New legislative threats to free expression
One of February's most important pieces of free expression news was also one of its least reported: on 16 February 2017, the European Parliament voted to adopt the Directive on combating terrorism. The Directive is heavily criticised by human rights groups for threatening free speech by criminalising the vague concept of “glorifying terrorism.” It now goes to the Council of the European Union for final adoption; after that, member states will be expected to implement it, thereby making “glorifying terrorism” a crime across the EU. As IFEX reported earlier in the month, in European countries where similar legislation already exists (such as Spain and France), an alarming number of citizens have faced prosecutions on charges of “glorifying terrorism” for merely tweeting statements considered offensive. In some cases, these citizens have been handed prison sentences. In 2010, Martin Scheinin, the then UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, warned against using “vague terms such as 'glorifying' or 'promoting terrorism'” when legislating for terrorism offences. He responded bluntly to news that the Directive had been adopted:
EU directive on countering terrorism adopted by a large majority. It is still a bad text, including for use by national legislatures& judges https://t.co/r5v9qBxoNP— Martin Scheinin (@MartinScheinin) February 16, 2017
As if to illustrate the danger presented by this kind of legislation, this month, another Spanish rapper – Valtónyc – was convicted of "glorifying terrorism" in his music: he was handed a three-and-a-half year jail sentence. Last month, the rapper Cesar Strawberry received a one-year prison sentence for the same offence.
Alarmingly, the UK is considering criminalising the handling of leaked official documents. As part of a review of the Official Secrets Act, the Law Commission has drawn up proposals which, if passed into law, could result in 14-year prison sentences for whistleblowers and journalists that handle leaked documents. The proposals cover all data regarded as being in the UK's national interests (including business interests). Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders and the European Federation of Journalists have all voiced grave concerns about the proposals. Bearing in mind the threat to a free press already posed by another piece of draft law – Section 40 – UK journalists could soon find themselves operating in a legislatively hostile environment.
Still bad or getting worse: Turkey, Azerbaijan, Ukraine
Unsurprisingly, Turkey's crackdown on journalists and activists continued to dominate February's news. The trials and persecutions continue. Bianet reported on various cases, including an incredibly bizarre attack on the free press, in which a broadcasting ban was imposed on a new, independent journalism outlet before it had even published any news. IFEX members have been very active on the campaigns and advocacy front. PEN International has focused a lot of energy on Turkish issues: in late January it led a high-level mission to Turkey and published a statement of solidarity (signed by world-renowned writers) with imprisoned and persecuted Turkish journalists. In mid-February, PEN also joined colleagues at ARTICLE 19 and Reporters Without Borders in monitoring three high profile trials of journalists; a report about this activity is now available.
Reporters Without Borders launched an ad campaign calling on European leaders to “stop turning a blind eye to the unprecedented crackdown on Turkish journalists.” The leaders targeted are Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker, François Hollande, Theresa May, Mariano Rajoy, Donald Tusk and Stefan Löfven.
The Committee to Protect Journalists also urged Angela Merkel to raise Turkey's assault on free expression during her visit to the country at the end of January. Merkel did just that, emphasising free speech in her meeting with President Erdogan. The European Federation of Journalists reported on the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights' Memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey in which Commissioner Nils Muižnieks called on Turkey to lift its state of emergency.
Azerbaijan also stays in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, and the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) continues to provide invaluable updates on the persecution of journalists and rights activists. Blogger and IRFS Chairman Mehman Huseynov – detained and tortured by the police last month – has now been hit with a private lawsuit brought by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Detailed reports on all cases involving persecuted activists and journalists can be found on IRFS' website, where an analysis of draft amendments to the Constitution is available. IRFS argues that these amendments – on which voters will decide in September – are about “enhancing and prolonging the ruling family's dominance in the public, political, and economic spheres,” and that they present an increased threat to civil liberties, including the right to freedom of assembly.
In early February, President Aliyev went to Brussels for negotiations with the EU. Before the visit, Human Rights Watch called on EU officials to press Aliyev on his country's rights record. He cancelled a meeting with the European Parliament president following the Parliament's hosting of an event on the "continued human rights violations in Azerbaijan."
In recent weeks, the fighting in eastern Ukraine has flared up again; there's also been a reported increase in attacks on journalists across the country. The European Federation of Journalists referred to this when it protested the arson attack on the car of journalist Sergey Goos. The Institute of Mass Information reported that there had been 15 cases of free speech violations in January alone. Human Rights Watch raised the alarm on the enforced disappearance for two weeks of an LGBTQI+ activist and another person by security services in the separatist controlled area of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. On Global Voices, Isaac Webb reported on two social media users in Donetsk who were handed five-year prison sentences for “promoting separatism.” The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the authorities in Crimea – annexed by Russia in 2014 – to drop all charges against the journalist Mykola (Nikolai) Semena, who is also facing separatism charges. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
Briefly from Kazakhstan, Poland and elsewhere
Kazakhstan's independent press has taken a battering in recent years. Adil Soz reported that one of the few remaining independent press voices, Zhanbolat Mamay, was handed a two-month detention order in February on highly dubious charges of money laundering: ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have all described his detention as an attack on the free press and called for his immediate release. Mamay recently made a plea for protection after being beaten and threatened in jail.
The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, is due to leave office in a month's time but, as yet, there has been no announcement regarding her successor. The International Press Institute and six other IFEX members wrote to the OSCE calling for a new appointment to be made without delay, saying that “journalists [face] unprecedented pressures on the continent and across the OSCE as a whole.”
Last year, the European Commission made recommendations to the Polish government regarding threats to the rule of law in the country. However, the government largely ignored these recommendations and has increasingly sought to restrict rule of law, media freedom, freedom of assembly and women's sexual and reproductive rights. Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders joined other rights groups in calling on the European Commission to pursue enforcement action against the government of Poland under Article 7 of the EU treaty, which provides for possible sanctions, including the suspension of a member state's voting rights within the Council of the EU.