On August 30, the eve of International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reveals that a growing number of states are finding new ways to make troublesome journalists disappear.
Dawit Isaak, Jean Bigirimana, Akram Raslan and Guy-André Kieffer are all journalists who suddenly went missing, leaving their loved ones in a never-ending state of anxiety. All were the victims of “enforced disappearance,” a practice in which governments are directly or indirectly implicated.
It is governments, individuals, or groups acting with the state’s support or acquiescence who arrest, abduct, detain and then conceal the fate of the disruptive journalist – the voice that must be silenced. Although discreetly perpetrated with complete impunity by more and more regimes, this multiform crime has nonetheless been recognized since 2002 as a crime against humanity.
“China invented the ‘enforced vacation,’ Syria developed mass disappearances and Africa copied South America, which sadly pioneered enforced disappearance,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.
“Instead of decreasing, this barbaric practice is diversifying, spreading all over the world and creating more and more victims among journalists and bloggers every year. We deplore the impunity usually enjoyed by the perpetrators of these crimes and the lack of commitment by democratic governments to bring them to an end.”
The macabre tradition of “desaparecidos” now worldwide
Under the South American military dictatorships of the 1960s and 70s, the practice of “disappearing” critics was so widespread that the Spanish word “desaparecidos” (disappeared) entered the international vocabulary for the victims of state terror. Under General Videla, Argentina got rid of no fewer than 91 journalists from 1976 to 1980. More than 18 journalists disappeared in Brazil and Chile from 1973 to 1975.
Although the level of violence against the media is still very high, the phenomenon has abated in Latin America, except Mexico. Since 2000, at least 23 journalists have disappeared in Mexico and all the cases have remained unpunished. The drug cartels have usually been blamed but, in some cases, families and friends have suspected that state agents were involved.
The practice has meanwhile spread to territories such as Algeria, the Gulf States, Eritrea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkmenistan, Chechnya, and eastern Ukraine. This list is far from exhaustive. In all continents of the world, enforced disappearance has become a favorite tool of authoritarian regimes for discreetly eliminating opponents without being held to account.
Mass disappearances in Syria
Under Bashar al-Assad, extra-judicial executions were already common in Syria before 2011. But since then, enforced disappearance has become an industry with at least 65,000 victims, many of them journalists and bloggers, according to the estimates of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The issue became so severe that the United Nations Security Council had to adopt a resolution condemning these atrocities in February 2014.
Journalists and free speech defenders are leading targets in Syria. Both the regime and the rival armed factions want to neutralize or eliminate all witnesses of the conflict. Arrest is routinely followed by torture and often leads to execution. Akram Raslan, a cartoonist arrested by the Syrian security forces in October 2012, died by torture a year later after a secret trial before an anti-terrorist court with no witnesses and no legal defense. Another two years went by before his death was confirmed.
The families of the victims, deprived of information and risking the same fate if they complain, are reduced to carrying out their own investigations based on rumors. The family of Bassel Khartabil, a software developer and online free speech activist, received no news of him for two years. They recently learned that he was executed in 2015, shortly after his removal from a Damascus prison to an unknown location.
“State abductions” to bypass the law
Abduction allows government officials to circumvent legal provisions and procedural codes guaranteeing the right of defense, provision of information to the family, the presence of a lawyer, medical examination, limits on the duration of pre-trial detention and so on. Officially, China has placed no restrictions on the movements of Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo. In practice, the authorities are holding her incommunicado, with the result that her lawyer reported her “enforced disappearance” to the United Nations on August 3.
The Chinese government has long been providing certain dissidents with “enforced vacations” in the southern resort of Hainan, especially on the eve of events such as the Olympic Games, a G20 summit, Tiananmen anniversaries, and Communist Party Congresses, which might provide them with a forum. Such kid-glove treatment is unfortunately reserved for those who are protected by their international notoriety. Anonymous dissidents spend their “vacations” in prison cells, where the beatings, torture, and denial of medical care to which they are subjected may leave them unrecognizable.
Abduction has been used systematically with human rights and free speech defenders since Xi Jinping took over as China’s president in 2013. Two citizen-journalists who are also partners, 2016 RSF Press Freedom laureates Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu, were abducted by plainclothesmen in June of last year and were held incommunicado for several weeks before being formally arrested.
