Turkey: EU committee votes to suspend accession talks
On 20 February, the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee voted in favour of suspending Ankara-EU accession talks, citing Turkey's disregard for human rights and civil liberties. While the decision was criticised by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, events in February added plenty of weight to the Committee's argument.
Late in the month, IFEX member Erol Önderoğlu, human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı and journalist Ahmet Nesin were in court for another hearing in their trial on ludicrous "terrorist propaganda" charges. The charges are based on their involvement in a 2016 peaceful act of solidarity with a Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem. They each face 14.5 years in jail if convicted and the next hearing is scheduled for 15 April. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has set up a petition calling for their acquittal: please sign up.
Civil society leader Osman Kavala (having already spent over a year behind bars without charge) was finally charged in February with attempting to overthrow the government. He is one of sixteen individuals (including renowned journalist Can Dündar) who were charged for their part in the 2013 Gezi protests. If convicted, they face possible life prison sentences.
Mid-month, an appellate court upheld the terrorism-related convictions of 14 staff of the newspaper Cumhuriyet. The decision was greeted with outrage by IFEX members and condemned by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir. Eight of the convicted, including cartoonist Musa Kart, will now have to return to prison to serve the remainder of their terms.
Journalist Pelin Ünker, sentenced to 13 months in jail in January for her reports on the Paradise Papers, is now facing an additional case based on the same series of articles, but concerning President Erdoğan's son-in-law. Maltese MEP David Casa visited Ünker in Istanbul this month and called for all charges against her to be dropped, and for all journalists jailed in Turkey solely for practising their profession to be released.
"The Turkish people deserve a free press" @DavidCasaMEP's video appeal 4 @pelinunker + Turkish journalists is great 2 see. Time to drop charges against her. I hope she can indeed visit @Europarl_EN. Release all journalists in Turkey arbitrarily detained. https://t.co/sIb670niqq pic.twitter.com/N1XhgSgoXv— Tom Gibson (@at_tgibson) February 20, 2019
There is widespread concern that journalists, activists and opposition politicians in Turkey are having their fair trial rights violated. This month, IFEX members and 47 MEPs joined an International Press Institute (IPI) resolution highlighting the "lack of effective domestic legal remedies for journalists targeted in Turkey's media crackdown".
One politician who has been failed by Turkey's justice system is the jailed former co-chair of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş. He was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Prize this month, and his case has also been taken up by PEN International. Demirtaş is currently serving a prison sentence on dubious "terrorist propaganda" charges.
Against this grim backdrop, there was one piece of welcome news. Towards the end of the month, journalist and artist Zehra Doğan was released from prison after serving her full sentence of 2 years, 9 months and 22 days; she had been convicted of "propagandising for a terrorist organisation" in a painting, an article and social media posts.
Journalist and artist, Zehra Doğan, finally walked out of prison today after serving her full sentence of 2 years, 9 months and 22 days, after being convicted for a painting, an article and social media posts. https://t.co/r7eW2CaXvG pic.twitter.com/6r92CSs2ea— PEN International (@pen_int) February 24, 2019
Ján Kuciak: One year on
February saw the one-year anniversary of the murder in Slovakia of the journalist Ján Kuciak and his partner Martina Kušnírová. Four suspects (including a former police officer) have been charged with carrying out the killing, but those who commissioned the crime have still not been identified. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), in collaboration with other groups, has been building on Kuciak's work by publishing reports on the links between organized crime in Slovakia and the political establishment. They recently published a detailed and moving account of the events leading up to Kuciak's murder: How Ján and Martina Died.
The European Commission marked the anniversary of Kuciak's murder by calling on the Slovak authorities to swiftly bring to justice those responsible for the crime:
We observe a minute of silence in memory of Ján Kuciak, Slovak investigative journalist who was murdered one year ago, and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.Journalists are the pillars of our democratic societies. They must be protected.#JanKuciak pic.twitter.com/AcR8oYgXnC— European Commission 🇪🇺 (@EU_Commission) February 21, 2019
IFEX members also marked the anniversary.
The International Press Institute (IPI) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent a delegation to Slovakia where they urged the authorities to "expedite" the investigation. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) highlighted apparent political meddling in the inquiry.
Index on Censorship, PEN International, ARTICLE 19, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and other free press groups came together to raise concerns about the Slovak authorities' failure to investigate the state's breaches in its obligation to protect journalists.
EFJ, RSF and CPJ also organised a vigil for Kuciak and Kušnírová in Brussels. In Bratislava, thousands of citizens took to the streets to mark the anniversary:
1 year later, justice is still far off for #Slovakia journalist #JanKuciak & Martina Kušnírová. But we are a little bit closer, thx to a public that refuses to accept impunity and to strong, independent media. Inspiring to be in #Bratislava tonight. #justice4jan #endimpunity pic.twitter.com/k7MmCki5hS— IPI (@globalfreemedia) February 21, 2019
France: Rubber bullets and the "anti-thug law"
The Yellow Vest (Gilets Jaunes) protests continued across France in February, with reports of further horrific injuries suffered by demonstrators, allegations of anti-Semitism, heavy-handed riot police tactics, assaults on the police, and further chaotic street battles between left-wing and right-wing groups that have attached themselves to the Yellow Vest movement:
According to official figures, by 4 February, 2,060 protesters and 1,325 police officers had suffered injuries in the demonstrations.
