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Journalists attacked, protesters arrested, porn users relieved (Demo)

Ján, Alisher, Daphne

October saw significant developments in the cases of three murdered journalists who have figured prominently in the work of IFEX members.

In Slovakia, four people were charged in connection with the 2018 murders of anti-corruption journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. Those charged are Alena Zsuzsová, Tomáš Szabó, Miroslav Marček and Marian Kočner, a businessman who is accused of ordering the killings: all face up to 25 years or life in prison.

In Kyrgyzstan the authorities announced that they had reopened the investigation into the 2007 murder of ethnic Uzbek journalist Alisher Saipov. Suspended (seemingly indefinitely) in 2013, the investigation was reopened in August 2019, shortly after IFEX wrote to President Sooronbay Zheenbekov asking about the status of the case. Saipov’s brother, Shorukh Saipov, told IFEX that the family considered “Alisher to be a victim of the previous regime in Uzbekistan, led by Islam Karimov”. Saipov had frequently been threatened by Uzbek agents.

October saw the second anniversary of the murder in Malta of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. IFEX members held/attended vigils in Valleta, London, Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere to mark the day and also made a joint call for justice for the slain journalist.  A joint statement calling on Malta to make establishing accountability for the murder its “top political priority” was issued by Harlem Désir, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

There were also some noteworthy developments in the case this month. It was reported that one of the three men charged with murdering Caruana Galizia was offered a reduced sentence in return for more information about the planning of the crime. There was also a worrying report that Malta’s police might have turned down evidence that could have helped identify those who ordered the killing. This suggestion came from Pieter Omtzigt, the special rapporteur for the Council of Europe (CoE), whose damning report into the events surrounding Caruana Galizia’s murder highlighted “systemic failings” in the rule of law in Malta and tied these to the inept police investigation into the crime.

For a summary of all the flaws in the police investigation into Caruana Galizia’s murder – and of the deteriorating climate for press freedom in Malta – check out the recent report by Reporters Without Borders and The Shift News.

Barcelona, Baku, London, Moscow

The draconian prison sentences handed down this month to Catalan politicians and civil society leaders for their role in organising the October 2017 Catalan independence referendum sparked huge protests across Catalonia and in other parts of Spain. As soon as the sentences were announced, protesters blocked streets and occupied El Prat airport. Police responded with violence, using rubber bullets and batons to disperse the protesters at El Prat; journalists were beaten too. Over the nights that followed, there were intensely violent clashes between protesters and police on the streets of Barcelona, with approximately 600 people arrested and 200 wounded.  Among those attacked and/or wounded were up to 65 journalists, a number of whom were beaten by the police. One of those targeted was photojournalist Albert García, whose detention – caught on video – shocked many (he was arrested whilst taking photos of another violent arrest):

IFEX members condemned the violence directed at press workers by both police and protesters, as did the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic.

Over 19 and 20 October in Baku, Azerbaijan, the police detained dozens of protesters at two separate demonstrations – one for political and civil rights, the other against femicide – and brutally beat some of them. In the run up to the protests, police also arrested independent journalist Seymur Hazi, who was sentenced to 15 days’ detention on bogus charges of hooliganism and non-compliance with police orders.

In London, UK, police arrested approximately 1,400 protesters at an Extinction Rebellion protest in early October. Following this, Extinction Rebellion protests were banned across the capital. The ban is currently being challenged in court.

The trial of activist Eduard Malyshevsky, arrested during the Moscow protests over the summer, is set to begin in Moscow, Russia, on 6 November. Malyshevsky – like many who were detained during the demonstrations against the authorities’ refusal to register independent candidates for the city elections – is accused of assaulting a police officer.  Numerous activists detained during these protests have since been convicted of assaulting police officers or rioting and have been handed heavy sentences. Human Rights Watch has documented a number of these cases and says “most of the police assault charges ranged from excessive to groundless”.

Gender focus

There was welcome news from Northern Ireland this month, when abortion was decriminalised and same sex marriage legalised. As Human Rights Watch reports, same sex weddings will now be able to take place from February 2020; abortion services will be made available by April 2020, and, until then, the government will cover the costs for women who have to travel from Northern Ireland to other parts of the United Kingdom to access these services.

According to a UK Home Office report on hate crime, in the year 2018-19, police recorded 14,491 crimes committed against people where the victims’ sexual orientation was the motivating factor. In the same period, there were 2,333 offences committed against transgender people because of their gender identity. Experts believe that one way of tackling this kind of prejudice is by teaching children about inclusion at an early age: with this in mind, the government will introduce new regulations for teaching sex education in 2020, putting LGBTQI+ relationships and families on parity with heterosexual ones.

Whereas the UK is showing signs of progress in the area of school sex education, Poland is going in the other direction. The lower house of parliament recently approved a sex education bill which, if it becomes law, will criminalise “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity.”  According to Human Rights Watch, “sex educators, teachers, authors, and organizations providing information on reproductive health and sexuality could face a three-year prison sentence”. The bill was introduced by the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), which openly promotes homophobia.

In brief

Turkey’s military incursion into Syria this month was widely condemned, with Amnesty International accusing Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies of committing “war crimes”. Turkey has been cracking down on critics of its Syrian operation: on 10 October, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Istanbul banned critical news reports about the incursion and at least two journalists were detained; on 16 October, it was reported that 186 social media users had been detained for critical comments made online about the military offensive: of these, 24 had been formally arrested.

In France, the government is pushing forward with plans to provide citizens with a “secure digital identity” based on facial recognition technology which will, officials say, enable citizens to access public services more efficiently. To create a legal digital ID, citizens will go through a one-time enrolment process that compares a user’s passport photos with a selfie video taken on a specially designed app dubbed ‘Alicem’. The project has met with quite a lot of scepticism, including from the National Commission on IT and Civil Liberties, which has raised strong concerns about how the biometric data will be collected and used. There are also serious doubts about the government’s claims that the app will be secure: it reportedly took one hacker just an hour to break into it during a recent test. In addition to all this, facial recognition technology has frequently been shown to be deeply flawed when it comes to recognising people of colour.

Online porn users in the UK will feel relieved after the government dropped a controversial plan to make age verification compulsory for anyone wishing to view pornographic material on the internet. The proposed regulations had been widely criticised because porn viewers would either have had to buy a ‘porn pass’ from a shop in order to access material or provide private information confirming their identity to porn sites, which would have led to the creation of a huge (and potentially hackable) database of porn enthusiasts.

This month it was revealed that separatists in Donetsk, Ukraine, had handed journalist Stanislav Aseyev a 15 year sentence in August on charges of espionage and extremism. Aseyev had already spent two years in detention. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, condemned the “completely illegal conviction” and called for the journalist’s immediate release.

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