May in Europe and Central Asia: A round up by IFEX's Regional Editor Cathal Sheerin of key free expression news, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
The European External Action Service published a report this month which, somewhat surprisingly, showed a welcome decrease in the amount of disinformation being spread online about COVID-19. However, not so surprisingly, the report also found that pro-Kremlin sources are still disseminating false information about the virus. Currently, disinformation seems to be focused on: alleged links between COVID-19 and 5G networks; COVID-19 as a strategy for global domination by secretive elites; and individuals engaged in the development of vaccines, such as Bill Gates.
Bill Gates-bashing is back in the COVID-19 narrative on Russian state-controlled TV, paired with anti-vaccine messaging. https://t.co/hL6JsbJA8D
— EUvsDisinfo (@EUvsDisinfo) May 20, 2020
In Turkey, the government is determined to exercise control over how information about COVID-19 is disseminated. Several local journalists have been arrested and charged after publishing information about cases of infection in their region. Among them were Mustafa Ahmet Oktay, the owner of the newspaper Pusula (Compass), and his editor, Eren Sarıkaya, who were arrested in March after reporting that a doctor had tested positive for COVID-19; they have been charged with “sowing panic and fear” and of not waiting for official information. They face between two and four years in prison if convicted.
And it’s not just journalists who are being targeted by the authorities: Bianet reported this month that 510 social media users had been taken into custody due to “provocative” and “baseless” posts about COVID-19.
Access to information about the pandemic and draconian approaches to free speech are also issues in Kyrgyzstan. In May, IFEX members wrote to the Kyrgyz president and prime minister calling for greater access to accurate information and more openness from the government, which has been providing controlled, limited briefings about the virus. They also called for an end to the abuse of law to silence social media users who post about COVID-19; recent targets of the law have included doctors who shared their concerns online about the inadequacy of their personal protective equipment.
In the UK, the government’s treatment of the media following recent unfavourable coverage is being described as “Trumpian” by press freedom advocates. Throughout the lockdown, daily press conferences have been virtual, providing journalists with limited options to ask follow-up questions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rarely appeared at these briefings and some outlets, such as OpenDemocracy, have been banned from asking questions. Following recent revelations that Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings broke the strict lockdown rules – and that he and the government misled the public about the story – government ministers and various right wing pundits have been trying to discredit certain media outlets as “campaigning newspapers”, dismissing their accurate reports as “false”. Official attempts to undermine the press have been accompanied by vicious online attacks on the #ScumMedia.
Appalled to see today's "scum media" attacks online. Public officials who are intentionally fuelling this hostility & attempting to undermine trust in media – such as through @10DowningStreet's "campaigning newspapers" slur – are actively damaging the UK's press freedom climate.
— Rebecca Vincent (@rebecca_vincent) May 26, 2020
In Ukraine, the Institute for Mass Information has recorded 25 violations of journalists’ free expression since the country went into lockdown. Many of these violations involve blocking reporters from doing their job; some involved police violence.
Journalists in Germany also suffered violent attacks in May. According to Reporters Without Borders, members of the press were assaulted at protests against COVID-19 restrictions in Berlin, Dortmund and Hamburg.
In Tajikistan, journalist Abdulloh Ghurbati was beaten up in a premeditated attack by two masked men near the entrance to his home on 11 May. Ghurbati had been reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic, for which he has been threatened on social media. Government-linked internet trolls had branded him a “traitor”.
On 17 May, we celebrated the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), while recognising that much remains to be done in securing and protecting the rights of LGBTQI+ people across Europe and Central Asia.
The worrying results of two recent studies underline this:
A survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that there had been “little overall progress” during the last seven years in terms of anti-LGBTQI+ discrimination. According to the study, 6 in 10 avoided holding hands with their partner in public, 2 in 5 had suffered harassment in the year before the study, and 1 in 5 trans or intersex people had been attacked or sexually assaulted.
