New face, old methods
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the authoritarian president of Kazakhstan, announced his resignation in March. In power for 30 years, Nazarbayev headed a regime that arrested, tortured and imprisoned independent journalists and prominent critics such as the opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov and the poet Aron Atabek. One of the most notorious moments of his presidency was the 2011 massacre of unarmed striking oil workers by armed police in Zhanaozen.
After his inauguration, Kazakhstan's new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, announced that the capital, Astana, would change its name to Nursultan in tribute to the former president. On 22 March, people took to the streets to protest the name change and express frustration at the crushing of political and civic freedoms that had taken place under Nazarbayev. The authorities reacted as they had under the former president, by arresting dozens of peaceful protesters in the capital; the RFE/RL journalist Svetlana Glushkova was also detained. In Almaty, police snatch squads grabbed activists off the streets before they could organise their demonstration.
Pictures from today's shameful scenes as Kazakh police detain dozens of peaceful protesters. #Kazakhstan is again violating the right to peaceful assembly, days after president step down. Read our story here: https://t.co/j7bRULWf9C…/shameful-scenes-as-kazakh-police-deta…/ pic.twitter.com/xx9ZBsaHWu— NHC (@nhc_no) March 22, 2019
A week before these arrests, Members of the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for an end to political repression in Kazakhstan.
A database of porn users
Porn users in the UK are about to realise that privacy entails a lot more than just deleting one's browser history.
The government is due to announce the launch of its age block on online pornography, which will require commercial pornography sites to prove that they have verified that their users are over 18 years old. Once the regulation is in place, anyone who wants to view internet porn in the UK will need to upload their passport, driving licence or credit card details to these sites in order to view content, or, alternatively, they will have to purchase a so-called "porn pass" from a designated shop. If porn sites fail to comply, they will face large fines and risk being banned by all UK internet service providers.
Privacy advocates have advanced strong criticisms of the age block regulation, pointing to concerns that it will lead to the creation of a massive database of UK porn users, which will provide an almost irresistible target for hackers, blackmailers and assorted criminals. It's worth bearing in mind that it's only three-and-a-half years since the so-called 'infidelity website', Ashley Madison, was hacked, leading to over 30 million users having their names leaked online, divorces, suicides and a compensation payout of US 11$ million. An additional risk, cited in the UK government's own impact assessment, is that adults and underage youth will be driven towards "ToR and related systems to avoid age verification, where they could be exposed to illegal and extreme material that they otherwise would never have come into contact with".
Good news from Azerbaijan
In early March, IFEX member and chair of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, Mehman Huseynov, was released from jail in Azerbaijan after serving his full, two-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges of slandering an entire police station. On his release, Mehman went straight to the cemetery to attend an event commemorating Elmar Huseynov, an independent journalist who was murdered in 1995 and whose killers continue to enjoy impunity.
Following his release today in Baku, our Chairman #MehmanHuseynov visited the grave of #ElmarHuseynov, killed on this day 14years ago and also the grave of his mother. Azerbaijani authorities' actions contributed to her death in Aug 2018 https://t.co/bSVkOaCXXn @IFEX #NoImpunity pic.twitter.com/vQKhmzNqeF— @IRFS_ORG (@IRFS_ORG) March 2, 2019
Mehman's first, post-jail press conference (with English translation) is available to watch on MeydanTV.
Later in the month, President Aliyev announced a mass pardon of prisoners (as he frequently does ahead of the Nowruz holiday). Among the approximately 400 prisoners freed were political detainees such as the blogger and PEN case, Rashad Ramazanov, who had been in jail on dubious drug charges since 2013. Notably, the journalist Afgan Mukhtarli - abducted in Georgia and imprisoned in Azerbaijan in 2017 - was not among those freed.
EU Copyright Directive
On 26 March, MEPs approved a new EU Copyright Directive which makes sweeping changes to copyright law. Member states will now have to approve the Directive, after which they will have two years to implement it.
The Directive has been polarizing, with lawmakers, tech companies and rights organisations disagreeing over the benefits and risks attached to the new requirements, and even about what those requirements actually entail.
The two clauses of the Directive that have caused most controversy are Article 11, which states that search engines and news aggregate platforms should pay to use links from news websites, and Article 13, which places greater responsibility on online platforms to ensure that their users don't infringe copyright and to remove content where they do (which will likely mean applying filters to content before it is uploaded).
