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7,000 social media users taken into custody in Turkey in 2018, an IFEX member on hunger strike and the Yellow Vests

Europe and Central Asia in December: Mass protests in France and Hungary, Russia wants its own Internet; state media attacks independent journalists across the region; Greek broadcaster points finger at government over bombing; investigation into shooting of Olivera Lakic stalls; black women 84% more likely to be targeted by online trolls than white women….

A woman dressed as the French Republic national symbol 'La Marianne' walks on the Champs Elysee during a yellow vest protest, in Paris, France, 29 December 2018
A woman dressed as the French Republic national symbol 'La Marianne' walks on the Champs Elysee during a yellow vest protest, in Paris, France, 29 December 2018

Bruno Thevenin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Yellow Vests

December was the month of the 'Yellow Vests' (Gilets Jaunes), a mass, countrywide protest movement that shook France and quickly brought economic concessions from President Macron.

Leaderless, structure-free and named after the high-visibility jackets French motorists have to carry in their cars, few generalisations can be made about this politically diverse group of protesters. What does unite them, however, is that they are frustrated by the status quo, highly critical of the political class, and particularly angry at "the technocrat" Macron. The movement began in rural France in November as a protest against a new eco-tax on diesel (now ditched) but it quickly morphed into a much broader demonstration of anger over a wide range of issues, including social inequality, the minimum wage, homelessness, unemployment, rent controls and the closure of public services. The overwhelming majority of demonstrators (both in Paris and across France) are peaceful, but it was the extremely violent clashes between police and protesters in the capital over the last month that captured international attention.

Human Rights Watch has accused the French riot police of being "heavy-handed" in their use of chemical sprays, tear gas grenades and rubber bullets against the mainly peaceful protesters. "As of December 11, according to official figures, 1,407 demonstrators and bystanders had been wounded, 46 seriously", Human Rights Watch reported. The organisation has called on the authorities to investigate whether police tactics were necessary and proportional, and to hold officers to account for excessive use of force.

Thousands have been detained during the demonstrations: one weekend alone (8 and 9 December) saw up to 2,000 arrests. The government says at least 700 police officers and first responders have been the targets of violence.

Many journalists covering the protests have been injured, some seriously. These included two journalists who were hit by flash-balls fired by police officers (one of these projectiles penetrated the journalist's protective helmet), and a photographer who had his hand broken by a police baton. Numerous reporters have complained that the police confiscated their protective gear, thus preventing them from covering the protests. The International Federation of Journalists called for an end to violence and threats directed at the press by both police and protesters.

For more information on the Yellow Vests, please take a look at Euronews' even-handed documentary exploring the movement. Ironically, a few days after the documentary was aired, a group of Yellow Vest protesters in Lyon threatened to storm the offices of Euronews to "put right the lies spread by the media".

This lack of trust in the media will only have been fuelled by Le Monde's revelation that the French state broadcaster, France 3, altered an image of an anti-Macron placard, changing the message from "Macron dégage" ("Macron go away"), to just: "Macron". France 3 has said that this was due to "human error".
The yellow vest has now been adopted by protesters in Belgium, Holland, Spain, Bulgaria, the UK and Ireland. In Germany, some extreme right and far left groups have begun wearing the vest at demonstrations.

Mass anti-Orbán protests in Budapest

December also saw thousands take to the streets of Budapest, Hungary in order to protest two new laws: one, the "slave law", forces employees to work up to 400 hours of overtime a year (with payment delayed for up to three years); the other creates a parallel judicial system which Human Rights Watch says will severely undermine judicial independence and which the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights has said should be returned to parliament for a full review.

The demonstrations kicked off in mid-December and soon became as much a protest against the authoritarian government of Viktor Orbán as they were against the new legislation. Crowds rallied outside the headquarters of the state broadcaster where opposition MPs demanded, unsuccessfully, that a list of their demands - which included the repeal of the two new laws and a call for an independent public media - be read out on television. The latter demand came shortly after media owners allied to Orbán created what the International Press Institute has called a huge, pro-government "propaganda machine".

The ruling party, Fidesz, described the protesters as "criminals" and - sticking to its anti-George Soros agenda - blamed the human rights philanthropist for stoking up the demonstrations. The authorities' response to the protests was heavy-handed: police used tear gas on some of the demonstrators and four of the opposition MPs protesting at the state broadcaster's offices were injured by security guards.

7,000 social media users taken into custody in Turkey in 2018

In early December, the International Press Institute (IPI) sent a media freedom mission to Turkey for high level talks with the government. Despite promises made by the government that press freedom would be restored in the country following the lifting of the state of emergency last July, the IPI delegates concluded that "journalists have seen no signs of greater respect for their right to practice their profession independently and without fear of retaliation". The IPI reiterated its call for the 161 journalists currently in jail for doing their job (many of whom are still awaiting trial) to be released and for the charges against them to be dropped.

