RSF open letter plea to Suu Kyi for Myanmar journalists’ freedom

RSF open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi … “How are we to understand the sentence passed on these two journalists at the start of the week? What credibility can the rule of law and judicial independence have in Myanmar after this farce?” Image: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/RSF

Pacific Media Watch Newsdesk

Five days after Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison on a trumped-up charge, the Paris-based media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has written to the head of Myanmar’s government asking her to end her deafening silence and to intercede on behalf of the two journalists.

READ MORE: Massacre in Myanmar – the Reuters investigation

This is the open letter:

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
State Counsellor
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Minister of the President’s Office
of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
State Counsellor Office No 8
Naypyitaw, Myanmar

Paris, 6 September 2018

Dear State Counsellor,

-Partners-

An iniquitous sentence of seven years in prison on a trumped-up charge of violating the Official Secrets Acts was passed at the start of this week on Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two reporters with the Reuters news agency who have already spent nearly nine months in detention.

Their only crime was to investigate the September 2017 massacre of 10 Rohingya civilians by members of Myanmar’s army. In the course of shedding light on the terrible reality of the ethnic cleansing carried out by the army and its auxiliaries in the north of Rakhine State, the news agency’s reporters discovered summary executions, mass graves, the torching of villages and systematic efforts to eliminate of all trace of the atrocities.

As you know, the two reporters were crudely framed by the police, as a police captain, Moe Yan Naing, acknowledged in court on 20 April. The thoroughness of their investigative reporting nonetheless forced the Tatmadaw, Myanmar armed forces, to recognise the reality of the Inn Dinn massacre and to sentence seven soldiers to 10 years in prison for their role.

We are deeply saddened by your only statement about the two journalists. In an interview for NHK in June, you simply said that “they were nor arrested for covering the Rakhine issue” but “because they broke the Official Secrets Act” and that it “will be up to judiciary, it is for the judiciary to decide.” Their innocence was nonetheless glaringly obvious.

RSF wrote to you on 7 September 2017 asking you to use your moral authority to ensure that journalists were free to work in Myanmar. Your response was silence. Your response to the appeals of Myanmar’s journalists and foreign journalists was silence. Your response to the international community’s appeals was silence.

How are we to understand the sentence passed on these two journalists at the start of the week? What credibility can the rule of law and judicial independence have in Myanmar after this farce? To those who have tried to raise the issue in your presence, you have responded with “fury,” as in January with former US diplomat Bill Richardson, one of your oldest supporters, who felt obliged to resign from your international panel of advisers after you described Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo as “traitors.”

Were journalists traitors when they covered the military junta’s suppression of the 1988 democracy movement, in which you rose to political prominence? Were journalists traitors when they relayed your calls for democracy during the 15 years you spent under house arrest? Were journalists traitors when they hailed the advent of democracy with your party’s victory in 2015 and your appointment as head of government in 2016?

Awarded the Sakharov Prize in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, you have long been hailed as resolute advocate of democracy and you have defended what is one of its foundations with a great deal of vision. Speaking when you were released in 2010, you said, “the basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech.” The following year, you assured RSF of your commitment to press freedom.

Since the end of your time under house arrest, you have on several occasions said that you reject the status of icon and that you see yourself as a politician seeking concrete results for her people. We are aware of the political circumstances in Myanmar that force you to seek compromises with the Tatmadaw’s representatives.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, forces you, as the Union of Myanmar’s head of government, to observe this deafening silence. Nothing forces you to refer to journalists’ coverage of Rakhine State as “a huge iceberg of misinformation.” Nothing forces you to go down in history as someone who betrayed the ideals on which she built her reputation.

This is why we urge you to intercede immediately to obtain the release of these two Reuters journalists. One of your closest allies, President Win Myint, has the power to grant them a pardon.

You have the ability to take action today in support of the values that you defended with courage for so long.

Sincerely,

Christophe Deloire
Secretary-General
Reporters sans frontières / Reporters Without Borders / RSF
Paris, France

Nobel Peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi under fire for not condemning the Rohingya’s prosecution in Myanmar. In April 2017, she said: “I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on.” She also refused to allow UN investigators access to the region. Video: Al Jazeera

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RSF condemns jail terms for two Myanmar journalists in ‘sham trial’

Turmoil outside the Yangon court at the end of the trial of Kyaw Soe Oo (below) and Wa Lone in Myanmar yesterday. Image: Ye Aung Tha/AFP/RSF

Pacific Media Watch Newsdesk

Reporters Without Borders has condemned the seven-year prison sentences imposed on two Reuters reporters in the Myanmar city of Yangon yesterday at the end of a “sham trial”.

