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International - United States26 February 2009

Letter to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as US State Department issues annual human rights report

A day after the US State Department issued its annual report on human rights, Reporters Without Borders today released the text of its recent letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The promotion of human rights is essential to our foreign policy,” Clinton said in her preface to the report. This was not the case under the previous US administration and the Reporters Without Borders letter refers to the serious violations committed at home and abroad in the name of its “war on terror.”


The Honorable Barack Hussein Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC   20500

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC   20520

Paris, February 17, 2009

Dear Mr. President
Dear Madam Secretary of State,

Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organization, would like to draw your attention to the situation of journalists in a number of countries now ranked as diplomatic priorities for the U.S. government. Mr. President, you appointed yourself to be the spokesperson in the fight for the right to inform and to be informed while visiting the Sudan in 2006, when you stated: “Press freedom is like tending a garden, it’s never done.” These words are somewhat reminiscent of those spoken by President Thomas Jefferson: “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that limited without danger of losing it.”

We consider it essential that the country of the First Amendment actively participate in promoting human rights within the international community, and especially in those regions of the planet in which these rights are being repeatedly violated. The executive order signed on January 22, 2009, which was aimed at putting an end to the humanitarian and legal scandal represented by the Guantanamo detention camp sent, in our opinion, an important signal. Moreover, we are expecting the new Congress to finally approve a “shield law” guaranteeing journalists federal protection for the privilege of source confidentiality, thus sparing the latter from prison terms like those handed down under the previous administration - a period characterized by a decline in public freedoms. What is at stake is not only the preservation of a basic principle of investigative journalism, but also of the quality of information that the American public has a right to expect.

The fact that the United States of America is speaking on behalf of human rights obviously implies that you must keep a particularly close watch in regions where you have established a military presence. The war that began in Iraq in 2003 has been the bloodiest of all time for local and foreign journalists, and the U.S. Army bears the heavy burden of responsibility for some of these tragedies. The necessary withdrawal of the troops that you plan to successfully carry out by 2011 must be accompanied by guarantees essential to peace. In Afghanistan, too, the U.S. Army has too often hindered journalists’ work, and Bagram Prison remains closed to the media. As a Reporters Without Borders’ delegation realized during an on-site mission there in January 2009, American support of early efforts to further a democratic process have in no way prevented violations of the freedom to inform and to be informed by Afghan courts. Case in point: Perwiz Kambakhsh’s 20-year prison sentence, upheld on appeal, for having downloaded “blasphemous” material on the condition of women in the country.

Your decision to promote dialogue with certain powers cannot fail to take into account this necessity, either. In China, the Olympic Games did very little to further the progress of freedom of expression. We hope, Madam Secretary of State, that your next visit to the country, February 20 to 22, will induce Chinese authorities to release prisoners of conscience. The “comprehensive dialogue” that you wish to initiate must keep its promises by venturing beyond economic and trade considerations. In the world’s biggest prison for freelance journalists and cyberdissidents, it is nearly impossible to pick up broadcasts from such stations as Radio Free Asia or Voice of America, and websites of American daily newspapers like The New York Times are still blocked. Your “extended hand” to Iran, whose Internet connection capacities rely upon U.S. companies, calls for a relaxation of the filtering now being imposed on foreign media websites and an end to the legal harassment of human rights and gender equity activists such as lawyer Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Founder of the Circle for the Defenders of Human Rights.

History has shown it, and you have understood it: placing a ban on countries subject to the most repressive regimes has often exacerbated their isolation without changing the attitude of their leaders. That is why we are particularly focusing on the State Department’s desire to mediate in favor of a genuine sharing of power between the political forces present in Zimbabwe. The participation of Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC in the government is an essential precondition for reinstating freedoms, for an in-depth reform of press laws and for foreign journalists to gain access to a country in chaos. Although Western chanceries have spoken out against Robert Mugabe and his regime, their silence in the face of the tyranny prevailing in Eritrea is all the more incomprehensible.

