NS Christmas campaign: Show your support for Anas al-Shogre

The Syrian activist disappeared in May 2011 and hasn't been seen since.

Christmas is nearly upon us and the New Statesman Christmas Campaign is drawing to a close. In the past month, thousands of people have shown their support for Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, sending cards to those at risk of persecution and abuse and letters demanding justice to authorities around the world – from Honduras to Japan.

To those of you who have written a card or sent an email on behalf of one of the groups or individuals, thank you.  

Former prisoner of conscience Chekib el-Khiari – who was serving a three-year prison sentence for speaking out against government corruption in Morocco, before being pardoned by the Moroccan king after great public pressure – has written of the impact each letter and card he received had for him. He told Amnesty, “Every week I was waiting for those letters. I was reading them again and again, thinking of those people who took five minutes, or maybe more, to write or to draw. Five minutes of their time gave me the energy to survive two years of unlawful imprisonment.”

Sometimes, it is about cheering the spirits of the wrongly imprisoned. Sometimes though, it is about demanding justice for them. So as the curtain falls on this year’s Write for Rights Campaign, I would urge you to take action for one more person: Anas al-Shogre.

Anas, 24, was arrested in May 2011 in the Syrian city of Banias, and has not been seen since. Syrian authorities have not said where he is being held. Nor have they given reasons for his arrest. Local activists and Anas’ family believe the young political activist is being held for his involvement in calling for and leading protests in Banias, and for speaking to various media outlets about human rights violations committed by the Syrian authorities.

Since pro-reform protests broke out in February 2011, thousands of suspected opponents of the government have been arrested and many, if not most, are believed to have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Amnesty has the names of over 720 people reported to have died in custody during this period. A staggering figure.

To date, Anas al-Shogre is not one of the names on that list.

However Amnesty is concerned that Anas is at real risk of torture and is being held for peacefully exercising his basic right to freedom of expression and assembly and so would be a prisoner of conscience.  

This year so much bloodshed, carnage and devastation has occurred in Syria.

The number of deaths reported since the start of the conflict is huge, reported to be as many as 40,000. Yet there is a real danger that casual observers to this conflict are becoming immune.

Those who can become immune to these atrocities are in a somewhat fortunate position. Thousands of men, women and children both living in Syria and elsewhere – cannot ignore this tragedy. This year the US journalist Marie Colvin’s family will mark their first Christmas without Marie.  The Colvin family is not alone. Thousands of families will be marking their first turn of the year without their loved one. The al-Shogre family will mark their second New Year not knowing where their son, brother, cousin is.

To observers the situation appears dire and beyond hope. But as Amnesty has seen in the past it is incredible the impact that public pressure can have upon a situation.  This is why I would ask you over this Christmas period to take five minutes out to send a letter to the Syrian authorities calling for the release of Anas al-Shogre immediately and unconditionally.

It may seem like an impossible feat. But as we’ve seen at Amnesty in the past, the seemingly impossible can become a reality.

To help free Anas, click here.

For more information about Write for Rights visit www.amnesty.org.uk/write
 

Syrian activist Anas al-Shogre hasn't been seen since May 2011.

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.