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Summer madness in Europe: Fresh attacks on press, the internet and civil society

An activist holds a placard, made to look like a press card, that reads
An activist holds a placard, made to look like a press card, that reads "110 media organizations closed, 157 journalists jailed, 715 press cards cancelled, 2.500 journalists fired" outside the court in Istanbul, 28 July 2017

AP Photo/Emrah Gurel

Turkey: "Cumhuyiret" journalists on trial, human rights defenders detained

July saw the one-year anniversary of Turkey's state of emergency (declared immediately after last year's failed coup), which has seen over 50,000 people arrested and a massive crackdown on independent voices. Currently, there are over 160 journalists in jail; among these are some of the 17 Cumhuyiret employees (mainly journalists) whose trial began on 24 July, and who are charged - absurdly - with supporting terrorism through their work on the newspaper: if found guilty, they face up to 43 years in jail.

At the start of the trial, 11 of the defendants were in detention and six were free; on 28 July, at the close of the first phase of proceedings, the court ruled that seven of the 11 could be released (pending trial), but that four would stay in jail - Murat Sabuncu, Kadri Gursel, Ahmet Şık and Akin Atalay. The next hearing will take place in September.

The trial was observed and/or protested by IFEX members, including ARTICLE 19, Cartoonists Rights Network International, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, the International Press Institute (IPI), the International Publishers Association (IPA), Norwegian PEN, PEN International, PEN Canada, Reporters Without Borders, P24 Platform for Independent Journalism and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. IFEX members and other observers, including the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, the European Federation of Journalists, PEN centres in Belgium, PEN Netherlands and PEN centres in Switzerland, released a joint statement which detailed their full concerns about the paucity of evidence against the defendants and described the trial as "another politically motivated effort to criminalise journalism."

Throughout the proceedings, condemnations of the prosecution and messages of support for the accused poured in from politicians, journalists and rights groups. David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, tweeted this on the final day of the first phase of the trial:

During their hearings, defendants Musa Kart, Ahmet Şık and IPI board member Kadri Gürsel made defiant, inspiring, sometimes humorous statements. However, Şık's widely celebrated speech rankled with the prosecution and led to him being singled out for further charges:
At the end of this first phase of the trial, Harlem Désir - the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media - tweeted simply:
Another outrageous abuse of rights took place early in the month when Turkish authorities arrested ten human rights defenders (HRDs) who were taking part in a digital security workshop. The detainees, who included Amnesty International's Turkey Director, were supposedly suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activities. IFEX condemned the arrests and provided a summary of events and initial reactions from the international rights community. Bianet published a statement signed by over 40 rights groups from five continents calling for the immediate release of the HRDs. The Electronic Frontier Foundation highlighted the plight of two of the detainees, Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner - digital security trainers from Sweden and Germany - and called their continued detention a sign of the "decline of Turkey's democratic institutions."

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the arrests and demanded the immediate release of the HRDs. This call was echoed by, among others, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, the US State Department, and the European Commission.

Outrage at the arrests prompted protests outside various Turkish embassies in Europe:
According to the Global Voices website, eight of the HRDs are still detained; two - Nejat Tastan and Seyhmuz Ozbekli - were released on probation towards the end of the month.

Attacks on the judiciary, civil society, journalists: Poland, Hungary, Ukraine

Concerns that Poland is undermining rule of law came to a head this month, when draft legislation - which IFEX members (including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House) said would hand the government effective control of the judiciary - was adopted by Polish lawmakers. This provoked mass protests across Poland, which seemed to produce a positive result, as President Andrzej Duda then vetoed two of the most controversial bills. However, he did sign a third one which allows the justice minister (who also happens to be the prosecutor general) to name the heads of all lower courts.

On 29 July, in response to the judicial reforms, the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against Poland. This is the start of a process which could end up in the European Court of Justice if Poland fails to comply with EU law.

Polish journalists have started to fear that they too might become targets of the right-wing, populist mood being stirred up by the government, the International Press Institute reported. And there were worrying signs at the end of the month that this might be happening: journalist Dorota Bawolek - who had asked the European Commission about possible EU sanctions against Poland - found herself portrayed on Polish public TV as "harmful to Poland" and was subsequently subjected to a barrage of online abuse and death threats.

Hungary's provocative, populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán - who has also come under fire from the EU for his recent legislative crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs - pledged to support Poland against the EU's "inquisition." One of the NGOs hit by Hungary's crackdown, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), wrote to the European Commission calling for action to be taken against Hungary over its campaign against civil society; within days, the Commission announced that it was launching infringement proceedings against Hungary.

Much of the Orbán government's attack on foreign-funded NGOs has focused on the figure of George Soros, the Hungarian philanthropist whose Open Society Foundations funds democracy and human rights projects around the world; the tone of the anti-Soros campaign is particularly nasty, as PEN International and Freedom House have noted. Worryingly, Orbán recently threatened to go after those journalists whom, he said, were supported by the "Soros mafia."

Following Hungary's (and Russia's) bad example, Ukraine is also legislating to restrict the activities of foreign-funded NGOs; ARTICLE 19 provides a good analysis of the draft law and calls for it to be repealed.

July saw the one-year anniversary of the murder of Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusian-born journalist who was killed by a car bomb in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on 20 July 2016 (no one has yet been arrested or prosecuted). On the anniversary, a public statement was addressed to President Poroshenko, calling on him to prioritise a thorough investigation into the murder; it was signed by various IFEX members: ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship, the International Federation of Journalists, the International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders.

Some good news

The OSCE finally named its new Representative on Freedom of the Media - the French politician Harlem Désir. The role has been vacant since the previous holder, Dunja Mijatovic, stepped down in March. The announcement was warmly welcomed by IFEX members, including Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship, both of which wasted no time in reminding Désir that he would have his hands full dealing with all the current threats to the media in Europe.

As was signalled in May, the EU has now taken welcome, concrete steps to protect whistleblowers; the European Federation of Journalists reported in late June that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe agreed a resolution calling on member states to "recognise a right to whistleblowing."

Threats to free expression online: Russia, Germany, Austria

Russia delivered another heavy blow to internet freedom in July. As Isaac Webb reported on the Global Voices website, the Russian parliament passed legislation that will drastically restrict user anonymity, introduce further measures to ensure banned websites cannot be accessed and force service providers to "allow the authorities to use their networks to send mass messages to their entire Russian user base."

Reporters Without Borders described Russia's legislation as the "last nail in the coffin of Russian internet freedom" and pointed to similarities with Germany's recent (so-called) 'Facebook law' which was passed by the German Parliament at the end of June and which forces social media platforms to remove illegal hate speech posted by users; the law has been lambasted by free speech advocates including ARTICLE 19 for encouraging companies to err on the side of censorship if in doubt rather than risk legal action.

There was good news from Austria, where Social Democrats in the coalition government rejected a draft law proposed by their junior conservative partners, which would have (as a counter-terrorism measure) given the police powers to monitor messaging services via the use of Trojan horse software. Privacy International wrote to the Austrian government in May, outlining the many objections - on both rights and practical grounds - to such measures, and called on lawmakers to "refrain from introducing legalised state hacking."

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