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Mobs target journalists and Turkey hands jail sentences to 28 academics

Good news from Azerbaijan, anti-LGBTI+ violence in Chechnya, an IFEX member on trial in Turkey, journalists targeted by protesters across Europe, dubious convictions in Tajikistan and Montenegro, demonstrators demand protection of independent press in Serbia and Hungary.

Protesters carry a banner with the portraits of Azerbaijani political prisoners during a demonstration for press freedom, in Berlin, Germany, 21 January 2015
Protesters carry a banner with the portraits of Azerbaijani political prisoners during a demonstration for press freedom, in Berlin, Germany, 21 January 2015

Maurizio Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images

Welcome news from Azerbaijan

Unusually, there were two pieces of good news regarding Azerbaijan in January. The first of these was the dropping of politically-motivated assault charges against jailed IFEX member Mehman Huseynov. This followed a wave of national and international outrage, protests by IFEX members and European institutions, demonstrations on the streets of Baku and prison hunger strikes. Huseynov, who was jailed on trumped-up slander charges in 2017, is now due for release in March. After the charges against him were dropped, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) - of which Huseynov is the chair - reminded us that there were many other political prisoners in Azerbaijan's jails.

One of these political prisoners is the journalist Afgan Mukhtarli. He was kidnapped in Georgia in 2017 and transported to Baku where he was convicted on spurious charges and handed a six-year prison sentence. This month, Index on Censorship renewed its call for his release.

The second piece of good news in January was a European Court of Human Rights ruling that Azerbaijan had violated journalist Khadija Ismayilova's rights to privacy and freedom of expression through its flawed criminal investigation into a smear campaign against her. Part of this smear campaign involved hidden cameras planted in her home and the posting online of an intimate video of Ismayilova and her boyfriend. Azerbaijan was ordered to pay her 15,000 Euros [USD 17,100] in damages.

Protesters target the press

In France, the Yellow Vest protests continued into January. Individuals and groups from both ends of the political spectrum have joined these sprawling, sometimes violent demonstrations. The violence has been directed at the police, at the press and also at each other (as this video of a group of far-right yellow vests attacking a group of far-left yellow vests shows). Particularly shocking this month, however, was an attack on reporters by a mob at a demonstration in Rouen.

French journalists' organisations have expressed their outrage at these attacks on the press. Reporters Without Borders and other national press groups have launched a petition calling for an end to violence against journalists (from both the Yellow Vests and anti-riot police): "Les citoyens ont le droit de manifester, les journalistes celui d'informer!"

In the UK, journalists and politicians were targeted for abuse and intimidation by far-right groups that have attached themselves to the pro-Brexit movement. Death and rape threats were hurled at women media workers by these groups outside the Houses of Parliament in early January; journalist Dawn Foster was one of the targets.
Columnist Owen Jones is the frequent recipient of threats and abuse. He was targeted in public on at least two occasions this month, again by far-right, pro-Brexit mobs.
In Italy, neo fascists attacked journalists Federico Marconi and Paolo Marchetti while they were covering an event organised in Rome early in the month by two neo-fascist groups, Avanguardia Nazionale and Forza Nuova. There has been an increase in reported attacks on journalists by far-right thugs since the populist, anti-immigrant government was installed in June 2017.

On 20 January in Greece, various journalists were attacked by members of the far-right Golden Dawn. They were covering a protest in Athens against a name change deal with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which the Greek parliament voted to recognise as the Republic of North Macedonia.

28 Academics for Peace handed prison sentences

In Turkey, the persecution of journalists and activists continues. For a thorough overview of all the news related to this, 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.

The following case updates will be of particular interest to IFEX members:

Journalist Pelin Ünker was convicted on 8 January of "insulting a public official" and "libel" over her reporting of the "Paradise Papers" leaks in the daily Cumhuriyet. The case was filed by lawyers representing the former Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, and his sons, whose secretive business activities Ünker revealed. She was sentenced to one year, one month and 15 days in jail.

The trial of IFEX member and Reporters Without Borders' Turkey representative, Erol Önderoğlu, resumed on 28 January. He is charged with "terrorist propaganda" for a 2016 act of solidarity with the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem (in which he acted as co-editor of the paper). The next hearing will take place on 27 February.

