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Free expression in Europe and Central Asia at the end of 2017

Scepticism around the Caruana Galizia murder investigation, Turkey jails the most journalists, Spain's free expression environment worsens, European Commission defends net neutrality, LGBTQI+ groups take Ankara's governor to court, rights-threatening legislation in Russia, Kazakhstan and Poland, updates on detentions and court cases in Turkey, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and the UK…

Peter Caruana Galizia, husband of Daphne Caruana Galizia, attends a ceremony at a press conference room named in honour of the slain journalist, in Strasbourg, France, 14 November 2017
Peter Caruana Galizia, husband of Daphne Caruana Galizia, attends a ceremony at a press conference room named in honour of the slain journalist, in Strasbourg, France, 14 November 2017

Elyxandro Cegarra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Daphne Caruana Galizia: scepticism over murder investigation

December saw three men charged with the murder of Malta's most high profile investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia. There is, however, a general feeling of scepticism about how the authorities are handling the investigation, and some of the most prominent sceptics include the Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola and the opposition leader Simon Busutill. The scepticism is due, in part, to the fact that those who ordered the killing are still unidentified; but it is also due to a general lack of confidence in the Maltese authorities' competence to carry out a full, impartial investigation (for this reason, eight of the world's largest media organisations directly asked the EU to carry out an independent inquiry in November). It should also be remembered that many of Malta's most powerful politicians were the targets of Caruana Galizia's exposés.

Her son, Matthew, summed up the current, bleak mood of December in one simple tweet:

The Doughty Street Chambers lawyers working for Caruana Galizia's family are also sceptical about the investigation, Index on Censorship reports; they are arguing that Malta's handling of the case has violated numerous articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including Article 2 which guarantees an effective investigation.

The worst jailer of journalists in 2017

Turkey ended the year as it started it: as the world's worst jailer of journalists and with IFEX members calling on the EU to take action over the ongoing threat to freedom of expression in the country.

The seemingly never-ending prosecutions of journalists continued. On 26 December there was a brief hearing in the trial of IFEX member Erol Önderoğlu, who is charged (alongside others) with carrying out "terrorist propaganda" following a peaceful act of solidarity with the Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem. His trial was adjourned until 18 April 2018.

During his hearing, Önderoğlu took the opportunity to criticise the previous day's trial hearing of a separate case: the prosecution of the staff of Cumhuriyet newspaper. In that bizarre hearing, the judge silenced the journalist Ahmet Şık (he was in the middle of his defence statement) and excluded him from the courtroom for allegedly "disrupting the trial."

PEN International and Reporters Without Borders (who were observing both trials) issued a statement condemning the multiple "procedural violations" that had taken place and called for the ongoing prosecutions to be dismissed.

The next hearing in the Cumhuriyet trial is set for 9 March 2018.

December also saw the fourth hearing in the trial of seven suspects, including journalist brothers Mehmet and Ahmet Altan, on charges of supporting the failed coup of 2016; as the Platform for Independent Journalism reports, the prosecution demanded life sentences for the accused and the trial was adjourned until 12-16 February 2018. Days earlier, 31 people, mostly Zaman journalists, had appeared in court on similar charges; most of them will stay behind bars until their next hearing on 5 April 2018.

On 15 December, the Kurdish reporter Nedim Türfent was sentenced to 8 years and 9 months in prison on charges of "membership of a terrorist organisation." Twenty of the 21 witnesses who appeared in court during the trial claimed that they had given evidence after being tortured by the police.

There were also other worrying developments in Turkey in December. A new decree was issued under which detainees accused of having links to terrorism will have to wear a coloured uniform for court appearances; Reporters Without Borders denounced the decision, saying that it would "violate the right of dozens of detained Turkish journalists to be presumed innocent." There were also signs, reported the International Federation of Journalists, that Turkey is attempting to extend its censorship practices to Cyprus: the Turkish 'embassy' in the north of the island has filed a criminal complaint against the Greek daily Afrika after it published a cartoon depicting a statue urinating on President Erdogan's head….

