A year in freedom of expression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image="120168" img_size="full" add_caption="yes"][vc_column_text]As we all start to think about the forthcoming holidays and the end of the year it’s a good opportunity to reflect on what happened in 2022. For regular readers you’ll know I have at various points over the last year despaired at the sheer volume of news. Too many crises, too many heartbreaking stories, too many people and families destroyed by the actions of tyrants. There has been so much news it is easy to forget the range of issues that have impacted human rights and freedom of expression around the world. So it would be remiss of me, in my last blog of the year, not to remind you of some the key events of 2022 (forgive me, there are many missing). The year started with Abdalla Hamdok resigning as the Prime Minister of Sudan after three years of pro-democracy protests, where dozens were killed. A few days later, a week of government clampdown in Kazakhstan led to the deaths of over 220 people with over 9,000 people arrested. In February we thought the biggest issue for Index would be the attempted sportswashing of the CCP as they hosted the Winter Olympics. Unfortunately that was not to be the most devastating act by a totalitarian regime in 2022. By the end of the month Putin’s government had launched an illegal invasion into Ukraine, causing the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the end of World War Two. Nearly 7,000 civilians have been killed during the war and over 13,000 Ukrainian troops and over 10,000 Russian troops have made the ultimate sacrifice. In response to the war, media freedoms and freedom of expression have been completely curtailed in both Russia and Belarus with thousands detained. Events in Ukraine rightly continued to dominate the news agenda for the rest of the year. But this in turn provided cover for dictators and tyrants around the world to move against their people with limited global outcry. March brought more extremism and death. In Afghanistan an IS suicide bomber killed 63 people at a mosque. April was dominated by events in Ukraine and the impact on food and fuel inflation leading to sporadic protests around the world. In June a suspected IS attack on a church in Nigeria saw at least 40 people killed. In July anti-government protests in Sri Lanka led to the deaths of 10 protesters, with over 600 arrested. In August our friend Sir Salman Rushdie was attacked by an extremist. We are incredibly grateful that he survived and remain in contact with him as his long recovery continues. In September the United Nations published their report about the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang province - declaring that their treatment may constitute crimes against humanity. September also saw clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border resulting in nearly 300 deaths in a three-day period. This was followed within days by similar clashes on the Kyrgyzstan - Tajikistan border with dozens killed. On 16 September Masha Amini was murdered by state forces in Iran for not having her hair covered appropriately. This horrendous act of state terror has led to country wide protests, at least 448 people have been killed in the protests and over 18,000 people have been arrested across 134 cities and towns in Iran. These demonstrations continue today as the Iranian government begins executing protestors. These events are truly some of the most egregious of 2022 and we stand with Amini and all those protesting in her name. In October Xi Jinping was appointed for an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the CCP, consolidating his grip on power. And a couple of weeks later Elon Musk purchased Twitter for $44billion, we still don’t know what the final effect on global free speech will be… At the end of October a terror attack in Mogadishu killed over 100 people. November saw the start of one of the most determined efforts at sportswashing of an appalling human rights record with the beginning of the football World Cup in Qatar. Protests were banned and football players were forbidden from wearing LGBT+ symbols while playing. And that gets me to December - in the last fortnight we have seen 1,700 people flee violence in South Sudan which has already killed 166 people. Chinese diplomats have left the UK after a protester was beaten by Chinese staff at a consulate in Manchester earlier this year. Twitter has banned journalists who have criticised Elon Musk and Jimmy Lai was sentenced to five years in jail in Hong Kong, as he awaits his trial for being a democracy campaigner. And yet there is still a fortnight to go before we close the door on 2022 - I pray that it’s a quiet fortnight for those on the front line. As we approach the end of 2022 my prayers will be with the people of Ukraine as they remain on the front line in the fight for freedom - especially as the temperature plummets. But the women of Iran won’t be too far from my thoughts too. So to you and yours from the Index family, Happy Christmas, Chag Sameach and Happy Holidays and here’s to a better 2023![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title="You may also wish to read" category_id="41669"][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Turkish-Armenian academic faces deportation from Greece over controversial views

Sevan Nişanyan at home in Samos

A prominent Turkish-Armenian academic faces deportation from Greece after being labelled an “undesirable foreigner” in what he sees as punishment for creating a database of Greek placenames and how they have changed through history.

Sevan Nişanyan, born in Istanbul in 1956, is a linguist and compiler of the hugely comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Turkish Language.

In 2012, he wrote a blog post about free speech arguing for the right to criticise the Prophet Mohammed which incensed then prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Speaking to Index in an interview at the time, Nisanyan said: “I received a call from [Erdogan’s] office inquiring whether I stood by my, erm, ‘bold views’ and letting me know that there was much commotion ‘up here’ about the essay. The director of religious affairs, the top Islamic official of the land, emerged from a meeting with Erdogan to denounce me as a ‘madman’ and ‘mentally deranged’ for insulting ‘our dearly beloved prophet’”.

