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Turning up the heat on Europe's despots

Turkey's EU accession talks at risk, press watchdogs and protection for whistleblowers, a missed opportunity in Central Asia, Hungary's 'foreign agents law', abducted and missing journalists, ECHR damns Russia on LGBTQI+, anti-corruption protests and more….

Members of the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) shout slogans during a demonstration to mark World Press Freedom Day in central Istanbul, 3 May 2017. The placard reads:
Members of the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) shout slogans during a demonstration to mark World Press Freedom Day in central Istanbul, 3 May 2017. The placard reads: "Enough!"

REUTERS/Murad Sezer


While trials, arrests and detentions of journalists and opposition voices continued throughout the month, June saw a potentially very significant development in Turkey's relationship with the EU. A report submitted by the European Parliament's Turkey Rapporteur Kati Piri (MEP for the Dutch Labour Party), recommended that accession talks with the EU be suspended should Turkey's recent constitutional reforms be implemented (these changes to the Turkish constitution hand President Erdogan virtually dictatorial powers).

The European Foreign Affairs Committee voted on 20 June 2017 to adopt the report and it was scheduled to go to plenary in July, where all MEPs would vote on it.

IFEX members kept us informed about many stand-out free expression cases in the country. Significantly, June saw the first trial of journalists accused of taking part in the failed coup of 2016. A number of IFEX members attended the trial as observers, including the International Federation of Journalists, Human Rights Watch, PEN International, ARTICLE 19, Index on Censorship and the International Press Institute. ARTICLE 19 also submitted an expert legal opinion in the trial of the brothers Mehmet and Ahmet Altan; the Platform for Independent Journalism P24 published Ahmet Altan's eloquent and biting defence statement.

Watchdogs and protective measures

It looks like the EU will take steps to introduce measures aimed at protecting whistleblowers across its member states. On 30 May, as part of an inquiry into money laundering and tax avoidance, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that a European directive protecting whistleblowers would be presented "in the coming months." The announcement was welcomed by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), which has joined a coalition of groups calling for such legislation. As EFJ noted, the Luxleaks scandal (which saw journalists and whistleblowers prosecuted for making public evidence of massive tax avoidance), makes this a matter of urgency.

June also saw the German Parliament back Reporters Without Borders' (RFS) initiative for the creation of a United Nations Special Representative for the Safety of Journalists. As RFS reported, Bundestag deputies called on the government to "support a UN initiative on the safety of journalists and against impunity, and to promote the establishment of a Special Representative to oversee compliance by UN members states with their international legal obligations to provide security for journalists and who would report directly to the Secretary General." The RSF initiative has been endorsed by many IFEX members.

As the International Press Institute (IPI) reported, IFEX members once again called on the OSCE to appoint a Representative of Freedom of the Media. Dunja Mijatovic left the position in March but there has been no sign of a replacement since. "A failure to appoint a new mandate holder risks rolling back progress achieved in protecting media freedoms, undermining advances into promoting stable, tolerant and accountable societies," IPI said. Joining the IPI in this renewed call were ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders.

On the back of authoritarian Belarus's massive crackdown on public protest earlier this year, Human Rights Watch called on the Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus "despite the continued refusal on the part of the Belarusian authorities to cooperate" with monitoring.

A missed opportunity in Central Asia

Human Rights Watch also called out the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for not voicing concerns over human rights violations during his tour of Central Asia this month. Had he been inclined to speak out, there would have been quite a few cases to choose from…

In Kazakhstan, Adil Soz reported that editor Zhanbolat Mamay (held in custody since February on trumped-up embezzlement charges) had his pre-trial detention extended until 10 July 2017; Mamay has complained of being subjected to beatings and attempted extortion whilst in detention. On a separate note, Kazakhstan seems to be using similar tactics to those in use in Macedonia, Belarus and Russia to impede rights NGOs in their work: Freedom House issued a statement this month condemning Kazakhstan for harassing three prominent NGOs via the tax system.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Kyrgyz authorities to ensure the safety of journalist Ulugbek Babakulov, who received death threats following his public condemnation of the widespread use of ethnic slurs in the Kyrgyz media; ironically, Babakulov was charged with "inciting ethnic hatred" in May for raising the issue. Reporters Without Borders condemned Kyrgyzstan's harassment and prosecution of independent journalists, including the censorship of the leading independent online news agency Ferghana.

This month, the wife of Uzbek opposition activist Nuraddin Jumaniyazov reported that her husband had died in prison in December 2016. Jumaniyazov had been ill for some time and had been jailed on politically-motivated charges. Human Rights Watch called on Uzbekistan to immediately allow an independent investigation into the death.

Briefly from Hungary, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia

In Hungary, lawmakers passed a new, repressive NGO law (the 'Bill on the Transparency of Organisations Financed from Abroad'). This is a piece of legislation similar to Russia's infamous 'foreign agents law' which compels NGOs receiving funds from abroad to register as foreign agents. As in Russia, this is part of a long-running campaign to delegitimise and impede the work of rights NGOs. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union bravely declared that it would refuse to comply with the new law. PEN International condemned the law for the "chilling effect" it would have on free expression. Human Rights Watch's Lydia Gall said that Hungary was "taking European values for a ride" and that the EU needed to take stronger measures to push back against the country's authoritarian policies.

Ukrainian journalist Stanyslav Aseev went missing from his home in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine on 3 June 2017; family and friends fear that he has been kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the authorities in eastern Ukraine to do everything possible to locate Aseev. The European Federation of Journalists submitted the case to the Council of Europe platform for the safety of journalists.

On the heels of last month's ban on Russian social media in Ukraine, the Institute of Mass Information published a list of media outlets that Ukraine's Ministry of Informational Policy would like to see blocked.

In a case that shocked the international rights community, Afgan Mukhtarli, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist living in exile in Georgia, was abducted on 29 May in Tbilisi and transported to Baku, Azerbaijan. He has been placed in pre-trial detention for three months on deeply suspect charges of crossing the border illegally, smuggling and assaulting the police. IFEX members wrote an open letter to the Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Krvirikashvili, calling for an investigation into the kidnapping. The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety (IRFS) called for Mukhtarli's release and reported that the European Court of Human Rights is considering a complaint regarding the journalist's case. On 15 June, the European Parliament adopted an urgent resolution condemning the abduction, urging Georgia to investigate the case and calling for the release of Mukhtarli and others detained on politically motivated grounds.

Russia continued in its attempts to strangle public protest. Index on Censorship and ARTICLE 19 condemned the mass arrest of - reportedly - more than 1,000 anti-corruption activists (including opposition leader Alexei Navalny), that took place during demonstrations across Russia on 12 June.

But there was some good Russia-related news too: the European Court of Human Rights, after hearing a case brought by three LGBTQI+ activists who had been prosecuted under Russia's so-called 'gay propaganda law', ruled that the law was discriminatory and that the activists' right to free expression had been violated; the Russian Federation was ordered to pay damages totalling €43,000 plus costs and interest within three months.

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