SEEMO concerned by attacks on journalists during demonstrations in Yerevan

VIENNA, 24 July 2016 - Journalist Gevorg Tosunyan of Yerevan-based was injured while covering protests on Khorenatsi Street in the Armenian capital, during violence that broke out between demonstrators and police late on the night of 20 July. Over 50 people, 28 of them police, were hospitalised as a result of the violence.

Several other journalists were also injured during the demonstrations, according to a statement by the Armenian ombudsman’s office.

‘This is strongly condemnable not just as a manifestation of violence, but also as an extremely negative phenomenon in terms of hindering mass media activities,’ the statement said, noting that the number of injured journalists has not been disclosed. ‘I remind you that hindering the implementation of professional responsibilities of journalists is a criminally punishable offense, despite the fact whether the perpetrator is a representative of state agency or a civilian at a rally.’

During the fighting, Tosunyan was allegedly recording footage of individuals in civilian clothes throwing rocks at other civilians. According to a statement on, the individuals he was filming allegedly pushed him to the ground, seizing his camera and destroying its memory card.

The protests in the capital city followed the capture of the Erebuni district police station on 17 July by about a dozen men armed with guns. One police officer was killed, and another eight held hostage in a standoff that lasted until 23 July.

The gunman demanded the release of Zhirayr Sefilian, the leader of an opposition group called Founding Parliament. Sefilian was imprisoned in June for allegedly planning to take over government buildings. The men who captured the police station also demanded the release of several other prisoners and called for the resignation of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.

In spite of a police blockade, protesters gathered in the area to support the gunmen occupying the police station. On the night of 20 July, fighting broke out between the police and the protesters when police tried to prevent food from being delivered to the men inside.

Incidents of violence against journalists have been on the rise in Armenia. In 2015, 23 journalists were reportedly attacked, many during the 23 June protests over proposed increases in electricity tariffs. Thirteen journalists were injured or had their equipment damaged during the demonstrations, and journalists and media workers were also among those detained. While a police investigation of the violence against journalists during the protests was opened, its resolution has been slow.

‘SEEMO is concerned by reports of the alleged attack on Gevorg Tosunyan and other journalists covering last week’s protests in Yerevan,’ said SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic.’SEEMO urges authorities to demonstrate their commitment to journalist safety by undertaking a transparent and timely investigation that reflects the seriousness of these alleged attacks. Journalists need a secure environment to undertake their valuable work, and state authorities must uphold their obligation to enable safe working conditions for the media by effectively investigating incidents like these.’

Proposed restrictions on foreign ownership cause for concern in Kyrgyzstan

VIENNA, 30 June 2016 – On 22 June, Kyrgyzstan's parliament granted initial approval of a bill that would prevent foreigners from establishing media outlets and restrict the amount of foreign funding that media outlets can receive to 20 percent.

The bill, published online for public scrutiny in May and introduced for discussion in parliament on 10 June, must pass through two more parliamentary readings and then be signed by the president in order to become law.

MPs supporting the bill claim that its introduction will strengthen ‘information security’, since it targets both traditional media outlets - like newspapers, radio and television - and online outlets. If passed, the bill would be the first legislative measure regulating online content, which some fear could pave the way for further restrictions in the future.

In May, the parliament voted down a bill that would have labelled NGOs receiving funding from abroad as ‘foreign agents’ and included demanding reporting requirements. The rejection of the bill, described by some as a ‘surprise move,’ came amid fears that passing it into law would have a negative impact on the reputation of Kyrgyzstan’s democracy and the aid the country receives from international organizations.

NGOs played a significant role during the October 2015 parliamentary elections, when civil society groups vocally criticised the government for requiring citizens to submit biometric data in order to vote.

Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasia Economic Union (EEU), a single-market union led by Russia, in August 2015. In addition to fostering closeness though economic allegiance, Kyrgyzstan has aligned itself more closely with Russia in the way its government treats civil society; the media and NGO bills restricting foreign funding, as well as separately proposed bill banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation’, are modelled on Russian laws.

‘SEEMO is concerned by the latest move by Kyrgyzstan’s parliament to pass the media bill restricting foreign ownership and funding through its first reading,’ said SEEMO General Secretary Oliver Vujovic. ‘At the moment, Kyrgyzstan enjoys access to independent online news environment that has experienced little governmental intervention.’

‘We particularly fear that the introduction of the restrictions proposed in the media bill will undermine the openness and diversity that currently define Kyrgyzstan’s online environment, by opening up the possibility to legislate for further online restrictions,’ Vujovic continued. ‘Additionally, since Kyrgyzstan lacks a strong advertising market and there is weak potential to acquire funds through subscriptions, SEEMO fears that the proposed limitations may cause news outlets not directly sponsored by the state to close down or significantly reduce the quality of their reporting, leaving the media environment vulnerable to political manipulation.’ 

SEEMO concerned by new police surveillance law, other recent developments in Poland

VIENNA, 12 June 2016 - The Venice Commission, an advisory body of constitutional law experts of the Council of Europe (CoE), released an opinion on 10 June criticising a Polish law adopted in January that expands police surveillance powers. The Commission said that the law leaves too much room for authorities to interfere with individuals’ privacy, and does not provide adequate oversight of police as they secretly gather information, such as sensitive metadata.

