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A baby behind bars, autocrats re-elected and Malta in the spotlight of shame: Europe and Central Asia in April

EU lawmakers turn up the heat on Malta; Turkey jails journalists, teachers and a baby; Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan target digital freedom; IFEX members' successful advocacy in Kyrgyzstan; OSF could pull out of Hungary; mass protests and political turmoil in Armenia…

People leave the church of St Francis, after the Archbishop of Malta celebrated mass in memory of murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on the six-month anniversary of her death in Valletta, Malta, 16 April 2018
People leave the church of St Francis, after the Archbishop of Malta celebrated mass in memory of murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on the six-month anniversary of her death in Valletta, Malta, 16 April 2018

MATTHEW MIRABELLI/AFP/Getty Images


In the spotlight of shame: Malta

April saw the six-month anniversary of the assassination of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Exasperation at the Maltese authorities' handling of the investigation into her killing, (and also their attitude towards her family) is growing and becoming increasingly global.

The international community has little faith in the ability or willingness of the Maltese authorities to carry out a thorough investigation into the murder; a series of important announcements made this month alone are evidence of this: on 23 April, the Council of Europe appointed Dutch politician Pieter Omtzigt as a rapporteur to monitor the investigation; on 19 April, Antonio Tajani, the President of the European Parliament made a strong public call for those who commissioned the crime (not just those who carried it out) to face justice; the European commissioner for justice, Věra Jourová, announced that she would visit Malta and that she would press the Maltese authorities about the murder inquiry and corruption on the island more generally; Europol (which has been assisting with investigation) raised concerns in a letter to MEP Ana Gomes about the patchy quality of the Maltese authorities' cooperation with them.

April also saw the launch of the hugely impressive Daphne Project (a journalistic initiative involving reporters, newspapers and media organisations) which will carry forward the work that Caruana Galizia started. The Project has already begun publishing pretty damning follow-up reports on some of the high-level corruption that she was looking into.


Marking the six-month anniversary of Caruana Galizia's murder, IFEX members held a vigil outside the Maltese embassy in London (which was attended by two of the late journalist's sons). PEN International brought together over 250 writers to sign a public letter calling for justice for Caruana Galizia, condemning the ongoing libel suits against her and criticising Jason Micallef - Chairman of the Valletta 2018 Foundation - who has publicly joked about Caruana Galizia's death. Seventy-two MEPs called for Micallef to be sacked.
The government appears to have adopted the worst kind of public relations strategy in dealing with all this, especially considering that Malta is now the focus of so much international scrutiny. Two examples from April are illustrative. The first was the media campaign waged by the ruling Labour Party calling for big demonstrations on 1 May against both the Daphne Project and what it called the "Caruana family's provocation". The second was the decision by a spokesman for the Maltese government to write to the Guardian newspaper attacking the afore-mentioned PEN letter and suggesting that PEN had misled the letter's signatories.

It was also revealed this month that witnesses reported seeing Labour MP Chris Cardona drinking with one of the men charged with killing Caruana Galizia shortly before her murder. Cardona, who had been the subject of one of Caruana Galizia's investigations, denied being at the bar.


State of emergency, snap elections and 'propagandising for terrorists'

On 18 April, Turkish lawmakers extended the state of emergency (in place since the failed coup of 2016) for the seventh time. This means that the controversial snap election that President Erdogan called for June 24 will take place under emergency rule. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called for the elections to be postponed, saying that the state of emergency would "impede the conduct and organisation of genuinely democratic elections."

The arrests and convictions of journalists on dubious charges of conducting 'terrorist propaganda' continue. The Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Press Institute, Bianet and the Platform for Independent Journalism provide detailed, regular reports on a large number of these cases. What follows are a few important updates concerning cases of particular interest to IFEX members.

There was very good news for IFEX member Şanar Yurdatapan and Doğan Özkan on 3 April, when a court dropped 'terrorist propaganda' charges against them. The two defendants had been on trial for peacefully protesting the 2016 arrest of fellow IFEX member Erol Önderoglu and others.