A deteriorating environment for free expression

Free expression in Spain ended 2017 in a worse condition than the one in which it began it. Illustrative of the current, worrying climate was a very pointed message on Twitter from the Ministry of the Interior which warned that merely re-tweeting tweets that "glorified terrorism" could be a crime.

In February, IFEX published an article discussing the problematic law that criminalises the "glorification of terrorism" in Spain. Briefly, there are two main problems with it: 1. "glorifying terrorism" is a hopelessly vague notion; 2. Spanish law does not take intention into account when prosecuting it. Thus, in 2017, a substantial number of rappers, musicians and ordinary citizens have been convicted solely because of the content of their song lyrics or jokes. El Salto provides an overview of the most high profile cases, including those of Cesar Strawberry, Valtonyc and 12 members of the rap collective La Insurgencia (all of whom received jail sentences).

Policing Twitter is not the only way that Spain is looking to crack down on internet freedoms. The ruling party, El Partido Popular, recently announced that it was looking for ways to prohibit the public from using social media anonymously; if it does this, it will be following Russia's bad example.

In Catalonia, the regional elections on 21 December didn't shift the balance of power as the government in Madrid hoped it would, and now it's likely that a coalition of pro-separatist parties will once again form the regional government. However, the crackdown on opinion and protest that began before October's independence referendum continues. Civil society leaders Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez remain in pre-trial detention while under investigation for "sedition," as does the leader of Republican Left of Catalonia, Oriol Junqueras. It was announced in December that another group of high profile Catalan politicians are also to be investigated for sedition; these include the former President Artur Mas. In addition to this, twelve primary school teachers are now under investigation for "hate crimes": they are accused of criticising the police in their classrooms following riot officers' widespread use of violence against peaceful protestors on 1 October.

Foreign agents, attacks on journalists and dubious electoral decisions

High profile opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, Alexei Navalny, was barred in December from running in Russia's presidential election (March 2018). The Central Electoral Commission said it was due to Navalny's 2014 conviction on charges of fraud and money laundering; in October 2017, the European Court of Human Rights found that Navalny's trial had been arbitrary and unfair.

The new, so-called 'foreign agents' law for media outlets was signed by President Putin in November. So far, nine media outlets have been identified as 'foreign agents':

One of these 'foreign agents' is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose Crimean correspondent - Mykola Semena - had his two-and-a-half-year suspended jail sentence upheld on 18 December by the Supreme Court in Russia-occupied Crimea. Semena was convicted on charges of "separatism" after he denounced Russia's annexation of the peninsula.

On 21 December, an independent journalist, Vyacheslav Prudnikov, was shot after a meeting with a local official in the town of Krasny Sulin (in the southern Rostov region). The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the man who shot him shouted, "You criticise local authorities too much, we'll kill you," before opening fire. Prudnikov survived the attack.

Towards the end of November, Yulia Zavyalova, the editor of an independent news website in the city of Volgograd, reported that someone had sabotaged the brakes of her car. She believes it to have been an attempt on her life, and that it was in retaliation for her journalism. According to her website, the police have categorised the incident as merely "damage to personal property." Reporters Without Borders has called for a full and impartial investigation.

Gender in focus

Last month, the Governor's Office in Ankara, Turkey, banned LGBTQI+ cultural events across the province. The decision was taken, according to the authorities, because of "fears for public safety." Piet De Bruyn, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's General Rapporteur on the rights of LGBTI people, publicly called for the ban to be overturned; Turkish LGBTQI+ groups Kaos GL and Pembe Hayat filed lawsuits this month seeking to do just that.

Net neutrality

The decision taken this month by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States to remove the current regulations on network neutrality sent shockwaves around the world. The implications for free expression online are huge, as Jodie Ginsberg of Index on Censorship pointed out: "The decision means ISPs (internet service providers) could now simply favour the sites whose political views they agree with, and put smaller players - without the money to buy better access - out of business." The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir, issued a statement in response to the FCC decision: "I urge the United States authorities to reconsider this decision. I hope that Congress will review it and enact instead strong rules protecting a free and open Internet as soon as possible."

