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COVID-19: A tool in the hands of Europe’s authoritarians (Demo)

Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to dominate news and discussion around free expression and access to information in April. The month saw multiple cases of journalists targeted for reporting on the crisis and further examples of authorities exploiting the virus to crack down on critics.

“Handwringing and milquetoast statements”

Last month’s parliamentary vote in Hungary which handed Prime Minister Orbán the power to rule by decree (ostensibly to better address the threat posed by COVID-19) was met with anger and consternation throughout Europe and elsewhere. The ruling Fidesz party has already placed a chokehold on civil society and academic freedom, politicised the courts and almost destroyed the independent media – all without the extraordinary powers included in the new emergency legislation.

Activists and others are increasingly concerned about the EU’s response to events in Hungary. The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, recently published a very strongly worded article in which he criticises the EU’s response as “handwringing and milquetoast statements”, saying that it has “ceased being a bloc of exclusively democratic states”.

It is hard to disagree with Roth when he writes:

“A stronger response was possible. European leaders could have announced that they would accelerate the Article 7 process and press for the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights on EU matters; review the generous EU subsidies that, as both media investigations and regulators have been pointing out for some time, Orbán uses to line the pockets of his cronies; and politically isolate Orbán and his ministers at every opportunity – until the Hungarian dictatorship ends.”

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) published a report this month on the authorities’ obstruction of independent journalism during the pandemic. Among the report’s findings are: public information about the virus is being strictly controlled by the authorities who are not engaging with the press in a meaningful way; regular sources of information – such as healthcare workers – are reluctant to speak to the press for fear of retaliation by the authorities; and journalists are concerned about the criminalising of ‘scaremongering’.

Deliberately risking critics’ lives

In Turkey, lawmakers voted to release approximately 90,000 prisoners as a way of slowing the spread of COVID-19 in the prison system. However, political prisoners – generally held on bogus terrorism-related charges, and comprising journalists, lawyers and human rights activists – were not included. IFEX members and others had called for them to be included in the release.

The European Parliament (EP) standing rapporteur on Turkey and the Chair of the EP Delegation to EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee strongly condemned the Turkish lawmakers’ decision, saying “Turkish ruling parties decided to deliberately expose the lives of those whom they consider political opponents to the risk of the deadly COVID-19.”

Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteurs also expressed their concerns about Turkey’s “discriminatory approach” and called for the release of prisoners held on political grounds.

In mid-April, Turkey confirmed that three prisoners had died of COVID-19.

New government targets press and NGOs

IFEX members called on Vice-President Věra Jourová and Commissioner Didier Reynders of the European Commission to guarantee the safety of investigative journalist, Blaž Zgaga, in Slovenia. Zgaga has been the target of a harassment campaign, initiated by state officials, since he asked the authorities for information about their strategy for tackling COVID-19. Supporters of the right-wing government have continued the harassment and Zgaga has also received death threats.

It’s not just journalists who are being targeted by Slovenia’s ruling party. NGOs are now in the cross-hairs after the government signalled that it would cut funding to civil society organisations, with the ostensible aim of using this money to fund the fight against COVID-19. However, as this article on the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media website demonstrates, the NGOs facing cuts are the ones carrying out work that doesn’t fit with the government’s agenda, such as providing assistance to asylum seekers.

Draconian legislation and threats

In Russia, President Putin enacted legislation which imposes extremely harsh penalties on news organisations and journalists deemed to be disseminating “knowingly false information” about events that put public safety at risk and the government’s response to those events. Media groups will face fines ranging from 62,000 to 124,000 euros [USD 67,000 to USD 134,000] ; individuals will face fines equivalent to their total income over the last 18 months and prison sentences of up to four years.

Chechnya’s thuggish leader Ramzan Kadyrov threatened Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina after she published an article saying that Chechens in quarantine had stopped reporting COVID-19 symptoms because they feared being labelled “terrorists.” (In late March, Kadyrov established a task force to curb the spread of the virus, arguing that people who violated quarantine were worse than terrorists.) The EU called on the Russian authorities to condemn and investigate Kadyrov’s threats against Milashina. It is unlikely that they will listen: the Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor ordered Novaya Gazeta to remove Milashina’s article from its website on 15 April, saying that it contained “inaccurate” information that could prove dangerous.

Criticised COVID-19 decree revoked

In Serbia, the government revoked a much criticised decree that limited the publishing of information about COVID-19 to official sources. This followed criticism from the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the arrest, on 1 April, of journalist Ana Lalić. Lalić was detained for “spreading panic and unrest” after she published an article in which she quoted a doctor saying that numerous hospital staff had been infected with COVID-19 because of a lack of protective equipment. Lalić was held in custody for 48 hours and then released; according to reports, the charges have not been dropped.

Gender focus

In Poland, lawmakers voted on draft bills that would place a virtual ban on abortion and criminalise sex education. Rather than reject them or send them on for a second reading, they passed them back to the parliamentary committee stage for further work. The pro-‘traditional values’, anti-‘gender ideology’ ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has made numerous attempts to roll back reproductive rights in Poland. Because of restrictions on public assembly due to COVID-19, women’s groups took their protests online ahead of the vote.

On 31 March – the International Transgender Day of Visibility – the government of Hungary submitted a bill to parliament which, if passed, would make it impossible for transgender people to legally change their gender. The draft legislation stipulates that sex at birth will designate legal gender and that, once registered, it can never be amended. The European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup condemned the bill, saying: “This move does not only intentionally silence the trans community – it seeks to erase it and deny its existence”.

Arrests follow criticism of COVID-19 response

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that the authorities in Azerbaijan are exploiting restrictions put in place to reduce and slow the spread of COVID-19 to target opposition activists and journalists. At least seven opposition voices have been sentenced to between ten and 30 days’ detention on spurious charges including breaking lockdown rules or disobeying police orders. HRW notes that “Almost all of those arrested had criticised conditions in government-run quarantine centres or the government’s failure to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially from the consequences of the pandemic”.

The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety has issued a statement calling on the Azerbaijani authorities to end their attacks on the opposition and independent media, and to “immediately release from prison all (over 120) political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, since their health and life are at risk because of a possible COVID-19 infection”.

COVID-19 is no joke

In response to the increasing use of Spain’s Penal Code against individuals who share and create false information and jokes about COVID-19 on social media, ARTICLE 19 has called on law enforcement to “refrain from using criminal prosecution and other coercive measures as the primary means of combating supposedly false or harmful information online”. On 9 April, police arrested a man on charges of incitement to hatred for a joke he posted on Twitter in which he claimed that he had spread COVID-19 to thousands of people during a trip between Madrid and Torrevieja.

Good news in brief

In Slovakia, on 6 April, former soldier Miroslav Marček was sentenced to 23 years in prison for the 2018 murders of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. Marček is the second person to be convicted in connection to the murder.

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