May 2021 in Europe and Central Asia: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Cathal Sheerin, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
Belarus dominated the news once again in May with high-profile raids on media outlets, mass arrests of journalists and the utterly outrageous state-hijacking of a commercial airliner. The month also saw Turkish authorities impose further restrictions on journalists reporting on police activities. In Russia, we saw further moves to squeeze civic space, but also partial justice for persecuted journalist Ivan Golunov:
Even those of us who are used to reading about the ongoing, massive human rights violations in Belarus were shocked by events this month.
On 23 May, Raman Pratasevich, founder and editor of the independent Telegram channel NEXTA, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were arrested after their Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced by the Belarusian authorities to reroute and make an emergency landing in Minsk. The Belarusian government said that it had forced the rerouting because of an emailed bomb threat; however, news reports revealed that the cited threat was actually sent after the plane had been diverted.
Pratasevich had been a target for some time. The Belarusian authorities had previously sought to extradite him from Poland because of his work at NEXTA, labelled “extremist” by a Minsk court in 2020. NEXTA is extremely popular and has been sharing news and information about the anti-Lukashenko protests that have been going on since the disputed presidential election of August 2020.
The day after Pratasevich’s arrest, he appeared in a video declaring that he was being treated well, that he was cooperating with the authorities, and that he was responsible for “organising mass riots” (for which he could face up to 15 years in prison). The video bore all the hallmarks of a forced confession: Pratasevich’s face showed bruising.
Sapega also appeared in a video ‘confessing’ to revealing information about Belarusian security officials via the Telegram channel ‘Black Book of Belarus’. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) she has been charged with “incitement of racial, ethnic, religious or other social hatred or discord” and faces up to 12 years in prison.
The forced rerouting of the flight (described as a “hijacking” by the President of the EU Commission) and the arrest of Pratasevich and Sapega provoked international outrage. Heads of state, foreign ministers, MEPs and NGOs were quick to demand Pratasevich’s release and call for further measures to be taken against Lukashenko’s regime.
US President Biden called for an investigation and committed to imposing further sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez issued a joint statement with his counterparts in the Czech Republic, Latvia, Germany, Lithuania, Ireland, Poland and the UK, also calling for sanctions, and a ban on flights over Belarus. The European Council agreed to an extension of targeted economic sanctions and a ban on Belarusian airlines entering EU airspace. MPs in the UK called on the UK government to block the Lukashenko regime’s access to finance through the London Stock Exchange. Lithuania’s Prosecutor General’s office agreed to investigate Lukashenko for “criminal hijacking”, following a complaint filed by Reporters Without Borders. Members of the Media Freedom Coalition (IFEX is a member of the Media Freedom Coalition Advisory Network) demanded the release of Pratasevich and all jailed journalists in Belarus.
IFEX members also raised their voices in protest. ARTICLE 19, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), the Committee to Protect Journalists, the European Federation of Journalists, Free Press Unlimited, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, PEN America, PEN International and Reporters Without Borders issued statements calling for the immediate release of Pratasevich, Sapega, and all political prisoners and journalists in Belarus.
Within days of the forced rerouting of Pratasevich’s flight, airlines had begun avoiding Belarusian airspace. International cultural organisations also acted on their concerns about Lukashenko’s human rights abuses: the European Broadcasting Union suspended Belarusian member BRTC, citing the broadcasting of “interviews apparently obtained under duress”; the European Cycling Union cancelled the 2021 Elite Track European Championships scheduled to take place in Minsk in June.
Although the arrest of Pratasevich and Sapega dominated the headlines, it was only one of the many disturbing events and acts of repression that took place in May. Others included:
- The sudden death in prison of opposition activist Vitold Ashurak, who had been serving a five-year sentence for taking part in anti-Lukashenko protests. According to the prison authorities, Ashurak died of a heart attack; however, his family responded that he had no history of heart problems and a preliminary death certificate said that the cause of death was yet to be determined. Prominent human rights activist Ales Bialiatski (a former political prisoner himself) highlights the many unanswered questions about Ashurak’s death in this article.
- A raid on the Minsk studio of independent broadcaster Belsat TV on 21 May. Security agents arrested six staff, each of whom were later sentenced to fifteen days’ detention.