Twenty-eight "Academics for Peace" were handed prison sentences between mid-December 2018 and 24 January 2019. All were convicted of "terrorist propaganda" and the vast majority had their sentences suspended. Three academics, however, will have to spend between two years, one month and three years in jail. The 28 are among 1,128 signatories who added their names to a peace petition in January 2016 that called for an end to state violence against the Kurds in south-east Turkey and condemned the Turkish government's flouting of the law.

Civil society leader Mehmet Osman Kavala has been in jail for over a year even though charges have not yet been filed against him. In January, Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, submitted an opinion in the case brought by Kavala against the Turkish government at the European Court of Human Rights. She highlighted Turkey's long-standing use of the criminal proceedings to punish activities that are protected by international human rights standards and noted that detentions formed part of "a broader pattern of escalating reprisals in Turkey against civil society activists and human rights defenders for their legitimate work".

Gender focus

There were reports this month that LGBTQI+ individuals were again being detained and tortured by the authorities in Chechnya: two people have reportedly died as a result of police torture and up to 40 have been taken into custody. In 2017, hundreds of LGBTQI+ men were arrested and subjected to horrific physical abuse. The Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has previously said that Chechnya needs to remove its LGBTQI+ people in order "to cleanse our blood".

There was some good gender news in January: Lithuania's Constitutional Court ruled that the routine denial of residency permits to spouses of LGBTQI+ citizens who married abroad was discriminatory and a breach of human dignity. The state must now grant these foreign spouses residency. However, it should also be noted that Lithuanian law still does not recognise same-sex unions.

Russia: More legislative attacks on free expression

In January, Russia's 2015 law on "undesirable organisations" was used for the first time in a criminal case against a rights activist. Anastasia Shevchenko was arrested on 21 January and is now under house arrest until 20 March. Shevchenko is a member of the unregistered, pro-democracy Open Russia Civic Movement (ORCM), which the authorities believe to be part of a banned UK-based organisation. OCRM denies any connection between the groups. The law on "undesirable organisations" allows the prosecutor general to ban any foreign organisation that is perceived to be "harming" Russia; punishments for individuals found guilty of "involvement" with these organisations range from fines to six years in jail.

On 24 January, Russian lawmakers approved the first reading of two draft laws that would criminalise "insults" to the state and the propagation of fake news. Convictions under the first law could result in a 15-day jail sentence; convictions under the second would result in fines. Check out ARTICLE 19's analysis for more information.

January saw the one-year anniversary of the jailing in Chechnya of the Russian civil society leader Oyub Titiev. He is being held on highly dubious drug charges. Titiev runs the Chechnya office of the Russian human rights organisation Memorial. Memorial's office in Ingushetia was firebombed by unknown individuals around the time of Titiev's arrest.

In brief

On 15 January in Montenegro, investigative journalist Jovo Martinović was dubiously convicted of drug trafficking and of being a member of a criminal group; he was sentenced to 18 months in jail. The evidence presented against him was that he had been in contact with some of the suspects in an alleged drug-trafficking scheme while he was working on a documentary. The Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists protested the conviction and sentencing.

In Tajikistan, anti-corruption journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov was sentenced in absentia to eight months in prison for breaching a court order and illegally leaving the country. He had been released from jail in August 2018 after a 12-year prison sentence for financial crimes was converted to a fine and community service. His eight-month sentence was handed down because he left the country to receive medical treatment.

In Hungary, demonstrations against the so-called 'slave law' (which forces employees to work up to 400 hours of overtime a year and wait up to three years for payment) and for a free press and independent judiciary continued into January. The government, which reportedly spent 40 million euros on anti-George Soros propaganda in 2017, continued to blame the protests on the billionaire human rights philanthropist.

In Kherson, Ukraine, the offices of newspaper Novyy Den were attacked by individuals who shot up the windows and threw tear gas into the building. Two suspects have been detained.

January saw demonstrations in Belgrade, Serbia. The protesters called on President Aleksandar Vucic to protect media freedom and bring to an end attacks on journalists and opposition figures. The protests were triggered by an assault in November on the opposition politician Borko Stefanovic. A recent study of the Balkans showed that Serbia was the country where journalists' safety was most at risk.

If you enjoyed this, check out all the January regional roundups!

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