Tag Archives: Amnesty International

Amnesty International, journalism and the death penalty


Amnesty International is marking the World Day Against the Death Penalty today (October 10) by holding vigils to build public pressure to persuade countries to abolish execution as a form of punishment.

I have the honour of delivering a short address to the Gold Coast gathering – looking at the relationship between journalism and the death penalty – and thought I would share my comments with you here.

The last person officially executed in Australia was Ronald Ryan who was hung in Melbourne more than 40 years ago – on February 3, 1967. The media coverage of the event and its associated protests were enough to pierce my consciousness as a nine-year-old schoolboy and distract my attention from my rock collecting, kite flying, yabbie fishing and marble trading in a small town in central western NSW.

I remember being both fascinated and disturbed by the notion of a government taking someone’s life and I’m sure I asked my parents many difficult questions about both the practicalities and the morality of the event.

It is significant that it happened in a period of history when our national government was routinely issuing a different type of death penalty to a generation of young Australian men in the form of balloted conscription to two years of military service.

The Vietnam War claimed the lives of 521 Australians – many of them conscripts – and injured and scarred the lives of thousands more.

The next public execution of Australians to impact upon me was that of the heroin traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers in 1986 who were hung in Malaysia on July 7, 1986.

I was working on The Australian newspaper as a sub-editor and recall vividly some of the graphic coverage and images of the event and the commentary about how primitive it was that a government should carry out such a punishment.

Yet it was only two years earlier – in 1984 – that Western Australia became the last Australian state to abolish the death penalty in this country.

Thankfully we have not seen it return since, but we need to stay vigilant in our efforts to prevent it ever being reintroduced here and to get it abolished elsewhere.

Why? Because the death penalty is still widespread and governments should not have the right to take their citizens’ lives – no matter how serious their crimes.

Amnesty International’s latest report on the judicial use of the death penalty tells us at least 680 people were put to death by governments last year and more than 1700 citizens in 58 countries received a death sentence.

Those figures are conservative, particularly when China deems such information a state secret and Amnesty estimates that at least that number are executed each year in China alone.

Amnesty argues there is no real explanation for the death penalty other than revenge because there is little evidence that it acts as a deterrent, there are alternative means of punishment for proven crimes, all major religions and human rights conventions oppose murder, and far too many of those executed have later been proven innocent.

Of course, one of the direst consequences of the death penalty is that it delivers a disturbing message to formative minds like that nine-year-old boy that was me back in 1967 – it tells children that it’s okay to use violence because sometimes even our governments are allowed to kill some of us.

As a journalism and social media professor I am particularly interested in the interface between the death penalty and the media, and today I will focus briefly on four key aspects of this relationship.

  • Coverage of death penalty news. Traditional and new media channels are crucial to our understanding of who is being executed by governments and their circumstances. The truth of this needs to be circulating as reliable and verified information in news reports so that citizens are aware of its scale and are reminded of the expert advice against it.
  • Shooting the messenger. Of special interest – and the situation where the death penalty is open to the greatest abuse – is the use of jail and execution by governments to silence the voices of those who disagree with them. Intellectuals, religious figures, opposition politicians and journalists continue to suffer this fate simply because they hold a certain belief or have stated a particular truth. In journalism we call it ‘shooting the messenger’. Amnesty’s report gives the example of Ethiopia where anti-terror laws are used against various people, including the journalist Eskinder Nega who received an 18 year sentence on charges carrying the death penalty. He is the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
  • De facto capital punishment. Of great concern is the de facto capital punishment that happens to journalists covering wars or killed by criminal elements with suspected links to government or whose activities are not pursued by authorities because of corruption or their sheer fear of consequences. Sadly, the Committee to Protect Journalists has already confirmed the deaths of 37 journalists in these kinds of circumstances this year.
  • Innocence projects. Finally, one of the best arguments against the death penalty – that sometimes innocent people are executed – has been bolstered in recent years by a combination of investigative journalism, DNA testing and legal representation. Efforts by members of the international Innocence Network reported their efforts led to 22 exonerations of convicted criminals last year. The Innocence Project reported that 18 of the 311 who received DNA-related exonerations had served time on death row.

While the exoneration of death row criminals is one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty, we do not all have the time, resources or expertise to be actively involved with innocence projects.

There is also the reality that many people sitting on death rows internationally have been convincingly proven guilty of their crimes – sometimes using DNA testing – and some even admit to them.