Despite such shocking statistics, the majority of Yellow Vest protests (and protesters) are actually peaceful, so it is worrying that France's National Assembly approved a draft law in February that aims to place severe restrictions on the right to protest. Nicknamed the "loi anti-casseur" (or "anti-thug law"), the legislation will allow local officials to directly ban certain individuals from protesting for a month if they are regarded as "a threat to public order" (even when those individuals have never been convicted of a criminal act); these banned individuals will then have their personal information recorded on a criminal database.
The law will also give police greater powers to search protesters who have not been banned from protesting. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has said that concealing one's face "without a legitimate motive" will, under the "anti-thug law", be punished by a one-year prison sentence and €15,000 in fines. The draft legislation has returned to the Senate for a second reading.
Human rights experts continue to express concern about some aspects of the police's crowd control tactics. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, said this month that the number and seriousness of the injuries inflicted on demonstrators "raise questions about the compatibility of the methods used in operations aimed at maintaining public order with due regard for [free expression and free assembly] rights"; she called on the authorities to suspend the use of rubber bullets against protesters and for the use of intermediate weapons to be reviewed.
The @CommissionerHR issues memorandum inviting the #French authorities to show more respect for #HumanRights during operations aimed at maintaining public order & to suspend the use of rubber bullet launchers. @coe @CoE_HRightsRLaw @RepFranceCdE @PACE_News https://t.co/9Rm9UEgkXl— Council of Europe - Execution of judgments (@CoE_execution) February 26, 2019
As Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported this month, Ankara's ban on LGBTQI+ events is ongoing - despite the fact that Turkey's state of emergency, under which the ban was brought in, was lifted in July 2018. The ban is both strict and broad: even public LGBTQI+ discussions are forbidden. HRW has called for an end to the ban and has written to the Governor of Ankara seeking comment.
Ankara's ban is also highlighted in the Turkey chapter of ILGA-Europe's recently launched Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People.
This month, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) reported a worrying trend in Ukraine, where attacks on women journalists increased by 50% during 2018. According to EFJ, one of the main causes of this increase was that offenders faced little risk of punishment. Daryna Bilera, a journalist who spoke to EFJ, said that she now avoids reporting on far-right events because of the heightened risk to her safety.
There was also some positive gender news in February, when the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the "backlash" against women's rights and gender equality in the EU. The resolution makes a number of recommendations and calls on member states to prioritise gender equality, ensuring that women's and LGBTQI+ rights are "protected and recognised as equality principles of democracy and rule of law".
There was very welcome news from Montenegro this month when the police arrested nine suspects in the investigation into the May 2018 shooting of journalist Olivera Lakic. Lakic, who was shot in the leg, had previously received death threats for her investigative work.
The Times of Malta reported this month that the police have identified another "three to five" suspects in the inquiry into the murder of Malta's best known journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia. However, according to the report, the authorities are holding back from arresting these individuals until they have "rock solid" evidence. Three men are currently in custody and charged with carrying out the attack; no-one has yet been charged with commissioning it. Towards the end of the month, Daphne's son, Andrew, addressed the UN Human Rights Council and called on member states to press Malta to accept demands for a public inquiry into his mother's death.
In Spain, the trial of Catalonia's separatist leaders began in February. Arrested for their part in organising a Catalan independence referendum on 1 October 2017, they are charged with sedition and rebellion and face very lengthy jail sentences if convicted. PEN International is protesting the charges against (and lengthy pre-trial detention of) two of the accused: civil society leaders Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart; they face up to 17 years in prison. The start of the trial sparked a new wave of protests and clashes between demonstrators and police in Catalonia. Relations between the Spanish police and independence-minded Catalans have been fraught since the former's brutal crackdown on the overwhelmingly peaceful protests of 1 October 2017.
In Russia, the trial of newspaper editor Igor Rudnikov began this month; he has been in pre-trial detention for 15 months on the dubious charge of trying to extort money from General Victor Ledenev, a senior Kaliningrad police officer who has been the target of some of Rudnikov's investigative reporting. Rudnikov faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted.
Finally, in the UK, MPs have described Facebook as "digital gangsters" and called for it to be regulated as soon as possible. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has spent a year considering the social media giant's role in the spread of false information. The resulting report, which accuses Facebook of intentionally obstructing its inquiry and failing to tackle attempts by Russia to manipulate elections, calls for a compulsory code of ethics for the industry, overseen by an independent regulator; it also calls for that regulator to be given legal powers to take action in the event of a breach of the code and for social media companies to be forced to take down known, proven sources of disinformation.
If you enjoyed this, check out all the February regional roundups!
Asia & Pacific
Middle East & North Africa