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The good, the bad and the ugly: Free expression in Europe and Central Asia in November

Daphne Caruana Galizia commemorated, Macedonian NGOs breathe again, bizarre court decisions in Turkey, free speech under pressure in Catalonia, UK surveillance powers challenged, Poland in big trouble, fascists, 'foreign agents', fake news and ugly scenes in Italy….

Protestors stand outside the office of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, at the start of a four-day protest against the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, in Valletta, Malta, 26 October 2017
Protestors stand outside the office of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, at the start of a four-day protest against the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, in Valletta, Malta, 26 October 2017

REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

International Day to End Impunity

The October 2017 killing of the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia featured heavily in IFEX member activities for this year's International Day to End Impunity (IDEI). The Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Press Institute, ARTICLE 19 and Index on Censorship all issued statements calling for justice for this courageous investigator of political corruption. Index and ARTICLE 19 also joined other rights groups, including Reporters Without Borders, English PEN and Transparency International, in holding a vigil for Caruana Galizia outside the Maltese embassy in London, where extracts from her writings were read.

Caruana Galizia was one of many European cases highlighted by Index. You can read about the others from Russia, Belarus, Montenegro, Ukraine, Germany and many other places here.

The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) used IDEI to highlight Azerbaijan's atrocious record on free expression, reminding us not only of the many journalists currently behind bars (including IRFS's chair, Mehman Huseynov, at whose recent appeal hearing all requests to inspect the evidence against him were denied), but of the impunity enjoyed by some of those who have killed reporters. One of these victims was the journalist Rafiq Tagi, whose 2011 killing ARTICLE 19 registered with the Council of Europe's Platform for Journalists' Safety on IDEI.

Media outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty took part in IDEI activities too, drawing attention to the persecution that their own reporters have suffered during 2017.

Turkey: Bizarre and politicised court decisions

The latest hearing in the trial of Amnesty Turkey Chair Taner Kılıç and 10 human rights defenders (also known as the Istanbul10) took place on 22 November. All are charged with terrorism-related crimes; Kılıç is the only one still behind bars. The charge against him is based on the allegation that he downloaded and used the ByLock messaging application, which is claimed to have been used by the Gülen movement to communicate during the failed coup in 2016. No evidence has been produced to show that he downloaded ByLock. The next hearing in the case is on 31 January 2018. Earlier in the month, UN experts called on Turkey to drop all charges against the accused.

On 13 November, in a surreal moment, a judge dismissed the entire legal defence team for writers and brothers Mehmet and Ahmet Altan during their trial on charges of preparing the ground for the 2016 coup. The brothers were then forced to represent themselves (by video link) from Silivri Prison. ARTICLE 19, PEN International, PEN Norway and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – who observed the hearing - condemned this violation of fair trial rights.

There was bad news too for Oğuz Güven, editor of the Cumhuriyet newspaper's website, who was sentenced by an Istanbul court to three years and one month in prison on charges of "terrorist propaganda". Güven has appealed against his conviction and remains on conditional release.

On 1 November, an Istanbul court ordered that civil society leader and philanthropist Osman Kavala be sent to prison while he is being investigated on allegations of organising the Gezi Park protests and taking part in the 2016 coup. He was detained on 18 October. No evidence has been advanced to support the allegations.

IFEX members and other rights organisations have submitted third-party interventions in 10 cases against jailed Turkish journalists to which the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has given priority status. The interventions offer detailed legal analyses of the principles at stake in the cases of the detainees. Another smaller group of IFEX members has done the same in the cases of 12 detained Turkish MPs.

Spain: Free expression under pressure ahead of Catalan elections

Since Catalonia's independence referendum on 1 October, eight members of the deposed Catalan government have been jailed without bail while they are investigated on charges of sedition; others (including the deposed President Puigdemont) have fled to Belgium. Fresh regional elections have been called for 21 December and tension is extremely high. Since the widespread use of violence by the national police against peaceful demonstrators in October, the authorities have not been shy about employing a heavy hand against both separatists and critics of the national government's tactics.

At least eight primary school teachers (who, during classes, are alleged to have criticised police tactics on 1 October) are under investigation on charges of 'inciting hatred'. They deny the charges. The Mayor of Reus and three councilmen are under investigation on the same charges because they signed a public petition demanding that the national police - who were transported into Reus to stop the referendum taking place - leave the city because of the violence in October. Two high profile civil society leaders (and prominent separatists) are in prison without bail while they are investigated on sedition charges. The satirical magazine El Jueves is under investigation on slander charges after it published a jokey article a few days after the referendum, which said that the national riot police had consumed all the cocaine in Catalonia. PEN International raises most of these cases in its recent statement calling for free and fair elections in Catalonia, and on all sides to respect the right to freedom of expression and opinion.

