April is the cruellest month, wrote the poet T.S. Eliot; and in Europe, where authoritarian leaders have dominated the news over the last four weeks, it certainly felt that way.
A "slide into tyranny" - Turkey
Turkey's constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017produced the result that all rights activists feared, consolidating President Erdogan's position and handing him new, sweeping powers. The president will now have greater control over senators, judges and the whole state bureaucracy; he could also stay in power until 2029. International monitors were scathing about the referendum process. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a joint statement which criticised the "unlevel playing field" on which the referendum took place and highlighted the ongoing state of emergency under which "fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed."
Erdogan's response to the OSCE was: "Know your place. Do not talk drivel." Days later, Turkish lawmakers voted to extend the state of emergency for another three months and dozens who opposed the result of the referendum were arrested. IFEX members raised their voices in protest: PEN International, Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 called on members of PACE to "reinstate full monitoring of human rights in Turkey," (which they did on 25 April):
Against this backdrop, the persecution of Turkey's journalists goes on; the Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey reported that the Council of Europe rates Turkey as the biggest threat to journalists in Europe. Special mention must be made of two cases: the OdaTV trial and the ongoing persecution of Cumhuriyet newspaper.
Mid-April saw the acquittal of the 12 defendants involved in the six-year-long OdaTV case (they had been charged with working with "Ergenekon," a nationalist organisation trying to overthrow the government); the European Federation of Journalists welcomed the news, and also noted that some of the prosecutors and judges had been jailed during the trial for "allegedly being themselves members or supporters of an illegal terrorist organisation."
Early April saw the indictment of 19 journalists and other employees of Cumhuriyet on charges of supporting the movement led by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen (who is accused by authorities of masterminding last July's coup attempt). The trial is set to begin on 24 July 2017 and the defendants face up to 43 years in jail if convicted. The indictment was described as an "absolute disgrace" by Reporters Without Borders and "nonsense" by the International Press Institute. Cartoonists Rights Network International - which is campaigning for Cumhuriyet's renowned cartoonist Musa Kart (facing 29 years in jail) - lamented Turkey's "apparent slide into tyranny." Kart is one of the detained journalists to whom Members of the European Parliament are sending letters of support (as part of an excellent Reporters Without Borders initiative).
Homophobic violence and prison camps - Chechnya
In Chechnya, state officials have been leading a violent campaign against those who identify as LGBTQI+. Early in the month, Human Rights Watch reported on the kidnap and torture of gay men; then, news reports quickly emerged of prison camps where over 100 men were detained. The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov (who is openly homophobic) denied that any of this was taking place; Russia declared that it knew nothing of the abuses. ARTICLE 19 condemned Kadyrov for inciting violence against LGBTQI+ people and called on the Russian Federation to investigate. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the OSCE issued statements calling for an investigation. The Russian Federation's raft of homophobic legislation over the last few years has not only fuelled intolerance throughout its territories, but has given a tacit nod to those who want to carry out anti-gay attacks. Activists who made this argument online were subjected to insults, threats and abuse.
Another extremely worrying aspect to this story is that Novaya Gazeta journalists who reported the homophobic violence were themselves threatened. PEN International, the European Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have condemned these threats and called for the journalists to be protected. Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 wrote a joint letter to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, calling for the adoption of "a strong resolution that addresses the persistent impunity and deteriorating human rights situation in the region." (Please see the letter for full details.)
Alarmingly, reports have now emerged that Ramzan Kadyrov wants to "eliminate" LGBTQI+ people from Chechnya by Ramadan, which, this year, begins on 26 May.
Following Putin's bad example - Hungary
Viktor Orbán - Prime Minister of Hungary and leader of the Fidesz Party - has for months echoed Vladimir Putin in his rhetorical attacks on civil society. In April, following the Putin model, those attacks became legislative.
The first of these legislative attacks was the introduction of a bill - the "Transparency of Organisations Financed from Abroad" - which, like its Russian forerunner (the so-called 'foreign agents' law) is intended to place an onerous administrative burden on civil society groups receiving funding from abroad. Although the ostensible aim of this draft law is to achieve funding transparency, it's really about preventing civil society groups from holding government to account. High profile politicians (including Orbán) have been publicly smearing and de-legitimising civil society groups for months, accusing them of working to undermine the state or co-operating with terrorists; organisations funded by or linked to George Soros (whose philanthropy funds projects that promote human rights, education and democratic rights) have been specifically targeted. One of the groups under pressure, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (an IFEX member), has provided a useful analysis of the threat presented by this bill.
The second legal attack (driven by the same spirit as the aforementioned bill) took the form of amendments to Hungary's National Act on Higher Education. These changes place a number of unreasonable restrictions on the higher education sector, and seem specifically designed to force the Central European University (CEU) into inoperability (the university was founded by George Soros). The CEU provides a clear outline of these new restrictions on its website. There has been a huge international protest against this administrative bullying of the CEU (Index on Censorship provides a good overview), including a public letter signed by 400 world renowned writers. Twenty seven IFEX members called on EU officials to condemn the new legislation for threatening free academic expression generally and the CEU specifically. Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and others have urged the European Parliament to adopt a resolution on the current situation in Hungary.
European bodies are taking this very seriously. On 26 April, the European Commission announced that it had taken legal action by sending a Letter of Formal Notice to the Hungarian Government on the Hungarian Higher Education Law. The Commission stated that the law was not compatible with fundamental academic and internal market freedoms. The Hungarian authorities now have one month to respond to the Commission's legal concerns. The Commission also said it would "continue to follow closely the draft law on registration of NGOs which has also raised concerns."
The Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has also raised concerns about both pieces of legislation. It has asked Hungary to "suspend the parliamentary debate on the draft law on its civil society bill and halt the implementation of the amendments to the Higher Education Act, pending review."
In brief: Belarus, Azerbaijan, regional reports
Following last month's violent crackdown and mass arrest of journalists during protests in Belarus, the European Federation of Journalists, Index on Censorship, the International Press Institute, Reporters Without Borders, ARTICLE 19 and the Committee to Protect Journalists sent a joint letter to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, calling for Belarus to be added to the Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, which records and monitors attacks on journalists.
The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Index on Censorship, ARTICLE 19 and PEN International were among 56 rights organisations that sent a joint letter to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), calling for a full, independent investigation into corruption allegations linking certain PACE members and the Azerbaijani government. The letter cites a December 2016 report which includes "credible allegations that PACE members from various countries and political groups received payments" in return for influencing votes in Azerbaijan's favour. On a separate note, the blogger and IFEX member Mehman Huseynov, had his appeal against his two-year prison sentence on charges of defamation rejected; IRFS reports that he has now been transferred to prison.
March and April saw the publication of two illuminating, and quite alarming, studies. Journalists under pressure: Unwarranted interference, fear and self-censorship in Europe (published by the Council of Europe) revealed that almost one third of journalists in member states had been assaulted in the last 3 years; 69% of them had been intimidated, threatened or slandered. Defamation and Insult Laws in the OSCE Region: A Comparative Study (released by the Office of the OSCE Special Representative on Freedom of the Media) found that 18 OSCE states still maintain draconian criminal defamation laws protecting foreign heads of states.