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Free Expression in Europe and Central Asia at the start of 2018

European politicians express little confidence in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation, Turkey releases then rearrests Amnesty Chair, rights group targeted in Russia, good and bad solutions for 'fake news', online hate speech in Germany, Council of Europe gets new human rights commissioner and awards IFEX participatory status, a record fine in Kyrgyzstan….

A group of activists gather outside the Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul, Turkey on 31 January 2018, calling for the release of Taner Kılıç as the trial of eleven human rights activists resumed
A group of activists gather outside the Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul, Turkey on 31 January 2018, calling for the release of Taner Kılıç as the trial of eleven human rights activists resumed

YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images


A travesty of justice

In January, Turkish lawmakers extended the ongoing state of emergency, thus signalling that the crackdown on rights in Turkey would continue for the next three months at least.

For just a few hours at the end of the month it seemed that there might be some good news coming out of Turkey when a court in Istanbul released the detained Chair of Amnesty Turkey, Taner Kılıç. However, in a twist as surreal as it was cruel, he was then rearrested and placed back in pre-trial detention, dashing the hopes of his family and colleagues who were waiting to greet him on the outside; there had been jubilation across the human rights world when the decision to release him was announced. Kılıç has already been detained for eight months and is being tried alongside the ten human rights defenders known as the Istanbul10: all are facing trumped up terrorism charges. IFEX members, Amnesty International and rights organisations around the world have been calling for the charges against all 11 defendants to be dropped. The next hearing is scheduled for 21 June 2018.


On 16 January, five journalists (Ragıp Duran, Hüseyin Aykol, Mehmet Ali Çelebi, Ayşe Düzkan and Hüseyin Bektaş) were handed a total of 9 years and 9 months in jail after they were convicted of spreading "propaganda for a terrorist organization." The five had participated in a solidarity campaign for the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem.

On 11 January, Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled that the detention of journalists Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan (on charges related to the July 2016 coup attempt) violated their rights and ordered that they be released. However, a lower court rejected the ruling arguing that the Constitutional Court did not have the power to review the merits of the case. The journalists' lawyers, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and IFEX members have called on the lower court to respect the rule of law and release the men.
Please check out the Platform for Independent Journalism and the Committee to Protect Journalists who provide detailed, regular updates on these and many other Turkish cases.

Since Turkey launched a military offensive against Syrian Kurds in Afrin on 20 January, 311 people have been detained for "making terror propaganda" on social media; among these detainees were journalists Nurcan Baysal and Ishak Karakaş, who posted messages criticising the military operation.


Critical voices targeted with arson, arrest and legislation

Activists and journalists were targeted in Russia in January.

Memorial, a civil rights group with offices across the former Soviet Union, found itself targeted three times during the month in what seems to have been an orchestrated campaign of intimidation. All of the incidents took place in the North Caucasus. On 9 January, local authorities arrested the director of Memorial's Chechnya office, Oyub Titiev, and charged him with illegal drug possession (a common tactic used against activists and journalists in the region); he is still detained. On 17 January, unidentified arsonists set fire to the Memorial office in neighbouring Ingushetia; this occurred three days after the arrival of a group of journalists and lawyers who were investigating Titiev's arrest. On 22 January, a car belonging to the Memorial office in Daghestan was torched.


A draft law that would extend 'foreign agent' status to individual journalists went through its first reading in the Duma on 12 January. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, called on the Duma not to adopt the law which, he said, would have "a considerable chilling effect" on the media. The Committee to Protect Journalists put it more bluntly: "Labelling individuals who simply disseminate independent or critical information as foreign agents is reprehensible." In November, President Putin signed a 'foreign agent' law for media organisations.

Among the individual cases of journalists being targeted this month is Alexander Valov, a popular blogger and well known critic of the local authorities in Sochi. He was arrested on 19 January and charged with trying to extort money from the local Duma representative; he will spend at least two months in pre-trial detention. Reporters Without Borders have called for his immediate release, citing a complete lack of evidence against him.

Tensions are high ahead of the presidential elections in March. The prominent opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, Alexei Navalny, has been barred from running and has been calling on voters to boycott the ballot. Early on 28 January, police raided his campaign headquarters, dubiously citing a bomb threat. Navalny, who is frequently subjected to harassment by the authorities, was later arrested when he appeared at a rally the same day:


Little confidence in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation

IFEX members and other rights groups held a vigil in London on 16 January to mark the three-month anniversary of the murder of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Doubts about the Maltese authorities' ability (and willingness) to carry out a full, independent investigation of the killing persist, and are being expressed by politicians across Europe. On 24 January, 114 MPs from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) signed a motion calling for international monitoring of the investigation into the journalist's murder; the final decision will not take place until March. Days before the motion was signed, IFEX members and others issued a joint statement calling on the Council of Europe to appoint a special rapporteur on the Caruana Galizia case.

On 12 January, the European Parliament published a report based on its recent 'rule of law' mission to Malta. The report said that the killing of Caruana Galizia "was aimed at instilling fear in everyone, especially those involved in investigating and prosecuting cases of money laundering and corruption." It also said that anyone implicated in acts of corruption as a result of the Panama Papers revelations (which Caruana Galizia spent the last two years of her life working on) should "not be kept in public office and must be swiftly and formally investigated and brought to justice. Keeping them in office affects the credibility of the Government, fuels the perception of impunity."



