Hacks for Human Rights

Last week, I wrote about human rights organizations which claim to support human rights, but in reality, actually act in a way that is at the very least not helpful, and often contributes to the perpetuation of suffering.

The idea of “human rights” in general, however, lends itself towards exploitation by just about anybody — from corrupt schemers, seeking to get rich through shell NGOs and waste precious resources by staying in $500/night hotels, while seeking to distribute humanitarian aid to impoverished Yazidi communities in Iraq, to self-absorbed rich kids, seeking to do something “meaningful”, without putting too much effort, and with the main goal of feeling good about themselves, to manipulators and agents of assorted regimes, as I, and a number of other analysts and activists recount in a recent interview, seeking to use the field in order to promote their own “dissidents”, suppress voices of the opposition, cause security issues, and gather information about their targets (in other words, spies).  Writing about human rights, however, does not generally pay well, so most journalists only include occasional article in their ouevre. On occasion, you will see a few brave volunteers step up to the plate and partner with human rights organizations such as Advancing Human Rights, and their social media platform, in order to help promote voices of survivors of abuse, dissidents, and human rights defenders.

One of the best ways to empower the powerless is to give them voice, bring individual stories into open societies, connect the faceless, dehumanized masses with their more fortunate counterparts in free countries, allow narratives of individuals to break down barriers in distorted perceptions, stereotypes, and distance. Let people meet people as human beings, not just distant figures, nameless statistics cited on TV. Not everyone may have the means to fight evil dictators heads on, but everyone has the ability to face individuals victimized by these regimes, non-governmental terrorist organizations, and other social evils. Not everyone can go to Syria to fight ISIS, but anyone who is willing to do so can reach out to the sufferers the world over, and at the very least offer a kind word and encouragement, if nothing else. Our world has become wonderfully connected thanks to the Internet, and assorted social platforms, NGOs, and great ideas. Yet our media is filled with noise. We are more likely to hear about the latest Kim Kardashian nonsense or Trump’s outrageous vulgarity than about some brave soul who was willing to stand up to our enemies (yes, I said it – we have enemies, and those enemies aren’t just ISIS!)

Where we fail to support others in fighting their battles, we soon find ourselves being forced to fight those battles on our own territory. What starts out as abuse of innocent human beings in Iran, Turkey, China, Russia, or any other authoritarian state ends up affecting us in the West. Where we fail to speak out or to support those who seek to do so, we give tacit approval to such practices – and strengthen the regimes, which soon enough turn against us through their own media, their agents, which infiltrate our vulnerable, cowardly, politically correct institutions, and our lobbies. When we remain silent in the face of evil, the evil comes for us.  We see that happening with our media’s silence on the treatment of human rights in Israel, where the meaning of human rights has been hijacked to excuse  the use of human shield, suicide bombers, brainwashing of children, and justification of attacks on civilians.  What about human rights for ISraelis? Is not the right to live in peace and security the most basic of human rights? By recognizing such rights for some, but not for others, our media indulges in the worst kind of self-delusion –  the idea that it will not have to pay consequences for taking such a hypocritical, obsequious, and self-serving position.  Yet by appeasing evil it will undermine its own freedom to criticize, rebel, and uncover issues to the point that it will lose any power at all and will become subsumed by its controllers, completely irrelevant, and ultimately suffer from the same fears its colleagues in authoritarian states suffer on the daily basis. The loss of freedom is incremental. We stay silent in the face of evil because it does not concern us, or does not interest us, or we are too busy, but eventually it catches up to us all, and before we know it we ourselves fall victims to soft tyranny that eventually becomes hard. By giving up on freedoms for others, we ourselves become a little less free.

