High treason charges, new anti-LGBTQI+ legislation and progress against impunity

June 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.

Protesters are detained by police in central Istanbul, Turkey, on 26 June 2021, as hundreds of LGBTQI+ activists defied a ban and tried to stage a gay pride event. BÜLENT KıLıÇ/AFP via Getty Images

June saw the Belarusian authorities crank up the pressure on independent journalists, Istanbul police attack LGBTQI+ people and journalists at a Pride march, and Hungary adopt legislation reminiscent of Russia’s so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law. But the month also saw important progress in the battle against impunity in Slovakia:

A black hole for media freedom

In Belarus, the month began with detained blogger and NEXTA editor Raman Pratasevich making two further apparently forced ‘confessions’, this time on state media. He ‘confessed’ to attempting to topple President Lukashenka, renounced his opposition activism, and declared that pre-trial detention was the “safest place” for him. By the end of the month, Pratasevich had been moved to house arrest.

Regional IFEX member the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) was targeted again this month. The Ministry of Justice placed the independent press organisation under investigation and demanded that it present many thousands of documents dating back to January 2018, including financial records, membership lists, records of incoming and outgoing messages and more.

Independent media outlet TUT.BY is still in the authorities’ crosshairs. May saw raids on its offices, its website blocked, and 12 journalists arrested; June saw moves by the authorities to designate the news outlet ‘extremist’. In order to protect its staff before the organisation is officially designated ‘extremist’ TUT.BY has taken down its social media archive for the entirety of 2020 and first half of 2021.

There was shocking news at the end of the month when detained journalist Andrej Aliaksandraŭ was charged with high treason. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison. Aliaksandraŭ, who has been in custody since January, was previously charged with ‘organising and preparing actions grossly disturbing public order’. Those charges were based on allegations that he helped pay the fines of journalists and protesters who were detained in last year’s anti-Lukashenka demonstrations. Had it not been for the new charge, Aliaksandraŭ would have been released in July (having spent the maximum time allowable in custody pending trial).

June also saw:

  • IFEX members issue a joint call to the international community to make respect for press freedom a cornerstone of all demands made towards Belarus. The statement also calls for the use of targeted sanctions on individual members of the Lukashenka regime (so as to avoid inflicting the harm that blanket sanctions might have on the Belarusian people), and for increased support to threatened journalists in Belarus.
  • The UK, US, Canada and the EU working in parallel to impose sanctions against 11 individuals and 2 entities of the Belarusian regime. The sanctions come in response to the detention of Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega.
  • IFEX members and other rights groups calling — ahead of the 47th session of the UN Human Rights Council — for the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus.
  • Human Rights House Foundation, PEN America, and the Permanent Mission of Lithuania to the UN in Geneva organise a webinar, ‘Media Under Attack in Belarus’. Speakers included the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, numerous foreign ministers from central and eastern Europe, ambassadors and other experts. You can view a video of the event online.
  • Forty-seven civil NGOs call on the food manufacturer Nestlé to stop advertising on Belarusian state television (1 in 3 paid commercials on state TV are paid for by Nestlé).
  • UN experts describe Belarus as a “black hole” for media freedom, call for all journalists and rights activists to be released, and express “serious concern” about recent amendments to the Mass Media Law and the Law on Mass Gatherings, which impose draconian restrictions on journalists and protesters.
  • The EPP Group (the largest and oldest group in the European Parliament) call for the establishment of an international tribunal to try President Lukashenka and others for their role in the repression of Belarusian citizens.
  • Belarus’s government impose tighter restrictions in order to make it more difficult for Belarusians to leave the country. Although the new rules were ostensibly introduced to stop the spread of COVID-19, the authorities have been concerned for some time by the prospect of a mass flight of medical professionals, IT experts and other high-skilled workers.

“I can’t breathe”

In Turkey, the last weekend in June saw police violently break up a banned Istanbul Pride march. Officers fired rubber bullets into the crowd and arrested multiple journalists who were covering the event. At least five women reporters were assaulted by the police, including Derya Saadet, who had a table thrown onto her. Another victim of police brutality was the award-winning photojournalist Bülent Kılıç, who was heard saying “I can’t breathe” as officers forcefully detained him, kneeling on his back and neck. He was later released, but the incident triggered protests against police violence by journalists’ groups in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara.