But our campaign against the death penalty should not be won or lost on the basis of prisoners’ guilt or innocence of their crimes.

The arguments of human rights organisations like Amnesty International centre on the guilt of the system itself.

While we might question the conviction of individuals, there is no disputing the guilt of the governments who are murdering them with capital punishment.

We do not ask for the leaders of those governments to be put to death for this crime against the world’s citizens.

Rather, we call upon them to put this archaic and inhumane form of punishment to death and we ask all right thinking and compassionate people to help us in our efforts.

Active membership of Amnesty International is a wonderful starting point.

© Mark Pearson 2013

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.


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Four views on #Amnesty from Aus MPs – bipartisan support?


Last night I addressed the Gold Coast celebration dinner for the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International, as detailed in my last blog.

An executive member kindly directed me to this fascinating debate on the floor of Australia’s House of Representatives on May 23, where four politicians spoke to congratulate the organisation on its birthday.

It is interesting to note the different perspectives on Amnesty, given the current context of the organisation’s active representations on the issue of Australia’s potential deal with Malaysia on asylum seekers.

The first speaker, independent Rob Oakeshott, points this out in his congratulatory remarks. The second, Liberal Judi Moylan, ignores it. The third, Labor’s Laurie Ferguson, regrets “too pronounced an emphasis on the asylum refugee issue” which he claims has eroded its bipartisanship among politicians. The fourth, fellow Liberal and former immigration minister Philip Ruddock, has an unusual moment of agreement with his Labor adversary and reinforces his call for a return to core Amnesty causes. (When immigration minister, Ruddock was asked by Amnesty to remove his lapel badge while advocating policies the organisation opposed.)

It is a relatively short but instructive parliamentary excerpt for those interested in the politics of language in a human rights context:


Australian House of Representatives Hansard, May 23, 2011: (http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/reps/dailys/dr230511.pdf)

PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BUSINESS 50th Anniversary of Amnesty International

Debate resumed on the motion by Mr Oakeshott:

That this House:

(1) notes that 28 May 2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Amnesty International, a global movement of over three million supporters dedicated to defending and protecting human rights;

(2) recognises the important role Amnesty International continues to play in promoting and protecting human rights and shining a light on human rights abuses around the world;

(3) acknowledges the many achievements of Amnesty International, including its:

(a) integral role in the development, promotion and ultimate adoption of the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1975, it being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and the Sydney Peace Prize in 2006; and

(b) successful campaigning for the release of thousands of political prisoners around the world; and (4) notes that from 1961 till the end of 2010 the organisation:

(a) conducted at least 3,341 missions to research human rights abuses around the world; and

(b) produced and published an estimated 17,093 reports and public documents including the annual human rights report which is now produced in 25 languages; and

(c) issued over 31,000 urgent actions for individuals at risk.

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (11:01): I note, as a co-chair of the reformed parliamentary Amnesty group, that there is some very good work of a bipartisan nature done amongst my colleagues, work that is targeted towards the too many parliamentarians or election candidates around the world who have found themselves being persecuted, for a number of reasons. I hope that work continues and I hope the parliamentary group continues to be active.

Happy birthday, Amnesty International, and thank you for the good work that you continue to do. In my view, the organisation is at the front end of protecting, defending and advocating for the individual, despite collective will being quite often against the individual. It is, I think, a flaw in mankind that we tend towards inhumanity and unkindness towards each other. Organisations such as Amnesty International remind us of the higher values rather than the lower ones and focus us on humanity and kindness rather than on the inhumane and unkind.

These principles behind Amnesty International—I might put alongside that human rights and the United Nations generally—too often in Australian political culture get an unfair serve and are seen as the soft or weak options. These unfair serves only strengthen the resolve of many. The courage of those who support and advocate for higher values and higher principles is highlighted by the fact that they do so when many are accusing them of being weak or soft. So this is an important organisation, not only domestically but internationally. May their work continue.

Only last night I was watching Dateline covering an issue of the moment—Australia’s potential agreement with Malaysia about asylum seekers. It was a very good program and it is Amnesty Australasia that is leading the charge for public policy in this country to deeply consider the realities of detention in Malaysia. I would hope that a good government, regardless of political persuasion, would consider those facts and take the views of Amnesty International on board.

