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Europe: Is the censorship machine coming? Plus good LGBTQI+ news in Poland

Protesters against internet censorship, wearing computers as helmets, are seen outside the Hanover Congress Centrum in Hanover, Germany, 15 March 2015
Protesters against internet censorship, wearing computers as helmets, are seen outside the Hanover Congress Centrum in Hanover, Germany, 15 March 2015

Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Update [5 July 2018]: On 5 July, Members of the European Parliament rejected the controversial Copyright Directive by 318 votes to 278 (with 31 abstentions). The Parliament will now reconsider the bill in September and all MEPs will be able to submit fresh amendments to the text.

The censorship machine takes a step closer

On 20 June, the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament voted in favour of an extremely controversial copyright directive proposed by the European Commission. While promoted as protecting the work done by the creative industry, several provisions within it threaten to significantly limit how we share information on the internet globally in the future, with potentially severe results for freedom of expression online.

In a 12 June letter to the President of the European Parliament, more than 70 founders and pioneers of the internet warned:

"By requiring Internet platforms to perform automatic filtering all of the content that their users upload, Article 13 takes an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the Internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users."

Two articles in the directive have caused this alarm: Article 11, which proposes a 'link tax', meaning that charges would be applied for linking to websites; and Article 13, which requires online platforms to filter all of their users' submissions against a database of copyrighted works, meaning that an algorithm would determine whether what you upload is blocked or visible: this has been nicknamed the 'Censorship Machine.'

IFEX members the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Index on Censorship have provided excellent summaries of the threat to freedom of expression that this directive presents. The UN freedom of expression expert David Kaye has made his opposition to the directive clear.

To become law the directive will need to be approved by the European Parliament and the European Council. Discussion of the directive will begin during the July plenary session of the European Parliament, starting on 2 July.

A civil society coalition campaign page has been set up with ways to get involved at

Turkey - is the worst yet to come?

On 24 June, President Erdoğan won the presidential election with 53% of the vote; he will now implement a new presidential system under which there will be far fewer checks and balances on the power of the executive: Human Rights Watch provides a good summary of what that entails. Before the election, IFEX members and press groups published a letter calling on the winner of the election to make protecting an independent press a priority; after the results were in, PEN International called on Erdoğan to restore fundamental rights and lift the state of emergency (which he had said he would do if re-elected).

In the lead up to the election, Reporters Without Borders reminded us that a fair election was unlikely under the ongoing state of emergency, and with the government's "unprecedented control over the media. The EU Parliament's Turkey rapporteur pointed out the blatant bias in election coverage provided by state TV:

There was good news for the writer Mehmet Altan on 28 June when a regional court ruled to release him. Altan was arrested in 2016 on charges connected to the failed coup of that year and was convicted in February 2018 of "attempting to overthrow the constitutional order". The Constitutional Court ruled in January 2018 that he should be released, but the trial court had refused to implement the decision. He is appealing his conviction.
In early June, ARTICLE 19, the International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders observed the fifth hearing in the case against eleven journalists and columnists writing for Zaman newspaper. The journalists are all facing coup or terror-related charges, with five facing aggravated life-sentences. The next hearing will be 5-6 July, when a verdict is expected.

There was another hearing in the prosecution of Turkey's Amnesty Chair Taner Kılıç, who was arrested alongside ten other activists in June 2017 and charged - without evidence - with being members of a "terrorist organisation". Kılıç is the only one of the activists still behind bars; his next hearing will take place on 7 November.

Keeping track of all the individual cases of detained, harassed and prosecuted journalist and activists in Turkey can be a challenge, but the Platform for Independent Journalism, Bianet and the Committee to Protect Journalists' Turkey Crackdown Chronicle all offer excellent, frequent updates.

Turkey's targeting of social media users shows no sign of slowing down. Bianet reports that, in just one week in June, 624 social media accounts were investigated for "propagandising for terrorism", "insulting state officials" and other charges. Legal action was taken against 306 people as a result.

Deep concerns about the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder inquiry

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's special rapporteur on the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder, Pieter Omtzigt, has been authorised to receive information from anonymous sources. A document declassified this month reveals Omtzigt's deep concerns about the progress of the murder investigation underway in Malta and the behaviour of some public officials. According to the document, Omtzigt believes that the motive for the murder was Caruana Galizia's work, and that the arrested suspects were acting under instructions.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who visited Malta late last year published a damning report on the murder inquiry this month. They noted the police's failure to follow leads and question witnesses, and wrote in their conclusion: "The investigation on the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia is stalling. People we spoke to suspect that the plan may be to ensure the blame rests with the three suspected bombers and to eventually let them go free, after 20 months of detention."

It was reported earlier in the month that the Maltese magistrate who is carrying out the inquiry into the murder has requested the telephone logs of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, opposition leader Adrian Delia, and Economy Minister Chris Cardona (all of whom Caruana Galizia had investigated for corruption). According to the report, the logs have not yet been provided.

At the UN Human Rights Council 38th Special Session, Caruana Galizia's son Andrew delivered a moving statement (signed by IFEX members) about violence against women journalists. He ended by urging the Council to "ensure a full, independent, impartial and effective investigation into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the crimes upon which she was reporting".

Foul play in Russia

The football World Cup is underway in Russia and IFEX members, including PEN International, Reporters Without Borders, ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch, have used the opportunity to highlight Russia's ongoing targeting of independent journalists and activists, and its legislative assault on LGBTQI+ people. Before the start of the tournament there were concerns that the authorities – or other unsavoury characters – might exploit the event for propaganda purposes; these concerns proved to be well-founded:

Russia jailed a Ukrainian journalist for 12 years on espionage charges on 4 June. Roman Sushchenko, correspondent for the Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform, was arrested in Moscow in 2016; he says that he was in Russia for a vacation and the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that no evidence was provided at the trial to support the charges against him.

