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Progress in the fight against impunity, journalists freed, defamation decriminalised (Demo)

“We are dealing with hard-nosed criminals that are ready to kill”

December ended with welcome news in the battle against impunity.

In Slovakia, Zoltán Andruskó, a pizzeria operator, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in facilitating the 2018 murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová.

Andruskó made a plea deal with police to act as a key witness against four other suspects whose trial will begin in January 2020.

The other suspects are: businessman Marian Kočner, who is accused of ordering the murder because of Kuciak’s investigations into his business dealings; Miroslav Marcek and Tomas Szabo, who are accused of carrying out the killing; and Alena Zsuzsova, who is accused of acting as an intermediary. They each face prison sentences from 25 years to life.

On 12 December, police in Ukraine named five suspects whom they had detained on suspicion of involvement in the 2016 car-bomb murder of investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet.

One of them, a well-known musician and military volunteer, was praised by former president Petro Poroshenko in 2017 for his exploits fighting Russian separatists in the Donbas region. Three of the suspects have connections to Right Sector, a far-right paramilitary organisation.

Poroshenko had faced heavy criticism over the apparent lack of progress in solving Sheremet’s murder. His successor, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, pushed for results after taking office earlier this year.

Following last month’s multiple resignations and arrests in connection with the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced that he would step down in January 2019.

However, academics, MEPs, IFEX members and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Rapporteur on the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Pieter Omtzigt, have publicly called on Muscat to step down immediately because of his multiple conflicts of interest.

Muscat not only has close links to a number of individuals (including members of his own government) who are implicated in the murder investigation, he himself is implicated through his connection to murder suspect Yorgen Fenech.

Among those calling on Muscat to leave office immediately is Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, who took part in a mission to Malta earlier in the month. In summing up her concerns about the investigation, she said: “We are dealing with hard-nosed criminals that are literally ready to kill. And what is more worrying is the connection between those criminals and politics – going right up to the office of the Prime Minister.”

In mid December, the EU Parliament called on the EU to open a formal rule-of-law dialogue with Malta because of MEPs’ concerns over the murder investigation.

The long-demanded public inquiry into the murder began on 6 December. IFEX members called on media, international governmental organisations and diplomats to monitor the hearing. A statement made at the hearing by Caruana Galizia’s son, Matthew, is available to read in full here.

Turkish court defies ECtHR, but good news for Wikipedia

In December, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the civil society leader Osman Kavala had been arbitrarily detained since November 2017.

In its ruling, the ECtHR said that there was no credible evidence linking Kavala to criminal activities, that his detention was an attempt to intimidate both him and other civil society activists in Turkey into silence, and that he should be immediately released.

However, he remains behind bars.

Kavala (who has been in pre-trial detention since 2017) and 15 others are on trial on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government or partially or wholly preventing its functions” for their alleged role in the 2013 Gezi protests. Their trial began in June 2019. The fourth hearing took place on 24 December; the next one is scheduled for 28 January 2020.

However, there was also good news in December: the Constitutional Court ruled on 26 December that Turkey’s ban on Wikipedia was unlawful, and that it should be lifted immediately.

The ban was put in place in April 2017 due to Wikipedia entries that accused Turkey of involvement with terrorism.

To stay abreast of all the arrests, trials and other attacks on freedom of expression, 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 (which this month posted a very informative discussion on YouTube about what’s happening right now with regard to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly).

IFEX member detained and beaten

Mehman Huseynov, IFEX member and chairman of the Azerbaijani press freedom group, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, was detained by police overnight in Baku on 27 December, beaten up, and later released in the outskirts of the city.

A frequent target for persecution by the authorities, Huseynov was released from prison in March 2019 after serving a two-year jail sentence on trumped up slander charges.

Huseynov is a high profile critic of official corruption in Azerbaijan. He recently stood as a candidate in December’s municipal elections and had been protesting the detention of a well-known rapper, Paster, before he was detained.

