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Mass jailings and parallels in impunity: Europe and Central Asia in March

The latest on Turkey's judicial attacks on free expression, parallels in murders of Ján Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia, a feminist news website, artists and musicians prosecuted in Spain, elections in Russia, Hungary and Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan releases the world's longest-imprisoned journalist, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan resume a downward trajectory….

A Bulgarian media freedom group holds an action in solidarity with media professionals detained in Turkey demanding their immediate release, in Sofia, Bulgaria, 22 March 2018
A Bulgarian media freedom group holds an action in solidarity with media professionals detained in Turkey demanding their immediate release, in Sofia, Bulgaria, 22 March 2018



There are fresh developments almost every day in Turkey's assault on free expression. What follows are a few, important highlights from this month.

On 20 March 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) announced its first judgement on applications filed on behalf of journalists jailed in Turkey. This one involved Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan (who were imprisoned following the failed coup in 2016). The ECtHR ruled that the journalists' rights to personal liberty and security and freedom of expression, had been violated. ARTICLE 19 and other IFEX members welcomed the ruling and called on Turkey to immediately release the two journalists.

On 9 March, Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and reporter Ahmet Şık were released from Silivri Prison; they had spent more than 400 days in pre-trial detention. The two men are being tried on terrorism charges alongside other Cumhuriyet colleagues and a verdict is expected at the next hearing (24-27 April). The prosecutor has requested long sentences and IFEX members are observing the trial. Akın Atalay, the chairman of the newspaper's executive board, remains in pre-trial detention.

The day before the decision was taken to release Sabuncu and Şık, another court handed jail sentences to at least 22 journalists from a variety of press outlets; all of the journalists were convicted on terrorism-related charges.

Turkey's crackdown on the press isn't just about jailing journalists. A draft law is currently in the works that would grant the authorities powers to monitor and control all online content in the country, whether the source of that content is within Turkey or abroad. Speaking to the International Press Institute, Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, said: "Erdogan already has control over the printed media in Turkey and at the same time over the TV and radio stations… Now it is the turn of the internet media."

This month Taner Kılıç, chair of Amnesty International Turkey, marked his second consecutive birthday behind bars. He has been in pre-trial detention since June 2016, when he was arrested on trumped up terrorism charges.
At the end of the month, the authorities seized the Kurdish newspaper Özgürlükçü Demokrasi. Twelve print workers were arrested on the premises on 28 March and another 15 were detained during raids on homes the day after. Lawyers were denied contact with the detainees. IFEX members condemned the detentions and called on international newspapers and governments to make statements pressing Turkey to honour its obligation to protect free expression. Just days before, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders had called on European leaders to raise media freedom in their meeting with President Erdogan on 26 March.

Disturbing Parallels: Ján Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia

The murder in late February of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova sent shock waves through Slovakia. Kuciak had been investigating mafia infiltration into the Slovak business and political establishment and was the first journalist to be murdered for his work since Slovakia became an independent country in 1990. IFEX members joined the international condemnation of the murders and called for those responsible to be brought to justice. At a meeting with the Slovak government, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, called for a full and transparent investigation. This message was echoed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye. In the streets of Bratislava, tens of thousands called for justice for Kuciak.

So far, there have been no arrests in connection with the crime, which a prosecutor has said bore all the signs of being a contract killing.

IFEX members and journalists in Europe were quick to draw parallels between the murder of Kuciak and the October killing of the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia; IFEX members called on the European Commission to take the lead to protect journalists in Europe and specifically to monitor closely the police investigations into the killings of Kuciak and Caruana Galizia.

However, the reactions of those in power in Slovakia and Malta have been quite different. In Slovakia, the killing of Kuciak sparked a political crisis which led Prime Minister Robert Fico - who has links to some of the figures Kuciak was investigating, and who is no friend of the independent press - to resign from office.

Compare this with the situation in Malta, where Prime Minister Muscat - one of the many politicians implicated in Daphne Caruana Galizia's investigations - remains in office, where the deceased Caruana Galizia continues to be sued by politicians (including PM Muscat) for libel, where the former Labour Party general secretary publicly derides her, and where memorials to the murdered reporter are repeatedly demolished under cover of darkness:
On 23 March, IFEX members joined a coalition of press freedom groups led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom in calling on diplomats in Malta to "make their presence felt" concerning the investigation into Caruana Galizia's murder. "Your engagement in this case" they said, "is setting a standard and precedent for what is permissible in the European Union."

Spain: artists, rappers and magazines in court

Spain continues to provide almost weekly proof of its deteriorating free expression climate. This month saw the conviction of the rapper Pablo Hasél on charges of "glorifying terrorism" and "insulting the crown." He was sentenced to two years and one day in jail and was ordered to pay a 24,300 Euro fine. Hasél was convicted solely on the basis of his tweets and lyrics; he joins a growing list or rappers who have been prosecuted for the same offences (February saw the rapper Valtonyc sentenced to three and a half years in jail).

