Censorship gone viral: The cross-fertilisation of repression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”85524″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]For around six decades after WWII ideas, laws and institutions supporting free expression spread across borders globally. Ever more people were liberated from stifling censorship and repression. But in the past decade that development has reversed.  

On April 12 Russian lawmakers in the State Duma completed the first reading of a new draft law on social media. Among other things the law requires social media platforms to remove illegal content within 24 hours or risk hefty fines. Sound familiar? If you think you’ve heard this story before it’s because the original draft was what Reporters Without Borders call a “copy-paste” version of the much criticized German Social Network law that went into effect earlier this year. But we can trace the origins back further.

In 2016 the EU-Commission and a number of big tech-firms including Facebook, Twitter and Google, agreed on a Code of Conduct under which these firms commit to removing illegal hate speech within 24 hours. In other words what happens in Brussels doesn’t stay in Brussels. It may spread to Berlin and end up in Moscow, transformed from a voluntary instrument aimed at defending Western democracies to a draconian law used to shore up a regime committed to disrupting Western democracies. 

US President Donald Trump’s crusade against “fake news” may also have had serious consequences for press freedom. Because of the First Amendment’s robust protection of free expression Trump is largely powerless to weaponise his war against the “fake news media” and “enemies of the people” that most others refer to as “independent media”.

Yet many other citizens of the world cannot rely on the same degree of legal protection from thin-skinned political leaders eager to filter news and information. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented the highest ever number of journalists imprisoned for false news worldwide. And while 21 such cases may not sound catastrophic the message these arrests and convictions send is alarming. And soon more may follow.  In April Malaysia criminalised the spread of “news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false”, with up to six years in prison. Already a Danish citizen has been convicted to one month’s imprisonment for a harmless YouTube video, and presidential candidate Mahathir Mohammed is also being investigated. Kenya is going down the same path with a draconian bill criminalising “false” or “fictitious” information.  And while Robert Mueller is investigating whether Trump has been unduly influenced by Russian President Putin, it seems that Putin may well have been influenced by Trump. The above mentioned Russian draft social media law also includes an obligation to delete any “unverified publicly significant information presented as reliable information.” Taken into account the amount of pro-Kremlin propaganda espoused by Russian media such as RT and Sputnik, one can be certain that the definition of “unverified” will align closely with the interests of Putin and his cronies.

But even democracies have fallen for the temptation to define truth. France’s celebrated president Macron has promised to present a bill targeting false information by “to allow rapid blocking of the dissemination of fake news”. While the French initiative may be targeted at election periods it still does not accord well with a joint declaration issued by independent experts from international and regional organisations covering the UN, Europe, the Americans and Africa which stressed that “ general prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including ‘false news’ or ‘non-objective information’, are incompatible with international standards for restrictions on freedom of expression”.

However, illiberal measures also travel from East to West. In 2012 Russia adopted a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad and involved in “political activities” – a nebulous and all-encompassing term – to register as “foreign agents”. The law is a thinly veiled attempt to delegitimise civil society organisations that may shed critical light on the policies of Putin’s regime. It has affected everything from human rights groups, LGBT-activists and environmental organisations, who must choose between being branded as something akin to enemies of the state or abandon their work in Russia. As such it has strong appeal to other politicians who don’t appreciate a vibrant civil society with its inherent ecosystem of dissent and potential for social and political mobilisation.

One such politician is Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary’s increasingly illiberal government. In 2017 Orban’s government did its own copy paste job adopting a law requiring NGOs receiving funds from abroad to register as “foreign supported”. A move which should be seen in the light of Orban’s obsession with eliminating the influence of anything or anyone remotely associated with the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros whose Open Society Foundation funds organisations promoting liberal and progressive values.

The cross-fertilisation of censorship between regime types and continents is part of the explanation why press freedom has been in retreat for more than a decade. In its recent 2018 World Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders identified “growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies”. This is something borne out by the litany of of media freedom violations reported to Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom, which monitors 43 countries. In just the last four years, MMF has logged over 4,200 incidents — a staggering array of curbs on the press that range from physical assault to online threats and murders that have engulfed journalists.

