The prominent Soviet-era Russian dissident Viktor Fainberg died this week at the age of 91. Fainberg, who was a philologist, was one of the eight people who protested in Red Square, Moscow on 25 August 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, alongside Pavel Litvinov and the late poet Natalya Gorbanyevskaya, among others. Despite the protest lasting only five minutes, all were arrested by the Soviet authorities.
All these people were instrumental in the founding of Index, as Jo-Ann Mort’s interview with Pavel Litvinov, published here, shows.
On Fainberg specifically, after his arrest he was brutally assaulted by the police to the point where he could not physically stand trial. Fainberg was examined, then sent to a Leningrad psychiatric hospital for over four years with no evidence of mental illness – details of which he shared with the translator Richard McKane who he met at an Index on Censorship party in the 1970s. He was then diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was a common tactic during the Khrushchev era to repress dissenters and silence voices of criticism in the Soviet Union, which continued into the Brezhnev era.
In the spring of 1971, Fainberg staged an 81-day hunger strike against conditions in the psychiatric hospital, and was eventually released in February 1973.
Fainberg founded the Campaign Against Psychiatric Abuse in April 1975, an organisation which campaigned against the abuse of human rights through misuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. The country withdrew from the World Psychiatric Association in 1983.
After his release, Fainberg, born into a Jewish family in Kharkiv, Ukraine on 26 November 1931, initially moved to Israel before settling in France in later life.
In 2014, Fainberg received the Medal of the President of the Slovak Republic for his actions in 1968, and in 2018 received the Gratias Agit award from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic.
He kept up his activism to the end, shifting his focus to Ukraine. Years before the recent invasion, Fainberg spoke out against the Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners. He also warned of the “shadow of Munich hanging over Europe”.
In his 2015 letter to abducted Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who was on hunger strike in a Russian prison, he wrote “I was born in Ukraine, in Kharkiv. The first nature that I saw, the first songs that I heard, were the nature and the songs of Mother Ukraine”. At the end of the letter, Fainberg told Savchenko that he was joining her hunger strike (which she later agreed to end). Fainberg also attended many protests in Paris, demanding the release of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov.
On news of his death Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian businessmen who was himself jailed for falling foul of the Putin regime, said:
“He was an amazing, remarkable man who felt other people’s pain as if it were his own. The world is a different place without him – even less human, even colder.”
It shouldn’t have taken a murder. Surely it didn’t need a car bomb in a quiet Maltese town. Daphne Caruana Galizia did not need to die for Europe and the rest of the world to take notice of media freedom’s precarious foundations. But to our shame, it did.
Five years ago today, Daphne was murdered by a car bomb that exploded when she was moments from her front door. But the car bomb was only the mechanism by which she was silenced. Daphne was murdered by the opaque but powerful forces that first encourage, before demanding and eventually forcing silence. But she was never rendered mute, even now.
In the years that have followed, Europe has wrestled both with her legacy – what her investigations revealed – as well as the legacy of her killing – what her murder revealed. In the aftermath of similar killings in Northern Ireland (Lyra McKee), Slovakia (JánKuciak and Martina Kušnírová), Greece (Giorgos Karaivaz) and the Netherlands (Peter R. de Vries), as well as increased attention on the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), Europe has been forced to address an uncomfortable reality: journalists are at risk all across the continent. And so, by extension, is European democracy.
This is the dark light that bathes Europe, a light emanating from the brutal collapse of the rule of law but also a light that can illuminate what is broken. In the five years that have passed since her death, Daphne’s family have had to fight for every inch to demand both justice for Daphne and accountability for Malta. Whether this was to demand a public inquiry, pressing for progress in the criminal investigation, and putting SLAPPs on the European agenda, the rage, sadness and fury has fuelled a reckoning that has helped bring forward a proposed European Commission directive on SLAPPs, a Europe-wide coalition of organisations fighting to upend this form of lawfare, as well as similar movements at a national level.
In the UK, spurred on by Russia’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine, the UK Government announced in July 2022 an anti-SLAPP mechanism that could limit how UK courts are abused to silence critical speech. As we wait to see what happens – especially after the change in Prime Minister and her cabinet – we hope we are at the threshold of something significant. It is important to remember that a number of the libel threats against Daphne were deployed with the aid of London-based legal expertise – SLAPPs cannot be confined within national borders.
