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Deterring democracy, the “LGBT-Free Zone” and the danger of thinking out loud (Demo)

Turkey: On trial, acquitted, on trial again…

There was excellent news from Turkey in July, when IFEX member Erol Önderoğlu, journalist Ahmet Nesin and human rights defender Şebnem Koru Fincancı were acquitted of charges based on their involvement in a 2016 act of peaceful solidarity with the Kurdish language newspaper Özgür Gündem. Charged with “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation”, “incitement to commit crime” and “praising crime and criminals”, they faced 14 years in jail if convicted.

Erol Önderoğlu will go on trial again in November for his 2016 work in support of the Academics for Peacepetition campaign, which called for an end to fighting between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Academics for Peace were also the recipients of good news in late July when the Constitutional Court ruled that their right to freedom of expression had been violated when they were charged with terrorist offences solely for signing the aforementioned petition for peace. The Court said that the defendants should be retried to eliminate violations of rights and that each defendant should receive compensation of 9,000 lira (US$1,592).

In mid-July, filmmakers Ertuğrul Mavioğlu and Çayan Demirel, were sentenced in absentia to four years and six months in jail for “terrorist propaganda”. The charges were based on their 2015 documentary “Bakur” (“North”), which is about the outlawed PKK.

For more news on these and many other cases, 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.

Russia: Deterring democracy, the danger of thinking out loud

In Russia, thinking out loud in the media about motives behind acts of violence is a risky business, as radio journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva knows: she discovered this month that she had been added to the state’s official list of “terrorists and extremists”. Prokopyeva owes her place on the list to an interview she gave in November 2018, in which she speculated about whether a teenage anarchist who had blown himself up outside the FSB headquarters in Arkhangelsk would have done so if Russia hadn’t made peaceful political dissent so difficult. The police began investigating Prokopyeva in February 2019 on suspicion of “justifying terrorism”. Her bank accounts were frozen recently.

This month saw the ten-year anniversary of the unsolved murder of Natalia Estemirova, Chechnya’s most prominent human rights activist. Estemirova was kidnapped in Grozny by unidentified security agents on 15 July 2009 and was later shot dead in the neighbouring North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other rights groups issued a statement calling for justice for Estemirova.

In Ingushetia, journalist Rashid Maysigov was ordered to remain in pre-trial detention after he was dubiously charged with possession of illegal drugs. Maysigov, who investigates corruption and human rights issues, says that he was tortured in custody until he confessed to the charges against him.  He is far from being the only journalist who has found himself in this situation in the Russian Federation: in June, Ivan Golunov suffered a similar experience and was released after national and international protests.

In Moscow, the authorities are cracking down on the political opposition ahead of the city elections in September. Numerous candidates have been banned from running and some of them are now under investigation for “election interference” in connection with organising unsanctioned rallies. Several opposition candidates have also had their homes raided by the police. On 27 July, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets of Moscow calling for independent candidates to be allowed to register and for President Putin to resign; over 1000 of them were arrested.

Malta: Will they or won’t they implement a public inquiry?

There were two significant developments in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case this month. The first of these was a declaration by Malta’s Foreign Minister, Carmelo Abela, that a public inquiry into the events surrounding the investigative journalist’s murder would begin within the three-month time frame stipulated by the Council of Europe last month. However, days later, Abela’s statement was walked-back by Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, who refused to commit to the Council of Europe’s required time limit. Such mixed-messaging, evasiveness and basic lack of will to do the right thing will not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following developments in Malta since Caruana Galizia’s murder in 2017.

The second development was the welcome announcement that the three men held in jail since 2017 on suspicion of planting the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia are to go on trial. Harlem Désir, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media welcomed the decision:

Importantly, those who ordered the murder have still not been identified.

Gender in focus

There was a welcome win this month for three Russian LGBTQI+ groups, when the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Russia had discriminated against the organisations for having refused their registration in recent years. Rainbow House, the Movement for Marriage Equality, and the Sochi Pride House had attempted to register their respective organizations from 2006 to 2011, but their applications were repeatedly denied because the authorities interpreted the groups’ work as promoting ‘gay propaganda’, claiming that they would “destroy the moral values of society” or “undermine [Russia’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity… by decreasing its population”. The ECtHR ordered Russia to pay 46,000 euros in damages.

In Poland, a court banned the conservative weekly magazine Gazeta Polska from distributing stickers bearing the message “LGBT-Free Zone” with its print edition. The magazine, which supports the ruling Law and Justice Party (whose anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQI+ leader has described LGBTQI+ rights as a “threat to Polish identity”), published an editorial justifying the sticker decision, saying that LGBTQI+ rights “have all the features of a totalitarian ideology”.

Earlier in the month, Polish football hooligans and members of the far right attacked the first Pride Parade ever to take place in the city of Bialystok. Twenty-five people were arrested.

In brief

On 19 July, 20 press freedom groups, including several IFEX members, called on the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to include press freedom, protection of journalists and access to information among her top political priorities.

Authorities in Ukraine have suspended an investigation into a high-ranking regional politician who police suspect of ordering an horrific 2018 acid attack on rights activist Kateryna Handzyuk (Handzyuk died three months later as a result of the injuries she sustained). In June, five men were handed jail sentences of between three and six-and-a-half years for carrying out the attack.

The Independent Journalism Center (IJC) has chronicled the upswing in harassment of Moldova’s journalists that has taken place in recent years. This month, IJC and IFEX members published a statement condemning a string of assaults on journalists carried out during protests in Chisinau by individuals associated with the Democratic Party of Moldova.

In France, MPs passed a law this month that will give online platforms just 24 hours to remove hate speech or face fines of 1.2 million euros. Critics have argued that the law places too much power in the hands of the platforms. Facebook has said that 24 hours is an insufficient period to analyse some posts and provide often quite complex legal advice. Considering the size of the potential fine, there is a fear that many platforms will just err on the side of removing questionable content if in doubt.

The French Senate will now examine the legislation, which, as many have pointed out, is based on a controversial law that came into force in Germany last year. However, according to Deutsche Welle, German police have been struggling to enforce their online hate speech legislation, as most platforms have apparently not been doing enough to rein in suspected offenders.

In Greece, the offices of Athens Voice were attacked by approximately fifteen masked individuals who destroyed equipment using metal bars and paint; no-one was injured. The anarchist group Rouvikonas claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was in reprisal for the newspaper’s coverage of the death of an Armenian woman. Athens Voice has published video of the damage on YouTube:


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