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Resistance and defiance: Free expression in Europe and Central Asia in May

May saw lots of inspiring examples of resistance, defiance and disobedience - where journalists, activists and citizens refused to be cowed in the face of persecution or intimidation. And, although the month also had its usual share of grim stories, it saw some very positive developments in the most unexpected of places….

Uzbek journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev (C), who was allowed to leave police custody, poses for a picture with relatives and supporters in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 7 May 2018
Uzbek journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev (C), who was allowed to leave police custody, poses for a picture with relatives and supporters in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 7 May 2018

REUTERS/Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov


"We have come a long way"

There have been signs of a slight improvement in the human rights situation in Uzbekistan in recent months. As Human Rights Watch points out, there is still a very long way to go, but in May we saw two encouraging developments in relation to press freedom.

The first of these was the release from jail of the journalists Bobomurod Abdullaev and Hayot Nasriddinov (who were being held on charges of attempting to overthrow the regime). The charges against Nasriddinov were dropped. Abdullaev was found guilty of "extremism" and was handed a three-year suspended sentence. There are now no journalists behind bars in Uzbekistan for the first time in two decades.

The second welcome development was Uzbekistan's granting of press accreditation to the Voice of America journalist Navbahor Imamova. It's hard to say if this heralds a new openness towards the foreign press, but media groups are now hoping that accreditation might be extended to other international journalists/organisations.



"Disobedience is legitimate"

Rapper Valtonyc has fled Spain in order to avoid serving a three-and-a-half year prison sentence for "insulting the crown" and "glorifying terrorism" in his song lyrics; he is one of a long list of rappers and ordinary citizens who have been convicted of one or both of these vague, backward-looking offences.


Before his flight, Valtonyc hinted that he would not cooperate with Spanish law enforcement, tweeting "disobedience is legitimate and obligatory."

On 22 May, actor Willy Toledo - charged with "insulting religious feelings" for comments he made on social media (about "shitting on God") - refused to attend court for the second time. Instead, he decided to give a press conference from a church in order to protest the law being used to prosecute him. He was accompanied by the Hollywood A-list actor Javier Bardem, who expressed his fears for free expression in Spain. "That [Toledo's comments] can be punished brings us back to the era of Franco," he said.

Amnesty International released its report into the violence used by police when dispersing protesters during Catalonia's banned independence referendum (1 October 2017). The rights organisation found not only that the police had used "excessive force" but that the Spanish authorities were/are actually obstructing investigations into this use of force which left hundreds of citizens injured. Amnesty also called on the authorities to end the police's use of rubber bullets.


"Putin is not our tsar"

Approximately 1,600 protesters were detained (including 158 children) on 5 May at demonstrations across Russia against the fourth presidential inauguration of Vladimir Putin. Among those detained was the frequently-arrested Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny. Police said that Navalny was arrested for "resisting arrest", an offence that carries a 15-day jail term. Before the demonstrations, Navalny had said in an online video: "Putin is not our tsar. He intends to manage Russia as his own personal property in the interests of his allies, his family, and a narrow ruling group that has seized power." Reporters Without Borders said that 15 journalists were arrested at the rallies, with 11 attacked by police or pro-Putin groups.

May saw another protest in Moscow, this time against the blocking of the messaging service Telegram. Several hundred protesters raised their voices in support of Telegram, which was targeted by the authorities after it refused to provide decryption keys to the FSB. An estimated 25-30 people were detained.


IFEX members and other international rights groups issued a public statement condemning the block on Telegram and Russia's assault on internet freedom generally.

There were two pieces of bad legislative news.

The first of these was a bill introduced in the Duma on 10 May that, if passed into law, would prohibit "luring" minors into taking part in unauthorised public events such as demonstrations and meetings; punishments for infractions include fines of up to US$803 and 15 days' detention. While the authors say the bill is aimed to prevent participation of minors in unauthorized public events in order to protect their lives, health and development, it can clearly be used to limit the engagement of youth in any kind of critical spaces.