Moreover, being aware of your personal attachment to East Africa, Mr. President, you cannot tolerate the fact that the Asmara government, some members of which also possess American citizenship, is targeting Eritrean exiles - of whom there are many in the United States - for extortion and threatening them with reprisals against their friends and relatives remaining in the homeland, who are already being terrorized. For many years, Reporters Without Borders has been urging that the assets of certain identified leaders be frozen, that they be prohibited from entering the U.S., and that the Eritrean Ambassador to the United States be summoned without delay. The same sort of pressure needs to be placed on the Gambian government, which continues to ignore appeals from the international community, and the injunctions issued by the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) concerning the disappearance, in July 2007, of “Chief” Ebrima Manneh, a reporter for the Daily Observer. Pursuing this logic, it would be in the best interest of U.S. intelligence services to make public the information they have on the circumstances surrounding the murder, in 2004, of Deyda Hydara, editor-in-chief of Gambia’s private daily newspaper, The Point. Our organization, which had conducted two in-depth investigations on this matter, has certain details that placing the security services surrounding President Yahya Jammeh under strong suspicion.

Worldwide, there are too many of these closed - off States adept at double talk and ready to exchange a strategic position in return for impunity. How can any serious diplomatic relations-ones which truly promote peace and security - be established with regimes that are exercising draconian control over information? Syria cannot claim that it should be considered a reliable negotiating partner in the Middle East if, at the same time, it continues to violate the principles that this ambition demands. It must provide proof by releasing cyberdissidents Homam Hassan Haddad, Habib Saleh, Tariq Biasi, Kareem Arabji, Firas Saad, Muhened Abdulrahman and journalist Michel Kilo, who are being held arbitrarily. This requirement also applies to Myanmar, where dozens of recently arrested journalists and political opponents are serving their sentences under disgraceful conditions. The United States has everything to gain by strengthening the UN mandate in this country, without which contacts with the ruling junta may be permanently broken off. A dangerous isolationism, conducive to the worst kinds of human rights violations, is also at work in the strategic region of the Central Asian Republics, where Russia has regained its influence, to the detriment of that of Western countries.

The consistency and credibility of U.S. foreign policy will depend upon the ability of your administration to demonstrate the same vigilance in relations with your partners and allies. As a member of the UN Security Council and a key actor in what has become a multipolar world, Russia merits special attention. Disarmament constitutes a necessary yet inadequate step to ensure that the Kremlin can inspire confidence in the international community. The rejection of transparency by Moscow’s leaders can be seen in the troubling repression against civil society and the opposition. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006, undoubtedly paid with her life for having informed the world of the horrors committed by Russian troops in Chechnya. No democracy can withstand the scrutiny of the international community and its media when it yields to the temptation to act for the worst. The Israeli offensive in Gaza, which led you to appoint a new U.S. envoy in the person of George Mitchell, reminded us of this.

Like other countries whose populations have grown mainly as a result of immigration, the United States must prepare itself to accommodate journalists fleeing oppression and terror, and grant them asylum. Afghans, Iranians, Eritreans - they are also coming in from neighboring countries, like Mexican Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, unjustly detained for seven months by the immigration services in El Paso, Texas, merely for having sought to save his own life and that of his young son. This case is the consequence of the deadly drug cartel war, intensified by the violence of the authorities, which is grieving Mexico. As you promised, Mr. President, during a meeting with President Felipe Calderón prior to your inauguration, the American and Mexican governments need to join forces if they are to secure the border between the two countries, without which no Rule of Law can exist there.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the havoc wrought by the drug traffic and paramilitarism are draining all sense from the constitutional principles previously taken for granted. In this respect, like certain members of the U.S. Congress, we would ask that Plan Colombia’s funding - so costly for the American taxpayer - be reviewed in proportion to the actual efforts being made by Bogota authorities on behalf of human rights. President Alvaro Uribe has too often connived and made irresponsible statements that have placed in jeopardy journalists of whom he did not approve, or forced them into exile. Finally, your willingness to relax the clauses of the embargo imposed since 1962 on Cuba - the only country of the continent with no free press, and in which there are 23 journalists listed among its 200 political prisoners - may persuade Havana authorities to comply more closely with the international community’s expectations. The embargo, challenged in its principle by virtually all members of the UN’s General Assembly, has done nothing but strengthen the Castrist regime, to the detriment of the Cuban people. It must be raised one day. The island’s future depends upon it. 

Mr. President, Madam Secretary of State, we look forward to your response, and thank you for your consideration. I am at your disposal, as is Lucie Morillon, our Washington D.C. bureau director, should you have any questions or desire further clarification regarding the situation of journalists and press freedom around the world.

Yours very respectfully, Jean-François Julliard
Secretary General



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