The Paris-based global media watchdog reaffirmed its call for their immediate release.

On what was a dark day for press freedom in Myanmar, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were convicted of violating the country’s colonial era Official Secrets Act for investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya civilians by soldiers exactly a year and a day ago in Inn Dinn, a village in the north of Rakhine state.

READ MORE: Trial will test Myanmar’s ‘democracy’

The atrocity being investigated by the imprisoned journalists.

“The conviction of Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone is a terrible blow to press freedom in Myanmar,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

“As the justice system clearly followed orders in this case, we call on the country’s most senior officials, starting with government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to free these journalists, whose only crime was to do their job.

-Partners-

“After a farcical prosecution, this outrageous verdict clearly calls into question Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”

The massacre investigated by Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone was acknowledged by the army and seven soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison, an RSF statement said.

During the preliminary hearings in the case of the two journalists, a police officer admitted that his superiors framed them by giving them supposedly classified documents and then immediately arresting them.

The entire prosecution case was based solely on this “trumped-up evidence”, RSF said.

Myanmar is ranked 137th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.


Kyaw Soe Oo outside the Yangon court in Myanmar yesterday. Images: Ye Aung Tha/AFP/RSF

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‘Sick joke’, threats cited in Asia-Pacific declining media freedom summit

Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire talks about the global threat against journalists. Video: Café Pacific

By David Robie in Paris

When Reporters Without Borders chief Christophe Deloire introduced the Paris-based global media watchdog’s Asia-Pacific press freedom defenders to his overview last week, it was grim listening.

First up in RSF’s catalogue of crimes and threats against the global media was Czech President Miloš Zeman’s macabre press conference stunt late last year.

However, Zeman’s sick joke angered the media when he brandished a dummy Kalashnikov AK47 with the words “for journalists” carved into the wood stock at the October press   conference in Prague and with a bottle of alcohol attached instead of an ammunition clip.

RSF’s Christophe Deloire talks of the Czech President’s anti-journalists gun “joke”. Image: David Robie/PMC

Zeman has never been cosy with journalists but this gun stunt and a recent threat about “liquidating” journalists (another joke?) rank him alongside US President Donald Trump and the Philippines leader, Rodrigo Duterte, for their alleged hate speech against the media.

Deloire cited the Zeman incident to highlight global and Asia-Pacific political threats against the media. He pointed out that the threat came just a week after leading Maltese investigative journalist – widely dubbed as the “one-woman Wikileaks” – was killed in a car bomb blast.

-Partners-

Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated outside her home in Bidnija on 16 October 2017 after exposing Maltese links in the Panama Papers and her relentless corruption inquiries implicated her country’s prime minister and other key politicians.

Although arrests have been made and three men face trial for her killing, RSF recently published a statement calling for “full justice’ – including prosecution of those behind the murder.

Asia-Pacific correspondents gather for the opening session of the RSF consultation in Paris. Image: David Robie/PMC

Harshly critical
While noting the positive response by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to the journalists’ safety initiative by RSF and other media freedom bodies, Deloire was harshly critical of many political leaders, including Philippines President Duterte, over their attitude towards crimes with impunity against journalists.

Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association vice-president Hujatullah Mujadidi holds an image of a murdered journalist at the Asia-Pacific consultation. Image: David Robie/PMC

In the Philippines, for example, there is still no justice for the 32 journalists brutally slain – along with 26 other victims – on 23 November 2009 by a local warlord’s militia in to so-called Ampatuan massacre, an unsuccessful bid to retain political power for their boss in national elections due the following year.

Rappler published a report last year updating the painfully slow progress in the investigations and concluded that “eight years and three presidential administrations later, no convictions have been made”.

Ironically, Rappler itself – hated by President Dutertre – has also been the subject of an RSF campaign in an effort to block the administration’s cynical and ruthless attempt to close down the most dynamic and successful online publication in the Philippines (133rd in the RSF World Media Freedom Index – a drop of six places).

Founded by ex-CNN investigative journalist Maria Ressa, Rappler has continued to challenge the government, described by RSF last year as the “most dangerous” country for journalists in Asia.

Duterte’s continuous attacks against the media were primarily responsible for the downward trend for the Philippines in the latest RSF Index, with RSF saying: “The dynamism of the media has also been checked by athe emergence of a leader who wants to show he is all powerful.”