We see it happening. Having failed to criticize the attacks on Israeli civilians, the West has faced the same problem in Europe and the United States. By allowing some to literally get away with murder, by suppressing information about the ideological motivations of the ruthless killers, by pandering to the enemy propaganda of alleged bias if we ever should so much as to mention the pure, unadulterated evil that is the vast, conspiratorial anti-Semitism in the Middle East, and other Muslim countries, we have allowed the many, many self-appointed dictators to tell us how to live our own lives. If that is not the destruction of liberty and ideological takeover, I don’t know what is. And yet we allow this to happen every day, and in our cognitive dissonance, psychological inability to bring to terms the reality and what we would very much like to believe, we are failing not just strangers who come under direct blow, but our own families and dear friends. Advancing Human Rights is one of the very few human rights organizations that is trying to bring individuals together, not through massive campaigns, not through sexy vacation packages for spoiled youngsters, but through allowing an opportunity for anyone with an iota of caring to contribute to solutions through whatever means and skills one has. It democratizes human rights. Unfortunately, as we have seen time and time again, even the most democratic of processes can be hijacked, with even the most well-meaning participants never the wiser.

As is often the case, I, too, tried to keep silent on what I observed. I waited and gathered evidence, and gave chances… too many chances, perhaps.  I am a lawyer, not a journalist; I am not well known; I do not have easy access to most publications, especially when it comes to criticizing actual journalists. Yet even in this limited forum, I need to speak out, finally, because keeping silent at this point means siding with injustice, with evil, with lies, and denying truth to the many who have suffered and continued to suffer as a result of powerlessness, isolation, and opportunity denied to them, or even stolen from them by shameless hacks for human rights. I hope that detailing my own experience will encourage others to come forward with these stories. It all started with my desire to help Emad Tayefeh, my client, friend, a filmmaker and a dissident, who has fled Iran and is currently in Turkey. I knew that in order to get enough support to bring him to the United States, I had to get through to the public in the media. Few journalists would be willing to invest their time writing about a dissident who has not yet arrived into the country, and I had spent months terrorizing assorted publications with requests for help, largely to no avail.

Soon, however, a wonderful opportunity seemed to have come. The Huffington Post partnered up with Movements to create a special human rights column focused on giving voice to the voiceless. The column had published a number of important stories about a variety of dissidents from assorted backgrounds. Some, like Raif Badawi, were from Saudi Arabia, others from Pakistan, and a number were from Iran. Some were political prisoners, while others were fugitives, or recounted past stories of persecution. Having seen a number of stories about Iranians featured in the column gave me hope that Emad’s story, which was particularly dramatic and moving, would find its place.  Movements participants were encouraged to submit such accounts. I knew there would be no shortage of horrific tales waiting to be told, and wrote one up for Emad. I was almost immediately asked to make some edits, which I did, and having submitted the second draft, waited patiently for results. I figured that the publication would be overwhelmed with a maelstrom of dissident stories and thought that being published would take a little bit of time.

I decided not to submit any stories until Emad’s was published and instead focused on getting through to different publications. Time passed, and there was no word from the Post. Other stories were being continuously published, but not Emad’s. At no point was I directly in touch with the actual editors of the column, but tried to find out what was going on through Movements. It seemed that the story had gotten lost somewhere, somehow, and I was asked to resubmit. I updated the third draft with the latest developments and sent in. Time passed. More than a week later, after seeing that other stories were published, stories that were submitted after Emad’s, and yet his still was not, I contacted Movements again and encouraged to follow up with the editors. I was asked for additional edits, and informed that an account file was opened for Emad’s case, which certainly seemed encouraging. I finalized the edits on the fourth draft and eagerly submitted it. However, time passed, and still, there was no news. Stories continued to be published, albeit with increasing delays, no more than a couple a week. That seemed odd to me, considering the sheer volume of human rights abuse stories waiting to be told, but nevertheless I waited. Meanwhile, Emad’s situation grew increasingly precarious, and I could not understand why a human rights publication focused on promoting voices of the voiceless and giving people like Emad an opportunity to be heard and perhaps finally get the help they so badly needed was delaying at time of great urgency.

I followed up with Movements once again, and was passed on the feedback from the editors in that column that Emad’s story was “too juicy” and in essence, would not be published. I tried to find out what exactly that could possibly mean, but was met with silence. I was in shock. The last thing one would expect to hear from journalists is that something is “too juicy”, especially given that it was a human rights column focused on the plight of individuals, who, no doubt, have gone through nightmarish ordeals.  While this was happening, Emad interviewed with a journalist from another partnering organization, Karen Mesoznik, who finally successfully submitted a wonderful article about Emad. The difference between the two articles, the failed one and the successful one? Mine focused on attacking the Reformist faction of the regime, which hounded Emad even in Turkey, whereas Karen’s article focused on the more general issue of cybersecurity. I had seen similar delaying tactics against liberal Iranian dissidents in assorted human rights organizations, and had a hunch that something similar was going on here as well. My suspicion was strengthened by the fact that Kaveh Taheri, a human rights journalist and activist from Iran, also currently residing in Turkey, submitted his own story (which he wrote up himself) through Movements at the same time as I submitted Emad’s.