The European Commission sought to reassure worried Europeans:

Briefly: Kazakhstan, UK, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and Azerbaijan

In December, the authoritarian president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, signed into law amendments which will further restrict the investigative work of the few independent media outlets in his country. Reporters Without Borders highlighted the most troubling provisions. These include having to obtain the permission of anyone named in articles before publishing information related to matters of "personal and family confidentiality," reduced access to state-held information, and a requirement that anyone leaving comments on news websites must be identified and have their information stored for three months.

Threats to free expression don't come just from governments or criminals; wealthy corporations, with their seemingly bottomless pockets, have the capacity to tangle up journalists and newspapers in long, expensive lawsuits which can obstruct their work and, potentially, put them out of business.

A nasty example of this is currently going on in the UK, where offshore tax advisors Appleby have initiated legal action against the BBC and The Guardian over their reporting on the infamous 'Paradise Papers' (over 13 million leaked documents detailing the dubious tax avoidance practices of some of the world's most powerful people). As the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) points out, the targets of the action are just two of the 96 news organisations around the globe that covered the story. Many of the leaked documents belong to Appleby, which claims that the information used in news reports was "stolen"; it is seeking a permanent injunction to stop further use of the information. The international Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have joined the NUJ in condemning the lawsuit and defending the "right to report."

The European Commission (EC) has for years been concerned by the assault on rule of law in Poland. Despite several warnings from the EU against implementing measures that would compromise the independence of the judiciary, Poland introduced legislation at the beginning of the month which would force most of the Supreme Court into retirement and give the ruling party power over judicial appointments. Thus, on 20 December, the EC triggered Article 7, a legal mechanism that could see sanctions imposed on Poland and a loss of its voting rights in the Council of the European Union.

Reporters Without Borders welcomed the move, but expressed concern that it was provoked solely by Poland's attack on the courts and not by the threat that the ruling party now presents to the free press; a week earlier, the state media regulator imposed a massive fine of 350,000 Euros on the independent TV channel TVN24, which it accused of "encouraging behaviour threatening the country's security" by covering anti-government protests. It was a decision that wouldn't have looked out of place in Belarus…

Belarus, often referred to as "Europe's last dictatorship," doesn't tolerate dissent nor - as local newspaper editor Anatol Bukas found out this month - coverage of dissent; he was fined 145 Euros on 1 December for mentioning an unauthorised demonstration.

The trial of Regnum News Agency writers, Dzmitry Alimkin, Yury Paulavets and Siarhei Shyptenka began this month. They face up to 12 years in prison if convicted on charges of inciting ethnic hatred and conducting illegal business activity; the Belarusian Association of Journalists reports that the three accused have already been behind bars for over a year and that it was only in November that the government was persuaded to hold the trial in public.

On 22 December, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media expressed his dismay at the light punishment meted out by a Kyiv court to one of the men who led a fatal attack on journalist Vyacheslav Veremyi in 2014. The accused was convicted of "hooliganism" and given a four-year suspended sentence. Veremyi was shot to death.

Reporters without Borders reminded us this month of the ongoing persecution of independent voices in Azerbaijan. December saw another hearing in IFEX member Mehman Huseynov's appeal against his 2-year prison sentence for defaming the police; on 15 December, a judge upheld the verdict. This month also saw two hearings in the trial of journalist Afgan Mukhtarli who was kidnapped in Georgia in May and forcibly returned to Azerbaijan, where he was jailed. He is charged with crossing the border illegally, carrying 10,000 Euros of undeclared currency, and assaulting a border guard; the next trial hearing is on 5 January 2018.

There was some good news from Ukraine: Eduard Nedeliayev, a blogger who had been held since 2016 by separatist forces in the city Lugansk, was released on 27 December in a prisoner exchange with the Ukrainian government. He had been sentenced to 14 years in jail on charges of spying and inciting hatred.

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