The media watchdog also stressed that the Duterte administration had “developed several methods for pressuring and silencing journalists who criticise his notorious war on drugs”.

Test case
The revocation of Rappler’s licence by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is regarded as a test case for media freedom in the Philippines.

NUJP’s Jhoanna Ballaran … worrying situation in the Philippines. Image: David Robie/PMC

National Union of Journalists of the Philippines advocate Jhoanna Ballaran says the situation is very worrying.

The RSF consultation with some of its Asia-Pacific researchers and advocates in the field has followed a similar successful one in South America. It is believed that this is the first time the watchdog has hosted such an Asia Pacific-wide event.

Twenty three correspondents from 17 countries or territories — Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Hongkong, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Tibet — took part in the consultation plus a team of Paris-based RSF advocates.

Asia Pacific director Daniel Bastard says the consultation is part of a new strategy making better use of the correspondents’ network to make the impact of the advocacy work faster and even more effective than in the past.

The Pacific delegation – Associate Professor Joseph Fernandez, a journalist and media law academic who is head oif journalism at Curtin University of Australia (19th on the RSF Index), AUT Pacific Media Centre director Professor David Robie of New Zealand (8th) and former PNG Post-Courier chief executive and media consultant Bob Howarth of Papua New Guinea (53rd) – made lively interventions even though most media freedom issues “pale into insignificance” compared with many countries in the region where journalists are regularly killed or persecuted.

Nauru’s controversial ban on the ABC from covering the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) this September was soundly condemned and the draconian 2010 Media Industry Development Decree in Fiji (57th) and efforts by Pacific governments to introduce the repressive “China model” to curb the independence of Facebook and other social media were also strongly criticised. (Nauru is unranked and China is 176th, four places above the worst country – North Korea at 180th).

RSF’s Asia-Pacific director Daniel Bastard (left) and his colleague Myriam Sni (right) with some of the Pacific and Southeast Asian press defenders. Image: RSF

Media highlights
Highlights of the three-day consultation included a visit to the multimedia Agence France-Presse, one of the world’s “big two” news agencies, and workshops on online security and sources protection and gender issues.

A workshop on online media security and “how to block hackers” by Nico Diaz of The Magma cited Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu’s quote: “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.” Image: David Robie

No sooner had the consultation ended when RSF was on the ball with another protest over two detained local journalists in Myanmar working for Reuters news agency.

An RSF statement condemned Monday’s decision by a Yangon judge to go ahead with the trial of the journalists on a trumped up charge of possessing secrets and again demanded their immediate release.

Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, have already been detained for more than 200 days with months of preliminary hearings.

They now face a possible 14-year prison sentence for investigating an army massacre of Rohingya civilians in Inn Din, a village near the Bangladeshi border in Rakhine state, in September 2017.

RSF secretary-general Deloire says: “The refusal to dismiss the case against the journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is indicative of a judicial system that follows orders and a failed transition to democracy in Myanmar.”

The chances of seeing an independent press emerge in Myanmar have now “declined significantly”.

The Pacific Media Centre’s David Robie was in Paris for the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific consultation. Dr Robie is also convenor of PMC’s Pacific Media Watch freedom project.

Czech President Miloš Zeman’s “joke” threat against journalists. Video: The Young Turks

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MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Journalists’ free alliance advocate calls on minister to use UN ‘leverage’

UNESCO professor of journalism Peter Greste …. posing for a photograph when he was an Al Jazeera journalist in Kibati village, near Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on 7 August 2013. Image: IFEX media freedom

Pacific Media Watch Newsdesk

The Australian journalist and academic who spent more than a year in an Egyptian prison has welcomed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s recent boost for his media freedom cause but warned that Canberra should use its new United Nations human rights status to “gain leverage”.

Former Al Jazeera foreign correspondent Peter Greste, who was earlier this year appointed professor as the UNESCO chair in journalism and communication at the University of Queensland, last week launched a new independent body dedicated to campaigning for reporters whose “voices have been stifled” by authorities around the world.

His crusade for global press freedom received a boost from Foreign Minister Bishop when she made her first public statement on Myanmar’s jailing of two Reuters journalists, The Australian reports.

Bishop spoke for the first time about the journalists’ plight after being contacted by the newspaper following Greste’s call for the Australian government to muster all of its diplomatic might to influence its regional neighbours on the issue.

The Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom was established last week with a mission to advocate for press freedom in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

Greste, who launched the new initiative while being awarded the Australian Press Council’s 2018 Press Freedom Medal on Thursday, told The Australian that while Ms Bishop would be advocating behind the scenes for the Reuters journalists, it was “important that she makes it publicly clear where she stands on this issue”.

-Partners-

“If we want to be taken seriously as a country that defends human rights and the principles of a liberal democracy, then we need to make sure that we publicly restate those positions and make sure that those people, those governments who we’re close to, follow the same principles,” he said, urging the minister to leverage Australia’s new-found position as a member of the UN Human Rights Commission.

‘Taken seriously’
“If the Australian government wants to be taken seriously — I know it will do — it needs to make sure that it applies those principles with all of those governments that it has leverage with, and that includes the Myanmar government.”

Bishop said in a statement to The Australian that the Australian embassy in Yangon had “registered Australia’s concerns” about the jailed Reuters journalists with the Myanmar government and that her officials were “pursuing other avenues to draw attention to their plight”.

“We continue to emphasise to the Myanmar government that a free and functioning media is an essential part of a modern democracy,” Bishop said, adding that embassy officials had “attended all court hearings as observers, to underline our interest in the case”.

Greste welcomed the comments as a positive step forward in the fight for the reporters, who were arrested last year after investigating an alleged act of genocide against a group of Rohingya people, a persecuted minority in Myanmar’s north.

He said global press freedom was at its lowest point in 13 years and was “trending downwards”, warning that Myanmar’s transition to democracy was at stake.

“Freedom of speech must surely underpin any functioning democracy, any functioning state; having the press as an independent watchdog is absolutely vital,” he said.

Philippines focus
Greste has also singled out the Philippines as a focus for lobbying by the AJF, citing “deeply troubling attacks on the press” by President Rodrigo Duterte, who banned two reporters from the presidential palace in February and has previously been accused of ordering journalists to be killed.

He also threw his support behind an Amnesty International campaign for the release of more than 120 journalists jailed in Turkey as part of a ruthless government crackdown.

Locally, Greste renewed calls for journalists and their sources to be protected from government intrusion.

“I’ve said many times before I’m really concerned that what we’re doing is allowing our obsession with national security to undermine press freedom,” Greste said, warning that media freedom was being “chipped away” by legislation aimed at fighting terrorism.

He welcomed the federal government’s decision to revisit its proposed espionage legislation, urging legislators to “go back to first principles” of openness and transparency.

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MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Indonesian leader meets Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, vows support

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Indonesian leader meets Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, vows support

Jakarta will continue its support for efforts to resolve the Rohingya crisis, says President Joko Widodo.

By Mahmut Atanur in Jakarta

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, southwestern district of Bangladesh, as part of his official visit to Bangladesh at the weekend.

During his visit on Sunday, Widodo said his country would continue to support Rohingya Muslims fleeing state persecution in Myanmar.

Earlier in the day, Widodo met Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the capital Dhaka to discuss bilateral relations and the Rohingya issue.

During his meeting with Hasina, the leader of the largest Muslim populated country said Jakarta would continue its support to resolve the Rohingya crisis.

Indonesia’s attitude towards the solution of the Rohingya crisis in the United Nations and the UN Commission on Human Rights will continue in the international arena in the same manner, Widodo said.

He stressed a peaceful and swift solution of the issue on the basis of bilateral ties between Bangladeshi and Myanmar government.

-Partners-

Five agreements
During his visit, both countries signed five agreements in different sectors, including fishing, trade, diplomacy and energy.

Another agreement was signed between Bangladeshi oil company PetroBanla and Indonesian oil and gas company Pertamina, envisaging import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Indonesia.

More than 700,000 refugees, mostly children and women, have fled Myanmar since August 25, 2017, when Myanmar forces launched a bloody crackdown.

The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.

At least 9000 Rohingya were killed in Rakhine state from August 25 to September 24, according to the medical charity Doctors Without Borders.

In a report published on December 12, 2017, the global humanitarian organisation said the deaths of 71.7 percent or 6700 Rohingya were caused by violence. They include 730 children below the age of 5.

The UN has documented mass gang rapes, killings — including of infants and young children — brutal beatings and disappearances committed by security personnel. In a report, UN investigators said such violations may have constituted crimes against humanity.