- A raid on the offices and homes of journalists of the independent news portal TUT.BY on 18 May as part of a tax investigation. At least 12 staff were detained and the organisation’s website was blocked. Yuliya Charnyauskaya, the widow of TUT.BY’s founder, is under house arrest and her lawyer has been prohibited from revealing the charges she faces.
- A highly questionable ‘confession’ by a detained member of PEN Belarus, Aliaksandr Fiaduta. Fiaduta was detained by the KGB in April on accusations of involvement in a plot to assassinate Lukashenko. He reportedly confessed to being part of a “conspiracy” in a statement sent this month to newspaper Narodnaya Volya, and said that he had not been tortured.
- The sentencing of seven civil society activists, including six members of the European Belarus campaign, to between four and seven years’ imprisonment for their opposition activism.
- The blocking of access to the human rights legal support website Probono.by.
Also in May, Lukashenko signed into law amendments aimed at suppressing protests and media freedom: all demonstrations will now need to be officially authorised; media coverage of protests, opposition activities and socio-political subjects will be greatly restricted, as BAJ explains.
Lukashenko also signed a decree allowing the transfer of presidential powers to Belarus’s Security Council (comprised of supporters of the president, including his son) if he is killed or otherwise unable to perform his duties.
International concern about the rights situation in Belarus has been ongoing since last summer’s presidential election, when Lukashenko initiated the current crackdown on independent voices. On 21 May, 37 OSCE states repeated their call on Belarus to implement the Moscow Mechanism report recommendations, investigate reports of human rights violations and abuses, and engage in dialogue in order to address the current crisis. Earlier in the month, the US Congressional Human Rights Commission held a hearing on the human rights situation in Belarus. Among the witnesses were Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Gulnoza Said of the Committee to Protect Journalists; Freedom House also submitted a statement. You can watch a video of the hearing on the Commission’s website.
According to the Belarusian human rights organisation Viasna, there are currently 451 political prisoners in Belarus. At the end of the month, BAJ reported that there were 34 journalists and media workers behind bars.
Please check out IFEX’s regularly updated Belarusian chronology, where we bring together all our monthly summaries of IFEX members’ activities and other key developments in Belarus.
Deterring journalism in Turkey
Turkey is maintaining its record as one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, a report published by Expression Interrupted showed. According to the report, the first four months of 2021 saw 213 journalists on trial and 20 sentenced to a combined 57 years and 10 months in prison. By the end of April, at least 68 journalists were in prison (this is the first time that the figure has fallen below 70 since 2016).
Turkish journalists’ work was made riskier in late April when the General Directorate of Security issued a circular banning audio-visual recording of law enforcement officers at protests. Expression Interrupted (a project of the Platform for Independent Journalist (P24)) provides a legal analysis of the circular, arguing that its intended outcome is to “conceal the images and footage that document the disproportionate use of force by police”. Expression Interrupted also reports that the circular was put into effect immediately, resulting in the police confiscating journalists’ phones and preventing them from filming at a May Day rally.
The importance of recording police activities at protests was illustrated this month by the findings of a report by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV). According to the report, between 2015 and 2019, over 20,000 people were detained at demonstrations; nearly 5,000 were prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of assembly; and 4,450 suffered violence by police officers, who also shot 90 of them.
Squeezing civic space in Russia
In Russia, lawmakers introduced three bills that would add to the growing list of legislative restrictions on civil society. Two of the bills would expand the impact of Russia’s law on “undesirable” organisations. The third would allow the authorities to ban anyone from running for political office if they are associated with groups deemed “extremist”; the intended targets of this bill include the colleagues of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ status was restored by Amnesty International this month, and whose Anti-Corruption Foundation the authorities are currently attempting to designate as “extremist”.
Although civic space is under increasing pressure, a “new wave of feminist activism is spreading across Russia”, according to an inspiring openDemocracy article published this month. Using interviews with four feminists from different regions, the article looks at the challenges that grassroots women’s rights activists face in a country where “feminism is still a trigger”; where providing counselling to LGBTQI+ people could see you targeted by the notorious “gay propaganda” law; and where setting up as an NGO might see you branded a “foreign agent”. For an insight into local activism, check it out.
There was welcome news late in the month when a Moscow court handed five former police officers prison sentences of between five and 12 years after they were convicted of fabricating a case against Meduza journalist Ivan Golunov in 2019. While it’s (rare) good news that those guilty have been punished, Meduza says that justice will not have been done until whoever ordered the actions of the former police officers is punished.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on May 31, 2021.