The following year he was sentenced to 13 months in jail for his "insults".

While in prison, he was further charged with violations of building regulations in relation to the village of Şirince in Turkey’s Izmir Province and particularly the mathematical research institute established there in 2007 by Ali Nesin and in which Nasanyan was heavily involved.

Nişanyan was charged with 11 violations of the code leading to a total prison term of more than 16 years.

At the time, he and others were convinced that this was a political case, because jail time for building code infringements is almost unheard of in Turkey and he was merely being punished for his earlier views and blog post.

In 2017, Nişanyan escaped from the Turkish low security prison where he was being held and travelled by boat to Greece, where he claimed asylum and was granted a temporary residence permit.

He has since been living on the island of Samos and married a Greek citizen in 2019. While there he successfully applied for an Armenian passport and dropped his asylum application.

Everything changed on 30 December 2021 when he was denounced by the Greek police as a national security threat. His supporters say his name was added to what is known as the EKANA list of undesirable foreigners, administered by Greece’s Ministry of Public Order. At a recent press conference, Nişanyan claimed the reasons for the inclusion of his name on the list is considered a state secret.

The fast-growing use of the EKANA list has been called a “particularly worrying development” by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs.

“The Ekana list has become a favoured tool of the Greek police, primarily used against refugees who are denied asylum,” says Nişanyan.

Nişanyan says he has no concrete idea why his own name is on the list but he can speculate.

“There have been all sorts of accusations of me working against Greek national ideas,” he says.

He suspects it may be related to his creation of the Index Anatolicus, “a website looking at the toponomy of placenames, the authoritative source on the name changes to 53,000 Turkish places”.

“I recently decided to expand into Greece, North Macedonia, and Armenia,” he says.

He recognises it is a sensitive issue. In 1923, Greece and Turkey agreed to a population exchange after the fall of the Ottoman Empire which saw 1.3 million people made refugees.

“A hundred years ago, none of the towns and hamlets in northern Greece had Greek names. I have been accused by lots of insignificant people that this was a grave betrayal of the Greek motherland. That is absurd.”

On 7 January, the court ordered Nişanyan’s release saying he presented no risk of fleeing but gave him 15 days to leave the country voluntarily. He appealed against the ruling but this was thrown out on Thursday 13 January, meaning he must now leave by 22 January or face forced deportation. His request to be removed from the EKANA list has also been turned down. Nişanyan has appealed both decisions with the Administrative Court of the First Instance in Syros.

Nişanyan claims he is not a threat and that deportation would be particularly harsh on his wife, who is seriously ill.

He believes he has also become persona non grata as a result of a less welcoming attitude towards foreigners in the eastern Aegean in recent years.

“There has been enormous panic and paranoia over the refugees. Three years ago, people in Samos were divided on the refugee issue. Now you can be literally lynched if you say anything positive about refugees. It is a huge emotional mobilisation against all refugees and not surprisingly, part of that hostility has been directed towards Westerners and the NGOs who have ‘invaded’ the islands over the past few years.”

Where can Nişanyan go?

“I am tired and getting old. My wife’s health is a huge disaster. My normal instinct would be to stay and fight as I have been a fighter all my life. Now I am a weary,” he says.

“My three grown children are in Turkey and I have property there. However, I cannot go back unless there is some sort of presidential pardon.”

“The reasonable thing would be to go to Armenia, sit out the storm and come back some time,” but says that his chances of getting back to Greece appear slim.

It is also unclear whether his wife will be well enough to accompany him.

Nişanyan hopes the government comes to it sense and reconsiders an “utterly stupid decision which was obviously taken at the instigation of a paranoid and ignorant police force”.

He says, “I don’t think ever in the history of this country has a person who has not committed any crime whatsoever been deported to Armenia, historically one of Greece’s closest friends. It doesn’t make any political sense.”

Nişanyan has also gained support from the Anglo-Turkish writer and Balkans expert Alev Scott.

Scott told Index, “It is ironic that Sevan is hated in Turkey as an Armenian and in Greece as a Turk - and in both countries, as an outspoken intellectual who challenges conservative beliefs and nationalist sensibilities.

“He fled from a Turkish prison to a Greek island and embraced it as his new home; sadly, in recent years the Greek islands have become more and more hostile to foreigners as the refugee crisis worsens, and Sevan is a victim of this development.

“He is a big local presence on Samos, and receives a steady stream of visitors from Turkey and elsewhere - clearly, this has not gone down with locals, or with police,” she said.

“Sevan’s scholarly work on the etymological roots of place names raised hackles in Turkey and his proposal of a similar project on Greek place names has had a similar effect. Anything that challenges the existing nationalist narrative in both countries is, of course, highly controversial. It is beyond absurd that this academic - outspoken though he may be - presents a national security threat to Greece.”