Alarmingly Europe – the heartland of global democracy – has seen the worst regional setbacks in RSF’s index. This development shows that sacrificing free speech to guard against creeping authoritarianism is more likely to embolden than to defeat the enemies of the open society.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”100463″ img_size=”full” onclick=”custom_link” img_link_target=”_blank” link=”http://www.freespeechhistory.com”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]


A podcast on the history of free speech. 

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1526895517975-5ae07ad7-7137-1″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Media in exile: Eurasia’s last vestiges of freedom of expression


Journalists Erdem Gül and Can Dündar (Photo: Bianet)

Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyyet, one of Turkey’s most popular newspapers, was awaiting an appeal on his case in Turkey from Germany when the news of the coup d’etat in his homeland came. Scores of arrests followed, and his lawyer advised that Dündar, who had just narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in May 2016 outside a courtroom and was facing over five years in prison for allegedly leaking state secrets, stay in Germany.

He recalls that it was the hardest decision in his life, 40 years of which he had devoted to working as a journalist in Turkey.

“I thought it was impossible to go back, decided to stay and work from Germany, and about a year ago I with a small team started a media organization here, Özgürüz.”

When it’s time to leave

As shocking as Dündar’s story is, it is hardly unusual in the Eurasian region, where, according to International Media Support, there was a steady decline in freedom of expression in Eurasia since 2011. While for years the Committee to Protect Journalists named Turkey the biggest jailer of journalists globally, there are other nations competing for this dubious title.

For some journalists, the alternative to being jailed is an exile. According to Yavuz Baydar, chief editor of Ahval Online, a Turkey-oriented news site based in Germany, “That’s an inevitable result of oppression in any country because as long as the conventional media are suffocated and put under the yoke of the powers, it leaves journalists with no other choice than leaving the profession altogether or moving abroad.”

However, only a select few survive the shock and reemerge as viable journalists continuing to work in exile.

Some of the most successful examples of the media in exile emerged from the region and operating in the more permissive environment of Western Europe, according to Jens Uwe Thomas with RSF Germany, are Meduza, Amurburg and Spektr, Russia-oriented news portals, as well as MeydanTV, an Azerbaijani multimedia outlet in exile, Dündar’s Özgürüz and Baydar’s Ahval Online.

Challenges of exile

Thomas says that upon settling in exile, the first step for the journalists is usually to legalize their status, and then they start looking for opportunities to establish their outlets.

“The most important thing is to support these media abroad in terms of their registration,” says Bektour Iskander, editor of Kyrgyz media Kloop, who monitors exiled media and is in the process of creating a digital resources kit for them, adding that oftentimes, the media can’t relocate abroad due to lack of financial resources or visas.

“In 2010 we were threatened by the special services because of our investigative reporting about the son of president Bakiyev [of Kyrgyzstan]. But we had no opportunity to leave the country. Only now I realize that we were facing scary consequences, even assassination. We were so clueless as to how to do that, or find the resources for that, we were saved by the miracle, a revolution happened in the country and the threat disappeared,” he recalls.

One common thread for these media across the board is that while their editorial teams operate in exile, they have networks of journalists working for them from inside their home country, says Thomas, adding that secure communication and creating collaborative work environment in such circumstances is often a challenge.

“Those are operating under the great risks, which causes a lot of hurdles and obstacles for continuity and consistency in the content quality,” Baydar adds. MeydanTV founder Emin Milli agrees, “Unfortunately, journalists and their family members are under pressure. The ones who work with us have been attacked, some tortured. Some parents of theirs were fired”. Galima Bukhabrayeva, former editor of exiled Uznews web site that was allegedly hacked by the Uzbek government and is now defunct, says: “In our case, the best journalists in Uzbekistan worked with us, because in our case it wasn’t enough to be a journalist, one had to be a patriot and a citizen, and a brave person, at that.”

But the relocation doesn’t always pose a challenge, says Aleksandr Kushnar, editor of Russian exiled media Amurburg. Commenting on the success of Meduza, he says, “It makes more sense for them to be located where they are for the reasons of safety of the editorial staff [because] their geographic location doesn’t affect the quality of their content.”

Uniformly, the exiled media representatives bemoan the perception in their home countries that these media lack the situational awareness on the ground. One example of successfully solving this challenge is MeydanTV, says Iskander, adding that “they encourage citizen journalism, their readers [are] often involved in the content creation, they send photos, videos, materials.”

