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Revelations lead to resignations in Malta, PACE calls for Julian Assange’s release (Demo)

Journalist Amangeldy Batyrbekov acquitted

There was very welcome news from Kazakhstan in January: a court acquitted journalist Amangeldy Batyrbekov, who had been sentenced to serve two years and three months in prison on libel and insult charges in September. The charges against Batyrbekov stemmed from a complaint filed by an education ministry official over allegedly insulting posts on Batyrbekov’s Facebook page. IFEX members had publicly called for his release.

New revelations, more resignations

In Malta, the latest revelations regarding the 2017 murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia have led to further high-profile resignations. Former PM Joseph Muscat stepped down (as announced last year) and was replaced by Robert Abela. The Minister for Gozo, Justyne Caruana, also resigned when evidence emerged of a close relationship between her husband, former deputy police chief Silvio Valletta, and murder suspect Yorgen Fenech. Valletta was previously the lead investigator into the Caruana Galizia murder, but was taken off the case in mid-2018 due to a conflict of interest. He is now under police investigation.

Following criticism of his handling of the murder investigation, Maltese Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar also resigned this month (he was quickly re-employed by the Home Affairs Ministry as a consultant on public safety).

Ján Kuciak murder trial underway

The trial of four suspects in connection with the 2018 murder in Slovakia of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, began this month.

IFEX member the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project have been providing invaluable live updates from the murder trial via Twitter. IPI has also been publishing summaries of the hearings.

Doubts over Pavel Sheremet murder investigation

Press groups including Reporters Without Borders have raised their concerns about the investigation into the 2016 car bomb murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Ukraine. In December 2019, the authorities announced that they had arrested five suspects (all veterans of the conflict with pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine), but since then there have been allegations that witnesses were blackmailed into giving evidence. Doubts have also been raised about expert reports and a refusal by the prosecutor’s office to release all the relevant evidence.

Sheremet’s former colleagues are also sceptical of the prosecutor general’s declaration that the motive of the murder was to “destabilise the country”.

UK: Extinction Rebellion = terrorism?

In the UK, peaceful environmental activist groups Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion have – bizarrely – been placed on a terrorism watch list, alongside violent, far-right groups such as Combat 18. The list was produced by Counter Terrorism Policing as part of the much-criticised Prevent programme, which is supposed to help schools and other public institutions identify those at risk of committing terrorist acts.

In London, the Metropolitan Police will start using live facial recognition technology in defiance of concerns raised by politicians, rights groups and data regulators. The technology has been criticised both as an invasion of privacy and as being extremely inaccurate: a study last year showed that it was correct only 19% of the time; it is especially bad at identifying people of colour.

Gender focus

Period poverty – the inability to afford the necessary sanitary products – causes female students to miss school when they’re menstruating, which disadvantages them in their academic learning. In order to help remedy this, the UK Government has recently launched a scheme that will give all girls and young women attending school or college free access to period products.

This month saw a win for LGBTQI+ rights in Lithuania. In the case of Beizaras and Levickas v Lithuania, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that there had been multiple violations of the gay couple’s rights following the homophobic abuse and threats they received after posting a photograph of them kissing on Facebook. After the authorities’ refused to launch a pre-trial investigation into the threats, the couple took their case to the ECtHR.

On 14 January, arguing that the Lithuanian authorities’ “disapproval” of the couple’s sexuality had clearly played a role in their refusal to launch a pre-trial investigation, the ECtHR decided that there had been a violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights, taken in conjunction with Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life), and also a violation of Article 13 (right to an effective remedy). The Court judged that Lithuania should pay the couple EUR 5,000 [approximately USD 5,540] each in damages and another EUR 5,000 for costs and expenses incurred.

There was also good news from Northern Ireland on 13 January, when same-sex marriages became legally recognised.

Welcome veto but a short-term victory?

In January, after criticism from IFEX members and other press freedom experts, President Meta of Albania vetoed two laws which would stifle online media. Collectively known as the “anti-defamation package”, the laws were passed by the parliament in December. Meta reportedly argued that the new legislation violated the Constitution and the right to freedom of expression and information. The president is only allowed to use his veto once, so if the parliament votes the legislation through again it will come into force.

Prison for spreading disinformation

In Ukraine, controversial draft legislation was introduced with the aim of combating Russian disinformation and regulating media activity. The European Federation of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine have strongly criticised the proposed legal changes, with the latter calling them “a gateway to state intervention in the activities of Ukrainian journalists”.

Under the legislation journalists would be required to hold a professional press card delivered by a new state-sponsored organisation (the Association of Professional Journalists of Ukraine) and media content would be monitored by a state-appointed Special Commissioner. The Institute of Mass Information provides details of the proposed legal changes relating to the spread of disinformation: if the law is passed, those convicted of spreading false information could face up to seven years in prison.

In brief

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted to open a monitoring procedure for Poland over the functioning of its democratic institutions and the rule of law. It declared in a resolution that recent reforms “severely damage the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law”. Poland this month adopted the so-called “muzzle law” which allows the authorities to remove judges who carry out court rulings that are not in line with government policies.

PACE also weighed in on the Julian Assange case this month, passing a resolution declaring that the detention and prosecution of the Wikileaks founder set a dangerous precedent for journalists. The resolution said that Assange should not be extradited from the UK to the US and called for his prompt release.

Wikipedia was made accessible again in Turkey following a December ruling by the Constitutional Court that the block on the website was unconstitutional. However, the general assault on rights goes on: this month, a court ruled – in defiance of the ECtHR – to continue the detention of civil society leader Osman Kavala.

Russia continues to harass and detain opposition activists (and also Jehovah’s Witnesses). There was some bright news in January, however, when police officers, who last summer detained and allegedly beat journalist Ivan Golunov, were charged with abuse of power.

New & Noteworthy

The deliberate dissemination of disinformation is recognised as a threat to democracy and there is general agreement that developing media literacy is a large part of the solution. With this in mind, the European Commission has just published six tips that will help a general media consumer to identify dodgy information disguised as news when they see it.

The South East European Network for Professionalization of the Media (SEENPM) has launched #JournalismMatters, an online campaign to educate the public about media literacy and public service journalism in the Western Balkans. It consists of approximately 100 short video clips of journalists in the region explaining how good journalism works – and what threats it faces.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, in collaboration with IFEX members, launched the Press Freedom Police Codex in France. The Codex is a set of guidelines (aimed at the police) which aim to help de-escalate the level of police violence suffered by journalists in the course of their work covering protests and other public events.

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