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British warnings, German regulations and Turkish raids, oh my!

The UK general election, threats to internet freedom in Germany and Ukraine, a prize for Turkey's jailed journalists, Hungary under international pressure, persecutions of reporters and activists in Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Balkans and more...

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, speaks to journalists in London, 11 May 2017
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, speaks to journalists in London, 11 May 2017

REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Politicians, elections and the internet

A general election is underway in the UK and Reporters Without Borders has warned the leaders of the Conservative and Labour Parties (Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn respectively) to respect the freedom of the press during their campaigns. Both leaders have demonstrated attitudes to the press that have been worrying and/or comical. May, who is notoriously awkward with reporters, has generally been avoiding journalistic interrogation, preferring instead to appear at tightly-scripted, stage-managed events; this has resulted in a series of strange incidents, including one early in the month where journalists were prevented from filming May and locked inside a room. Corbyn, who a London School of Economics study concluded has been the target of an unprecedented, prolonged campaign of "character assassination" by the (mostly) pro-Conservative UK press, has not behaved perfectly either. Although he has made himself more available to the media than May, BuzzFeed News reported that it was denied access to his campaign events after it exposed contradictions around the official Labour line regarding whether or not Corbyn would stay on as leader in the event of an election loss.

In terms of policy, the Conservative Party campaign manifesto contains some good and some potentially very bad news for free expression advocates. The good news was a welcome pledge to drop Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 (which potentially threatened small publishers with crippling legal costs in event of a lawsuit) and which Index on Censorship has been vigorously campaigning against. The bad news was the ominous, vaguely worded announcement that a Conservative government would "regulate" the internet. One suggestion of how they might do this came after the horrific suicide attack in Manchester on 22 May, when ministers reportedly said that a Conservative government (if re-elected) would crack down on encrypted messaging apps; the practicalities of how this would work are not clear.

Germany is already one legislative step ahead of the UK in terms of "regulating" the internet. The recent Draft Bill on the Improvement of Enforcement of Rights in Social Networks has been rigorously analysed and protested by ARTICLE 19. In brief, the bill charges social networks with removing and blocking "violating content" but without "a determination of the legality of the content at issue by a court, and with no guidance … on respecting the right to freedom of expression." The obvious fear is that social networks will err on the side of excessive caution by blocking anything that might potentially offend.

In Ukraine, President Poroshenko issued a decree in mid-May banning Russian media and social networking sites from operating within Ukrainian borders. The move was actually an expansion of sanctions imposed in response to Russia's illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 (please see IFEX's summary of what the bans entails). The decree was protested by Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, ARTICLE 19 and the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), all of which cited infringements of free expression and access to information. IMI reported that Poroshenko said he would review the ban when "Russian aggression against Ukraine [was] over."

Portraits by C215, Reporters Without Borders

Persistent offenders: Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia

In Turkey, the persecution of independent voices continues: Reporters Without Borders protested the first jail sentence (18 months) handed out in the trial of those who took part in a solidarity campaign for the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem; PEN International raised concerns over a hunger strike by two Turkish academics against their post-coup dismissals; Bianet reported that the authorities raided the independent Belge Publishing House, seizing 2,000 books; Sozcu newspaper published a blank front page in protest at the detention of some of its staff.

IFEX members continue to devote resources to their Turkey work. At the end of the month, Reporters Without Borders joined forces with Parisian street artist C215 as he painted the portraits of ten imprisoned journalists across Paris' urban landscape, in a show of solidarity with all journalists jailed in Turkey.

Mid-month, PEN International, ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, the International Press Institute (IPI) and Reporters Without Borders publicly called on the UN Human Rights Council to address the "continuous deterioration of freedom of expression and other human rights" in Turkey. Days later, Cartoonists Rights Network International and Human Rights Watch urged EU leaders to "make rights an issue" when they met with President Erdogan in Brussels on 25 May. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, announced that he did just that. A picture is worth a thousand words:

Uplifting news came on World Press Freedom Day (3 May), when Austria's Presseclub Concordia awarded the Concordia Prize to the approximately 150 jailed journalists in Turkey. The jury, of which IPI is a member, gave the prize money to a fund set up to support the journalists' families.

Azerbaijan's crackdown on independent journalists and activists showed no sign of abating. Of the many worrying cases of detention and/or abuse, one of the most distressing - as reported by the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety - was the reported suicide in custody of the human rights activist Mehman Galandarov. Special rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on Azerbaijan to carry out an urgent investigation. Another high-profile case - that of the blogger and IFEX member Mehman Huseynov - was a focus of this year's World Press Freedom Day when over 30 rights groups (including many IFEX members) published a joint statement calling for his immediate release from prison. He is serving a two-year sentence on trumped up defamation charges.

As Freedom House declared in late April, there is no end in sight for human rights violations in Russia. During May, the persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals in Chechnya continued; Human Rights Watch launched an online campaign - #Chechnya100 - protesting the horrendous abuse. There were news reports that President Putin had tightened restrictions around street demonstrations (in anticipation of a mass protest planned for 12 June), and journalists continued to be beaten and worse: in late May, as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists reported, Dmitry Popkov, chief editor of independent local newspaper Ton-M, was shot dead in Siberia; Popkov was well known for his exposure of corruption and is the second journalist to be murdered in Russia in 2017.

Good and bad news in brief: Kazakhstan, Hungary, Poland and the Balkans

On 14 May, Ramazan Yesergepov, chairman of Journalists in Trouble, was stabbed on a train while travelling to meet the Ambassador of Lithuania in Astana, Kazakhstan, in order to discuss the case of Zhanbolat Mamay. Mamay has been detained since February on highly dubious money-laundering charges. Yesergepov underwent emergency surgery following the stabbing. ARTICLE 19 has called for a full investigation of the attack, which it believes was politically-motivated. In a separate case, Adil Soz reported that the state employee who made a death threat to journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov was fired after an investigation.

Hungary is coming under increasing international pressure over its recent repressive legislation targeting the Central European University (CEU) and foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This crackdown on independent organisations has been going on for some time and it looks as if most of Europe has had enough: in late April, Member of European Parliament (MEP) Guy Verhofstadt gave Prime Minister Orbán a severe, public dressing down which can be viewed here (not to be missed!); in early May, Nils Muižnieks, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, officially called on Hungary to reject the NGO law; in mid-May, MEPs called for the triggering of Article 7 (which entails a formal warning given to the state in question, with possible sanctions and a suspension of voting rights to follow). Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch had written to the European Parliament in April calling for action to be taken against Hungary. In public, Hungary is being defiant, and appears to have the support of Poland (which is itself in the spotlight for undermining rule of law and basic rights).

Rights organisations have been raising their concerns over threats to the independent press in the Balkans. Particularly worrying is Macedonia, where, Index on Censorship reports, 21 attacks on journalists have been registered since the start of 2016; the South European Network for Professionalization of Media (SEENPM) cited a study which said that the Macedonian authorities are attempting to control the press using generous funding arrangements or violence.

Impunity has long been an issue in the Balkans, and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression highlighted the case of journalist Dušan Miljuš (viciously beaten in 2008 and still waiting for justice) to protest the ongoing pattern of impunity in Croatia.

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