges relating to the leaking of hundreds of thousands of documents to international media in 2010 and 2011 about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, detainees in Guantanamo Bay and diplomatic cables. The documents had been sent to him by the US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

The story took a new twist when Assange, an Australian citizen, entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape and sexual assault allegations. Ecuador’s then president Rafael Correa granted him asylum. The Swedish cases were eventually dropped. In 2019, Assange was evicted by the Ecuadorian government.

It has since been revealed that Assange was illegally monitored while in the embassy and that senior CIA officials in the Trump administration discussed options to kidnap and even assassinate Assange.

After Assange’s arrest on leaving the embassy, purportedly for breaching his bail conditions, the US government began extradition proceedings.

In January 2021, district judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled against his extradition on the grounds that “the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” a decision that the US government appealed. That December 2021, the High Court ruled that Assange could be extradited after US authorities made assurances over how he would be treated in prison. In June 2022, the UK’s then home secretary Priti Patel approved the extradition.

Assange appealed to the High Court but Swift turned down the appeals saying it was “no more than an attempt to re-run the extensive arguments made to and rejected by the district judge”.

“Julian has only one option left now which is to ask two Court of Appeal judges to reconsider Swift’s decision,” said Stella Assange. “The good news, if you can call it that, is that this time the decision will not be issued behind closed doors. There will be a public hearing. If the two judges affirm Swift’s position, Julian will not be able to go to the Supreme Court. It will be the end of the road in the UK.”

The date of the public hearing is likely to be announced this week.

With time running out, Assange’s supporters have launched the Day X campaign to encourage supporters to protest at the hearing.

“On Day X, I am asking everyone who can to come to the High Court to support not only Julian but also press freedom and the public’s right to receive truthful information, which are being trampled on,” said Stella Assange.

If he is extradited, Assange faces charges under the Espionage Act, for which there is no public interest defence.

“The outcome is a foregone conclusion, particularly as the US has already argued before the British extradition judge that Julian will not ‘enjoy’ Constitutional protections for free speech under the First Amendment because he is not a US citizen and he was not in the US at the time of the receipt and publication of the information,” said Stella Assange.

Meanwhile, the Australian government is ramping up its efforts to get the US government to drop the extradition request. The current Australian government opposes his imprisonment, often citing the four and a half years he has been imprisoned to date without conviction. This week, it was revealed that 63 members of Australia’s House of Representatives and Senate had called on the US government to drop the extradition request. In a letter of support, the politicians said they were “resolutely of the view that the prosecution and incarceration of the Australian citizen Julian Assange must end”.

“Other Australian lawmakers cite the fact that he is accused of nothing other than acts of press freedom that are being recast as crimes (receiving, possessing and communicating information to the public). They also highlight that the source of said information, Chelsea Manning, is free whereas the publisher, Julian, remains imprisoned. There is a disconnect that sits very badly with the Australian temperament, where fairness matters a great deal,” said Stella Assange.

The US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy has made comments on Assange’s case which have led to speculation that there may be scope for a plea deal. If so, this would be announced when the country’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese makes an official visit to the USA in late October. Some are suggesting that the comments may have been made to placate the Australian public, who are strongly supportive of the campaign to drop the extradition request.

“No offer has been made by the United States. Julian has won awards for his extraordinary contribution to journalism so if the United States government considers journalism to be a crime then he is guilty and has many more press and integrity awards to show it,” said Stella Assange.

With the US elections on the horizon, the window of opportunity is closing for Julian Assange and his supporters

“Under Biden, under the guise of continuing an initiated indictment, the administration has reached a new catastrophic low by creating a new normal by failing to undo the political prosecution of the previous administration and keeping a journalist imprisoned for years and years. Julian’s role in exposing corrupt and illegal practices committed by his jailers has lowered the bar for political prosecutions targeting the press the world over. There simply is no moral high ground anymore,” said Stella Assange.

She argues that her husband’s situation is used as justification by authoritarian regimes that imprison journalists.

“It is undeniable that the intrinsics of Julian’s case are so shocking it is something one would expect from the worst dictatorships. A thin patina of ‘process’ cannot obscure the fact that he is facing 175 years for groundbreaking journalism, that the only agencies who will decide on the conditions and degree of isolation that he will be held in if he is sent to a US prison, pre- and post-trial, are the same agencies that were elaborating plans to kill him while he had political asylum at the embassy, that is to say, the CIA,“ she said.

Despite the road rapidly running out, Stella Assange still feels that her husband can avoid extradition. She said:

“The fact that this is a political case gives me hope that individual agency, on the streets, through press freedom groups and those who have the ear and the conscience of those in power, will come together to end this. Julian needs to come home and all that needs to happen is for people to individually and collectively live up to our principles. A society cannot be free, open and democratic without a free press, and press freedom is incompatible with imprisoning Julian Assange.”