June in Europe and Central Asia: A round up by IFEX's Regional Editor Cathal Sheerin of key free expression news, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
Poland, propaganda and disinformation
Ahead of Poland’s presidential election on 28 June, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called out public TV channel Telewizja Polska (TVP) for acting as if it were the propaganda department of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS). RSF criticised the broadcaster for not just promoting the PiS candidate (and incumbent) Andrzej Duda, but of actively spreading hate speech and disinformation. While TVP has smeared Duda’s most popular opponent, suggesting that he is in the pay of a powerful foreign lobby that aims to undermine the country by bringing in illegal immigrants, its coverage of Duda has been fawning.
Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are increasingly recognised as a major threat to freedom of expression across the EU. These lawsuits – brought by the rich against journalists working in the public interest – are particularly cynical attempts to tie up journalists in complex, hugely expensive disputes with the aim of halting their work. This month, IFEX members and other rights groups demanded an EU-wide anti-SLAPP directive. The groups described SLAPPs as “a threat to democracy and fundamental rights” which “impair the right to freedom of expression, to public participation and to assembly of those who speak out in the public interest”. When the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in 2017, she had 47 SLAPPs against her.
Promisingly, later in June, Věra Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, signalled to MEPs that the subject of SLAPPs would come under review in preparation for the adoption of the European Democracy Action Plan by the end of 2020.
“An arrogant and obsessive culture of impunity”
In Malta, every day seems to bring new, shocking revelations of alleged corruption or of officials implicated in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Former police chief Lawrence Cutajar was this month placed under investigation following allegations that he interfered in the inquiry into Caruana Galizia’s killing. It has been alleged in court that Cutajar tipped off the crime’s middle man, Melvin Theuma, before his arrest. Cutajar denies this, but he does admit to meeting with one of Theuma’s close associates (without telling the murder investigators) in an attempt to get hold of sound recordings made by Theuma which are now being used in the prosecution of Yorgen Fenech (Fenech is charged with arranging Caruana Galizia’s murder and is also linked to former PM Joseph Muscat).
Towards the end of June, Ombudsman Anthony Mifsud delivered a damning report on Malta, in which he highlighted “an arrogant and obsessive culture of impunity enjoyed by people flaunting the right friendships and connections and having substantial financial clout to influence the decisions of the public administration”.
He also echoed some of Caruana Galizia’s pronouncements on Malta, saying: “When these people act in cahoots or with the connivance of politicians and public authorities, and when those who have the duty to monitor, control and check abuse are either cowed into silence, or prone to turn a blind eye to tolerate, if not condone, abuse and violation of laws and regulations, the situation becomes dangerous”.
There was a significant step forward in the campaign to abolish prison sentences for criminal defamation in Italy this month, when the Constitutional Court ruled to give the parliament one year in which to pass amended legislation that would bring Italy’s penal code into line with European human rights standards. If the parliament fails to pass the appropriate legislation in that time, the Court itself will abolish prison sentences. The Court also temporarily suspended prison sentences for journalists who have been convicted of criminal defamation.
In a big win for Hungarian civil society, the EU Court of Justice ruled in mid-June that Hungary’s 2017 law on foreign-funded NGOs violates EU law. The NGO law, which applies to NGOs receiving funds from outside Hungary, requires these organisations to formally register as foreign-funded entities and place a label identifying them as foreign-funded on websites and publications. Failure to comply means that the NGO can be shut down. The Court ruled that the law is discriminatory, that it places unjustified restrictions on free movement of capital, the right to respect for private and family life, personal data protection and freedom of association.
Many organisations, including IFEX member the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, protested and boycotted the repressive law.
On 25 June, lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan approved draft legislation “On Manipulating Information” which, if signed into law by President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, will curtail press freedom and seriously reduce digital freedoms. The legislation will enable the authorities to shut down and block websites perceived to be carrying “false” information (however, there is no definition of “false” information in the bill); it will also require website owners and social media account users to register using their real names; internet service providers will be required to store user data for up to six months and make it available to the authorities on request.
Worryingly, in an address to students in Turkey, President Erdoğan pledged new regulations to crack down on “lies, slander and perversity” circulating on social media. Social media users in Turkey already frequently find themselves targeted by the authorities for perceived criticisms of the government or government policy.
In Germany, the Federal Court of Justice found that Facebook was using its dominant position to force users into giving up their data and stated that the social media giant should obtain users’ explicit consent before merging its own data with data from other sources, such as WhatsApp and Instagram. “Facebook must give users the choice to reveal less about themselves – above all what they reveal outside of Facebook,” lead judge Peter Meier-Beck said.
Also in Germany, Berlin became the first city to pass its own anti-discrimination law. The legislation prohibits public authorities from discriminating based on background, skin colour, gender, religion, physical or mental disability, worldview, age, sexual identity, level of German language skills, chronic illness, income, education or occupation.
On 10 June in Tajikistan, lawmakers passed amendments to the Administrative Code that will impose heavy fines on anyone disseminating “false” or “inaccurate” information about COVID-19 in the news or on social media. The maximum fine will be approximately 995 euros (roughly twice the minimum monthly wage).
The weeks preceding Poland’s presidential election saw Andrzej Duda, the incumbent president and ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) candidate, ramping up homophobia in an appeal to his nationalist base. PiS is an openly homophobic party, with its members and representatives promoting so-called “LGBT-free zones” in recent months. PiS has also been stoking a culture war focused on defending Poland against “gender ideology” (a dismissive far-right term referring to LGBTQI+ rights, sexual and reproductive health rights, and women’s rights). Duda himself recently pledged to “protect” Polish children from “LGBT ideology”, saying that LGBTQI+ people “are not equal with normal people”. Two weeks before the election, another PiS representative, Przemysław Czarnek, was on TV calling for the defence of the family against LGBTQI+ “filthiness, depravity, utterly immoral behaviour”.
PiS’s homophobia has been stirring up concern among EU officials for some time. This month, the EU Commission sent a letter containing what was described as “a thinly veiled threat” to five governors who had declared their regions “LGBT-free zones”. The letter, which reminded the governors that the EU was currently deciding how to allocate funds to help Poland tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, asked them to assess the situation regarding discrimination in their regions and urged them to declare in writing that they would adopt “measures promoting equality and non-discrimination”.
Romania was accused in June of aligning itself with Poland and Hungary on gender rights when it banned all studies “propagating theories and opinion on gender identity according to which gender is a separate concept from biological sex”. Although it is legal to change one’s gender in Romania, it has become an increasingly complicated process in recent years.
In the context of news reports that the UK might abandon plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and “explicitly exclude transgender women from ‘women-only’ spaces”, Human Rights Watch called on the government to commit to reforming the Act to “allow for a transparent, accessible administrative process for legal gender recognition based on self-identification” and to reject “any policies that would subject trans women to discrimination and expose them to harm, in particular by denying them access to safe spaces for women”.