June in Europe and Central Asia: A roundup of key free expression news, based on IFEX member reports.
“Muscat must immediately order the start of a public inquiry”
On 26 June, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted to adopt a report on the murder of Malta’s best known investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia. The report, which was prepared by Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt, cites “systemic failings” in the rule of law in Malta and ties these to the inept police investigation into Daphne’s murder. It also criticises the concentration of power in the hands of Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, saying that this power has been systematically abused. Importantly, the report calls for an independent public inquiry into the murder; Malta had resisted implementing such an inquiry but will now, as a result of the vote, have to do so within three months.
BREAKING: the report is adopted by a large majority of votes. Muscat must immediately order the start of a public inquiry. https://t.co/oo48NWcJmb
— Matthew Caruana Galizia (@mcaruanagalizia) June 26, 2019
Before the vote, IFEX members and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, co-sponsored a side event to discuss the crime, rule of law in Malta and to advocate for Omtzigt’s report. Among the speakers was Daphne’s son Matthew Caruana Galizia.
“We need a public inquiry […], we need what @PieterOmtzigt has done, to battle all of the propaganda the Maltese government has been pushing ever since the murder of my mother”. @mcaruanagalizia. We need the @coe to receive #JusticeforDaphne in #Malta @PACE_News pic.twitter.com/7saFe8t7PX
— ECPMF (@ECPMF) June 26, 2019
“Don’t shoot us”
In Georgia, police used tear gas and rubber bullets against several thousand mainly peaceful protesters outside the parliament building in Tbilisi on 20 June. The protesters, who called for the resignations of various members of the government, were demonstrating against a visit to the Georgian Parliament by a delegation from the Russian Duma (Russia and Georgia fought a war in 2008 over the Georgian region of South Ossetia, which Russia still occupies). Approximately 240 people were injured by the police, including 34 journalists, and over 300 protesters were arrested. There were reports of horrific injuries, including eyes lost to rubber bullets. On 21 June, journalists demonstrated in front of the Interior Ministry demanding an investigation into the violence and calling for police officers who shot rubber bullets at journalists’ heads to be jailed. They called their protest “Don’t Shoot Us”. The parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze resigned in the wake of the violence.
In Kazakhstan, approximately 4,000 demonstrators, including several journalists, were detained during mass protests in various cities on 9 June as the country elected its new president. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the hand-picked successor of authoritarian former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, was elected with more that 70% of the vote. The protests, which had begun weeks previously, were driven by anger at the top-down imposition of Tokayev and at the severe restrictions on civil liberties that Kazakhs had suffered under Nazarbayev. Of those arrested nearly 700 received short prison sentences.
prosecutor general's office reports data on numbers of persons administratively detained, fined, and given warnings… https://t.co/LRWs3gixhT
— Mihra Rittmann (@MihraRittmann) June 13, 2019
In France, the Yellow Vest protests have been going on since November 2018. There are fewer participants now, but the number of people who have been wounded by heavy-handed police tactics is extremely high. Currently, it is estimated that approximately 2,448 protesters have been injured (some losing hands or eyes) because of the police’s use of rubber bullets and explosive grenades. Some of these victims attended the ‘March of the Mutilated’ in Paris on 2 June, where they called for a ban on the use of such weapons by the police.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has been a vocal critic of the police’s use of violence at the Yellow Vest protests, especially that which has been directed at journalists (there have been 73 victims). In mid-June, RSF expressed its concerns to the French Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner, and made a number of recommendations aimed at improving safety for journalists and protesters at these demonstrations. Castaner has said that he will study RSF’s proposals.
“Irrational claims which lack evidence”
The long anticipated trial of civil society leader Osman Kavala and 15 others ludicrously charged with attempting to overthrow the government of Turkey began on 24 June. The defendants are charged in connection with their roles in organising peaceful protests which began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013; they face potential life prison sentences if convicted. Kavala has already spent 19 months in pre-trial detention. International observers, including a delegation from the European Parliament, were in attendance as the trial began.
— Kati Piri (@KatiPiri) June 24, 2019
According to Deutsche Welle, Kavala completely rejected the “irrational claims which lack evidence” in his opening statement to the court, saying that he had been “involved in projects contributing to peace and reconciliation”.
After two days of trial hearings, one of the defendants, Yiğit Aksakoğlu, was released on probation and issued with an international travel ban; his trial will continue. Kavala will stay behind bars. The next hearing in the trial is set for 18 July.
There was excitement the day before the trial began, as President Erdoğan’s ruling party lost the Istanbul mayoral election to the opposition coalition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu. The election was a re-run, intended to undo İmamoğlu’s narrow victory in the mayoral election in March. However, this time the winner actually saw a massive increase in his share of the vote.
The trials and detentions of journalists in Turkey continue. One case in June highlighted how bizarre a form this persecution is taking: two Bloomberg reporters – Kerim Karakaya and Fercan Yalınkılıç – were charged with undermining Turkey’s economic stability after they reported on the country’s suffering economy. If convicted, the journalists could be jailed for up to five years.
“We are Ivan Golunov”
Unusually, there were a number of very welcome developments in Russia this month.