The law grants police and other law enforcement authorities the power to conduct ‘classical’ surveillance methods such as wiretapping, as well as to collect metadata like a log of the websites an individual visits or the locations where a cell phone has been used, without a court order.

In an online statement, the CoE noted, ‘The Venice Commission considers that some types of metadata are so sensitive (web-logs, for example) that obtaining such data should require judicial authorisation,’ adding that while gathering other less-sensitive data may not require a warrant, such police surveillance activities should be subject to oversight.

The Venice Commission recommended strengthening provisions to make sure that secret data collection is ordered in only the most serious cases; that the duration of metadata collection be limited, and that police keep records of such monitoring; that the system of ‘classical’ surveillance be subject to additional safeguards, including a complaints mechanism and oversight by an independent regulatory body; that the collection of metadata also be overseen by an independent body with investigative powers that is able to seek legal remedy; and that any data collection does not violate lawyer-client confidentiality.

In a separate incident in March, the Venice Commission adopted an opinion stating that amendments to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal passed by the parliament ‘crippled’ the constitutional court, and ‘would undermine democracy, human rights and the rule of law.’ On 9 March, the Constitutional Tribunal itself declared the amendments - which increased the majority necessary to make decisions and imposed restrictions that, according to the Commission, made it ‘impossible to deal with urgent cases’ - unconstitutional and repealed them. However, in order to be binding, the judgement must be published, a step the Polish government refused to take. On 9 June a high-ranking official said that a forthcoming bill would resolve the dispute.

In a separate incident, Poland’s lower house of parliament passed an anti-terrorism law on 10 June that allows authorities to monitor foreign citizens suspected of terrorist activity for up to three months without a court order, and increased the length of time that an individual can be held without charges from 48 hours to 14 days. Authorities claim that the new measures are necessary to strengthen security during two high-profile events this summer, a NATO summit in Warsaw and Pope Francis’ visit to Krakow on World Youth Day in July. The legislation is expected to be passed by the senate and signed into law.

However, on 9 June a minister announced that three draft bills designed to overhaul the Polish public broadcasting system would be postponed. The announcement came after the 6 June release of an opinion by CoE experts criticising the draft legislation. The new bills were set to take the place of interim media reforms passed by the parliament in late December 2015 that expire on 30 June.

An online statement announcing the release of the opinion said, ‘There is still a need to make the new system of public media operate effectively, without undue political interference and in conformity with European standards.’

According to the CoE experts, the proposed measures needed amending to make sure that the selection and appointment of members of the National Media Council was transparent and that members should be free from political influence; that editorial control be granted to directors and editors-in-chief, and public service media content reflect Poland’s diverse society in a balanced way; that plans to collectively dismiss middle management employees be discarded; and that the proposed licensing fee system should be revised to be more fair and transparent.

‘SEEMO is concerned by recent developments in Poland,’ said SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic. ‘The legislative reforms passed by the parliament certainly have an impact on a broad range of individuals’ privacy rights, and could also negatively affect journalists, limit media plurality, and interfere with freedom of expression. SEEMO is especially concerned by the new police and surveillance laws, which could, for example, undermine the anonymity of journalists’ sources. Additionally, increasing surveillance of foreign citizens could have a negative impact on foreign journalists covering stories that are of international interest.’

‘We are pleased to see that the Polish parliament is cooperating with the Venice Commission to bring its proposed media legislation in line with international standards,’ Vujovic continued. ‘Equally, we hope to see a resolution in the reforms made to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.’

‘These legislative changes, when taken together, considerably shrink the space available for free and open public expression, and make it difficult for journalists to carry out their work. The awareness that sensitive metadata can be collected by authorities without oversight, the knowledge that foreign citizens are specifically targeted for surveillance, the fear that is engendered by knowing that any person may be held for up to 14 days without the need to press charges, that the government exerts heavy influence on what information is made available to the public, and that judicial safeguards may be cast aside contributes to an environment of fear for both private citizens and journalists alike. SEEMO urges Poland to continue to work closely with the Council of Europe and civil society stakeholders to resolve the gaps in these newly-introduced laws that limit the public space for free and open discourse, which is essential in any democracy.’

SEEMO welcomes release of Khadija Ismayilova, remains concerned by two upheld charges

VIENNA, 26 May 2016 -  SEEMO welcomes the release of Radio Free Liberty/Radio Europe journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was arrested in Azerbaijan in December 2014 after reporting on corruption among high-level political figures. However, SEEMO remains concerned by the conditional nature of her release, and calls for all charges against her to be dropped so she can freely continue her work.

Ismayilova was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison by a court in Baku in September 2015 on charges that included embezzlement, tax evasion, abuse of power, and illegal business activity.

On 25 May Azerbaijan’s supreme court dropped the embezzlement and misuse of power charges and commuted the initial ruling against Ismayilova to a three and a half year suspended sentence, releasing her from prison with a five-year probationary period. The court upheld the charges of tax evasion and illegal business activity. Under the amended sentence, Ismayilova is subject to travel restrictions that confine her to Baku and prevent her from travelling abroad for five years.