Erol Önderoglu is also facing 'terrorist propaganda' charges. He is being tried alongside Şebnem Korur Fincancı and Ahmet Nesin; on 18 April, their trial was postponed until 9 October.

Teacher Ayşe Çelik was also sent to jail this month along with her six-month-old baby for conducting 'terrorist propaganda'; Çelik was charged after she criticised government security activities in southeast Turkey. Mother and child will spend 15 months behind bars. A petition was set up calling for them to be freed.

On 25 April, 14 journalists and executives of the newspaper Cumhuriyet were convicted of 'aiding a terrorist organisation'; they will serve between two-and-a-half years and seven-and-a-half years in jail. IFEX members, some of whom were observing the trial, published a joint statement which condemned the guilty verdicts, called on the ECtHR to return swift rulings on the pertinent Turkish cases currently pending, and urged the Council of Europe to prioritise the right to free expression and fair trial in its dealings with Turkey.
(Kati Piri is the EU Parliament's Turkey rapporteur)

A Bulgarian media freedom group holds an action in solidarity with journalists detained by the Turkish government, in Varna, Bulgaria, 26 March 2018
A Bulgarian media freedom group holds an action in solidarity with journalists detained by the Turkish government, in Varna, Bulgaria, 26 March 2018

Hristo Rusev/NurPhoto via Getty Images


Elections: authoritarians consolidate power

In Hungary, on 8 April, voters handed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a third term in office. His Fidesz party was criticised by many, including by the OSCE, for running an election campaign that focused almost entirely on attacking immigrants, civil society and George Soros. The Orbán government's use of public funds for its own re-election campaign was also criticised. Thousands took to the streets to protest the result which gave Fidesz two thirds of the seats in parliament despite receiving only 49% of the vote.


Emboldened by the election results, Orbán's supporters ramped up the hateful rhetoric and intimidation campaign that they've been carrying out for many months. Shortly after the election, a pro-Orbán magazine published a list of 200 'mercenaries' (journalists and civil society workers) who, it said, were "in the pay" of George Soros (whom they referred to as "the speculator"). Blacklisting those 'undermining' the country has an obvious historical precedent and goes hand-in-hand with the anti-Semitic flavour of some of the recent attacks on Soros.

Soros's Open Society Foundations (OSF) support democracy and human rights projects across the former Soviet Union and are accused by Orbán of plotting to undermine Hungary by importing immigrants into the country. Earlier this year, the Orbán government introduced a draft bill (the so-called 'Stop Soros' law) which, if passed, would place onerous restrictions on any civil society group working with immigrants. The OSF are reportedly considering closing their office in Hungary if this law is passed.

PEN International led a high-level delegation to Hungary in late April in order to highlight the "deteriorating environment for free expression, press and academic freedom, and civil society."

The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, was re-elected on 11 April with 86% of the vote; the opposition had boycotted the polls, saying that the vote would be rigged. Before the election took place, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) had warned of the impossibility of holding a free and fair election during an ongoing crackdown on rights; the Committee to Protect Journalists had criticised Aliyev's assault on online news websites ahead of voting day.
In January, journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was jailed for six years on dubious charges of smuggling, crossing the border illegally and resisting a border guard. His appeal against his conviction was rejected on 24 April. Before his trial, Mukhtarli was kidnapped in Georgia and transported back to Azerbaijan to face trial. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media said that the charges against the journalist should be dropped.

This month, Mukhtarli's case was included alongside other violations of free expression in a joint submission to Azerbaijan's Universal Periodic Review. Contributors to the submission included ARTICLE 19, Reporters Without Borders, PEN International, IRFS and others. You can read the full submission here.


Gender focus

Human Rights Watch reported that one year after Chechnya's horrific anti-gay purge the victims of this organised violence - which was carried out by law enforcement officers - are still waiting for justice. To date, no criminal cases have been opened and no high-level Russian officials have acknowledged or condemned the violence. Victims allege that they were detained, tortured and forced to 'out' fellow members of the LGBTQI+ community. In recent years, the Russian Federation has introduced a raft of anti-LGBTQI+ legislation, of which the so-called 'anti-gay propaganda' law is the best known; Chechnya is infamous for its rampant homophobia.