It was slated to appear maybe a day before his should have, but never appeared at all. The only reason Emad’s story saw the light of day in the publication is because his account had already been published in different media, and attracted the attention of a major partnering organization. Likewise, my incessant pushing finally got us a (cop-out) response. Kaveh’s inquiries were, at the time, met with silence. I felt angry, but there was nothing I could do at the time. Even all of my activity did not help, and the only reason I did not pursue the matter further was because Emad’s story, was at least published through someone else. Kaveh, however, was writing independently, and received no response. Though he was a frequent contributor of report on on other human rights abuses to Movements, and although he had published a brief version of his own tribulations elsewhere, his account from those publications never appeared on Movements, and thus did not attract attention. In hindsight, I made a mistake of not pushing the matter further at the time, but I preferred focusing my efforts on where I felt I had a chance at success. In addition to HuffPo, Emad’s story attracted attention of a number of other journalists, though some appeared longer-term projects (which is great, but which did not cancel out the need for urgent coverage), while others are still in queue.

I redoubled my efforts to get through to the publishing world, but that proved to be an almost insurmountable task given the proliferation of assorted current events and major international developments (the search is ongoing – so if anyone can help out with additional coverage, that would be greatly appreciated). Ultimately, I edited the article about Emad and published it here.  Meanwhile, I continued to follow HuffPo closely, and shared any and all human rights stories that have appeared. Something, however, felt decidedly off. The stories came with greater delays, and strayed far from the required format and initial goal of the column. Increasingly, these stories were accounts of assorted observers and analysts about the general human rights situations in various countries – sometimes, multiple articles by the same author.  To be sure, giving an overview and analysis of human rights related issues is a laudable contribution, indeed – but these stories seemed to take the place of priority publications, personal accounts of individuals who have suffered abuse or whose lives were under threat. Since my submission about Emad was never published, I steered clear of submitting any new articles, suspecting that I would be met with the same wall of excuses and silent.  The slowing stream of human rights articles was disappointing, to say the least. The column was failing to live up to its self-imposed obligation of assisting the voiceless. Soon enough, however, I was forced to reexamine the issue.

Over time, Kaveh and I came to know each other better, and began to collaborate in our efforts to expose human rights abuses in Iran and elsewhere. I had sympathy for his own terrible situation (which I will publish here shortly if no one else does), but also admired his courage in continuing his much needed but dangerous activity despite all hardships, as well as the one quality so frequently absent in the shadowy world of intrigued I entered when I chose to assist dissidents – brutal honesty. So when he told me about his intention to write an article for The Huffington Post, and this time, submit it through a friend, I was both happy that he was finally getting the break he deserved after all the pushing and hard work that he had been doing, and worried that the outcome would be the same as the first time around, when he tried to reveal his own story. I was even more suspicious when I learned that his new article would appear in the very same column which had so recently denied us both.  Kaveh is a very outspoken journalist, who writes about human rights abuses and voices criticism regardless of political considerations or leanings of the parties involved. If, as I suspected, The Huffington Post human rights column was infiltrated with pro-regime agents or their fellow travelers, they would employ the same tactic of endless delays and excuses that had served them so well in the past. After all, dissidents are helpless, voiceless, and vulnerable. Few have lawyers, or even real friends, willing to fight for them to any extent, much less risk the possibility of attracting negative attention by confronting these power-high manipulators directly. Denying them print space is the easiest thing in the world. No one will know, much less notice or care, and the dissidents themselves will be too afraid to go against Western forces to speak out for themselves.