As with other topics related to freedom of expression and information, it is multifaceted. This complexity is both embraced by and reflected in the variety of positions taken by IFEX member organisations. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) have worked hard promoting the Directive, arguing that it will ensure (among other things) fairer remuneration for artists and journalists across Europe. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been a vocal critic, arguing it will lead to greater "censorship" of the internet.
For more information, please check out the arguments put forward by IFJ/EFJ and EFF.
Gender and Free Expression
The Parliament of Sweden decided on 21 March to compensate transgender people who were forcibly sterilised under the country's former gender recognition law. This law, which had required transgender people to be sterilised in order for their gender to be legally recognised, was in force from 1972 to 2013. The compensation decision is the first of its kind in Europe.
Just before International Women's Day (8 March), the OSCE published a report on violence against women in South-Eastern and Eastern Europe. Over 15,000 women were surveyed for the report and the findings were extremely troubling: 70% of women had experienced some form of violence since the age of 15; 45% of all women had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment since they were 15 years old; and 21% of women experienced physical, sexual or psychological violence during childhood. The full report is available for download from the OSCE website.
An unauthorised Women's Day march in Istanbul, Turkey, was forcibly dispersed by police using dogs, pepper spray and tear gas; the women had been protesting male violence against women.
Ireland chose International Women's Day to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. The Convention requires criminalising or legally punishing various types of violence against women, including domestic violence, sexual harassment and psychological violence.
Turkey: 59 journalists handed 417 years in jail on terrorism charges
The crackdown on free expression in Turkey goes on and a recent report for Bianet by IFEX member Erol Önderoğlu provides us with all the statistics. According to the report, in 2018, courts blocked almost 3,000 online articles and convicted 20 people of "insulting the president"; in the same year, 59 journalists were sentenced to a total of 417 years in jail for "membership of a terrorist organisation" and 21 journalists were handed jail sentences totalling 67 years for "terrorist propaganda". Read the full report for more shocking statistics.
It's not just Turkish media workers who are being targeted in the crackdown. Several foreign journalists operating in Turkey have been denied press cards, intimidated, or forced to leave the country in recent years. This month, IFEX members and other press groups publicly called on Turkey to "stop the expulsion of international journalists, to renew press cards to foreign media outlets, and to respect their independence".
On 13 March, in a non-binding vote, the European Parliament called for the suspension of EU accession talks with Turkey, citing its appalling human rights record and violations of the rule of law. President Erdoğan rejected the vote as meaningless.
Injustice in Chechnya
Oyub Titiev, head of rights organisation Memorial's office in Chechnya, was convicted on trumped up drug possession charges on 18 March. He was sentenced to serve four years in a penal colony settlement; he has already served over one year in pre-trial detention, during which he was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. Before the trial, UN experts called for Titiev to be released and for the "fabricated" charges against him to be dropped.
Yes, judge found Oyub Titiev guilty. But she also lightened severity of "crime", and sentenced him to a penal settlement instead of prison. He's eligible for parole in May. @novaya_gazeta 's Elena Milashina explains (in Russian) https://t.co/tBzx465TTy pic.twitter.com/ChhCy0Onma— Rachel Denber (@Rachel_Denber) March 19, 2019
Also on 18 March, President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, signed into law two bills banning "fake news" and insults to state officials, state symbols, and Russian society. ARTICLE 19 provides an analysis of the new legislation and the threat it poses to free expression.
Police have charged the suspected mastermind behind the 2018 murder in Slovakia of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. The suspect, businessman Marian Kočner, is currently behind bars on unrelated fraud charges and has long been suspected of having links to the mafia. Before his death, Kuciak said on Facebook that he had received a threatening phone call from Kočner.
On 20 March, Hungary's ruling party Fidesz was suspended from the main right wing pan-European party, the European People's Party (EPP). The suspension came after years of criticism directed at the Hungarian government's violations of rule-of-law principles. Human Rights Watch had led an "Expel Fidesz" campaign, with the aim of having Viktor Orbán's party thrown out of the EPP for its attacks on civil society and immigrants.
On 14 March, Members of the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for an EU Magnitsky Act in order to be able to impose sanctions (asset freezes and visa bans on individuals) on state and non-state actors responsible for gross violations of human rights.
If you enjoyed this, check out all the March regional roundups!
Asia & Pacific
Middle East & North Africa