Defending the rights of citizen journalists and campaigners

As a citizen-led newspaper, Sussex Bylines is committed to publishing content that speaks truth to power, and to provide an antidote to the mainstream media that in so many ways do not represent the people they are meant to serve. We feel outraged that democratically elected prime ministers are only able to govern with the quiet nod of certain newspaper owners, that those with deep pockets can hijack our news media and muzzle dissent – or at least that is how it feels.

And yet, when we look across the world at what is happening to citizen journalists and campaigners who report on issues requiring basic fairness and transparency, we could be forgiven for momentarily feeling grateful. I was appalled this week to learn of the fate of two women journalists.


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In China Zhang Zhan, a human rights lawyer who went to Wuhan at the start of the pandemic to report on what she saw, was sentenced to four years imprisonment on 28 December 2020, for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

In Saudi Arabia, on the same day, Loujain al-Hathloul – a women’s rights campaigner who had been detained since 2018 – was sentenced to five years and eight months imprisonment for allegedly “cooperating with individuals and entities to carry out a foreign agenda”.

China and Saudi Arabia are both on the radar of the human rights organisation Grant Liberty. They consider al-Hathloul a peaceful protester, unable to do what the rest of the world takes for granted. They have monitored the way the Chinese are treating the Uighur Muslims, and they are concerned with the way in which the Chinese state treats any opposition.

Zhang Zhan: Imprisoned for reporting the truth

Along with other citizen journalists, Zhang was simply reporting what she saw and heard when talking to people in Wuhan. She felt that the Chinese government was not telling the world the truth about the existence of the pandemic. When doctors initially talked about what was happening in their hospitals, they were told they were rumour-mongering. Zhang conducted interviews and uploaded videos from hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. She was detained in May 2020.

Like other prisoners who feel they have been wrongly arrested – arrested for simply doing their duty as a citizen of the world – Zhang went on hunger strike in June 2020. She is being force-fed, and kept restrained 24 hours a day so that she can’t remove the feeding tube. According to her lawyer she is suffering headaches, dizziness, as well as stomach and mouth pain because of the gastric tube.

She was doing the world a favour by reporting the truth. A four-year prison sentence is a devastating blow. Her supporters have organised a petition for her release.

Loujain al-Hathloul: Activist branded terrorist

Al-Hathloul was sentenced under counter-terrorism legislation to nearly six years in prison, though with two years and 10 months of her sentence suspended and the start of her jail term backdated to May 2018.

Alaa Al-Siddiq from the Saudi human rights group ALQST said:

“The fact that [al-Hathloul] has been sentenced under the counter-terrorism law, based on charges solely relating to her peaceful activism, is the latest travesty of justice in a trial that has been flawed from start to finish and lacked reliable court evidence.”

Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, 28 December 2020

Al-Hathloul had merely been protesting against not being allowed to drive a car, and at the guardianship system that means Saudi women have fewer rights than any other women in the rest of the world.

UN special rapporteur Mary Lawlor commented that defending human rights is not terrorism. She pointed out that although al-Hathloul will have served her sentence by March 2021, she will still be subject to a five-year travel ban and unable to leave the country.

The future of human rights protection?

The UK government, like that of the Trump administration, has taken advantage of a special relationship with the Saudi kingdom to sell it arms and in so doing turned a blind eye to human rights abuses. It was ever thus.

It is chilling to consider that the UK’s Conservative government, in power for another four years, will think nothing of tampering with democratic institutions in our own country – attacking (in home secretary Priti Patel’s words) “lefty lawyers” and reducing the power of the Supreme Court, if they have their way. The Conservative Party always wanted to be free of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, so that was a prize for those who most wanted Brexit. What does that mean for us? We will find out in the weeks and months to come after the end of the transition period.  

Sussex Bylines is part of an online network of regional Bylines newspapers throughout the country. We are supported by March for Change and Byline Times, whose founder Peter Jukes in healthier times also co-organises the Byline Festival, an international festival of music, comedy, journalism and activism.

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