Igor Rudnikov, editor of the Kaliningrad newspaper Novye Kolesa, was released after spending 20 months behind bars. He was arrested in November 2017 and dubiously charged with extortion. A St. Petersburg court found that there were no grounds for that charge, but convicted him of abusing his influence and gave him a short community service sentence. Having already served nearly two years in jail, he was immediately freed.
Human rights activist Oyub Titiev was freed on parole after spending almost one-and-a-half years behind bars. Titiev, who runs the Chechen office of the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, was convicted on fabricated drugs charges in March and sentenced to four years in a penal colony.
The most headline-grabbing news, however, was the release of Meduza’s anti-corruption journalist Ivan Golunov. He was arrested on 6 June and, after being beaten up in custody and denied access to a lawyer, dubiously charged with intent to supply illegal drugs. His case made headlines around the world and saw protests in various Russian cities, across the Russian press and on social media.
That's right. Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov got more social media hits than Putin himself yesterday.https://t.co/NbePrxa6WM
— Meduza in English (@meduza_en) June 9, 2019
The pressure obviously worked because the charges against Golunov were suddenly dropped on 11 June and he was freed.
For the first time in their history, three Russian newspapers will print identical above-the-fold designs on their front pages. They read "I/WE ARE IVAN GOLUNOV." pic.twitter.com/FCuEY2LEIv
— Meduza in English (@meduza_en) June 9, 2019
Following Golunov’s release, supporters took to the streets to protest his arbitrary detention and call for the arresting officers to be made accountable. Approximately 400 protesters were themselves arrested, including the frequently detained opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. President Vladimir Putin has since fired two Moscow police generals over the Golunov arrest.
Gender in focus
The impact of Russia’s so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law was seen again this month when a Russian film distributor cut all gay scenes (men kissing and having sex with each other) from the Elton John biopic, ‘Rocketman’. The legislation prohibits the ‘promotion of non-traditional relationships’.
There was good news in the form of 215 Members of the European Parliament who have pledged to work with ILGA Europe in order to protect and improve the rights of LGBTQI+ people across the continent.
ILGA-Europe welcomes the new European Parliament! With the highest voter turnout the #EuropeanElections has seen since 1994, so too arrives the largest number of MEPs committed to LGBTI equality, with 215 #ComeOut4EU signatories elected: https://t.co/GQBe85KnUL pic.twitter.com/kyyGfZLDUX
— ILGA-Europe (@ILGAEurope) June 13, 2019
Georgia’s first LGBTQI+ Pride March was called off after days of unrelated political unrest (see above) which saw hundreds injured. The Pride March had also been heavily opposed by conservative and religious groups: on 19 June, Tbilisi Pride had to evacuate its offices after receiving death threats.
Pride also faced opposition in Turkey, where, ahead of Pride Week (24-30 June), bans were announced on events in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and in the provinces of İzmir and Antalya.
However, there was good Pride-related news from Ukraine, which held its biggest ever Pride Parade in Kiev, with an estimated 8,000 people taking part. The event went ahead peacefully, though police arrested a handful of far-right protesters who had arranged a counter demonstration, and who got involved in scuffles while attempting to disrupt the march.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) June 24, 2019
In Ukraine, journalist Vadim Komarov died this month from injuries sustained in a brutal assault on 4 May. Komarov’s attackers left him in a coma and he never regained consciousness. No-one has been arrested.
In Moldova, several journalists were manhandled, threatened and impeded from doing their work by representatives of the Democratic Party and its supporters during protests over 7-9 June. IFEX regional member, the Independent Journalism Centre (IJC), issued a statement condemning the attacks and harassment. The demonstrations were organised by the Democratic Party (the former ruling party) to protest the formation of a new coalition government which doesn’t include them. The statement was signed by local press freedom groups.
In Italy, far-right deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, has threatened (for a second time) to remove the police protection given to investigative journalist and mafia target Roberto Saviano. The motive for the threat is Saviano’s ongoing criticism of Salvini’s anti-immigrant politics.
A coalition of press freedom groups including IFEX members and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom visited Albania this month and found media freedom deteriorating. The group made a number of recommendations to the Albanian government, calling for more action on journalists’ safety, more transparency in media legislation & ownership, a rejection of state regulation of online media, more journalistic access to politicians and an end to smear campaigns targeting the press.
Very nice to see so many #mediafreedom defenders working together!
A coalition of 7 press freedom organisations carry out a joint advocacy mission to #Albania.https://t.co/t7zEGzrsY9@ECPMF @globalfreemedia @RSF_inter @pressfreedom @EFJEUROPE @article19org @seemofreemedia pic.twitter.com/gLffLIaUCW
— media.eu (@MediaEu) June 19, 2019
Ahead of the European Games in Belarus, the Belarusian Association of Journalists has prepared a very useful guide for any journalists who want to stay safe and work as freely as possibly during the Games (which kick off at the end of June). The authorities have been making preparations to tackle protests before or during the Games, including by blocking websites calling for unauthorised demonstrations.
If you enjoyed this, check out all the June regional roundups!