Journalists freed in prisoner swap

In Ukraine, RFE/RL journalists, Stanislav Aseyev and Oleh Halaziuk, were freed as part of a broader prisoner exchange at the end of December. They were originally detained and held incommunicado by Russia-backed separatists in 2017.

Aseyev was sentenced to serve 15 years in a penal colony on “extremism” and “spying” charges by a separatist ‘court’ in October 2019.

Legislative changes

There was very welcome news from Kazakhstan, where President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced on 20 December that he would decriminalise defamation. Currently, those convicted of defamation face up to three years in prison.

In November, IFEX members wrote to the Kazakh authorities calling for defamation to be decriminalised.

In Poland, lawmakers in the lower house of parliament approved legislation that seriously undermines the independence of the judiciary by making it easier for the government to fire judges if they disagree with its judicial reforms. The legislation will now go to the senate, which can delay it but not block it. There have been mass protests in Poland against the law.

In Albania, lawmakers approved the so-called “defamation package” (which amends two media laws in order to replace self regulation of online media with state regulation). Under the new legislation news websites will have to register with the authorities and media regulators will be empowered to hear complaints about news websites, demand retractions, impose fines and order websites to be suspended.

The legislation now goes to President Meta, who can decide to pass it or send it back to parliament for revision (Meta has previously defended the legislation). IFEX members had protested these changes to the law.

Gender focus

In mid-December, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the so-called “LGBT-free zones” in Poland.

Approximately 80 municipal or local governments have proclaimed themselves to be ‘‘free from LGBTI ideology’’ and have issued non-binding resolutions pledging not to encourage tolerance of LGBTQI+ people (including by not providing financial assistance to NGOs working to promote equal rights).

In the resolution, the EU lawmakers urged the Polish authorities to condemn these acts and to revoke all resolutions attacking LGBTQI+ rights. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has been openly promoting homophobia for years.

Also in Poland, this month saw the launch of Abortion Without Borders, an initiative providing advice and funding for women to travel abroad to terminate a pregnancy. Poland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and, in 2016, the government tried (and failed) to introduce a total ban on abortions.

In Russia, feminist artist Yulia Tsvetkova was fined for promoting “gay propaganda” after she posted artistic depictions of vaginas on social media. Tsvetkova, who is the administrator of two LGBTQI+ online communities, is also charged with disseminating criminal “pornography”, for which she faces up to six years in jail if found guilty.

In Turkey, police attacked and detained women in Ankara and Istanbul who were performing the Chilean ‘Las Tesis’ dance to protest male violence.  Days later, women opposition lawmakers also performed the protest in parliament.

Turkey has a severe problem with femicide. Bianet reports that at least 21 women were murdered by men in November.

Batons and sting balls

Protests in France against proposed pension reforms saw violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement officers this month. Journalists once again reported being targeted by police: some suffered injuries from batons and sting balls; others were detained or had their equipment smashed.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the French Interior Minister to “give the police clear instructions to respect the media’s right to cover [the] protests”.

RSF has, with 13 journalists, filed a joint complaint at the public prosecutor’s office in Paris about the police’s use of violence against reporters during the “gilets jaunes” protests between November 2018 and May 2019; over those six months, RSF registered 54 cases of journalists injured by the police, 12 of whom were categorised as seriously injured.

On 7 December, the Independent Union of Police Commissioners posted a message on Twitter naming five French journalists as “enemies of the police”. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) registered this bizarre, defamatory communication on the Council of Europe’s platform for the protection of journalists.

Defamation suits and DDoS attacks

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) joined other rights groups in calling on the authorities in Kyrgyzstan to cease harassing local media outlets that have been reporting on an alleged money laundering scheme involving current and former government officials.

Some media outlets (including individual staffers) that published a joint report on the alleged crime saw their bank accounts frozen (and then unfrozen). Independent media websites that reported on the story experienced a concerted DDoS attack.

Three media outlets – RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, and – are also facing a US$ 320,000 defamation suit related to their work reporting the story.

The post Progress in the fight against impunity, journalists freed, defamation decriminalised appeared first on IFEX.


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