Likewise, an issue of the moment is the call for action on war crimes within Sri Lanka over the past decade. This is an uncomfortable issue for governments to deal with but one that is important, again, if we are pursuing higher ideals. In an ideal world, organisations like Amnesty International would be unnecessary. In practice, their work is critical to making sure governments of all persuasions in all countries work in the best interests of their communities rather than their own best interests and chase those higher ideals rather than the low ones. Happy birthday and thank you to Amnesty International. (Time expired)

Mrs MOYLAN (Pearce) (11:06): It is a great honour to second the member for Lyne’s motion noting the forthcoming 50th anniversary of Amnesty International. I thank him for bringing this to the notice of the House. The date of 28 May 2011 marks 50 years of a movement that has championed the cause of human rights globally. The pursuit of basic freedom and protection of individuals across the divides of race, sexuality, citizenship, gender, nationality, ethnicity and ability has been unrelenting and the successes have been innumerable.

Since 1961, Amnesty International has conducted 3,341 missions to research human rights abuses around the world, including recently the treatment of asylum seekers in Malaysia. The member for Lyne mentioned Graham Thom’s performance on Dateline and, listening to the briefing provided by Graham Thom to this parliament on that mission, one can only marvel at the enormous courage of those individuals who place themselves in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations to open the eyes of the world to the many inhumanities being perpetrated on the innocent. Graham Thom is one of those very courageous people.

Amnesty International has published over 17,000 reports and public documents, including the annual human rights report, which is now produced in 25 languages. On 10 December 1961, the first Amnesty candle was lit in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. This iconic event occurred following the first meeting of Amnesty International, at which delegates made a decision to establish a permanent international movement in defence of freedom of opinion and religion. That movement was inspired by British lawyer Peter Benenson, who witnessed the growing global trend of imprisonment, torture or execution of people because of their political views or religious orientation. Many of us witness things that disgust and alarm us, but Peter Benenson had the courage to act on what he was seeing. Indeed he gave his life to ‘the vision of collective action that defines Amnesty International’s work today’. Peter Benenson said at the time:

If these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.

Something effective has been done and today we are celebrating 50 years of that action to free people from violation, from having their freedoms denied. In 1973, members and senators in this parliament caught that vision and established a parliamentary amnesty group. Today, I pay tribute to the men and women of this parliament who kept that flame burning brightly for their dedicated work in ensuring that people’s rights and freedoms, wherever in the world they are violated, continue to be a focus of their work. Today we acknowledge the many successful and notable campaigns Amnesty has conducted and pay tribute to all the people of the world who involve themselves day to day in the work of this great and noble organisation. I feel privileged to join with my colleagues to keep the flame of such a great organisation burning in the corridors of this parliament.

Amnesty’s 50th anniversary provides a splendid opportunity to recommit ourselves to act as Peter Benenson did when he read about the prison sentences imposed on Portuguese students all those years ago. The Amnesty symbol of a candle wrapped in barbed wire is inspired by the ancient Chinese proverb ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.’ May we again dedicate ourselves, as the member for Lyne said, to greater humanity and greater kindness in the carrying out of our duties within this parliament.

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Werriwa) (11:11): I genuinely congratulate the member for Lyne on raising this matter. For a person who from an early age was interested in other countries and events in the foreign policy area, it was a very welcome possibility, when I arrived in the federal parliament in 1990, to join the group that was just alluded to by the previous speaker. The group was already formed here, and my understanding is that it was the first in the world. I congratulate the people who established it—people like Rob Lundie, in the Parliamentary Library, who persisted over many years selling badges here once a year and basically carrying the organisation. That is another welcome event. We in this parliament do not often get involved with groups that have both parliamentary and staff members, so that is great.

I believe that the strength of Amnesty International is the perception among those who are honest and sincere that it is neutral. It is constantly belittled, attacked and vilified by regimes around the world. It is seen sometimes as an instrument of the West. It is seen as an organisation that might be undermining supposedly idiosyncratic attitudes to rights in, say, the Middle East and other nations—that somehow rights are not universal and Amnesty International is a tool of Western attitudes. It has a track record that stretches back to supporting Jews and Baptists in the Soviet Union during oppression there, taking up the cause of people who start to struggle for democracy. Today, it is a defender of Arabs against Israeli colonial measures and suppression; it is a campaigner for the rights of Arabs in the Middle East against oppressive regimes that sometimes utilise the issue of Palestine to preserve themselves.