— EU Fundamental Rights ➡️ #HumanRights (@EURightsAgency) May 14, 2020
ILGA-Europe, in publishing their annual Rainbow Map, described the current situation as a “make or break” moment for LGBTQI+ rights in Europe, saying that “once leading countries in Europe are falling behind in their commitments” to LGBTQI+ equality. Their study found that there had been “no positive change” in 49% of countries and that, unsurprisingly, “regression is most visible where civil and political rights are eroded”.
— ILGA-Europe (@ILGAEurope) May 14, 2020
One state that is sinking deeper into the mire on gender rights is Hungary. Human Rights Watch has been tireless in documenting the government’s war on so-called “gender ideology” and the country’s general slide into political chauvinism. On 5 May, Hungarian lawmakers blocked ratification of the Istanbul Convention, a regional treaty on violence against women, arguing that it promotes homosexuality, undermines traditional values and affords protection to immigrants.
On 19 May, the Hungarian parliament also passed a law making it impossible for transgender people to legally change their gender. The legislation stipulates that sex at birth will designate legal gender and that, once registered, it can never be amended.
There was some welcome news from Albania, where, although discrimination against LGBTQI+ people remains a serious problem, the Order of Psychologists announced a ban on so-called “sex conversion” therapy (an ineffective, frequently psychologically damaging, pseudo-therapy which purports to change a person’s sexual identity).
In March, Prime Minister Orbán of Hungary exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to seize almost unlimited power via a new state of emergency law. In late May there were reports that the government was aiming to lift the state of emergency on 20 June. However, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee has carried out an analysis of the bills introduced to end the state of emergency. It describes the government’s move as “an optical illusion”, saying that the bills in their current form “will allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards”.
In Kyrgyzstan, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of journalist and rights activist Azimjon Askarov. In 2010, Askarov was sentenced to life in prison on trumped-up charges. By rejecting his final appeal, the Court ensured that he would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
On 5 May, IFEX members and other groups called on the attorney general of Malta to invite Europol to participate in the investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. However, the government declared that it would not be requesting Europol to set up a joint investigation team.
May also saw a disturbing development in the Caruana Galizia case when a lawyer from the Attorney General’s office left his role to become a member of Yorgen Fenech’s defence team (Fenech is suspected of masterminding Caruana Galizia’s murder). Pieter Omtzigt, Special Rapporteur on the Caruana Galizia assassination and the rule of law in Malta for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, wrote to the Attorney General’s office underlining his concerns about the crossover (which raises issues of professional ethics and, potentially, of criminal liability). Given the lawyer’s limited professional experience (he qualified two years ago), Omtzigt pointed to the “strong suspicion that he was only retained by Fenech because of his inside knowledge of the Office of the Attorney General”.
Malta prosecutor resigns yesterday at 5pm and turns up in court this morning representing the man charged with my mother's murder. Undeniable collusion between the prosecutor's office and Fenech's defence team, on the same day they said there was no need for a Europol JIT. https://t.co/RdoI7Q67MI
— Matthew Caruana Galizia (@mcaruanagalizia) May 6, 2020
In Germany, the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled that global mass surveillance by the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) was unconstitutional. The news was welcomed by the European Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), both of which described it as a big win for press freedom. In 2016, the Bundestag passed a law that allowed the Federal Intelligence Service to carry out mass digital spying on foreign journalists. In 2017, RSF and the Society for Civil Liberties filed a constitutional complaint against this law. According to the new, amended legislation the Federal Government is legally obliged to protect the confidential communication of journalists from mass surveillance by law.
Rapporteurs from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on Turkey to immediately release civil society leader Osman Kavala. This came after the European Court of Human Rights rejected Turkey’s appeal against the Court’s earlier judgement that Kavala should be released from jail and that the Turkish authorities had violated his rights by holding him in pre-trial detention, without evidence, on dubious charges. He remains behind bars.