Poles and Ukrainians call for the release of Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, at the Main Square in Krakow, Poland, 1 June 2018. Sentsov is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Russia and is currently on hunger strike
Poles and Ukrainians call for the release of Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, at the Main Square in Krakow, Poland, 1 June 2018. Sentsov is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Russia and is currently on hunger strike

Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Gender in focus

Staying with Russia, the well known, UK-based LGBTQI+ activist Peter Tatchell was arrested outside the Kremlin shortly before the World Cup's opening ceremony. He had been carrying out a one-man protest against the detention and torture of gay men in Chechnya and was charged with violating a ban on protests near the Kremlin during the World Cup. Tatchell was due to appear in court on 26 June, but chose to fly home instead – apparently unhindered.

There was very welcome news from Poland on 14 June, when the Supreme Court ruled that nobody should suffer discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation when it comes to accessing services. The decision was delivered at an appeal against the conviction of a homophobic printer who had refused to print banners for an LGBTQI+ organisation.

Freedom to rap

Rapper Valtonyc, who fled Spain rather than go to jail after he was convicted of "glorifying terrorism" and "insulting the crown" in his lyrics, is currently in Belgium, where the prosecutor's office of East Flanders has confirmed that they are examining a European arrest warrant issued for him by Spain. He faces over three years in prison if he returns.

June saw good news from Turkey: hip hop artist Ezhel was acquitted of the charge of "encouraging drug use" at the first hearing of his trial on 19th. The evidence against him consisted of a photo that he had shared on Instagram and the lyrics of his song Geceler (Nights). The judge said that she considered Ezhel's music to be a work of art and ruled for his acquittal. The rapper's arrest on 24 May - and his ongoing detention - had prompted a social media campaign under the hashtag #FreeEzhel, calling for his release.

In the UK, five members of the 1011 gang were banned from making 'drill' music - an aggressive type of hip hop, usually heavily laden with expletives and violent imagery. The five gang members are currently serving prison sentences of between ten months and three-and-a-half years for conspiracy to commit violent disorder. Following a request by the Metropolitan Police, a judge ruled on 15 June that references to subjects such as death, injury and other gangs must not be included in their lyrics, and that the police must be notified in advance of any new music or performances made by the group. "This isn't going to address the issues that led to the creation of this kind of music," said Jodie Ginsberg of Index on Censorship, "nor should we be creating a precedent in which certain forms of art - which include violent images or ideas - are banned. We need to tackle actual violence, not ideas and opinions."

In brief

Reporters Without Borders called for a full investigation into the brief disappearance of the Serbian investigative journalist Stefan Cvetkovic. The discovery of his abandoned car on 13 June prompted a police search operation, but 48 hours later, the President of Serbia announced that Cvetkovic, who has previously received threats from criminal and political circles, was alive and in a police station being questioned.

There was welcome news from Ireland in mid-June, when the government announced that it would hold a referendum in October to remove the offence of blasphemy from the constitution.

The EU Commissioner for Justice, Věra Jourová, was in Slovakia this month to talk to government ministers about the February murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak. She impressed upon them the need for an independent, impartial investigation.

Matteo Salvini, Italy's far right Interior Minister, has threatened to remove police protection from the investigative journalist Roberto Saviano. The announcement came after the journalist publicly criticised the new government's hostility towards migrants. Saviano, whose work exposing organised crime has made him a target for mafia hitmen, has been under police protection for over a decade. Salvini has called for a census of Roma people and for all non-Italian Roma to be expelled from the country.

Security agents in Kazakhstan carried out mass arrests on 23 June in an operation intended to prevent a demonstration demanding free education. The protest had been called by the exiled opposition leader, Mukhtar Ablyazov. Adil Soz reports that at least eight journalists were targeted to prevent them from covering the planned protest. These included: Nana Iksanova, Maria Melnikova, Lyudmila Kalashnikova and Lukpan Akhmedyarov of the newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya, Sanat Urnaliev and Madi Bekmaganbet from Radio Azattyk (Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty), Andrey Sviridov from the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, and Bagdat Asylbek from the newspaper Diapazon. All were briefly detained for interrogation or documentation checks.

On 14 June, lawmakers in Belarus passed a much-criticised new media law, which the government says will enable the prosecution of those who spread 'false information' on the internet. The new legislation has been condemned by the International Federation of Journalists for the threat it poses to the press. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) had tried to persuade lawmakers to take on board the serious concerns that journalists had about the law. Among the troubling aspects are: the end of online anonymity, the denial of accreditation to journalists from 'unregistered' online media, a ban on distribution of foreign media without a permit, new powers to block social media.

The staged 'murder' in Ukraine of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was a bizarre, deeply troubling event that exposed the tension between Ukraine's government and the independent press. On 30 May, the spokesperson of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine published a list of "26 traitors" (including journalist Miroslava Gongadze and Chair of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine Sergiy Tomilenko) who had criticised the security services for staging Babchenko's 'murder'. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, warned that describing journalists as traitors "was unacceptable and dangerous".

Lawmakers in Hungary passed legislation on 20 June that criminalises anyone who helps migrants. Dubbed the 'Stop Soros Law', the new legislation is another blow landed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Hungarian civil society (which Orbán accuses of working with billionaire philanthropist George Soros to undermine Hungary). The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) provides a detailed analysis of the legislative changes. On 25 June, MEPs on the Civil liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee voted to launch disciplinary proceedings against Hungary for violations of EU values, including the rule of law; the ultimate sanction that Hungary could face is a loss of voting rights, though this would be an unlikely scenario.

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