Most people would very much regret and repudiate those regimes—Sri Lanka is a current example—that basically try to argue that there is not genuineness on the part of Amnesty International. Amnesty has the track record. It is respected for that. It is interesting to note that since its formation in 1961 it has changed its emphasis from its original one of taking up the precarious situation of those individual prisoners to looking at questions of torture, the families involved and the question of the fairness of the trials themselves. Amnesty has very much changed its level of activity over that period, but throughout it has been a very credible international source. Its receipt of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize was certainly recognition of that.

As a former member of the parliamentary group, I perhaps have regrets that in some fashion the degree of support for the external organisation has tended to deteriorate since I arrived here. I believe that too pronounced an emphasis on the asylum refugee issue unfortunately has tended to undermine the effectiveness of the organisation in a parliamentary sense. It is far easier to have a non-partisan, inclusive organisation when you are not getting into areas that cause differences within the membership. Certainly their work on that front is merited, but I think people’s ability to work together across party lines has somewhat lessened over recent years. Amnesty, as indicated by the previous speaker, traces its genesis back to Portugal under the Salazar regime, the new order there. Allegedly it was created when some people were jailed for toasting liberty there. When I read the history of the organisation—there is some doubt about that history that Benenson gave—it certainly is a reminder of what happened through the Cold War. And it is still the case sometimes now. We see an example in East Timor, with the Islamic world supporting Indonesia throughout its occupation because it was an Islamic country. Back in that period, some people were inclined to forget what was happening in Portugal because it was seen as an ally of the United States. This is one of the strengths of Amnesty, its ability to avoid international divisions between various blocs and to come through saying that there are certain inalienable rights, that there are certain things we must stand for in regards to humanity. That is something which has allowed all of us, regardless of what we think on many other issues, to come together. I join with other speakers in recognising this 50th anniversary.

Mr RUDDOCK (Berowra) (11:16): I take this opportunity to thank the member for Lyne for enabling us to record the importance of this international organisation, Amnesty International. I have been proudly a member over something like 36 years. I was certainly engaged when the parliamentary group was formed, as was alluded to by the member for Pearce. I joined the organisation, strangely, because of the encouragement of people who, unexpectedly, would be my friends—the late Bill Wentworth, the late Dick Klugman, Tony Lamb, David Hamer, Alan Missen, Michael Hodgman. This was an organisation that could adopt the cause of fighting Right and Left dictatorships around the world and did so without fear or favour. Its core principles were of such fundamental importance. Who could disagree?—opposition to the death penalty, focusing on the use of torture, prisoners of conscience. Amnesty was a courageous organisation. I can remember Michael Hodgman railing against the advice they gave us that they would not adopt Nelson Mandela as a prisoner of conscience. Why? Because he would not eschew the use of violence in pursuit of his political objectives. They held so strongly to those sorts of judgments that they would take courageous decisions.

I was very proud of the parliamentary group formed by the efforts of Lenore Ryan from Victoria. She was brought here by Tony Lamb. I held early office, as did David Hamer, but one of our most courageous members was the late Alan Missen, who even went to the former Soviet Union and brought out some of the important records of people like Solzhenitsyn and the like to understand what was happening in that regime. We would take up the causes regularly and vociferously by visiting missions and talking to them about human rights issues. We had the opportunity, with the Bush visit to Australia—not George Jr, George Sr—to raise the issue of capital punishment in United States of America. As you can gather from my comments, I am very proud of this organisation. I have proudly worn its badge over a long period of time. Not everybody has been comfortable with that and the member for Werriwa spoke about that in part. I think Amnesty, when it gets caught up by some groups who say, ‘It is such an important organisation—if they adopt our cause as well,’ weakens its principal mission. Not every asylum seeker is a prisoner of conscience—some may be—but by running issues that others ought to be running I think Amnesty is diminished. I spent a lot of time travelling at various times. I was in Trafalgar Square and I saw some rallies being organised by Amnesty—and what were they on? Domestic violence. Domestic violence is abhorrent and people ought to run it as an issue, but it is not one of Amnesty’s core issues, in my view; yet it is now one of those issues it takes up which detracts from its principal purpose.

If you get the impression that I agreed very much with the member for Werriwa, you are right. I am opposed to capital punishment. I abhor the use of torture. I believe we should work conscientiously in relation to prisoners of conscience. If we keep that focus, this organisation, which I have been part of for so long, will contribute positively not just for another 50 years but for tens of decades into the future, while ever there is a need, regrettably, to be working on those causes.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper): Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of debate will be made an order of day for the next sitting.

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