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Barbarism and disinformation: The authoritarian response to peaceful dissent (Demo)

Arrests, torture, internet shutdowns and propaganda

The presidential election in Belarus on 9 August was conducted the way many previous elections were conducted: opposition candidates were harassed and hounded out of the country; peaceful protesters, activists, journalists and independent election monitors were detained; and, of course, the final vote count that handed President Lukashenka victory (once again) was highly dubious.

However, what was new was the scale and passion of the protests that followed the vote, which saw many tens of thousands take to the streets all over the country calling for free elections and for President Lukashenka to go. The violence with which this political dissent was met stunned the international community. There have been mass protests before – and also shockingly violent responses from the Belarusian authorities – but the latest protests are huge, still ongoing, and have spread to sections of society that aren’t usually seen at political demonstrations. Some commentators are speculating about whether Lukashenka can hang on to power.

IFEX members have been working hard to keep us informed about the ever-evolving situation. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the International Press Institute, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Free Press Unlimited have been invaluable sources of information for the latest news on attacks on the press, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Many scores of journalists have been detained and beaten by the police. In one day alone (27 August), approximately 50 were detained for merely covering the protests. At least 17 journalists working for foreign media have had their press accreditation withdrawn; some will be deported. Several thousand protesters have also been detained and there is very credible evidence of the widespread use of torture against detainees. Alongside these brutal tactics, the Belarusian authorities have intermittently shut down access to the internet in order to control information and impede the protesters from organising.

State news journalists have shown solidarity with their colleagues in the independent press. Several went on strike demanding that they be allowed to report the protests accurately. Many resigned their posts; some were fired.

However, the roles that the departing journalists left vacant have mostly been filled by state TV journalists from Russia. Belarusian state TV is now portraying the protesters as agents of the west.

The unfair election and the crackdown on protesters and journalists have been condemned internationally, including by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Special Rapporteurs.

Mid-month, the European Federation of Journalists called on the EU to impose sanctions on individuals complicit in the crackdown. By the end of August, the EU had agreed to impose sanctions on up to 20 senior Belarusian officials.

Another Putin critic poisoned

In Russia, a familiar pattern played itself out in August, which saw an apparent attempt on a leading opposition figure’s life, official efforts to impede effective treatment, and the use of disinformation to sew confusion in the aftermath.

Alexei Navalny – anti-corruption campaigner, high profile opposition figure and permanent thorn in the side of Putin’s allies – was poisoned in Siberia on 20 August. He suddenly became ill on board a plane and was rushed to a hospital in the city of Omsk.

Currently, Navalny is being treated at a hospital in Berlin, where he has been placed in a medically-induced coma. He is breathing through a ventilator. On 2 September, the German government said that toxicology tests at a military laboratory showed “unequivocal proof” of an agent from the Novichok group (Novichok was also used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK in 2018). According to doctors, his condition remains serious, but there has been an improvement in his symptoms and there is no immediate danger to his life.

Eyebrows were raised at how the crisis was handled at the hospital in Omsk. At first, doctors refused to allow Navalny’s transfer to Berlin, saying that he had been poisoned with a substance that could endanger others. Then they said that he was just too unstable to be moved, but that he hadn’t been poisoned.

Navalny was only allowed to be transferred after the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) granted an interim measure “indicating to the Russian Government to allow his family and doctors to have access to him and see if he is fit for transfer to Germany for treatment”.

Navalny has frequently been the target of judicial harassment and detentions. He has also been physically attacked on a number of occasions and may also have been poisoned previously.

Russian media has been spreading disinformation about Navalny’s situation, suggesting that he may actually have been poisoned on the flight which transferred him to Germany. One high profile member of the Duma has – bizarrely – pointed a finger at foreign states as the likely culprits:

Soon after the poisoning, the European Union and Human Rights Watch called for an independent, transparent investigation into the incident. However, the Kremlin quickly ruled out such an inquiry. When the German government later revealed that Novichok had been used to poison Navalny, the Kremlin claimed it had not received any such information from Germany.

Gender focus: Poland

“Where they plan to shout slogans of hate, a symbol of the fight for freedom, equality, love and democracy is waiting!”

In Poland, homophobia is promoted and paid for by the government. It was reported this month that the town of Tuchow – which lost EU funding after it declared itself an “LGBT-free zone”- will receive financial support from the Law and Justice Party (PiS) government. Roughly one third of Poland has declared itself an “LGBT-free zone”.

Poland’s recently elected president, Andrzej Duda, campaigned on a pro-“traditional values”, anti- LGBTQI+ platform, and has vowed to protect Polish children from “LGBT ideology”. At his swearing in this month, Polish opposition MPs protested his homophobia using an ingenious method to ensure that the rainbow flag was flown in parliament:

Emboldened by PiS’s mainstreaming of homophobic rhetoric, hundreds of right-wing nationalists took to Warsaw’s streets mid-month to burn rainbow flags and call for a ban on Pride parades. Far-right MP Krzysztof Bosak addressed the crowd and vowed to reject “LGBT+ ideology”.  LGBTQI+ activists held a counter demonstration across the road, and the Campaign Against Homophobia painted a giant rainbow down the street in front of Warsaw University ahead of the two protests. The activist group said: “Where they plan to shout slogans of hate, a symbol of the fight for freedom, equality, love and democracy is waiting!”

Over 70 writers, actors, and directors raised their concerns this month about Poland’s direction of travel. They wrote an open letter to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to protest government-led homophobia in Poland. The letter called on the Polish government to “stop targeting sexual minorities” and on the European Commission to “take immediate steps to defend core European values – equality, non-discrimination, respect for minorities – which are being blatantly violated in Poland”.

The signatories highlighted the recent case of an LGBTQI+ activist – “Margot” – who was placed in pre-trial detention on 7 August. In June, she was accused of pushing a van driver who was broadcasting homophobic slurs from a loudspeaker. In July, she was arrested for “insulting religious feelings and insulting Warsaw monuments” after she had draped rainbow flags on statues around the city. Margot was released from pre-trial detention on 28 August.

An oral history of COVID-19: Europe and Central Asia

Many IFEX members from the Europe and Central Asia region have now responded to our request to share personal and professional reflections on life and work during the COVID-19 pandemic. From the Europe and Central Asia region we received thoughtful responses from the Albanian Media Institute (AMI), the Center for Independent Journalists – Hungary (CIJ-H), the Center for Independent Journalists – Romania (CIJ-H), the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), Norwegian PEN, the South East European Network for Professionalization of Media (SEENPM) and the South East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO).

As expected, many IFEX members talked about having to adopt (and adapt to) new ways of working. For some (see below), the pandemic spotlighted what it means to be human in a time of crisis:

“And then I realized that, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a functioning society to sustain us all and keep us moving. The basics of my training in anthropology smacked me right between the eyes: people cannot be people unless they live in communities; communities like order. Our order was smashed, our social practices shattered, our fabric thinned down to pixels.” Ioana Avadani from CIJ-R

“I think I probably re-learned that there are few limits to the human ability to adapt. I first saw how most people quickly adapt in a radically changed societal situation during the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s. Of course, compared to war the lockdown is a mere inconvenience for most people. Yet, this adaptation element unfolds along the same lines whenever circumstances dictate change. It was strangely reassuring to see family, friends and colleagues adapt quickly.” Tihomir Loza from SEENPM

IFEX will begin publishing our members’ responses in the coming weeks.

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