Some parties may take a little more persuasion. The Federal Police Union tweeted (and quickly deleted) this target list early in the month:

Those marked with are 'X' are in jail. Some of the others - including the director of TV3, a publicly funded regional TV channel - are not even under investigation, but the intimidating message is very clear. The electoral candidate for Partido Popular (the right wing governing party of Spain) has said that he wants to shut down TV3 and reopen it with "normal people".

Russia: new foreign agent law for the media

On 25 November, President Putin signed the so-called 'foreign agent' law for media outlets that work in Russia and receive funding from abroad. It was tit-for-tat retaliation after RT was forced to register as a foreign agent in the USA.

The new legislation is more than just another blow to press freedom in Russia - there's a danger that it could encourage attacks on media outlets. That has certainly been one effect of the 2012 'foreign agent' law that applies to civil society organisations (a second one is that it has crippled environmental protection groups working in Russia). For Russians, the term 'foreign agent' has particularly sinister overtones, suggesting treason and spying.

Focus on gender

The persecution of the LGBTQI+ community is an ongoing problem in many parts of Europe and Central Asia, where it is sometimes promoted (or even carried out) by local authorities. This month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an article about how the concept of 'traditional values' is being used in many areas of the Former Soviet Union to trample on LGBTQI+ rights. We also learned from HRW that the Chechen singer Zelim Bakaev - swept up in Chechnya's recent anti LGBTQI+ purge - had 'disappeared'.

In Turkey, the trial of 24 LGBTQI+ activists who took part in a Pride parade in June 2017 began this month. They are charged with breaking the Law on Demonstrations and Rallies; the next hearing will be on 27 February 2018. The Turkish capital, Ankara, has banned LGBTQI+ cinema and other exhibitions over fears, the governor's office says, for "public safety."

In brief: Fascists, head butts, the 'nuclear option' and more

In Italy, as Reporters Without Borders reminds us, journalists frequently complain of being harassed and intimidated by the mafia and other criminals. A shocking example of this occurred in Ostia (near Rome) on 7 November. Unusually, it was all caught on camera:

The aggressor in this case is Roberto Spada, the brother of a mafia boss. The journalist had approached him for an interview about local elections and his connections to a far right group. An investigation has been opened.

There was good news from Macedonia this month, when the authorities announced that lengthy corruption investigations into NGOs had all been closed because of a complete lack of evidence. These investigations were instigated by the previous governing party, VMRO-DPMNE, as part of a harassment campaign; VMRO-DPMNE alleged that NGOs were working with the human rights philanthropist George Soros in order to undermine Macedonia. Conspiracy theories of this kind are frequently peddled by authoritarian, populist governments in Europe in an attempt to de-legitimise critical voices.

Unlike Macedonia, Hungary shows no sign yet of relenting on the Soros-NGO conspiracy and the harassment of civil society that goes with it. Working with other rights groups, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) has produced a chronological summary of the government's persecution of NGOs from 2013 to the present. The anti-civil society mood is fuelled, in part, by Prime Minister Orbán's anti-immigrant rhetoric (he accuses Soros of wanting to 'flood' Hungary with refugees), which feeds racist attitudes in some sections of Hungarian society. Muslims get the worst of it, but the relentless focus on George Soros (a Hungarian Jew) has the whiff of anti-Semitism, as Al Jazeera reports. Orbán is aided and abetted in all this by large swathes of the media, much of which his rich supporters have bought up. The government is also funding pro-Orbán media outlets that produce or promote sizeable quantities of 'fake news', including conspiracy stories generated by 'Infowars', the internet-based show fronted by the screaming Alex Jones.

Poland is in trouble, and not only because of the tens of thousands of fascists who marched in Warsaw this month calling for a "white Europe of brotherly nations." On 15 November, the European Parliament took formal steps to trigger the Article 7 procedure over concerns that Poland was not acting in accord with European values, especially around rule of law (IFEX members have been raising concerns about Poland's assault on the independence of the judiciary for some time). This is considered the 'nuclear option' and could lead to the suspension of Poland's EU Council voting rights. The Civil Liberties Committee will now need to draw up a 'reasoned proposal', the document required to call on the Council to trigger the rule of law mechanism. Article 7 has only ever been triggered against one other country - Hungary.

On 7 November, the European Court of Human Rights heard a landmark case as part of a challenge to the lawfulness of the UK's surveillance laws and its intelligence agencies' mass surveillance practices. The case was brought by Privacy International and nine other rights NGOs and is the latest stage in a protracted challenge to the UK's extremely wide-ranging snooping powers which, argues Privacy International, violate the fundamental rights of individuals across the world, assailing privacy and chilling thought and speech. You can read the briefing here. There is no timeline set for the judgement.

On 24 November, the heads of the 28 EU member states' governments and of the six Eastern Partnership countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine - gathered in Brussels for the 5th Eastern Partnership Summit. IFEX members addressed an open letter to the heads of EU member states, calling on them to "use any opportunity you will have during the summit to call on President Aliyev to end the human rights crackdown and commit to concrete and sustainable human rights reforms in Azerbaijan." Appeals to Aliyev tend to fall on deaf ears.

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