August 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.
August saw the Belarusian Supreme Court liquidate Belarus’s two most prominent free expression organisations and the Russian authorities deploy ‘foreign agent’ designations to stifle dissent ahead of September’s elections. The month also saw Turkish lawmakers move to exert greater control over social media, Kyrgyzstan adopt a ‘false information’ law, and businessman Yorgen Fenech indicted for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia:
Belarus: Unhappy anniversary
August marked one year since the disputed presidential election in Belarus and saw the first anniversary of the ongoing crackdown on dissent. It also saw the Supreme Court order the liquidation of the country’s two most prominent free expression organisations: IFEX member the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and the Belarus PEN Centre.
These closures by a politically-captured Supreme Court form part of an escalating crackdown on civil society, or — in President Lukashenka’s own words — a “purge”.
Before BAJ’s court hearing, IFEX called on the international community to pressure the Belarusian government to end the wave of persecution and reverse the dissolution of civil society groups. IFEX members ARTICLE 19 and Reporters Without Borders both submitted expert opinions to the Supreme Court, calling for the case against BAJ to be dismissed. In July, BAJ said that it would continue its activities even if it lost its legal status.
The repression of independent media also continues unabated. Mid-August saw the authorities raid the homes of journalists working for news agency BelaPAN and detain three staff. Belarus’s most popular independent news portal, tut.by, and an associated website, zerkalo.io, were designated “extremist”: anyone now sharing content from these sites could face jail time or fines.
There was also some good news this month, however: four members of Press Club Belarus, including its founder and directors, were released from pre-trial detention. They had been behind bars since late 2020 on dubious tax evasion charges, and their release was reportedly “an act of pardon”. The authorities dissolved Press Club Belarus in July.
Various IFEX members, including Reporters Without Borders, marked the one-year anniversary of the August 2020 presidential election by providing overviews of the 12 months of repression that followed. BAJ furnished us with the shocking statistics of a year that saw 497 detentions of journalists, 68 cases of violence against press workers, over 50 media representatives facing criminal prosecution and over 100 news and media sites blocked.
Index on Censorship, in partnership with Belarus Free Theatre, Human Rights House Foundation and Politzek.me, launched ‘Letters from Lukashenka’s Prisoners’, which gives Belarus’s political prisoners (of which there are currently 649), a voice by collecting, translating, and publishing letters on a weekly basis.
The US, UK and Canada also marked the election’s anniversary by announcing new trade, financial and aviation sanctions on Lukashenka’s regime.
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.
And to find out more about how Belarusian activists and journalists in the diaspora are using digital tools to thwart Lukashenka’s regime, see our recently-published regional spotlight: ‘The smartphone versus the baton’.
Russia: Stifling free expression ahead of elections
Although Belarus is leading the field in political prisoners, Russia isn’t far behind. This month, Memorial Human Rights Center said that it had documented 410 political prisoners in Russia (adding that this figure was likely to be a significant underestimate). According to the rights group, 329 people are currently in jail or under house arrest for exercising their right to freedom of religion and 81 for other political reasons. Those targeted in relation to their religion were generally Muslims accused of membership of the banned Tablighi Jamaat and Hizb ut-Tahrir, and also Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Ahead of September’s parliamentary elections, the authorities have designated a number of organisations as ‘foreign agents’. These include the election monitoring group Golos, the independent television channel Dozhd and the investigative publication iStories. The foreign agent label not only stigmatises outlets that don’t follow the pro-government line, but can also impact the outlets’ financial health — deterring advertisers and sponsors — with obvious consequences for their journalistic output. Eight journalists were arrested for protesting these new foreign agent decisions.
The authorities refused to renew BBC Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford’s visa this month, effectively expelling her from Russia. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the move was in retaliation for the UK’s refusal to grant visas to Russian journalists working for Russian outlets RT and Sputnik (which have a history of spreading disinformation).
Turkey: Physical attacks on the press, another assault on social media
Cases of physical attacks on journalists in Turkey increase every month. August began with a vicious attack by a group armed with metal rods on several journalists who were covering the racially-motivated murder of a Kurdish family in Konya, central Anatolia.