The Istanbul Pride march has been banned since 2015, but the right to freedom of assembly is also under threat more generally: a recent report by the Association for Monitoring Equal Rights found that the authorities intervened in 320 peaceful protests or meetings between January and May 2021, detaining at least 2,123 participants.

The arrests and trials of journalists and civil society activists continue. Reporters Without Borders reminded us this month of the frequent use of anti-terrorism legislation to gag and jail journalists who report on the government’s actions with regard to the so-called Islamic State, Syria and abuses by the security forces.

PEN America’s new report on free expression in Turkey widened the scope beyond journalists to include writers, activists, artists, academics and creative professionals. Cracking Down on Creative Voices: Turkey’s Silencing of Writers, Intellectuals, and Artists Five Years After the Failed Coup looks at the legal mechanisms used by the Turkish government to silence critical voices over the past five years.

In addition to trials and detentions, June also saw a spate of physical attacks on journalists in Turkey. Victims included: Ahmet Atmaca, who was attacked by a group at a morgue in the south-eastern city of Gaziantep while he was covering the case of a man who had been stabbed to death; İbrahim Akkuş, who was assaulted by a group in the northern coastal province of Samsun while covering the opening ceremony of a recently built public hospital; and Mustafa Uslu, who was attacked by four people in the western province of Kocaeli while he was covering the destruction of illegal structures on a farm owned by an MP.

PEN Norway launched the final report in its Turkey Indictment Project 2020. The project examines indictments in 12 high profile cases of journalists and civil society activists who have been tried in the last five years, including the Cumhuriyet journalists, the Gezi Park defendants, Osman Kavala and Jak Barkey, journalists Nedim Türfent, Pelin Ünker, Berzan Güneş and others. Not one of the indictments examined by the project’s legal experts was found to meet either domestic or international standards.

IFEX members were among 16 rights groups that called on EU leaders to put rule of law and fundamental rights at the heart of EU-Turkey relations ahead of June’s European Council meeting. Earlier in the month, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project urged the Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers to insist that Turkey implement European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgements in the cases of jailed human rights defender Osman Kavala and jailed Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş or face infringement proceedings (the ECtHR has ordered the release of both men). After meeting to consider the cases, the Council of Ministers threatened to launch infringement proceedings if Kavala is not released, which could result in the suspension of Turkey’s vote and veto power at the Council of Europe.

In brief

In Slovakia, the Supreme Court overturned two not guilty verdicts in the case of the 2018 murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. Businessman Marian Kočner and Alena Zsuzsová were acquitted of ordering Kuciak’s murder in September 2020. The case will now be reconsidered by the Specialised Criminal Court.

On 15 June, Hungary’s parliament passed amendments that effectively ban discussion of sexual and gender diversity in schools, media, advertising and other public spaces. The new legislation, which carries echoes of Russia’s so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law, has infuriated the EU, which, for some time, has been battling Hungary over its growing hostility towards gender rights and its general backsliding on rule of law. In late June, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced initial legal steps against Hungary over its new legislation.

In Germany, lawmakers approved amendments to the Federal Constitutional Protection Act, removing legal provisions that exempted journalists from surveillance and hacking during terrorism investigations. Under the legislation, the authorities will have greater powers to secretly monitor online activity and encrypted communications, and to hack into journalists’ computers or smartphones (as long as this is done within the context of a terrorism investigation).

In Ukraine, civil society activists and human rights defenders continue to come under pressure. A new report by ZMINA Human Rights Center recorded 30 incidents of persecution in the first quarter of 2021. The most common types of persecution were physical assaults, damage to activists’ property, and attempted intimidation; the riskiest areas of activism were on anti-corruption issues, LGBTQI+ rights and women’s rights. The threat to activists came from a wide range of groups, including lawmakers and state agents. The report also highlights the impunity enjoyed by those who attack rights defenders in Ukraine.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on July 2, 2021.

IFEX is a global network of organisations that defend and promote the right to freedom of expression and information. Email: info@ifex.org