Murdered to prevent revelations
The paranoia of leaders often makes them confuse journalists with spies or terrorists. Or they are just seeking pretexts to arrest them. Jean Bigirimana, a journalist working for Burundi’s last independent media outlet, Iwacu, disappeared into a thin air when he went to meet one of his contacts on July 22, 2016. A year later, no one knows whether he is still alive or where he might be held, despite a petition that has gathered more than 13,000 signatures.
Journalists and bloggers are usually targeted to prevent them from publishing information that would humiliate the authorities. Guy-André Kieffer, a journalist with French and Canadian dual nationality who used to work for Libération and La Tribune, was abducted in Côte d’Ivoire in April 2004 while investigating suspicious practices in the production and export of cocoa. Then President Laurent Gbagbo is suspected of having him murdered to avoid being implicated in these practices.
Autocrats value abduction all the more highly because journalists are usually discreet about their reporting in order to protect their sources. When the journalist and the documents he or she was gathering disappear, the secrets are safe. Because of the possibility, albeit slim, that their reporters are still alive, news organizations concentrate on trying to get them released and do not publish their notes because that could sign their death warrant.
Remarkably ineffective investigations
“No proof, no case,” lawyers often say. The common feature in disappearances of journalists is the remarkably ineffective way the authorities investigate them, with a carelessness often bordering on sabotage. The families of the victims are all the more helpless when, as is often the case, the perpetrators are capable of putting pressure on witnesses and investigators and even getting the case closed.
The case of Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla in the Maldives is instructive. This reporter for Minivan News, an independent online newspaper, disappeared on August 8, 2014. He was known for covering the three subjects that make people angry in this island state – religion, politics, and the environment. After he was reported missing, the authorities waiting 29 hours before going to his apartment and 11 days before visiting his office. The police “forgot” to tell his family that they found a knife at the place where he is thought to have disappeared. They reluctantly acknowledged recently that he might have been kidnapped by an extremist group, but refrained from going into any detail.
Even when they are not directly implicated in their disappearance, the authorities assign journalists blame for their own fate. Their refusal to assist then becomes a way of dissuading fellow journalists from “putting their noses where they shouldn’t.” For three years, Tunisian civil society and human rights groups have been condemning the passivity and indifference surrounding the disappearance of Tunisian journalists Sofiane Chourabi and Nadhir Guetari in Libya on September 8, 2014. In Tunis, the main measure taken by the authorities was to announce the creation of a mixed commission of enquiry a year after their disappearance. This commission has yet to materialize.
In Colombia, the police did little to find Borja Lázaro, a Spanish freelance photographer who disappeared in the early hours of January 8, 2014 in a drug-trafficking region where former paramilitaries operate. Although the Spanish authorities interceded, the investigation drew a complete blank and is now officially closed.
Not letting the victims be forgotten
Dawit Isaak is a journalist with Swedish and Eritrean dual nationality who helped found the Eritrean newspaper Setit and was awarded UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2017. He was arrested along with ten other journalists on trumped-up terrorism charges in 2001 and has been held incommunicado ever since, without access to his family or lawyers. Information obtained by RSF suggests that seven of these 11 journalists have already died in detention. According to the account of a former prison guard in 2010, the last time Isaak was seen alive, the journalists had been kept in inhuman conditions – handcuffed, isolated, and exposed to terrible heat.
RSF has undertaken countless initiatives to prevent Isaak’s case from being forgotten, including a petition in 2002, many press releases and several appeals to the European Parliament. RSF sent an appeal to Eritrea’s constitutional court in 2011 but never received a response. In 2012, RSF referred the case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Last year, RSF wrote an open letter to President Issayas Afeworki and recently launched a second petition for Isaak’s release.
In 2015, RSF formally referred the disappearances of journalists in ten countries to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. This entity’s findings must remain confidential in order to ensure the effectiveness of its investigations and the safety of the victims, but RSF stresses the importance of its work behind the scenes in centralizing cases of disappearances and in pressuring states with the aim of obtaining releases. RSF urges governments to provide the Working Group with the resources it needs to perform its mission.