Another challenge all of the exiled media managers interviewed for this article cite is the lack of funding, which poses a constant problem on the back of everybody’s mind. What complicates things for the managers of these outlets is the stipulation set forward by the international donors that the medium be located in-country in order to satisfy the funding criteria, which is impossible to abide by for those operating in exile.

Silver linings

But not all is hopeless for the uprooted journalists and media managers, and alongside obvious challenges, there are reasons for cautious optimism. There are quite a few success stories among the outlets who learned to capitalise on the advantages of operating from free environments.  

Kushnar says attaining success is very difficult in reality, and he attributes it to the issues of funding, resources and teams. Speaking of the outlets, he says that  “Their capabilities are seriously restricted. Oftentimes, they cannot compete with the leading news agencies that are funded very generously. We all know very well how RT is funded all over the world. The goal for these media is to identify the niches where they still can get in and tell the truth. It’s very difficult when pro-Kremlin outlets have an audience of 40 million, and your budget is a thousand times smaller.”

The upsides are quite self-evident, according to Anton Lysenkov, editor of Latvia-based Spektr: “Our situation is beneficial. We are not subjected to constant audits and provocations. Our work environment is much more peaceful. I admire those who continue to work from Russia, and we are trying to help them,” he adds.

According to Baydar, “The upside is you can see everything with a bird’s eye, in a free domain, analyse things much more clearly in a macro way which gives a lot of advantages to focus on the main areas that need to be covered.”

Some media in exile not only survive, but they manage to thrive and even increase their audiences, like Meduza. “They have millions of unique visitors a month, and it’s been rising year to year. They’re  trusted,” says Milli. “They can work freely in Russia and come and go as they please. They’re a successful model.”

Galina Timchenko, Meduza’s editor-in-chief, cannot attribute the success of her outfit to any one strategy: “Unfortunately, there are no long-term plans and effective strategies for success in the current political climate. So far, we are not considering the possibility of moving to Russia because we cannot remain oblivious to the rising risks in that case. The media market in Russia is almost completely controlled by the state, and we don’t see a place for ourselves within such a market in the short term perspective,” she adds.

Preserving and rehearsing for the return

But what is the purpose of the media in exile and what is their end game?

While Kushnar says, exiled media preserve the freedom of the press in a dictatorship, Lysenkov adds that their goal is to supply the population with propaganda-free and less emotionally-charged content. Milli sees the enormous power of the free media to change the society for the better. “People have big hopes and need this, too. That’s why we keep working”.

Others see their ultimate goal as return home. Iskander cautions that “when a dictatorship in their home country comes to an end and [the media in exile] return home, their ratings start falling sharply. Because the credit of trust has been disintegrating, because the rhetoric could change from “at least someone is trying to do some good, even if it is from abroad” to “where have you been all these years while we were suffering?”

Despite such dangers, Bukharbayeva says, the ultimate goal of the exiled media is the return home. She points out that one loses focus and ability to write accurately when unable to visit their home country for over a decade, but “exiled media cannot exist indefinitely, and we must try to return because the time has come.”

Dündar, who has also started publishing a print magazine and opened a publishing house, is looking into opening a TV channel. He says his team’s current work is like a rehearsal in preparations for the future.

“It’s impossible to be in Turkey. But like the German Jews in WWII [who] came to Turkey, rehearsed there, came up with new ideas, and then went back to Germany after the war, we, Turks, are rehearsing and preparing for a better day in Turkey to return there”. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”10″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1523289736466-bd3f6e90-fdac-9″ taxonomies=”8607″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Vigil for Daphne Caruana Galizia


Daphne Caruana Galizia

Daphne Caruana Galizia

On 16 April, we will be holding a vigil at Malta House in London to mark six months since Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder and to continue calls for justice.

The vigil is co-sponsored by English PEN, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Index on Censorship and Il-Kenniesa.

#DaphneCaruanaGalizia #JusticeForDaphne #Malta[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

When: Monday 16 April 1-2 pm
Where: Malta House, 36-38 Piccadilly, W1J 0DP (Directions)

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Turkey should immediately release Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay


Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan

Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan

Turkey should immediately implement the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and release the veteran journalists Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay without delay, a coalition of nongovernmental groups said on 23 March 2018. Furthermore, Turkey must ensure that domestic remedies for human rights violations are effective, in particular by ensuring the urgent review of all cases of journalists and writers currently pending before its Constitutional Court.

