September 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.
September saw the region’s authoritarians ramp up pressure on civic space and move to tighten controls on digital expression, thus restricting their citizens’ access to information online. The month also saw a welcome European Commission initiative addressing journalists’ safety and a small victory for the LGBTQI+ community in Poland.
Belarus: “Increasingly severe restrictions on civic space”
The Interactive Dialogue on the interim oral update of the OHCHR (Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) on the human rights crisis in Belarus took place on 24 September at the 48th Session of the Human Rights Council.
In her update to the Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed her deep concern at Belarus’s “increasingly severe restrictions on civic space and fundamental freedoms”.
She pointed to: the 129 civil society organisations that have been closed down (or that are in the process of being liquidated by the authorities), including the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and PEN Belarus; the more than 650 political prisoners; the persistent allegations of “widespread and systematic torture” of detainees, and the lack of impartial investigations into these allegations; the 27 journalists who remain behind bars; and the “gender-based violence in detention”, noting that approximately 30% of those arbitrarily detained are women and girls.
ARTICLE 19, PEN America, IFEX, Access Now and International Media Support presented a statement during the session, in which we called on the OHCHR to examine and provide recommendations on the Belarusian government’s abuse of the legal system to criminalise the right to freedom of expression, and urged the Council to ensure that the examination of the human rights situation in Belarus is properly resourced.
The Human Rights Council continues to invite individuals and groups to submit information relevant to the mandate of the examination of the human rights situation in Belarus until 15 November 2021.
A new global report on internet freedom published this month by Freedom House revealed that Belarus was one of a handful of countries which had seen the greatest deterioration of online freedoms over the last year. Since the disputed presidential election in August 2020, the Belarusian authorities have been striving to restrict the information that citizens can access online. The blocking of websites, the forced deletion of content and the designation of huge amounts of content as ‘extremist’ “affirmed” the Freedom House report concludes, “that authorities view online activity as a primary driver of civic unrest”. Belarus joins five other countries from Europe and Central Asia in Freedom House’s “not free” category: the others are Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan — countries where civil society is also under significant pressure more generally.
September also saw:
- Maria Kalesnikava (who was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize this month) and Maxim Znak — both prominent leaders in the democratic opposition’s Coordination Council — handed prison sentences of 11 and ten years respectively on ludicrous charges of attempting to seize power and damage national security.
- A US House resolution decrying the Lukashenka regime’s brutal suppression of independent voices; the resolution was backed by PEN America, Amnesty International USA, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters without Borders.
- Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya meet with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and urge support for RSF’s call on the EU to provide long-term assistance to Belarusian journalists and media outlets that have had to go into exile.
- Veteran journalist and former prisoner Yuliya Slutskaya named the 2021 World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute and International Media Support.
- Renowned Belarusian human rights organisation Viasna launch its #FreeViasna campaign, calling for the release of seven Viasna human rights defenders, including its chairman Ales Bialiatski.
Russia: Putin’s big tech “accomplices”
September’s parliamentary elections in Russia saw President Putin’s United Russia Party maintain its majority. There were reports of widespread ballot tampering and other questionable activities; one independent monitor described the election as “one of the dirtiest” in Russian history.
Seeking to pressure independent voices ahead of the elections, the authorities issued a spate of ‘foreign agent’ or ‘undesirable organisation’ designations against independent media organisations. One of these organisations, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), announced that it would suspend its work in Russia in order to protect the journalists with whom it collaborates.
Jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny was once again a target of the pre-voting crackdown. On the eve of the elections, Russia’s communications watchdog demanded that Google and Apple remove the so-called ‘Navalny app’ from their stores in Russia: the tech giants swiftly complied, thus neutering the Navalny organisation’s ‘Smart Voting’ strategy, whereby citizens could use the app to engage in tactical voting in an effort to reduce the number of seats held by Putin’s ruling party. ARTICLE 19 called on Google and Apple to challenge the Russian authorities’ blocking and removal orders. The messaging app Telegram — the favoured tech of many pro-democracy activists — also blocked Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ bot, along with all chat bots during the election.
Navalny responded with a scathing Twitter thread, in which he accused Google and Apple of having turned into Putin’s “accomplices”.
