September in Europe and Central Asia: A roundup of key free expression news, based on IFEX member reports.
Scepticism over public inquiry into murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia
The big news this month was the announcement that the government of Malta would finally – after much criticised delay – set up a public inquiry into the murder of the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The news came a handful of days before the deadline set for the inquiry by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and was greeted with scepticism by Caruana Galizia’s family, who raised serious doubts about the impartiality of the inquiry’s board. Watch Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew Caruana Galizia, outline his concerns:
After the inquiry was announced, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, reiterated his call for a fully independent inquiry.
PACE rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt, author of the report into Caruana Galizia’s murder that called for an independent public inquiry, said that the inquiry being launched by Malta “clearly does not meet the Assembly’s expectations” – neither in its terms of reference, nor in the composition of the board.
Days earlier, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, wrote to Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, calling for the withdrawal of approximately 30 defamations suits against the murdered journalist’s family (including one brought by Prime Minister Muscat). She stated that the ongoing claims placed unjustified psychological and financial pressure on the family, and that they were seen as acts of intimidation; she also said that the situation “raises questions regarding the Maltese authorities’ commitment to finding and bringing the masterminds of this horrendous crime to justice.”
Before the news of the inquiry was announced, IFEX members signed on to an ARTICLE 19 statement at the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council, which called for Malta to be held to account if it didn’t launch a public inquiry.
“A country where everything is satirical”
In early September, a mission to Turkey led by the International Press Institute (and comprised of IFEX members and other free press organisations) found that press freedom and rule of law remain in crisis, despite a Judicial Reform Strategy that the government said would address flaws in the justice system. The delegation said that Turkey “should urgently revise anti-terror and defamation laws, repeatedly abused to silence critical press. It should take immediate steps to end the arbitrary prosecution of journalists, characterised by baseless indictments, politically driven judgments and severe violations of the right to a fair trial.”
At the 42nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council, ARTICLE 19 delivered a statement (signed by IFEX members and other rights groups), calling on all States at the Council to pressure Turkey to end its ongoing crackdown on independent media and civil society.
There were a number of important developments in cases of persecuted journalists in September. The following will be of special interest to IFEX members:
Mid-month, Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the sentences of 7 former Cumhuriyet staff, five of whom were in prison. They were among the 14 journalists and staffers affiliated with Cumhuriyet who were convicted in 2018 of aiding terrorist organisations. All the journalists and staffers except one have now been released; the thirteen freed defendants will be retried on the original terrorism charges at a lower court at an undetermined date. Cartoonist Musa Kart was among those released this month.
IFEX member and RSF Turkey representative, Erol Önderoğlu, was acquitted this month of “propagandizing for a terrorist organisation”; the charges were based on his taking part in a peaceful protest in support of Academics for Peace. In a separate case, prosecutors have appealed Önderoğlu’s recent acquittal on charges of “terrorist propaganda”, “justifying crime” and “inciting crime” which were based on his part in a 2016 peaceful act of solidarity with the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem.
Columnist and regular contributor to IFEX member Bianet, Bülent Şık, was convicted of publishing “information subject to professional confidentiality” in a series of articles which revealed high levels of carcinogens in the water supply; he was handed 15 months in jail.
To stay abreast of all the arrests, trials and attacks on freedom of expression in Turkey, please check out the regular updates provided by our regional members: Bianet, the Platform for Independent Journalism (plus sister-site Expression Interrupted) and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression – Turkey.
“Nails in the coffin of a tyrant”
There was excellent news on 7 September when Russia released Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov as part of a prisoner-swap deal with Ukraine. Senstov had spent 5 years in a maximum security jail in Siberia on trumped up terrorism-related charges and was – and continues to be – a vocal opponent of Russia’s occupation and ‘annexation’ of Crimea.
The day following Sentsov’s release, President Putin’s United Russia Party lost a third of its seats in the problematic – and much protested – Moscow City elections. Thousands had been arrested in the months preceding the ballot, as demonstrators took to the streets to protest the refusal by the authorities to register opposition candidates. A number of the arrested protesters have already been tried on dubious charges and handed prison sentences; others have had criminal charges against them dropped and replaced with misdemeanour offences. Many of those arrested were charged with ‘participating in unauthorised protests’; ARTICLE 19 issued a statement earlier in the month, calling on the Russian authorities to “immediately terminate all criminal proceedings brought against protesters and unconditionally release them”.
September also saw the six-month anniversary of a law banning expressions of “disrespect toward the government on the Internet”. So far, 45 cases have been opened, 58% of which have been about insults directed specifically at President Putin.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first ever Pride parade took place in Sarajevo on 8 September, with approximately 3,000 people attending: they carried banners with slogans such as “We are coming out” and “Here come the gays”. Participants were warned not to wear rainbow materials on their way to the parade because of the danger of homophobic attacks. The day before the parade, a small group promoting “traditional family values” organised a counter demonstration, but with little obvious effect.
In Kazakhstan, a court upheld a decision to deny the registration of the NGO Feminita, a feminist organisation that fights for the rights of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. The Justice Ministry had refused the group registration on the grounds that it didn’t comply with the Law on Non-commercial Organisations. Registration is essential for the group to operate lawfully in the country. In May 2019, a judge ruled that Feminita was not eligible to register because its stated goals did not “provide for the strengthening of existing spiritual-moral values … [and] the prestige and role of family in society”.
Human Rights Watch has published a report –“‘Violence with Every Step’: Weak State Response to Domestic Violence in Tajikistan,” – which documents obstacles to justice for domestic abuse survivors and concludes that the government of Tajikistan is not doing enough to prosecute cases of domestic violence or support victims. According to UN Women, 20% of women in Tajikistan have been victims of some form of domestic violence.
Human Rights Watch also reported this month that documentary maker Nikolai Kuprich was the victim of a brutal homophobic assault in Minsk, Belarus, in late August. Kuprich needed hospital treatment following the attack and had been working on a film about anti-LGBTQI+ discrimination in Belarus.
In Azerbaijan, jailed journalist Afgan Muhktarli went on hunger strike to protest the arbitrary treatment that both he and his lawyer are receiving from the prison authorities. Mukhtarli is currently serving a six-year prison sentence on dubious charges. He was abducted in neighbouring Georgia in May 2017 and brought back to Azerbaijan where he received an unfair trial. Mukhtarli, who suffers from ill health, ended his hunger strike after three days.
IFEX members and other press freedom groups called this month for the acquittal of journalist Jovo Martinović, who was convicted in Montenegro of marijuana smuggling and criminal association, and handed 18 months in jail. Multiple free expression organisations raised serious doubts about Martinović’s case, even before he was tried; the evidence is overwhelming that his only links with organised crime were those of a reporter.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, two men were arrested after a group of football hooligans stormed the offices of Radiosarajevo.ba, threatened journalists and demanded that they remove from their website a report that an FC Sarajevo fan had been jailed in Belarus for drug possession.
In Croatia, journalist Gordan Duhaček was arrested, charged with “insulting public authorities”, and fined approximately US$100 for a satirical tweet in which he included the acronym “ACAB” (‘All Cops Are Bastards’). He is awaiting another verdict for “offending citizens’ moral feelings” after he posted a satirical rewrite of a patriotic song “Vila Velebita”, which, in his version, has the title “Crap of Velebit”, and addresses environmental issues.
In the context of increasing threats against journalists throughout Europe – especially in such countries as Azerbaijan, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Turkey and Russia – IFEX members and other free expression organisations called on the new Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, to make media freedom a priority during her time in office.