Gender in focus

The European Parliament published another interesting report this month: Gender Equality in the Media Sector. Women who were interviewed for the study reported widespread discrimination in all areas and said that working structures and practices tended to advantage men over women, especially in regard to childcare, communication, sexual harassment and bullying. Check out the report for a full list of recommendations based on its findings.

Swedish freelance journalist Kim Wall was found dead after she boarded the submarine of Danish inventor Peter Madsen; he has since been charged with her murder. To commemorate the journalist, the International Women's Media Foundation - in partnership with Wall's family and friends - has launched the Kim Wall Memorial Fund for women journalists.


Fake news: good, bad, and mad strategies

The central question facing those of us concerned about 'fake news' is: how can we defend against it without unnecessarily restricting our free expression rights? In answering this question, free expression groups generally lean toward less government regulation and more media literacy; governments, unsurprisingly, lean more towards regulation. January saw some interesting and/or worrying developments.

In France, President Macron promised a law to fight 'fake news' on social media; he envisages reforming France's media watchdog, changing the rules applying to online content around election time and allowing judges to delete some content, close a user's account, or block access to websites.

In the UK, the government announced that it would set up a 'national security unit' to tackle 'fake news' by "state actors and others." Few details of how this would work were provided.

In Italy, ahead of the March general elections, citizens are being asked to report 'fake news' through a 'red button' system on a police website. All reports will be checked by the police, who will then determine if further action needs to be taken. It is unclear exactly how the police will determine whether something is 'fake news' or not, or what kind of safeguards (if any) will be in place to protect freedom of expression.

On 12 January, the European Commission announced the appointment of 39 experts to its High Level Group on fake news and online disinformation. The group is tasked with analysing the state we're in and with coming up with some recommendations. Some eyebrows were raised when the list of experts was made public; David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression pointed to some of the obvious omissions:


The International Press Institute is currently running a reporting project called 'Contending with Fake News'. Among the articles published so far is one profiling a Finnish anti-'fake news' project called Faktana, kiitos! (roughly translated as Facts, please!), which brings journalists into schools to teach media literacy. The project was launched in September 2017 and, so far, 124 journalists have met with approximately 7,200 students.


In Brief: hate speech online, a record fine, new commissioner for human rights and more…

Germany's new online hate speech law, NetzDG, seems to be having precisely the effect that its critics warned about when it was still draft legislation. The satirical magazine, Titanic, was blocked by Twitter for 48 hours this month after the magazine republished a post Twitter had deleted, which parodied the anti-Muslim tweets of a far-right German politician. The Committee to Protect Journalists provides a good summary of how the new hate speech legislation works: "The law leaves it to the individual social media platforms to judge whether content reported by other users promotes terrorism, incitement, or child abuse, or includes slander or insult…. platforms with more than 2 million users in Germany have 24 hours to remove posts reported by users as being illegal, and must set up a new reporting system to make it easier for users to notify them of posts that appear to include other inappropriate content. Failure to set up a system for users to report allegedly criminal posts carries a fine of €50 million (US$61 million)." Before the law was adopted, critics warned that it would pressure social media platforms to err on the side of censorship in cases where there was doubt about a post….

The European Commission triggered its infringement procedure against Hungary in 2017 in response to the introduction of repressive NGO laws targeting 'foreign-funded' rights groups. Despite this, on 18 January, the Hungarian Government introduced a new package of laws (under the title 'Stop Soros') which place an onerous administrative burden on civil society organisations working on issues related to immigration. The government says that the laws are part of a strategy to deal with 'illegal immigration' but, as Human Rights Watch notes, it is also part of an ongoing campaign to undermine civil society generally.

On 12 January in Azerbaijan, journalist Afgan Mukhtari was sentenced to six years in jail on charges of smuggling, illegal border crossing and assaulting state officials. Mukhtari had been living in Georgia but was kidnapped in May 2017 and transported to his native Azerbaijan, where he was put in jail. The journalist had reportedly been investigating assets belonging to Azerbaijan's corrupt first family. The European Union External Action Service issued a statement saying that the sentencing of Mukhtari "poses serious questions as regards the exercise of fundamental rights including the freedom of expression and media and due process of law in Azerbaijan." The US State Department called on Azerbaijan to released Mukhtari and all those "incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms." The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety condemned Mukhtari's conviction, saying that it was part of a bigger crackdown on anti-corruption activists ahead of 2018's presidential elections.

The Council of Europe chose its new Commissioner for Human Rights this month: Dunja Mijatovic. She will serve a six-year term starting on 1 April. Mijatovic's selection was warmly welcomed by rights groups across Europe. Previously, she was the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

And there was further good news: IFEX was granted participatory status at the Council of Europe:


In Kyrgyzstan , four human rights defenders, two journalists and the news websites that published their work have been ordered to pay a total of more than US$1 million after being convicted of slandering and insulting former President Atambayev and current President Jeenbekov. The size of the fines is unprecedented. Journalist Kabai Karabekov and the local 24.kg news site will have to pay US$72,000 for an article that hinted at links between the current president and extremist groups; journalist Naryn Ayip and the website Zanoza.kg will have to pay US$43,000 over an article which investigated how former President Atambayev became a millionaire. For a full breakdown of the fines please see Fergana News. Although the defendants offered to pay their fines in instalments, the court declared that the entire sum should be paid immediately, meaning that at least two of the defendants will have to sell their homes in order to comply with the court's demands.

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