Turkey: “A witch hunt is about to start”
The threat to online free expression and access to information in Turkey looks set to intensify in October when the government is expected to bring to parliament the much-discussed new draft social media bill. Though ostensibly intended to tackle disinformation, there is little information available about the bill (apart from reports that it will include punishments of up to five years in prison for those convicted under it). Critics warn that it will lead to more censorship, including self-censorship. Expression Interrupted recently interviewed three leading experts on IT law and technology to get their thoughts on what to expect, including the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Deputy Chair of Information and Communication Technologies, Onursal Adıgüzel, who warns that “a witch hunt is about to start”.
Legislation curbing free expression on the internet in Turkey has been around for a long time, and is frequently deployed to shut down criticism of the wealthy and powerful. According to a report this month by the Media Research Association (MEDAR), between October 2020 and April 2021, 658 online news articles had takedown orders issued against them: the vast majority of these articles were reports about ‘corruption’ or misconduct’.
The internet is a risky space for journalists in Turkey. They not only face content removal orders and prosecution over their tweets, but also serious online harassment. Women journalists are especially at risk of targeted abuse on digital platforms. In an interview this month with the International Press Institute, Turkish women journalists describe how they are attacked not just for their work, but for who they are, and how their families are frequently targeted too.
September saw developments in three cases of particular interest to IFEX members:
The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers announced that it would begin infringement proceedings if jailed civil society leader Osman Kavala was not released in compliance with a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling. The Committee will vote on the decision when it next meets in November. Kavala is charged with attempting to “overthrow the constitutional order” and “espionage”. His next court hearing is on 8 October.
Separately, the Committee also called on Turkey to implement the ECtHR ruling to release Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed former head of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and quash the ongoing case against him.
RSF Turkey representative and IFEX member Erol Önderoglu and his two co-defendants, human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı and writer Ahmet Nesin, were back in court on 30 September after a long postponement of their trial on ludicrous terrorism-related charges. Observers from RSF, the International Press Institute and Expression Interrupted attended the hearing, which lasted only ten minutes. The trial was postponed again until 1 February 2022.
On 16 September, two men were charged with the killing of journalist Lyra McKee, who was shot dead during riots in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 2019. A total of three men have now been charged with the crime. At the time of the killing, the New IRA — an armed republican dissident group — admitted responsibility but said that McKee had not been the intended target.
The European Commission published its first-ever Recommendation on journalists’ safety across the EU. It includes a raft of measures intended to drive member states to address the issue of attacks on journalists and highlights several current concerns including: the safety of women and minority group journalists; online safety; and the prevalence of attacks on reporters at protests. The recommendation has been broadly welcomed by press freedom groups.
IFEX joined 61 organisations in a joint statement urging the European Commission to strengthen its annual Rule of Law report.
In Kazakhstan, the lower chamber of parliament approved the first reading of a bill that would force social media companies and messenger services to open representative offices in the country or face restrictions on their activity. The authorities hope that the legislation, which also requires the head of the local office to be a Kazakh citizen, and which carries echoes of repressive legislation introduced in Turkey last year, will make it easier to force international social media giants to take down content considered ‘unsuitable’. In recent years, the Kazakh government has grown very concerned over anti-government rallies organised via social networks.
In Poland, four regions that had declared themselves “LGBT-free” zones have repealed their declarations after a threatened withdrawal of EU funding on anti-discrimination grounds. Nearly 100 municipalities have declared themselves “LGBT-free” zones in recent years, inspired by the homophobic politics of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS).
Also this month, the EU Parliament passed a resolution condemning Polish authorities for their attacks on rule of law and media freedom, and for their ongoing discrimination against LGBTQI+ people. It also urged the Commission to tie the payout of EU funds to Poland’s implementation of European Court of Justice resolutions.
On 28 September, IFEX groups and others marked the 2nd International Day for the Universal Access to Information — proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 2019 — and the culmination of years of advocacy, led by IFEX members in Africa and their partners. Whether it’s on the global, regional, or national stage, IFEX members in Africa are world leaders both in pushing for strong Access to Information laws and in promoting the right to information. IFEX marked the day with a special edition podcast of Africa Brief.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on September 30, 2021.