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Europe's March Madness

Mass arrests in Belarus and Russia, Turkey's constitutional referendum, Dunja Mijatović leaves office, government-led attacks on civil society, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan continue to persecute the press…..

Law enforcement officers detain a participant of a rally, denouncing the new tax on those not in full-time employment, in Minsk, Belarus, 25 March 2017
Law enforcement officers detain a participant of a rally, denouncing the new tax on those not in full-time employment, in Minsk, Belarus, 25 March 2017

REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Back in the spotlight of shame: Belarus

Though repeatedly condemned for its human rights abuses by the European Union, barred from the Council of Europe and criticised by a UN Special Rapporteur for its "systematic harassment" of human rights defenders, Belarus seemed to be making conciliatory moves towards "liberalisation" in recent years. Those (such as journalist Iryna Khalip) who argued that these moves were merely cosmetic were proved right in March, when Belarus resumed its habit of conducting mass arrests and beating up activists.

On 25 March 2017, protesters gathered to demonstrate against a tax on the unemployed (the nastily-named "law against social parasites"). Many were beaten and hundreds were arrested, including - Freedom House reported - a former presidential candidate. The European Federation of Journalists and Index on Censorship reported that more than 50 journalists were detained during the weekend of the protest; at time of writing, arrests are ongoing across the country and the Belarusian Association of Journalists is keeping track of the charges being filed.

Earlier, on 12 March, 18 bloggers and journalists were arrested while attending another demonstration against the same law. The Belarusian Association of Journalists, Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists (in a joint letter signed by 48 press freedom groups, including Index on Censorship, ARTICLE 19, Reporters Without Borders and the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety) issued statements condemning the arrests. Interviewed by the state-owned news agency, BeITA, Belarus' Minister of Foreign Affairs said that the protest on 25 March had been "unauthorised" and that the demonstrators had brought "weapons." There had been no "victims" of police violence, he claimed.

From bad to potentially much worse: Turkey

On 16 April, Turkey will hold a constitutional referendum which could see President Erdogan handed new, sweeping powers. Turkish journalists and human rights defenders (including IFEX member Şanar Yurdatapan) put together a great video summarising these virtually dictatorial powers which would make Erdogan both head of state and head of the executive, whilst giving him tighter control over senators and judges. The EU has expressed concern at this alarming news, issuing a (rather mild) statement lamenting that the "process of constitutional change is taking place under the state of emergency."

Once again, March saw IFEX members focusing much of their energies on Turkey. In the middle of the month, at the UN Human Rights Council's 34th Special Session, ARTICLE 19, PEN International and 69 other free expression groups (including many IFEX members) delivered a joint oral statement on the deterioration of free expression in Turkey. Earlier in the month, the International Press Institute (IPI), ARTICLE 19 and Reporters Without Borders were part of a press freedom mission to the country; although the delegation met with journalists, opposition politicians and representatives from civil society, Ministry of Justice staff and President Ergogan's advisors refused to meet with the group, which made a list of recommendations to the Turkish government. IPI launched a new website, FreeTurkeyJournalists, an excellent information resource for the nearly 150 journalists and media workers currently detained in Turkey.

Erol Önderoglu, Turkey correspondent for Reporters Without Borders and a member of the IFEX Council, had his trial postponed until 8 June. He is charged with "terrorist propaganda" alongside human rights activist Sebnem Korur Fincani and journalist Ahmet Nesin, following their part in a solidarity campaign on behalf of the Kurdish daily, Özgür Gündem. Nadire Mater, a journalist who works with IFEX member Bianet, faced the same charge. She was convicted in early March and handed a 15-month suspended sentence. The Committee to Protect Journalists covers these cases and others in its Turkey Crackdown Chronicle. The Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey published two extraordinary reports in March: the first said that there have been almost 3,000 trials during the last six years for "insulting the President"; the second quoted Erdogan's shocking response to criticism of Turkey's persecution of journalists: "I recently received another list of 149 names. 144 are jailed due to terrorism, 4 due to ordinary crimes … All of them are thieves, child abusers, terrorists."

"Never give in; never give up"

Dunja Mijatović, OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media since 2010, left the office in March. The multiple award-winning defender of the press has been a great, outspoken advocate for free expression in the media and will be sorely missed. Presenting her final report to the Permanent Council of the OSCE, Mijatović reflected on her work over the last seven years and pointed to the need for increased political support for the office: "It is your job to protect the Mandate and ensure that the Representative, whoever that might be, can work with complete assurance that he or she will be supported and backed by all the participating States." To journalists and media workers her message was simple and clear: "Never give in; never give up."

Many took to Twitter to thank Mijatović for her work, including David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression:

Bad news in brief from Russia, Hungary, Macedonia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan

On 26 March, thousands took part in anti-corruption protests in 99 cities across Russia. The demonstrations - unauthorised in all but 17 cities - called for the resignation of Prime Minister Medvedev and were dispersed in many places with violence. Approximately 500 people were detained, including 11 reporters, the Committee to Protect Journalists said; the reporters have since been released. Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, was jailed for 15 days for resisting arrest.

Metamorphosis and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (IFEX members in Macedonia and Hungary respectively) have been the targets of sustained campaigns of harassment in recent months led by high-ranking politicians and their associates. This is part of a worrying trend in some Central and East European states where populist, nationalist politics have a strong foothold. Civil society organisations (CSOs), many funded via philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Foundations, are being subjected to verbal abuse, defamation, vandalism of their property, intimidation campaigns and financial investigations designed to obstruct their work. Ominously reminiscent of the situation in Russia, CSOs are facing accusations that they are "foreign agents" and "threats to security."

Azerbaijan continues its crackdown on critical voices, which the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) described in detail in a late February statement. One of the best known victims of this crackdown is blogger and IFEX member Mehman Huseynov, who was convicted on criminal defamation charges in early March. Huseynov's case has provoked outrage internationally: the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights called for his immediate release; press freedom groups (including seven IFEX members) issued a joint statement condemning the conviction; protests were also held across Europe calling for Huseynov's release. As he does periodically, President Aliyev issued a decree this month pardoning prisoners, IRFS reported. Of the 423 released, only four were political prisoners.

In Kazakhstan, Zhanbolat Mamay, editor-in-chief of the opposition paper Sayasi kalam/ Tribuna, is still detained on very doubtful charges of money-laundering. Mamay says he has been subjected to violence in jail; his wife has reportedly been the victim of attempted extortion. IFEX members wrote to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, urging that Mamay be given a fair trial, that his physical safety be ensured and that the violence he has suffered and the threats received by his wife be investigated. Please see the letter for a full list of signatories.

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