The actor Willy Toledo is under investigation for "insulting" God and the Virgin Mary following some comments he made on Facebook. Toledo criticised the opening of a case against three women who were being investigated for "insulting religious feelings" after they carried a large vagina through Seville, mimicking a religious procession. Among the comments Toledo left on Facebook was: "I shit on God and I have enough remaining to shit on the dogma of the sanctity and virginity of the Virgin Mary. This country is an embarrassment… Go to hell." Toledo is not alone in being targeting for expressing 'blasphemous' sentiments: last month, artist Daniel Serrano was fined 480 Euros for photoshopping a picture of his face onto an image of Jesus Christ and uploading it onto the internet.

Hurt feelings are in the spotlight at the moment. The existence of the magazine Mongolia is under threat following a court's decision that it must pay a bullfighter a shocking 40,000 Euros for "offending his honour." The magazine had published a satirical caricature of the bullfighter…

And while artists, musicians and ordinary members of the public are suffering under Spain's increasingly intolerant approach to freedom of expression, police officers who assault journalists seem to be enjoying impunity. The International Federation of Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists issued a statement this month highlighting their concerns that no-one has been held to account for the injuries inflicted on three journalists by riot police at an anti-monarchy demonstration in 2014.

Gender in focus: Jin News

On 8 March - International Women's Day - IFEX members promoted stories of brave women journalists and activists who defy threats, detention and worse in their battle for truth and justice. In an inspiring article, Index on Censorship highlighted the work of the women at Jin News, the only feminist news website in Turkey. Jin News ("Jin" means "woman" in Kurdish) is run entirely by women, focuses mainly on issues related to Kurdish women, and has been blocked numerous times by the authorities. To ensure that women's voices are not muted, Jin News only uses testimony and quotes from women in its reporting; please take a look at the article to find out more about the interesting strategies used by these journalists in their work.

Elections: Russia, Azerbaijan and Hungary

On 18 March, Vladimir Putin was re-elected President of Russia. In the run-up to voting day there had been the usual crackdown on opposition voices. International observers on the day said that, although the actual voting process was administered fairly, fundamental freedoms had been restricted. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) used the election to focus on Putin's terrible record on press freedom. The International Federation of Human Rights provides a comprehensive guide to Russia's legislative assault on free expression over the last six years.

Azerbaijan's snap presidential election will take place on 11 April. The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) has condemned President Aliyev's decision to bring the election forward from October 2018. The "ongoing human rights abuses," said IRFS, "undermine any meaningful prospect of free and fair elections." IRFS also called this month for a re-launch of the investigation into the murder of journalist and Aliyev critic, Elmar Huseynov, who was shot to death on 2 March 2005. No-one has been convicted of the murder and IRFS accuses the authorities of demonstrating "deliberate negligence, effectively helping to conceal the truth behind the crime."

Parliamentary elections will take place on 8 April in Hungary. Prime Minister Orbán has been ramping up the ugly, anti-immigrant, anti-civil society, anti-EU, anti-George Soros rhetoric for some time, and has just added the UN to his list of 'enemies'. A statement on the website of the Hungarian government has called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, to resign following comments the latter made in which he described some of Orbán's public utterances (about immigration and race-mixing) as racist. Zeid was reportedly unimpressed by Hungary's demands:

In brief

Following recent court rulings which handed massive, record fines to journalists for "insulting" the current and previous presidents of Kyrgyzstan, IFEX members issued a public statement to Kyrgyz lawmakers this month, highlighting concerns over the deteriorating press freedom climate, calling for an end to punitive lawsuits against journalists and media outlets, and for amendments to the laws that enable (and indeed encourage) these prosecutions.

On 22 February, Uzbekistan released the world's longest-imprisoned journalist, Yusuf Ruzimuradov, though this was only confirmed in March; Ruzimuradov had served 19 years on anti-state charges. Uzbekistan's record on press freedom is generally horrendous, but some analysts have seen signs of hope since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed office in 2016. Human Rights Watch, however, reminded us this month (in their report You Can't See Them, But They're Always There: Censorship and Freedom of the Media in Uzbekistan) that journalists and government critics are still under intense pressure from the authorities.

March saw the 100th anniversary of Belarus's declaration of independence from Russia (the Belarusian People's Republic lasted from 1918-19). The anniversary is now celebrated as 'Freedom Day' and it is traditionally a day for opponents of President Lukashenko's regime to stage protests. As is the norm for protests in Belarus, the one that took place on 25 March saw large numbers of activists arrested (estimates vary from 30 to 70), including a prominent opposition leader. All were reportedly released later. Journalists too were temporarily detained or obstructed in attempting to cover the protest (the Belarusian Association of Journalists provides details of each of these incidents). In its recent article on press freedom in Belarus, the International Press Institute (IPI) notes that, although the situation seemed to be showing small signs of improving in 2016, it resumed a downward trajectory in 2017 - which continues to this day.

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