As I write, over 20,000 people have now been confirmed dead in the aftermath of earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Hundreds of thousands of people are missing, buildings are unsafe, what limited public infrastructure that has survived is completely overwhelmed and it’s cold. Freezing cold. The survivors, who in too many cases have lost everything, are too scared to enter buildings for fear of aftershocks and too cold to sleep in tents – so at night they walk to try and keep warm, clutching their loved ones to them.
Our news is filled with these images, these stories of heartbreak and death. And most importantly the personal stories behind the headlines. The sheer scale of the devastation is too much to comprehend and yet we have to. This disaster requires a global response, it tests our humanity and our commitment to each other – wherever we live.
Which is why a free media is so important, why journalists are not a hindrance to rescue efforts but part of those efforts and why this is a time to protect everyone’s access to media sources – not restrict them.
The journalists who are reporting from the disaster are chronicling the devastation in real time. Without fear, they are telling the stories that we need to hear and the world needs to see in order to mobilise the help that they need.
The same journalists will be those who ask the questions of authorities in Turkey and Syria as to why in the initial days after the earthquake, help was not immediately forthcoming for every community.
But a disaster of this nature, in the hands of governments who lean towards authoritarianism, becomes an opportunity for oppression.
Already, the Turkish Parliament has authorised a state of emergency in 10 Turkish provinces. Under the Turkish constitution, a state of emergency provides for the suspension of basic rights and freedoms. Initially, the new powers granted to President Erdogan will last for just three months but as a difficult set of elections approaches for Erdogan, time will tell how soon he returns those rights and freedoms we all seek to protect. The Turkish government also imposed a temporary Twitter shutdown after criticism of its repsonse.
While the world now watches on as help and aid arrives in Turkey, it will soon cease to be a feature of the nightly news and it is in those moments when the global attention is elsewhere that emergency powers for a disaster become desirable tools for control.
The rebuilding of Turkey will be a truly international endeavour, but as well as replacing the lost buildings and homes, the freedoms and rights which have been suspended also need to be returned and media freedom needs to be reinstated with immediate effect.
The murder of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in Iran by the Gasht-e-Ershad ‘guidance patrols’ in September sparked protests worldwide. Celebrities cut off their hair and chanted ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ in support of the movement born out of her funeral. But ‘Mahsa Amini’ – as she is identified by the mainstream press – is a misnomer.
“Her formal name according to the Iranian state is Mahsa, but she was known as Mahsa only by the authorities,” British-Kurdish writer and organiser Elif Sarican told Index. “She was known as Jina to her family, friends and everyone that knew her. It’s what is on her gravestone.”
Sarican described the deliberate misnaming of Kurds as a tactic to deny their existence. The insistence on calling Jina the wrong name is “painful” she said, particularly when it’s by the mainstream media.
“It’s very difficult in Iran – not impossible – but very difficult, to have a Kurdish name,” she explained. “The Iranian state is very specific about the kind of Iran it envisages. Unfortunately, similarly to other parts of Kurdistan, Kurdish people cannot name their children with Kurdish names.”
In 1990, Sarican and her family migrated to London from Maraş in north Kurdistan, the site of one of the largest Kurdish massacres in contemporary Turkey. It was aimed at people just like her family – Kurdish Alevis.
The unrest in Iran, Sarican says, is representative of a universal Kurdish experience. It’s an uprising of people that have been denied for 100 years.
“‘Women, Life Freedom’, or ‘Jin, Jîyan, Azadî’ in Kurdish, comes from the Kurdish Women’s Movement,” she continued. “It’s a part of the Kurdish Freedom Movement founded by the imprisoned Abdullah Öcalan.”
Since the news of Jina Amini’s murder broke, the slogan has been adopted internationally as a symbol of solidarity. But the phrase, Sarican tells me, has been dissociated from its radical, political origins. It exists as a result of decades of struggle for women’s liberation and marked a big shift in the Kurdish Freedom Movement when women’s liberation was adopted and cemented as a core pillar.
“Bringing together women, life and freedom is what the Kurdish Freedom Movement ideology is. It’s based on radical democracy, ecology and women’s liberation. All of these coming together is the only way to achieve freedom.”
It’s no surprise, she explains, that Iranian protesters took inspiration and borrowed this slogan from their brothers and sisters in other parts of Kurdistan. “This is an expression of universal Kurdish struggle.”