The second piece of bad news was a proposed amendment to Russia's Criminal Code which would, if passed into law, criminalise "provision or recommendations and transfer of information that has led or might have led to the introduction" of international sanctions. Punishments for breaking this law could include a three-year prison sentence. The obvious and immediate danger with this law, as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir points out, is its breadth and vagueness, which will likely lead to increased self-censorship among Russian journalists.

A good overall summary of Russia's assault on press freedom over the last four years can be found in a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report submitted to Russia's Universal Periodic Review this month.


"A quiet revolution has taken place" - Focus on gender

25 May saw a huge triumph for Irish women's rights, when the Republic of Ireland voted (by 66.4% to 33.6%) to overturn the country's ban on abortion. Currently, abortion is only permitted in cases where the women's life is at risk; lawmakers will now work on legislation that will liberalise access to abortion. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar had publicly backed liberalisation of the law.


The International Day Against Homophobia Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) took place on 17 May. The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, issued a strong statement highlighting the dangers still faced by LGBTQI+ people in Europe, particularly in places such as Chechnya and Azerbaijan. "I stand together with the LGBTI community and the activists who fight every day for their human rights and for a life free from violence and discrimination," she said. She called on Council of Europe states to "send an unequivocal message that they will not tolerate attacks against LGBTI people".

LGBTQI+ events have been prohibited in Ankara, Turkey, since November 2017. But this month, LGBTQI+ students defied the ban by staging a Pride march (as they have done for the last seven years) through the campus of the Middle East Technical University. Despite attempts by the university and the local authorities to stop it taking place, hundreds of students attended and the event went ahead peacefully.


"I will not abandon my work"

Investigative journalist Hristo Geshov was attacked by an unidentified individual outside his home in Cherven Bryag, Bulgaria, on 10 May. Geshov, who was left bruised (but not seriously injured), cited his work as the motive for the attack and vowed to continue his investigative work. "Despite the pain and many bruises, I am sure that I will not abandon my work, and the attack against me is a sign that I am right," he said. Geshov says that he and his family have been subjected to harassment ever since he started publishing articles alleging corruption in local government. RSF's World Press Freedom Index ranks Bulgaria lowest of all EU states.



"Tamam" ("That's enough")

On 8 May, President Erdogan unintentionally handed social media users a great opportunity for protest when he announced to party members that he would step aside if "the nation says tamam (enough)". Within hours of his declaration going public, a substantial part of the nation was crying “#tamam” all over social media; it was soon trending on Twitter both in Turkey and worldwide. Arzu Geybullayeva explains how the story developed.

The crackdown on opposition voices sparked by the failed 2016 coup continues. As well as targeting journalists, politicians and activists, the authorities are purging educators: 5,800 have been removed from their jobs since 2016.

On 15 May, IFEX members Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders and Cartoonists Rights International joined English PEN and others for a demonstration outside 10 Downing Street (the residence of the UK Prime Minister) where they called on Turkey to release its jailed journalists; President Erdogan was meeting with UK PM Theresa May at the time. Hundreds of protesters attended the demonstration.


There were important awards for Turkish journalists and commentators this month: IFEX member Erol Önderoğlu received the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award for Freedom of Speech; cartoonist Musa Kart received the International Press Drawing Award.

The month saw a number of developments (good and bad) in cases of particular interest to IFEX members:

In early May, teacher Ayşe Çelik, who was jailed with her baby in April on terrorism charges after she criticised Turkish security policy, was released from prison. She had been sentenced to 15 months in jail.

On 11 May, at the fourth hearing of the trial of 11 Zaman journalists, the court ruled to release three of the accused: Ali Bulaç and Mehmet Özdemir (both of whom had been in pre-trial detention for more than a year and a half), and columnist Şahin Alpay (who had been under house arrest). All 11 journalists face terrorism-related charges; five face possible life sentences if convicted.