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NZ urgently needs to take more Rohingya refugees

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: NZ urgently needs to take more Rohingya refugees

Protests against the Rohingya “genocide” have spread globally. With more than 1 million Ronhinga refugees in Bangladash, the authors argue that New Zealand needs to act now and take in more. Image: Clickittefaq

OPINION: By Sharon Harvey and Sorowar Chowdhury

The plight of the Rohingya people has hit the international headlines again. Following the August clashes in Rakhine State between Myanmar police and army and an armed opposition group, Myanmar has seen an accelerated exodus of Rohingya people into Bangladesh.

There are estimated to be about one million Rohingya in Bangladesh with between 500,000 to 700,000 left in Myanmar. Moreover, since the late 1970s, 350,000 Rohingya have fled to Pakistan, 200,000 to Saudi Arabia and 150,000 to Malaysia to escape persecution.

Others are in Thailand and countries of resettlement such as New Zealand and Australia.

The most recent situation is so tragic that a recent Times Higher Education article called for some of the world’s top universities to cease educational partnerships in Myanmar until human rights abuses, especially towards the Rohingya people have ceased.

Rohingya are Muslims living in Northern Rakhine State (formerly Arakan) in Myanmar (formerly Burma) who constitute an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority. They were stripped of citizenship in 1982 and, subsequently, have been the victims of severe discrimination and persecution.

For the last few years, there has been evidence of Rohingya risking their lives and fleeing Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh and other countries. In August this year, with the insurgence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the Myanmar army began a “clearance operation”, characterised as “ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations, that lasted for several weeks.

-Partners-

Amnesty International published a report on October 18 claiming the Myanmar Army operation which involved “widespread and unlawful killing” including rape and other sexual violence and the burning of Rohingya villages, constituted “serious human rights violations” and “crimes against humanity”.

Tragic situation
The situation is tragic and needs urgent international attention.

The underlying problem for the Rohingya people is that Myanmar refuses to accept they are a recognisable ethnic minority and therefore citizens of Myanmar.

While scholars are divided over the Rohingya’s earliest settlement in Rakhine, the 2017 Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by former United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan, maintained the Rohingya people are an integrated population of Muslims who have lived in Rakhine since at least the Kingdom of Mrauk U, the final Rakhine kingdom (1429-1775), and possibly 600 years earlier.

Others are 19th and 20th-century migrants from Bangladesh and West Bengal of India.

In any case, all Rohingya have been living in Rakhine state for at least several generations and many of them much, much longer. To put this into perspective, Rohingya have been living in Northern Rakhine in some cases perhaps before the Māori settlement of Aotearoa and at least as long as European settlement here.

Moreover, in light of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights conventions relating to statelessness (Article 3) and reduction of statelessness (Article 1), the Rohingya people are entitled to citizenship, their human rights should be upheld, and they are entitled to non-discrimination.

Above all, in no way ought they or anyone else be the victims of ethnic cleansing.

From the UNHCR’s perspective, there are three durable solutions for refugees: repatriation, local integration, and resettlement.

Since Bangladesh is already hosting close to a million Rohingya and is a low-middle income country, it may not be feasible to integrate all the new Rohingya who have fled Rakhine state since August.

Repatriation very slow
As for repatriation, Bangladesh and Myanmar recently agreed to form a joint working group by the end of November. However, with current documentation issues outstanding for the Rohingya, repatriation could take a very long time.

In the meantime, global leaders, including from the United States, European Union, and UN Security Council, have expressed extreme concern over the Rohingya situation. International pressure on Myanmar needs to be reinforced to expedite the repatriation.

Regarding resettlement, although Bangladesh did not ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, it started a third-country resettlement programme in 2006 and this continued until the Bangladeshi government suspended it in November 2010.

However UNHCR, being the global refugee-resettling facilitator, may approach Bangladesh and mediate with refugee-resettling countries to open a special quota for the Rohingya and extend the opportunity to resettle them in third countries.

Because New Zealand is a refugee resettling country and some Rohingya have been successfully resettled here, New Zealand needs to urgently create provision for a special intake of Rohingya refugees, as it has done recently for the Syrian refugees.

The new government has the opportunity to demonstrate its credibility to the world by extending compassion to a community in deep crisis and thereby upholding Labour’s election slogan “Let’s do this”.

Associate Professor Sharon Harvey is head of the school of language and culture at Auckland University of Technology. Sorowar Chowdhury, a PhD student from Bangladesh, is researching the resettlement of Rohingya in New Zealand. This article has been republished by Asia Pacific Report with the permission of the authors and was originally published by The New Zealand Herald.