In brief

There was very welcome news from Kyrgyzstan this month. Following extensive campaigning by IFEX's regional members Media Policy Institute (MPI) and Public Association Journalists (and a joint statement supported by many other IFEX members), a draft law that would have set unacceptably high levels of compensation in cases where media outlets were considered to have caused a person 'moral damage' was withdrawn on 24 April.

MPI also claimed another success this month when the criminal investigation into journalist Alkanova Elnura - who had been charged with "seeking and disclosing confidential commercial information" - was dropped. Elnura had been investigating the allegedly corrupt sale of government property. MPI provided her with a lawyer and other support.

A bill of amendments to the Law on Mass Media in Belarus passed its first reading in the parliament on 19 April. The proposed amendments are extremely troubling for anyone concerned about free expression in Belarus generally and the online press situation particularly. The Belarusian Association of Journalists has been working hard to highlight the worrying aspects of the bill and has asked lawmakers to consult with domestic and international press experts (and incorporate suggestions received) before taking the bill further. The amendments as they stand have the potential to severely restrict the work of online journalists by introducing a form of 'voluntary registration' for news websites: there would be a set of strict (and unreasonable) requirements that these sites would have to meet in order to be accepted onto the register; rejection or failure to register would result in a harsh reduction in access to government sources, records, events etc. Another one of the proposed changes to the law could result in the end of anonymity for online commentators. Reporters Without Borders provides further details.

In Denmark, an inventor and amateur submariner was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting and murdering Swedish journalist Kim Wall. Wall had gone on a trip with Peter Madsen in his self-built submarine last summer, but never returned; Madsen was arrested in August 2017 and had offered very suspicious explanations for Wall's disappearance.

The investigative journalist Maksim Borodin died on 12 April after falling from the balcony of his fifth floor apartment in Yekaterinburg, Russia. He worked for the independent news website Novy Den, and had investigated Russian private military contractors operating in Syria, corruption in the prison system and the business deals of an oligarch. The police said that there was nothing suspicious about Borodin's death, but the journalist's friends and colleagues maintain that he was not suicidal. Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media called for a full, independent investigation into Borodin's death.

Russia continued its crackdown on internet users this month: the messaging service Telegram was blocked by the communications regulator on 13 April following the messaging service's refusal to comply with an order to provide decryption keys to the FSB. ARTICLE 19 provides a good overview of the story.

In Montenegro, Sead Sadikovic, a TV journalist who reports on corruption and organised crime, was the target of a car bomb on 1 April. The car was rented and registered in Belgrade and blew up outside the journalist's home; he was unharmed. Police detained two suspects (both related to the owner of a museum that Sadikovic had published a story about). However, the journalist believes that the motive for the attack was political and that it was ordered by someone in local government.

In Kazakhstan, harassment of the media and critical voices is escalating. Forbes Kazakhstan and the news website Ratel.kz were raided (for allegedly spreading 'false information') by police in Almaty on 2 April; access to Ratel.kz was then blocked and four journalists are now facing the possibility of up to five years in prison in connection with their coverage of alleged corruption involving a former minister. Another particularly disturbing case is that of the blogger Ardak Ashim, who was confined to a psychiatric clinic in Shymkent on 31 March; her detention followed a series of blog posts in which she had criticised the government.

On 23 April, following 11 days of demonstrations in the streets, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia resigned. The protests were sparked by anger at political corruption, and particularly Sargsyan's sidestep from the role of president to that of prime minister (he had previously promised to step down from power once the country moved to a parliamentary system). During the protests, hundreds were detained briefly and (according to Reporters Without Borders) at least 16 journalists and media workers were attacked, mainly by police. The leader of the protest movement, Nikol Pashinyan, put himself forward as a candidate to replace Sargsyan, but the ruling party blocked him via a parliamentary vote on 1 May. Pashinyan called for further protests….

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