The "terrorism propaganda" trial of lawyer and human rights defender Eren Keskin was adjourned until 9 July. She is on trial because she took part in a peaceful act of solidarity with the shuttered pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem. She currently faces an incredible 129 trials in total, all related to the same act of solidarity; she has so far been sentenced to 12 years in jail.

On 22 May, Cumhuriyet reporter Ahmet Şık appeared in court for "degrading the Turkish nation, the state of the Turkish Republic, the organs and institutions of the state" in his tweets. The trial was adjourned until 18 September at the defence's request; Şık faces three and a half years in jail if convicted. In a separate trial on 25 April, he was handed a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence for "aiding a terrorist organisation without being its member".

At the end of the month, IFEX members and other rights groups issued a public statement calling on the Turkish authorities to drop all charges against documentary makers Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu; the filmmakers are currently on trial for "spreading terrorist propaganda” through a 2013 film they shot of the PKK (the Kurdish Workers' Party) which has been fighting the Turkish government for decades. The trial has been adjourned to 23 October.

It can be challenging trying to keep up with all of the big cases of journalists and activists currently suffering persecution in Turkey. However, the following do an excellent job of providing thorough, regular updates: Bianet, the Committee to Protect Journalists' Turkey Crackdown Chronicle, the Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey, the Platform for Independent Journalism (and linked site Expression Interrupted).


"These days, all journalists in Montenegro are targets"

Investigative journalist Olivera Lakić was shot in the leg outside her home in Podgorica, Montenegro, on 8 May; her injuries were not life-threatening. The gunman appears to have been part of a small group of three. Lakić has written numerous articles for the newspaper Vijesti about crime and corruption in Montenegro, and it was not the first time that she had been attacked. The Prime Minister, Duško Marković, urged a "swift and efficient investigation".

This was the second attack on a journalist in Montenegro within a month; in April, Sead Sadikovic was targeted by a car bomb. Speaking to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, he said: "These days, all journalists in Montenegro are targets… Olivera is an extraordinarily brave woman. An extraordinary journalist. She is a great investigator and, so, simply, it is hard for me to say that I am surprised by the attack."


"Hungarian civil society faces an imminent existential threat"

International criticism of Hungary's hard right politics is growing. This month saw two separate but connected protests against the so-called 'Stop Soros' bill that Hungarian lawmakers are expected to vote on soon. The bill, if passed, would introduce crippling restrictions on civil society organisations that operate in Hungary and work on immigration issues. 87 civil society groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) signed a public letter calling for the bill to be withdrawn; seventy-seven academics from 28 countries called on the EU to act to stop the Hungarian Parliament adopting the bill as law.


The Open Society Foundations (OSF), founded by George Soros and targeted by the Hungarian government, announced that they would be moving their international operations from Budapest to Berlin because of the impending 'Stop Soros' legislation. However, they will continue to fund rights projects in Hungary.

In early May, the EU announced a new plan that could have drastic consequences for Hungary (and also Poland). The plan, yet to be agreed, would link EU funds received by member states to their commitment to judicial independence, democratic checks and balances and a free media and civil society. The ruling parties of Hungary (and Poland) have been attacking these 'EU values' for some time and would likely suffer a loss of EU money if the plan were adopted.

HRW has launched a campaign - #ExpelFidesz - calling for Hungary's ruling party to be expelled from the largest pan-European party (the European People's Party).


In brief

There was unusually good news from Malta this month: defamation was decriminalised. Malta was one of only a few European countries that retain this free-speech-cowing law. The news was welcomed by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir. However, Désir used the occasion to call for the improvement of legislation around civil defamation and for the dismissal of ongoing civil libel cases against the murdered investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia (some of these lawsuits are being brought by the Prime Minister and members of his government).


Kazakhstan has recently seen a spate of civil and criminal actions targeting news websites and individual journalists. IFEX members signed a statement this month calling on the government to examine recent police and judicial targeting of websites such as Ratel.kz (now shut down) and review legislation prohibiting the "dissemination of false information", ensuring that it comes into line with international standards.

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