The persecution of Kurds persists across the region. “100 years ago – and this year is the 100-year anniversary of the Treaty of Lozan – the Kurdish regions were divided into four nation states: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. As a result of that, the experience of Kurdish people has been denied,” Sarican explained.
Kurdish language, culture and political expression are suppressed across the region. Fundamentally, they are denied the right to exist, she says. In Turkey, in the last 10 years, many Kurdish activists, elected MPs, mayors and councillors have been imprisoned. Although the Kurdish language is no longer formally banned in Turkey, it is repressed.
“To have education in your mother tongue is an international human right,” she explains. This is not a right granted to Kurds in Turkey.
While the treatment of Kurds in Iran, Syria and Iraq is brutal, Sarican says, it is limited to their own borders. Turkey not only oppresses Kurds in its own borders, but has invaded Syria, and continues to build military bases in northern Iraq.
“They are interfering in the lives of Kurdish people in at least three areas of Kurdistan. When the protests were happening in Iran and there was solidarity being shown in parts of Turkey, the police brutally cracked down on these demonstrations.”
Mournfully, she tells me that this month is the 10-year anniversary of the assassination of three Kurdish women by Turkish intelligence in Paris. In a disturbing mark of the anniversary, three more activists were assassinated in the same location just a few weeks ago.
“The Kurdish people are feeling unsafe not only in most parts of Kurdistan, but also in other parts of Europe,” Sarican continued.
Kurdish people constitute 10% of Iran’s population but make up about 50% of their political prisoner numbers. Many prisoners are denied proper health access, the most basic human rights, proper visits with family and connection with the outside world. Sadly, she says, many European states also extend these policies against Kurdish people in Europe.
“Kurdish communities are some of the most politically organised. The Kurdish freedom movement is not only one of the biggest political movements in the Middle East right now it is actually one of the largest social movements in Europe as well. [Criminalisation of our communities] really curtails and impacts the organising and protests.”
“Staying in tune with what’s happening in Kurdistan is of the utmost importance. It’s important that any future, whether it’s in Turkey or Iran – because it’s all connected, very very closely – is a future that works for the people. That’s a future of radical democracy, of ecology and of women’s liberation. Because otherwise these theocratic dictatorships will cement themselves.”
She stressed the significance of understanding the political projects that are already in existence across Kurdistan, instead of trying to impose a Western solution. “My call would be for people to understand the Kurdish Freedom Movement programme and what it’s offering. Read the memoir of Kurdish revolutionary Sakine Cansiz. Read the works of Abdullah Öcalan. Understand what the political project is and how we can work together to realise it. [The crisis in the Middle East] will only result in an actual, meaningful freedom if there is a political vision, led by the Kurdish freedom movement. It’s time we support that movement and come together to make sure that that is what the future of Kurdistan looks like.”
A major new global ranking index tracking the state of free expression published today (Wednesday, 25 January) by Index on Censorship sees the UK ranked as only “partially open” in every key area measured.
In the overall rankings, the UK fell below countries including Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, Chile, Jamaica and Japan. European neighbours such as Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark also all rank higher than the UK.
The Index Index, developed by Index on Censorship and experts in machine learning and journalism at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, giving a country-by-country view of the state of free expression across academic, digital and media/press freedoms.
Key findings include:
The countries with the highest ranking (“open”) on the overall Index are clustered around western Europe and Australasia – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.
The UK and USA join countries such as Botswana, Czechia, Greece, Moldova, Panama, Romania, South Africa and Tunisia ranked as “partially open”.
The poorest performing countries across all metrics, ranked as “closed”, are Bahrain, Belarus, Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Laos, Nicaragua, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates performed poorly in the Index Index but are embedded in key international mechanisms including G20 and the UN Security Council.
Ruth Anderson, Index on Censorship CEO, said:
“The launch of the new Index Index is a landmark moment in how we track freedom of expression in key areas across the world. Index on Censorship and the team at Liverpool John Moores University have developed a rankings system that provides a unique insight into the freedom of expression landscape in every country for which data is available.
“The findings of the pilot project are illuminating, surprising and concerning in equal measure. The United Kingdom ranking may well raise some eyebrows, though is not entirely unexpected. Index on Censorship’s recent work on issues as diverse as Chinese Communist Party influence in the art world through to the chilling effect of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill all point to backward steps for a country that has long viewed itself as a bastion of freedom of expression.