This is exactly what happened.  Kaveh’s article, despite being beautifully written and carefully edited, met with innumerable delays.  A couple of new articles by other people were published, but not his. Weeks passed, and no new material appeared to be going up on the Huffington Post human rights column.  Clearly, they were not so overwhelmed with submissions if they could not even publish one a week, much less, a day. Our frustration grew, and I became personally invested in seeing the resolution to this mysterious situation.  I encouraged Kaveh to follow up with the friend who was assisting him in submitting the article. Eventually, the friend noticed what I had noted a very long time ago: that something strange was going on, that something in the column had changed, and it was taking much longer to get anything published. Interestingly, just like Emad, Kaveh had gotten a notification that an account was opened in his name, and that his article should appear the following day… yet days passed, and nothing happened. Such shameless games with a person who has nothing except the passion for his work to keep him going shows either an unacceptable level of entirely unprofessional negligence or the sort of deliberate, excruciating cruelty that has become a psychological marking of Iranian agents at home and abroad. Rather than rejecting the article under some semi-plausible excuse (i.e. too many Iranian cases, we are trying to give more coverage to, say,  Russians right now), these alleged human rights journalists keep their colleague, who has not a penny to his name, whose work is not being compensated, and quite frequently not even accredited properly, in suspense, hopeful that his work will finally be recognized – yet quietly tabling it, so he would have that torturous hope, yet stay away from publishing the same story elsewhere.

Do I have evidence that their actions, or rather inaction, are motivated thus? The result, or lack thereof, speaks for itself. Res ipsa loquitor.  Weeks after his initial submission, Kaveh’s article is nowhere to be found and Kaveh himself is in limbo. I have no direct access to the editors; I don’t even know who they are, or else I would have been making direct inquiries already. There is nothing worse than being played for a fool and being given stupid, transparent excuses with no effort to even disguise the contempt these people have for your intelligence.  Since I cannot confront editors of this human rights column on their turf, I will do so on my own, and hope that it will eventually reach them (and again, if anyone has any connection, please do me a favor and forward this article to them). This article does worse in perpetuating injustice than it would by not existing at all. It discriminates against dissidents on the basis of their political outlooks, as if human rights are not universal; it disparages people who would have otherwise gathered the last of their strength to tell the world of their experiences and expose gross violence and injustice elsewhere, for it creates the appearance that their stories are not worthy of being told, and thus, that no one cares. The Huffington Post does worse than denying dissidents voice. It denies them hope. It denies them the possibility of having the terrible lessons that they have learned shared with the public. It denies them the possibility of action on behalf of their homeland, their brothers and sisters left in dungeons and prisons under the lash, the hangman’s noose, the watchful gaze of the regime. It creates a new prison of uncertainty. After all the pain they have gone through, it denies them the possibility of a future in a world where anyone who stands for truth and freedom deserves to be heard. It denies them their humanity, by treating them worse than voiceless animals, by throwing away their stories, by suppressing their voices, by pretending they don’t exist, and denying their existence to others.

Shame on this despicable clique. These delays, and excuses, these ruthless tactics play into the hands of the darkest of forces – the mullahs and their ilk. They should be exposed. And I will expose any such human rights journalists, one by one. I have nothing to lose, except self-respect. And just think: Emad’s and Kaveh’s situations are the two that I know due to my personal involvement. How many others have written to this column with the hope of getting through to somebody – anybody- who would be willing to help, that none of us know anything about?  One day soon, this will change, and the voiceless will be heard.  Until I can myself provide them with such an opportunity, I will continue fighting that at the very least, they should be treated as human beings. I encourage you to offer assistance, if you can, in providing additional coverage to my friends, and to others – and if you are so inclined, to write to The Huffington Post and express your outrage of the way Emad and Kaveh (and perhaps many unknown others) have been treated.

Journalists have a special power of contributing to the forces of good and the forces of evil.

Incitement in the media, bias, and giving voice to dictators and evildoers the world over are all examples of the way journalism can be a destructive force, a tool of despots, terrorists, and bloodthirsty murderers.

However, there are many courageous voices who stop at nothing to expose important issues, question the horrendous orders that would otherwise exist in perpetuity, and stand for truth, no matter how ugly.

If you are journalist and are reading this, please choose what kind of a voice you would like to be. You can destroy and you can create and preserve, and I hope you utilize your power to act justly and to help, rather than harm.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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