Turkey continues its crackdown on social media. A jaw dropping 110,000 social media accounts were investigated in 2018, according to Bianet, with 7,000 social media users taken into custody. The charges they faced included "promoting" or "propagandising" for terrorist organisations, incitement of hatred and insulting state officials.

For a thorough overview of all the news related to persecuted journalists, politicians and activists, please check out the regular updates provided by Bianet, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Platform for Independent Journalism (plus Expression Interrupted) and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey.

One case that should be highlighted here, however, is that of the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been in jail on terrorism charges since November 2016, and who faces 142 years in jail if convicted. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that he should be immediately released, a decision that President Erdoğan publicly rejected. In December, PEN International publicly called on Turkey to abide by the ECtHR's ruling and free Demirtaş.

Gender focus

Amnesty International published a report in December showing that 1.1 million abusive or problematic tweets were sent to women journalists and politicians last year in the UK and the USA: that's an average of one every 30 seconds. According to Amnesty's research, black women were 84% more likely to be targeted for abuse than white women. A previous study by Amnesty which looked at abusive tweets sent to UK women MPs during the 2017 general election showed that 45% of all the abusive tweets analysed were aimed at black Labour Party MP Diane Abbott. As well as racist abuse, Abbott received death and rape threats.

There was chilling news from Turkey in December when Bianet reported that men had killed 22 women the previous month; over half of these women were killed because they wanted a divorce or separation.

A separate, Russian Internet

The BBC World News channel has been targeted by Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, which says that it wants to establish if the BBC operation is acting within the law in Russia. The move comes after the UK media watchdog Ofcom declared that Russia's RT television channel had violated impartiality rules in seven programmes in 2018, including in its coverage of the poisoning on British soil of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

Russia has been attempting to restrict internet freedoms for some time, all under the pretext of national security. This month saw the introduction of draft legislation which, if passed, would result in an autonomous, Russian Internet separate from the rest of the worldwide web. Under the new law there would be new rules for Internet traffic routing, a national domain name system, and all Russian Internet providers would have to assist the state in blocking all online material banned in Russia. Roskomnadzor would be responsible for overall control of the Russian Internet. Please see the Meduza website for more technical details.

In brief

In Azerbaijan, IFEX member and chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) Mehman Huseynov is currently behind bars on a trumped up libel conviction. In late December it was reported that he had been placed in a punishment cell and charged with beating up a prison employee. Huseynov - who denies the charges and has not been allowed to see his lawyer - began a hunger strike in protest.

In Montenegro, Reporters Without Borders reported that the inquiry into the May shooting of investigative reporter Olivera Lakic had stalled and that the journalist now finds herself under attack by pro-government media.

In March 2017, 15 protestors cut a hole in a perimeter fence at Stansted Airport in the UK and chained themselves around a plane in order to prevent a deportation flight (which included asylum seekers whose claims had been denied). This month, they were all convicted under terrorism-related legislation. ARTICLE 19's Thomas Hughes called for the convictions to be quashed, describing them as "a shocking assault on the right to protest and clearly disproportionate to the actions of protestors". The protesters have appealed their convictions.

On the one-year anniversary of the arrest of three suspects in connection with the murder in Malta of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, IFEX members called on the Maltese authorities to set up a public inquiry into the crime, redouble efforts to prosecute those responsible and cease all forms of attacks on the late journalist.

Nine partner organisations and observers of the Council of Europe's Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists sent a mission to Slovakia in early December to press the authorities for "full justice" in the case of the February 2018 murders of reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. Four men have been arrested in connection with the killings. The mission, which included four IFEX members, met with high-ranking officials and urged them to bring those who commissioned the crime to justice.

In Athens, Greece, unknown individuals detonated a bomb outside the offices of the private Skai broadcaster in the early hours of 17 December. No-one was hurt and no group claimed responsibility, although the anti-terrorist police are reportedly working on the assumption that it was a far-left group. Although Prime Minister Tsipras issued a statement of solidarity with Skai following the attack, the media outlet (which has been very critical of the Tsipras administration) suggested that the government shared part of the blame: "Government officials and propaganda mechanisms have rendered our station a target. Following today's dramatic development they must understand the weight and full extent of their incendiary comments". The government previously banned its officials from appearing on Skai, accusing the broadcaster of bias.

In Serbia, unidentified individuals firebombed the house of Milan Jovanović, an investigative journalist for the independent news website Žig Info. The attack took place at 3:30am on 12 December. Jovanović, who managed to escape the burning building with his wife, believes that articles he published about local organised criminals might have provoked the attack.

In the first eight months of 2018, there were 57 recorded attacks on journalists in Serbia, and it's not surprising when you consider that state media have been carrying out a campaign of harassment and de-legitimization against them; at the end of October, the state-owned weekly Ilustrovana Politika carried an article accusing reporters who criticise the government of being "traitors and collaborators with the enemies of Serbia". This is a growing problem in Central and Eastern Europe, as Paula Kennedy's article for Index on Censorship explains.

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