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Indonesia cracks down on brutal conditions on foreign ‘slavery’ fishing boats

MIL OSI – Source: Evening Report Arts and Media

Headline: Indonesia cracks down on brutal conditions on foreign ‘slavery’ fishing boats

Article by AsiaPacificReport.nz

Former slaves head for home: Thousands of fishermen rescued from brutal conditions on foreign fishing boats make the journey back home, many after years at sea. As reported by Associated Press in September 2015. Video: AP on YouTube

By Jewel Topsfield of The Sydney Morning Herald in Jakarta

It’s hard to comprehend it happened in this century: human slaves trapped on fishing boats being whipped with poisonous stingray tails, having ice blocks thrown at them and being shot.

“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us,” says Hlaing Min, 30, a runaway slave from Benjina, a remote fisheries weight station in eastern Indonesia’s Aru Islands.

“There must be a mountain of bones under the sea…. The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.”

In 2015 more than 1300 foreign fisherman from Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos were rescued from Benjina and Ambon, after an Associated Press investigation revealed the brutal conditions aboard many foreign vessels reflagged to operate in Indonesian waters.

Extraordinary images of men being kept in a cage exposed the chilling reality of 21st century slavery.

“They were trafficked from their home country, mostly by means of deception, forced to work over 20 hours per day on a boat in the middle of the sea, with little to no chance of escape,” says a report on human trafficking in the Indonesian fishing industry released this week.

Some were kept at sea for years at a time.

After the rescue, the International Organisation for Migration interviewed the fishers.

Victims of human trafficking in the fishing industry pictured waiting for their back pay in Ambon, Indonesia. Photo: International Organisation for Migration (IOM)

They were told of excessive work hours — 78 percent of 285 victims interviewed in depth claimed they worked between 16 and 24 hours a day, cramped conditions, meals of watery fish gruel, physical and psychological abuse and even murder.

‘Several crews died’
“While on board, I often heard the news from the boat radio that several boat crews had died, either falling to the ocean, fighting or killed by the other crews,” a Cambodian fisher says in the report.

“While I was working on the boat, I saw with my own eyes more than seven dead bodies floating in the sea.”

A victim of human trafficking from Myanmar who was rescued from a fishing boat pictured in Ambon in Indonesia. Image: IOM

Witnesses testified that requesting to leave the boat could be a death sentence for some victims. Those who did might find themselves chained on the deck in the middle of the day or locked in the freezer.

“The heartrending stories of these fishers could not be left untold,” says IOM Indonesia’s chief of mission Mark Getchell.

The report says the Benjina and Ambon cases highlight the lack of adequate policing of the fishing industry and a lack of scrutiny of working conditions on ships and in fish processing plants.

Seafood caught by modern day slaves entered the global supply chain, with legitimate suppliers of fish “unaware of its provenance and the human toll behind the catch.”

“The situation in Benjina and Ambon is symptomatic of a much broader and insidious trade in people, not only in the Indonesian and Thai fishing industries, but indeed globally,” the report says.

Repatriation of enslaved fisherfmen
In 2015 the Australian government provided $2.17 million to IOM to support the daily care, repatriation and reintegration of formerly trafficked and enslaved fishermen from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, who had been stranded on islands in Indonesia’s Maluku province.

“This funding support has since been extended to enable IOM to provide assistance to foreign fishermen stranded in any area of Indonesia,” an Immigration Department spokesman said.

“This assistance plays a crucial role to support and protect victims of trafficking and slavery in the fishing industry by reuniting victims with their families and providing them with limited financial assistance which can help them establish an alternative livelihood.”

IOM spokesman Paul Dillon said Australia provided the lion share of the funding for its emergency response to the human trafficking crisis, which included returning more than 1000 victims to their home countries.

“This would not have been possible without the Australian government,” he said.

At the launch of the report in Jakarta this week, Indonesian Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti unveiled a new government decree requiring all fisheries companies to submit a detailed human rights audit.

This was one of the report’s key recommendations to protect fishermen and port workers from abuse.

“That being said, Indonesia still has homework towards the approximately 250,000 Indonesian crews on foreign vessels operating across continents that remain unprotected,” Pudjiastuti says in a foreword to the report.

The report also called for greater diligence in recording the movement of vessels in Indonesian waters, more training on human trafficking, independent inspections of ports and vessels at sea and centres in ports where fishers could seek protection.

Jewel Topsfield is the Jakarta-based Indonesia correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald.This article was first published by the SMH and has been republished by Asia Pacific Report with permission.