Mid-month saw the pro-government commentator Emre Erciş shot in the leg in Istanbul. Days earlier, a Halk TV crew was attacked by a group in Marmaris while they were reporting on the wildfires that were sweeping Turkey.
Coverage of those wildfires also put six TV stations in the firing line this month. Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) — often criticised as a censorship tool in the hands of the government — imposed fines totalling 330,000 euros [about USD 389,000] on FOX TV, Halk TV, KRT, Tele1 and HaberTürk TV because they had allegedly reported on the fires “in a manner that provokes fear and concern amongst the public”.
The authorities’ battle to regulate social media and the internet goes on. According to reports, lawmakers are drafting a social media bill which proposes prison sentences of up to five years for those who spread disinformation online; fines for social media platforms that refuse to hand over information to authorities on anonymous accounts; and the establishment of a regulatory body on social media. Turkey already has dissent-stifling social media legislation (passed last year); and, according to a recent report, between the enactment of the 2007 Internet Law and the end of 2020, the authorities blocked 467,011 web addresses.
Several European countries have laws against insulting or defaming their heads of state, including (but not limited to) Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Slovenia, Spain and Greece. With the exception of Spain, these laws are rarely — if ever — used to bring prosecutions. However, Turkey’s law against “insulting the president” is notorious for the frequency with which it is employed. Statistics provided this month showed that President Erdoğan filed a jaw-dropping 38,581 lawsuits for “insulting the president” between 2014 and 2020.
Yorgen Fenech will stand trial in Malta for the 2017 murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for the businessman on charges of complicity in murder and criminal association.
Homophobia is endemic to Central Asia, and especially so to Uzbekistan where same-sex relations between men are criminalised. This month, Human Rights Watch called on President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to immediately prohibit the barbaric use of forced anal examinations as a way of collecting evidence to prosecute suspected homosexuals. In a recent 2021 case, forced anal exams were carried out on two men who had been living together: both were sentenced to two years under house arrest over 500 km apart from each other; they were also banned from using the internet.
The situation for LGBTQI+ activists in Kazakhstan, although not as precarious as it is in Uzbekistan, is still extremely challenging. This month, the Global Voices website published an article by Paolo Sorbello about the harassment and persecution of LGBTQI+ group Feminita as its activists travelled around the country advocating for equal rights. These resilient activists frequently face threats and violence from anti-LGBTQI+ mobs and harassment by the police (who sometimes arrest them “for their own safety”). Feminita’s application to register as an NGO has been repeatedly rejected, denying them official legitimacy and thus leaving them more vulnerable to abuse.
In Kyrgyzstan, President Japarov signed a ‘false information’ law that poses a serious threat to freedom of expression and the right to information. Individuals who claim that online content defames them are now allowed to ask an “authorised administrative body” to order the content’s deletion without reference to a judge. If the disputed information is not deleted within 24 hours, the entire web page or website will be completely blocked.
In early August, MPs in Poland voted to approve a bill that bans non-European shareholders from owning a majority stake in Polish media companies. The bill — another attack by the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) on media pluralism and independence — is widely seen as an effort to force a shift in the American-owned TVN’s editorial line, which is critical of the government. The Senate, where the opposition holds a small majority, will now vote on the bill. Historian and Poland expert Timothy Garton Ash’s Twitter thread explains what’s at stake:
Members of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) mechanism called for a prompt and thorough investigation into a Molotov cocktail attack on the home of journalist Willem Groeneveld in Groningen, the Netherlands. The attack took place at 2:45 am on 19 August when Groeneveld and his partner were sleeping. Recent months have seen a surge in attacks on journalists in the Netherlands, a country previously known for its good record on press freedom.
In the UK, the High Court granted permission for the US to expand the grounds of its appeal against an earlier refusal to allow the extradition of Julian Assange. The full appellate hearing will take place from 27 to 28 October.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on August 30, 2021.