Nişanyan also claims support for his case at the highest levels in the country – “former prime ministers, people high up in the judiciary system and journalists”.

“They seem shocked,” he says. “They cannot imagine something like this happening in a presumably democratic country.

Interview with Justice for Journalists’ Maria Ordzhonikidze: how Russia is using Covid to clamp down on the media


In March 2020, Index on Censorship partnered with Justice for Journalists Foundation to keep track of attacks on media freedom under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Four months on and the project has recorded more than 230 physical and verbal assaults, detentions and arrests and fines around the world. Authoritarian governments are increasingly using the pandemic to clamp down on media freedom. The largest number of incidents are in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Here associate editor Mark Frary talks to JFJ's director Maria Ordzhonikidze about why media freedom is in decline in the region.

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Padraig Reidy: The ugliness under Azerbaijan’s alternate reality

Demotix - PanARMENIAN Photo

Looking the other way as human rights defenders are jailed. (Photo: PanArmenian / Demotix)

On 5 September, Azerbaijaini president Ilham Aliyev addressed the Nato summit at the Celtic Manor golf resort in Newport, Wales.

It was an unspectacular speech from an unspectacular autocrat. As he often does, he talked about the amount of money Azerbaijan was spending abroad, Azerbaijan’s rapid economic development, Azerbaijan’s role as a bridge between east and west, and Azerbaijan’s continuing dispute with Armenia.

The dispute between the two countries over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has gone on pretty much since the break-up of the Soviet Union, flared as recently as this summer, when fourteen Azerbaijani troops were killed in clashes with their Armenian counterparts. It was easy to miss this, considering events in other parts of the former Soviet Union. As seems usual in international conflict now, neither side made any gain and both sides claimed victory.

A few weeks after that skirmish, and just before his Nato address, Aliyev met recently-elected president (formerly prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Aliyev is keen to build an alliance with Turkey, and clearly sees common cause in a shared dislike of Armenia. After the meeting, the Azerbaijani leader tweeted that “Turkey has always pursued an open policy on the issue of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, has always stood by Azerbaijan, stood by truth, justice and international law.” He went on:

This was interesting, in that Erdogan did not seem to mention any discussion of the Armenian genocide in his press briefing after the meeting. In fact, the Turkish president has been perceived as attempting to soften the Turkish state’s hardline denial of the incidents of 1915, when one million Armenians suffered deportation and death at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey.

In April, on the 99th anniversary of the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians, Erdogan released a statement saying: "Millions of people of all religions and ethnicities lost their lives in the first world war. Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences – such as relocation – during the first world war should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes towards one another."

The Justice and Development (AK) party leader went on to express condolences to the descendants of people who had died “in the context of the early 20th century”.

Now, this isn’t quite an apology; it’s barely even an apology at upset caused. It’s closer to the “mistakes were made” formulation, which is designed not so much to pass the buck as fire the buck into the heart of the sun in the hope that no one will ever have to deal with it again, particularly not the person whose buck it is in the first place.

But in the context of Turkey, where not long ago talking about the Armenian genocide could get you killed, it’s as good as you’re going to get for now.

So why would Aliyev raise the genocide issue this month? Perhaps he is nervous that Turkey, a major ally in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, is going soft on Armenia. This year’s detente between Turkey and Armenia continued when Armenia’s foreign minister Eduard Nalbandian attended Erdogan’s presidential inauguration at the end of August.

Nalbandian, in return, formally offered Erdogan an invitation to Armenia’s genocide commemorations next year, repeating an invitation first extended a few months ago by the country’s president Serzh Sargsyan. Any newfound good relations between Armenia and Turkey would severely weaken Azerbaijan’s territorial argument, or more accurately, weaken its ability to make the argument forcefully in the international arena. Turkey’s dispute with Armenia, after all, is mainly historic, and Erdogan, having seemingly consolidated his own power base outside of both the secular “deep state” and the Islamic Gülen movement to which many assumed he owed his success, now has a free hand on shaping foreign policy. Azerbaijan’s dispute with Armenia is current and, Aliyev hopes, immediate.

And so Azerbaijan has chosen to try to reignite the issue for its own ends. Meanwhile, in his own country, human rights abuses continue, with reports last week that Leyla Yunus, Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, was in ill health after prison beatings.

In spite of all this, Azerbaijan will continue to attempt to buy respectability. Next June, Baku will hold the first “European Games”, backed by the European Olympic Committee, featuring such irrelevancies as three-a-side basketball and beach soccer. It is not exactly the real thing, but then, post-Soviet Azerbaijan is a country built of facades; facades of modernity and wealth and progress and “democracy”. Facades that hide an underlying ugliness.

This article was posted on Thursday 18 Sept 2014 at indexoncensorship.org