Mapping Media Freedom: Azerbaijani journalist abducted and beaten


Mapping Media Freedom

Over the last seven days, violence, intimidation, harassment and assault have been used to stop journalists from doing their job in the countries covered by Index on Censorship’s project Mapping Media Freedom.

Project manager Hannah Machlin explained why incidents in Azerbaijan and Ukraine are particularly alarming. She called the Azerbaijani incident “the most serious violation to press freedom in the past few days and it shows the situation in the region continues to be disturbing”.

The violation, which took place in late May, was against exiled Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, who was abducted and allegedly tortured before being taken across the border and put in pre-trial detention in Azerbaijan.

“This shows that Georgia can’t be considered a safe haven for opposition journalists and activists as well as reiterates the continued crackdown on press freedom in Azerbaijan,” Machlin said. The incident has been reported to the Council of Europe’s platform on the protection of journalism to enable that organisation to pursue discussions with the country’s representatives. Index on Censorship joined other press freedom organisations to request the Georgian government take action on the incident.

Machlin said the situation in Ukraine “indicates a complex issue in a war-torn area”. She said the “the report shows that there’s still renewed violent intimidation tactics perpetrated by the separatists against Ukrainian public broadcasters in Donbas”. She explains this is interesting because it shows that the separatists are targeting channels of free information set up by Kyiv and that Ukraine is even trying to install public broadcasters in the eastern region controlled by self-proclaimed authorities because the country “is trying to put a press presence back in there”.

Azerbaijan: Journalist kidnapped, beaten and sentenced by country that exiled him

29 May 2017 – Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was on his way home but never made it.

Mukhtarli was reportedly kidnapped from his neighbourhood after being forced into a car with his hands tied together. He was also beaten with a broken nose and bruises all over his head and face.

He then was transported back to Azerbaijan without a passport.

Mukhtarli was charged for illegally crossing the border, smuggling and resisting law enforcement and was also accused of being in possession of 10,000 EUR during the police search at the border.

One day later on 30 May, he was sentenced to three months in pretrial detention.

Mukihtarli’s wife and child in still in Tbilsi where they fled after escaping Azerbaijan in 2015 when Mukhtarli was threatened over his investigative reporting on corruption in the Azerbaijan.

Ukraine: Two assailants smash front door of regional TV channel

26 May 2017 – Do TeBe, a new TV channel, endured a smashing of their front door by two unidentified assailants.

Police came to the channel, located in Donetsk oblast and are now investigating the incident.

Do TeBe’s deputy director Ilya Suzdalyev said “We are in the front line region, even what looks like hooliganism must be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators should be punished. Especially when it is, in fact, an attack on the public broadcaster, which was just created in Ukraine.”

Do TeBe TV channel is a regional branch of the National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine.

Serbia: Journalists assaulted by supporters of new president at inauguration

31 May 2017 – Outside the parliament building where the 2017 presidential inauguration took place journalists were assaulted by supporters of the new president.

Lidija Valtner, a journalist for daily Danas, was filming and interviewing an anti-government protester when she was assaulted by a group of supporters. Not only did they shove her around and try to take her mobile phone, but they also assaulted the protester she was interviewing.

Another journalist on the scene was reporting for Radio Belgrade when she was pushed and her equipment thrown to the ground.

Journalists for Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Vice Serbia were also harassed with violence from the crowd whilst they were taking photos of the clashes. The police asked for their IDs after they witnessed a few men ripping a protest banner.

The assailants are still on the loose.

Russia: Local news website receives content threats

31 May 2017 – An unknown person called the editor-in-chief of the local news website Kurier.Sreda.Berdsk and threatened her and the editorial staff. Galina Komornikova’s outlet is located in the Novosibirsk region in Berdsk.

On the call, the individual said that “the Syrian theme is not one for journalists”.

The call may have been in response to a story published by the outlet the day before about the secret funeral of a Berdsk resident and Russian military officer. Yevgeni Tretyakov, who was killed in Syria on 15 May, may have belonged to private Russian military troops as he was not an official Russian army contractor.

The outlet then commented on the article saying “An unknown individual called us and promised to ‘come and handle us on behalf of law enforcement agencies’ following the article.”

Para-military private troops are not a new concept. Both Russian and international civil investigative groups and media outlets have been reporting evidence for these groups in the Syrian conflict.

A comment was also left by user “The Animal” stating “Actually, data on military casualties is classified, therefore, I would not be surprised if special people came to visit you to shake a bit, you and your sources.”

France: Journalist grabbed and kissed by tennis player during interview

29 May 2017 – After elimination while being interviewed, tennis player Maxime Hamou tried to kiss channel Eurosport journalist Maly Thomas several times.