“On a global scale, the Index Index shines a light once again on those countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates with considerable influence on international bodies and mechanisms – but with barely any protections for freedom of expression across the digital, academic and media spheres.”
Nik Williams, Index on Censorship policy and campaigns officer, said:
“With global threats to free expression growing, developing an accurate country-by-country view of threats to academic, digital and media freedom is the first necessary step towards identifying what needs to change. With gaps in current data sets, it is hoped that future ‘Index Index’ rankings will have further country-level data that can be verified and shared with partners and policy-makers.
“As the ‘Index Index’ grows and develops beyond this pilot year, it will not only map threats to free expression but also where we need to focus our efforts to ensure that academics, artists, writers, journalists, campaigners and civil society do not suffer in silence.”
Steve Harrison, LJMU senior lecturer in journalism, said:
“Journalists need credible and authoritative sources of information to counter the glut of dis-information and downright untruths which we’re being bombarded with these days. The Index Index is one such source, and LJMU is proud to have played our part in developing it.
“We hope it becomes a useful tool for journalists investigating censorship, as well as a learning resource for students. Journalism has been defined as providing information someone, somewhere wants suppressed – the Index Index goes some way to living up to that definition.”
Syria has become the latest country to implement new far-reaching cybercrime legislation that goes beyond what is necessary to keep the internet safe.
On 18 April, Syrian president Bashir al-Assad announced new laws that could result in harsh penalties criticising or otherwise embarrassing the Syrian government.
Anyone breaking the law can be jailed for up to 15 years and face penalties up to S£15 million (£23,000).
The highest fines and sentences are reserved for “crimes against the Constitution” and for undermining the prestige of the State including websites or content “aiming or calling for changing the constitution by illegal means, or excluding part of the Syrian land from the sovereignty of the state, or provoking armed rebellion against the existing authorities under the constitution or preventing them from exercising their functions derived from the constitution, or overthrowing or changing the system of government in the state”.
Publishing what the new law describes as “fake news…that undermines the prestige of the state or prejudices national unity” can lead to five-year jail sentences and S£10 million (£15,300) fines which seems to target bloggers and digital activists who publish criticism of the government online.
In a statement the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) said the law could be used to violate many of the basic digital rights of citizens, especially freedom of expression and freedom of digital privacy.
It said, “GCHR believes that the law should be reviewed and its definitions defined more clearly to ensure the existence of a strong and practical law that does not violate the basic rights of citizens, but rather contributes to creating a free and accessible internet in which diverse opinions are respected and human rights are protected and promoted.”
The new law also obliges internet service providers to save internet data for all users for a period of time to be determined by the competent authorities.
The GCHR calls this “a flagrant violation of the digital privacy of citizens and provides ease of access by security services to all information related to peaceful online activists”.
The Syrian cybercrime law is just the latest in a growing body of legislation around the world ostensibly used to target cybercrime but clearly intended to stifle legitimate criticism and restrict freedom of expression.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 81% of countries have now implemented cybercrime legislation with a further 7% with draft legislation.
Many argue that cybercrime legislation makes the internet a safer place but many countries with human rights are under attack, including Brazil, Myanmar and the UAE, are using such legislation to silence critics.
In January, the United Arab Emirates adopted new legislation that promised fines of up to AED100,000 and jail terms of up to a year for “anyone who uses the internet to publish, circulate or spread false news, rumours or misleading information, contrary to the news published by official sources”. These penalties are doubled when publication happens “during times of pandemic, crises or disasters”
Attempts to introduce such draconian legislation are being resisted by human rights and journalism associations.
In February this year, the Pakistani government passed an ordinance amending the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. Of particular concern was an expansion of the “offences against dignity” section of the legislation to cover the publication of “false” information about organisations, companies and institutions, including the government and military.
However, in April, the Islamabad High Court, following challenges by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Pakistan Broadcasters Association, threw out the ordinance. The court noted: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right and it reinforces all other rights guaranteed under the Constitution … [and] free speech protected under Article 19 and the right to receive information under Article 19-A of the Constitution are essential for development, progress and prosperity of a society and suppression thereof is unconstitutional and contrary to the democratic values.”