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Has Interpol Become a Tool of Oppression?

LONDON – Arrests of journalists in Spain and Ukraine on the basis of Interpol notices have raised serious questions about the methods of the international police agency. For media professionals in particular, the trends are deeply worrying.

The cases in Spain and Ukraine are not isolated incidents. Countries opposed to a free press are increasingly using Interpol’s “wanted person” alerts to target and silence journalists who have fled. Since July, Fair Trials and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have responded to a number of cases in which reporters have been arrested and detained on the basis of Interpol information. Countries circulating these orders include Azerbaijan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

The circulation of wanted person alerts, which include “notices” and “diffusions,” is one of Interpol’s key functions. These alerts, transmitted to police databases worldwide, identify the subject as a wanted criminal. These notifications have far-reaching consequences, and as we have learned, can easily be abused. For example, in recent months, journalists like Hamza Yalçin, Fikret Huseynli, Narzullo Akhunzhonov, and Can Dündar, targeted by their governments for simply doing their jobs, have all been flagged by Interpol.

When used properly, an Interpol alert is a critical tool for fighting global crime. The subject of an Interpol alert can face lengthy periods in detention while challenging extradition. Clearing your name can be difficult. Even when an alert is removed from Interpol’s databases, you can continue to face the threat of arrest when traveling, or be refused visas in a never-ending cycle of persecution.

Wanted person alerts are not the only way that Interpol’s mechanisms are being abused. In September 2016, Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim had her passport seized by British border authorities at London’s Heathrow Airport after it was falsely reported stolen in the Interpol system. Similar efforts to use Interpol to restrict the travel of unfriendly journalists have been reported elsewhere.

Interpol was created in 1923 to help countries coordinate in the fight against cross-border crime and terrorism. Its mission is simple: to “make the world a safer place.” But while the goal is noble, not all of its 192 member countries stick to the rules. Interpol’s members include some of the world’s most oppressive governments, whose leaders routinely misuse their own criminal justice systems to silence free speech and political opposition. These authoritarian regimes think nothing of using Interpol to target reporters in exile.

When Interpol alerts are misused in this way, oppression gains an international stamp of approval. This is why tackling abuse of the Interpol system is so crucial. While it is lamentable that countries like Turkey, China, and Egypt persecute journalists at home, we must not allow Interpol to become complicit in such behavior. The international community must show its commitment to free speech by making it clear that reporters forced to flee their homelands will be protected and allowed to continue their work.

Interpol has the tools to strengthen its notification systems. The agency has shown an impressive commitment to change, introducing new rules to protect refugees, for example, and creating a more robust complaints mechanism. Moreover, the agency’s constitution, which each member country must sign, requires that Interpol not engage in political cases and that its actions respect the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to freedom of expression.

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And yet countries continue to use Interpol as a means of silencing journalists, and the agency’s leaders aren’t managing to stop them.

Part of the challenge is procedural. Every year, Interpol issues more than 11,000 “Red Notices” – alerts that ask member countries to locate and arrest an individual pending extradition. Interpol has started to review these notices before they are sent out. But countries can get around this by using Interpol to circulate “diffusions” – requests for police cooperation that are less formal than notices, but often produce a similar result. They are sent to police forces around the world before any formal review is undertaken. And while Interpol does eventually conduct a review before uploading a diffusion to its database, by then, any damage has already been done.

Clearly there is a need to balance speedy police work with mechanisms that discourage abuse. But, beyond increased vigilance by the agency itself, what can the international community do?

For starters, member countries should demand that Interpol dedicate resources and funding to an urgent review of the thousands of alerts sitting on its system. Interpol also needs to reform the diffusion system. If it cannot recall abusive diffusions from member countries’ databases, it must review them before they are circulated in the first place. Countries that abuse, or try to abuse, Interpol’s systems, must also be held to account. And police departments around the world should exercise more caution before acting on an alert they receive through Interpol.

Interpol’s credibility is at stake. As any newspaper editor knows, audiences will eventually tune out if they are continually bombarded with inaccurate or misleading content. The same is true for Interpol’s information.

In an increasingly globalized world, international mechanisms like Interpol are essential to keeping us safe. But if these organizations are hijacked by those committed to silencing free speech, they risk becoming part of the problems they were created to solve.

Jago Russell is the Chief Executive of Fair Trials. Christophe Deloire is the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, known internationally as Reporters sans frontières (RSF).

By Jago Russell and Christophe Deloire

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