It was at the Rolland Garros tournament where Hamou grabbed Thomas and tired kiss her on the neck and cheek.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Mapping Media Freedom

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Serbia: Independent media increasingly targeted as spies


It was a Wednesday morning in early November when investigative journalist Slobodan Georgijev opened Informer, one of Serbia’s notorious tabloids. He had just arrived at his office, the newsroom of Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), one of Serbia’s few independent media outlets. When he turned the page he was shocked by what he saw; a picture of his own face amongst two others, in an article calling three media outlets known for critical reporting of the Serbian government, including BIRN, “foreign spies”.

“It was funny and unpleasant at the same time,” Georgijev recalled, speaking to Index on Censorship. “Funny because I knew that this is just a campaign by Informer to undermine the credibility of independent journalists.” More importantly, he had begun worry about his own safety. “It’s also unpleasant because you never know how people will interpret such defamations.”

Several independent media houses — including BIRN, as well as Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) and Center for Investigative Journalism Serbia (CINS) — have alleged that pro-government tabloids like Informer are running a smear campaign against them.

The first major incident followed the publication of a story about the cancellation of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s vacation in August 2015. Informer published an article saying that Vucic was forced to cancel his two day vacation in Serbia due to reporters from BIRN and CINS allegedly booking a room next to his.

The same newspaper also wrote that BIRN and CINS were meeting with European Union representatives on a weekly basis to plan to bring down the government.

“We are basically accused of being financed by the EU to work against our government,” Branko Cecen, director of CINS, told Index on Censorship. Cecen, like Georgiev, was also pictured and called a foreign spy in Informer. “Expressions like ‘foreign mercenaries’ and ‘joint criminal activity against their own state’ have been used.”

Informer newspaper is openly affiliated with the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of prime minister Aleksandar Vucic and has frequently been accused of political bias in favour of the party and the prime minister.

CINS, KRIK and BIRN have long reported on what they see as a slew of regular negative articles about themselves in tabloid newspapers with close ties to the government. There is no doubt that the three news outlets are targets because of their critical reporting on the government.

One of BIRN’s stories revealed a contract the Serbian government had signed with the national carrier of United Arab Emirates, Etihad Airways, to take over it’s state-owned counterpart Air Serbia. The deal had been financially damaging for Serbia, which was kept from the public until BIRN obtained and published the contract.

Another story investigated alleged corruption concerning a project for pumping out a flooded coal mine. BIRN found out that Serbia’s state-owned power company had awarded a contract to dewater the mine to a company who’s director is a close friend of the prime minister.

The coal mine revelations led to an angry speech about BIRN by Vucic on national television saying: “Tell those liars that they have lied again(.”

He also attacked the EU delegation in Serbia for being involved in discrediting the government by financing BIRN. “They got the money from Davenport and the EU to speak against the Serbian government,” the prime minister said, naming Michael Davenport, the head of the EU delegation in Belgrade.

BIRN’s editor-in-chief Gordana Igric told Index on Censorship she sees a resemblance to Serbia’s difficult nineties. “This reminds me of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, a time when the prime minister also had a prominent role and critical journalists and NGOs were marked as foreign mercenaries,” she said. “What’s happening in Serbia today makes you feel sad and confused.”

Independent journalists find the path that the prime minister is taking alarming. Some compare him with the Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or the Russia’s Vladimir Putin. According to Cecen, the level of freedom of expression is at the lowest level since the time of strongman Milosevic. “There is an aggressive campaign against anybody and anything criticising the prime minister and his policies”, he said. “The prime minister has taken over most media in Serbia, especially national TV networks, but also local ones. His small army of social media commentators is terrorising the internet. It is quite bleak and frustrating.”

Regardless of Vucic’s verbal attacks towards the EU delegation, Serbia has opened the first two chapters in its EU membership negotiation in December 2015. This represents a big step towards eventual membership of the European Union. But the latest progress report on Serbia (November 2015) says the country needs to do much more in terms of fighting corruption, the independence of the judiciary and ensuring media freedom.

“The concern over freedom of expression is always expressed in these reports,” Cecen said. “But we see no influence of such reports since situation with media and freedom of expression is deteriorating daily.” Cecen is disappointed in the European Union’s support for independent media in Serbia and finds that EU officials show too much support for the Serbian government and the prime minister.

After he had seen his own face in the paper, Georgiev picked up the phone and called up Informer’s editor-in-chief Dragan Vučićević to ask for a better picture in the next paper. Georgiev jokes about it and clearly doesn’t let accusations and threats hold him back. “People around me are making jokes”, he said. “They call me a foreign mercenary, an enemy of the state.”

Georgiev pressed charges for defamation against Informer. “We are living in a state of constant emergency,” he continued, concerned about the state of press freedom in his country. “Serbia is not like Turkey. But it goes very fast in that direction.”


Mapping Media Freedom

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