But we must return to Malta to remind ourselves of the pitfalls. Recently announced reforms aimed at protecting journalism, including much-vaunted anti-SLAPP protections, have had to be hurriedly frozen by the Prime Minister after being widely derided as inadequate, both in terms of content, falling far short of the proposed EC Directive, and process. The Institute of Maltese Journalists (IGM) had threatened to step away from the Committee of Experts unless “meaningful” consultation takes place. This was echoed by both the International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ and EFJ) who have joined the call for the legislation to be withdrawn, as reported in Maltese outlet, NewsBook: “no proposal on media legislative reform should be submitted to the parliament without a transparent public consultation. This is all the more crucial in a country where a state holds some form of responsibility for the killing of a journalist.” While appearing to be fuelled by a desire to be the first EU nation to bring forward national legislation responding to SLAPPs, a grimy sense of competitive haste has seemingly triumphed over a commitment to genuine and meaningful protections.
Today, vigils remembering Daphne’s legacy – her life, her writing, and her commitment to the public’s right to know – are taking place across Europe, in London, Valletta, Brussels and Edinburgh to name a few. But wherever we are, we must ensure that by remembering Daphne’s life, we are reminded of our commitment to protect journalists against vexatious legal threats, physical attacks and every act that isolates, demonises or targets them.
Progress is slow and halting and will not proceed from one point to the next without obstruction – Malta’s current reform process is testament to that – however, the greatest way we can honour Daphne is by moving with purpose to ensure what happened to her cannot happen to another journalist. The dark light has illuminated what needs to change and the urgency with which it must change. It should not have taken the murder of a journalist for this to happen and we must not forget the darkness that sparked this push for greater protections, a darkness that robbed a family of the private space in which to mourn, but we must follow where the light leads. For in Daphne’s words, “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.
“I fear that Duda will continue his work as a strong supporter of the ruling nationalist coalition, obediently signing laws that will limit the power of the judiciary, freedom in academia and media, and the rights of minorities and women,” she said.
Duda has attacked the Poland’s independent media too, and thus the dissenting voices in the country have less of a platform to speak from.
This is due, in part, to the Polish state-owned oil company Orlen purchasing 20 of 24 regional newspapers previously owned by German company Polska Press. During the election there was mistrust around the media due to its German ties and accusations, therefore, that Germany was interfering in Polish politics.
All 24 of the papers have a combined readership of around 17 million people.
It is fairly clear that Orlen purchasing the papers is a deliberate attempt to change the editorial line to support Duda and consolidate support for him and his party, the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Four of the editors were recently fired, despite a court ruling by the Warsaw District Court to suspend the acquisition, pending a review.
Defamation laws also acta as a deterrent for open criticism of party officials. Under Article 212 of the criminal code, defamation is an offence that can be punished by up to two years’ imprisonment. According to Reporters Without Borders, there is “a growing tendency to criminalise defamation”.
Under Duda, the situation is unlikely to improve and there have been other attempts to control the narrative.
There is a bill supposedly designed to protect freedom of speech online and force social media companies to stop blocking content online by fining them, as well as the setting up of a “free speech council”. However, there are concerns that this will have a negative aspect on free speech and encourage disinformation online.
A changing nationalist narrative is worrying and this now extends to Poland’s role in the holocaust.
Two prominent Polish historians were forced to apologise to the niece of a former polish mayor. This, after the two had co-authored a book about Polish complicity in the holocaust.
Previously, the Polish government has attempted to criminalise any suggestion of complicity.
Free speech in Slovakia is currently at the mercy of a hugely significant murder case.
In February 2018, journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová were shot dead in their home, around 50 kilometres from the capital Bratislava.
Kuciak was heavily involved in investigating both tax fraud relating to the then ruling Slovak party Smer, as well as report examining an Italian mafia organisation. The murders caused country-wide protests.
Prime Minister Robert Fico insisted there would be an investigation, but had shown repeated showings of disdain for the media, generating what non-profit Freedom House describes as a “hateful atmosphere”. He was later forced to resign.
Two of the five original suspects were sentenced, and the retrial of influential businessman Marián Kočner in connection with the murders was ordered on 15 June. The judge ordered the retiral on the basis of “several mistakes” in the original trial that acquitted Kočner.
In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) spoke of the significance of the retrial.
“We welcome the Slovak Supreme Court’s decision to cancel the acquittals of Marián Kočner and Alena Zsuzsová and hope to see full justice in the killing of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.”
“This ruling is a crucial step toward ending impunity in Kuciak’s killing and ensuring that all journalists can work safely and freely in Slovakia.”
Any rightful conviction of Kuciak’s murderers will surely be a positive sign for journalists working in Slovakia and symbolic of a country that holds such murders accountable to the law and deter any acts similar to this in the future.