The organizations, which had intervened as third parties in the cases before the court, included PEN International, ARTICLE 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, European Federation of Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Index on Censorship, International Press Institute, International Senior Lawyers Project and Reporters Without Borders. The coalition welcomed the judgments announced on March 20, 2018. The rulings are the first by the court in the cases of journalists arrested and detained on charges in relation to the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. They set an important precedent for the other cases of 154 detained journalists in Turkey.

“The Turkish government must take action to implement the European Court of Human Rights’ judgement. The ongoing trials are a serious breach of human rights and freedom of expression by the government. Turkey must cease its judicial harassment of journalists, academics and lawyers,” said Joy Hyvarinen, head of advocacy of Index on Censorship said.

In its two judgments, the European Court found violations of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression. The court made clear that criticism of governments should not attract criminal charges since, in addition to pre-trial detention, this would inevitably have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and would silence dissenting voices.

“We welcome these rulings, in particular the European Court’s recognition that a state of emergency must not be abused as a pretext for limiting freedom of expression,” said Carles Torner, executive director of PEN International.

While acknowledging the threat posed to Turkey by the attempted coup, the court crucially noted that “the existence of a ‘public emergency threatening the life of the nation’ must not serve as a pretext for limiting freedom of political debate, which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”

The European Court has also found that the journalists’ detention was unlawful under the right to liberty protected by Article 5 (1) of the European Convention. The European Court endorsed the January 2018 ruling of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which held that there was not sufficient evidence to keep the defendants in detention and ordered their release.

The judgment further sharply criticized the lower courts for refusing to carry out the Constitutional Court’s decision. In particular, the applicants’ continued pre-trial detention raised serious doubts as to the ability of the domestic legal system in providing an effective remedy for human rights violations, stating: “For another court to call into question the powers conferred on a constitutional court to give final and binding judgments on individual applications runs counter to the fundamental principles of the rule of law and legal certainty.”

“We welcome the court’s finding that the right to liberty of the applicants was violated,” said Caroline Stockford, Turkey Advocacy Coordinator for the International Press Institute. “The Court rightly criticised the refusal by the lower domestic courts to implement the Turkish Constitutional Court’s decisions and to release Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay.”

The European Court decided not to examine the applicants’ complaint that the detention of the applicants was politically motivated, under Article 18 of the convention.

“In deciding not to rule on Article 18, the European Court dodges an important question at the core of this litigation, which is whether Turkey’s prosecutions of journalists just for doing their work is part of a larger campaign to crack down on independent journalism?”, said Torner.

“The decision stated that ‘the investigating authorities had been unable to demonstrate any factual basis’that indicate that both journalists had committed the offenses with which he was charged’. The Court repeats what we have been saying with our affiliates for years to Turkish authorities that journalism is not a crime and journalists, like writers or academicians in the country, must not be prosecuted for their work or opinions,” said Ricardo Gutiérrez, EFJ General Secretary.

What the judgments mean for other cases

The judgments contain some important statements of principle on unlawful detention and freedom of expression. In particular, the European Court emphasised that it is not permissible to prosecute individuals on the basis of expression that is critical of the government.

However, in practice, the judgments also imply that the European Court will wait for the Constitutional Court to rule on the other pending cases of Turkish journalists before proceeding to its own review. This is because the European Court still considers the Constitutional Court an effective remedy in general.

Although the European Court was prepared to accept the length of time the Constitutional Court took to review these cases, the judgment is effectively putting the Constitutional Court on notice, saying that it will keep the situation under review and that it cannot continue taking this long to decide on cases.

The coalition repeats its call for the immediate implementation of these two judgments and for the release of Mehmet Altan from prison and Şahin Alpay from house arrest.

“These judgments are an important affirmation of the right to free expression and clearly state that the state of emergency is not a good enough reason to hold journalists and writers in detention for what they say,” said Gabrielle Guillemin, Senior Legal Officer at ARTICLE 19. “The Turkish authorities must now immediately release them both and the Turkish courts should apply these principles to the many other cases of detained journalists in Turkey,” she added.

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