Other journalists have also received alarming threats. In June 2020, journalist for online news site Aktuality.sk, Peter Sabo, received a pistol cartridge in his mailbox.
Independent media in Slovakia is lacking. Much of the country’s news outlets are owned by a select few and there are also concerns over the impartiality of the public broadcaster Radio and Television of Slovakia after a number of its staff were sacked in 2018.
The far-right is on the rise in Spain. Populist party VOX have been relatively successful in helping to create an atmosphere where journalists are being targeted.
In 2020, protests against the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and VOX supporters were heard shouting abuse at Spanish reporters.
During the pandemic, controversy arose over the Spanish governments attempt to control the questions given in press conferences by ordering journalists to send questions into the press secretary beforehand. In response, over 400 Spanish journalists were forced to sign an open letter asking the government to reconsider.
The information released by the government during the pandemic was also problematic. Data journalists found that the information released by the governments was overly confusing. As the CPJ reported, one journalist explained why this was a problem: “In Spain, the government sometimes releases data on the number of people who have tested positive on viral tests, while at other times it also includes the number who have tested positive on antibody tests.”
“Other reports contain different figures, such as the number of asymptomatic cases. The constant changes “hinder good analysis and projections,” he said. To complicate things further, national and local data sets often do not add up with national authorities reporting far fewer deaths from the virus than the total number reported by local authorities.”
There have been several notable attacks in the past few years.
Police detained El País reporter Albert Garcia after he documented the arrest of a protester, while French journalist Elize Gazendgel reported two separate occasions where she “received blows” from police. Both were wearing the correct, identifiable media accreditation.
Earlier the same month, a particularly appalling incident took place when Laila Jiménez of Telenico TV, was repeatedly pushed and subjected to abuse, as well as having vodka poured over her head.
Despite protests being of vital importance to upholding free speech in a democracy, the Spanish Citizen Security Law (also known as the “gag law”) puts bureaucratic barriers in the way of organising a protest, where authorities must be informed beforehand. Sharing images of police officers that may “endanger” them is also prohibited.
Laws such as this have come under further scrutiny after the case of Spanish rapper Pablo Hasél earlier this year.
Hasél has been jailed for his lyrics, which are crass at best and he has rapped about a “noose for the king”. But Spanish law deems these words illegal.
His arrest sparked widespread protests, particularly among Spanish youths. In response, the government has promised a review in to Spanish free speech laws.
Sweden’s record on free speech is encouraging and were the first country in the world to adopt a press freedom law, they also have a media ombudsman to deal with ethical issues.
However, one damaging defamation case could set an alarming precedent, concerning the finance publication Realtid.
The case has seen Monaco-based Swedish businessman Svante Kumlin use a vexatious defamation lawsuit against Realid after they began to investigate his company Eco Energy World.’
The lawsuit is also known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (Slapp) and are used by governments or large corporations to saddle a journalist (or anyone publishing allegedly defamatory claims) with long term court cases and legal costs.
The case is awaiting a judgement from to see if it can be tried in England and Wales, where defamation laws are not constitutionally protected.
In December, Index, along with free expression groups RSF, Article 19 and Defence and European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) expressed their concern over the matter.
The letter read “Realtid is being sued by Svante Kumlin, a Swedish businessman, domiciled in Monaco. Realtid had been investigating Kumlin’s group of companies, Eco Energy World (EEW), ahead of an impending stock market launch in Norway, a matter of clear public interest. The investigation began in September when Realtid’s reporters wrote about another stock market launch and discovered off-market sales of shares in EEW.”
While Swedish journalists report in a relatively safe environment, there have been threats towards journalists foreign or exiled reporters in recent years. Turkish journalist Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt was beaten by three men in Stockholm in September 2020 in an incident that was believed to be a threat to exiled Turkish journalists working abroad.
Critic of the authorities in the Chechen region of Russia, Tumso Abdurakhmanov was assaulted by two individuals in his hometown of Gävle, Sweden in February 2020.
Karoline Kan writes about China for Index on Censorship magazine. She is an editor at China Dialogue and her first work of non-fiction Under Red Skies: Three Generations of Life, Loss and Hope in China was published in March 2019
Michal Hvorecký is a Slovakian novelist and short story writer. His latest novel Troll was published in 2017 in Slovakian. His books have been translated into eleven languages. He is based in Bratislava, Slovakia
Andrew Morton is a best-selling celebrity author and royal biographer. His books include Diana, Tom, Angelina, Monica, and Duchess of Windsor. He started his career in local newspapers