Her case is widely regarded as politically motivated and has invoked international criticism, since the allegations followed Ismayilova’s investigative reporting on corruption by figures close to the highest level of Azerbaijan’s government. The case has been submitted to the European Court of Human Rights.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights were among the many organisations and international bodies that welcomed the release, the Representative stating ‘[Ismayilova’s] release is a very positive step, as was the recent Presidential pardon of a number of imprisoned journalists and freedom of expression advocates. Unfortunately, Ismayilova’s sentence has only been suspended, and I call on the authorities to drop all charges against her’. The Representative went on to emphasize that despite this and some other recent releases, other journalists remain imprisoned in Azerbaijan for their investigative work.

Ismayilova is the recipient of many awards for her work in investigative journalism, including the PEN Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism from Human Rights Watch in 2015, and the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2016. In a press release, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova stated, ‘I welcome [Ismayilova’s] release from prison as a major step for freedom of expression, due process and the rule of law in Azerbaijan’.

Despite the progress made in her high-profile case, however, Ismayilova warned that the environment for critical reporting inside Azerbaijan remains hostile. ‘There is a revolving door of the prison. They release two, they arrest three. So more people are getting arrested,’ she said.
‘You think this problem is getting solved. No, it's not being solved. But sometimes the government is trying to satisfy the international critics and release some people’.

‘SEEMO joins the many rights organisations, intergovernmental and international bodies that have welcomed the release of Khadija Ismayilova,’ said SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic. ‘However, we remain concerned about the probationary restrictions that Ms. Ismayilova is currently subject to, and urge authorities to drop the charges against her so that she can freely continue her important work’.

‘SEEMO also joins the call on authorities in Azerbaijan to address the many remaining cases of journalists who, like Khadija Ismayilova, have been imprisoned as a result of their investigative reporting,’ Vujovic continued. ‘Harassing, arresting, and detaining journalists for investigating matters that are in the public interest has a profound impact on the availability and quality of information communicated to the people living under a restrictive regime, and severely undermines democracy. SEEMO supports Ms. Ismayilova as she continues her legal struggle, and will be following the situation in Azerbaijan closely in anticipation of its successful improvement’.

SEEMO calls for release of Guzyal Baidalinova in Kazakhstan

VIENNA, 14 May 2016 - SEEMO expressed concern over the ongoing trial against Guzyal Baidalinova, journalist and owner of critical independent news site in Kazakhstan.

Her trial, originally scheduled for 5 May, was postponed two hours into the proceedings until 13 May. Witness testimony was later postponed until 15 May.

Baidalinova was arrested on 23 December 2015 following raids on her home, the Nakanune editorial offices and the homes of several of the site’s contributors on 18 December 2015. The raids were part of a pre-trial investigation that was initiated by a large private bank claiming that an article published on the site contained ‘deliberately false information which may cause damage to the bank and disturb public order’. The article contained allegations about corruption in the construction industry, mentioning the private bank as a financial institution used to channel funds.

Nakanune lost a libel case to the aforementioned bank in 2015 over the same article, and site owner Baidalinova was ordered to pay approximately €75,000 in damages by a district court. Baidalinova appealed the decision, her lawyer claiming that the bank did not provide any evidence of the material damage that it demanded compensation for, but the decision was upheld on 27 August 2015. The article in question was removed from the Nakanune site.

Journalists Rafael Balgin and Yulia Kozlova were also arrested during the December 2015 criminal investigation. Balgin was arrested after the raid on his home, ordered to serve three months in prison, and was released on bail on 11 January 2016. Kozlova was charged with possession of illegal drugs, also after the raid on her home in December 2015, then acquitted in February 2016.

Baidalinova has cited the charges against her as politically motivated.

The criminal investigation also targets Media-Consult, a Russian-based company that owns outlet (which formerly operated in Kazakhstan as critical independent outlet Respublika) for re-publishing the article that the case is centred on. Respublika employed many of Nakanune’s current staff, and was shuttered in Kazakhstan in 2012 for alleged extremism.

Kazakhstan’s independent media has been severely eroded since the Zhanaozen massacre in 2011, when police opened fire on a crowd of unarmed striking oil workers in the western Mangystau region, killing over a dozen people. Well-known outlets including newspapers Golos republiki and Vzglyad and television networks K+ and Stan.TV were closed within a year of offering in-depth coverage of the events, on charges that they ran content that incited social discord. In late 2014, weekly magazine ADAM bol was shuttered for an article that allegedly contained ‘attributes of war propaganda and agitation’. Its successor, ADAM, was fined and suspended from publication by authorities in 2015 for failing to print content in both Kazakh and Russian.

In March, the European Parliament voiced its concern over the state of freedom of expression in Kazakhstan, in a press release saying ‘MEPs are deeply concerned about the climate for the media and free speech in Kazakhstan, where strong pressure on independent media outlets includes some being closed down, and news agency directors and journalists being detained, placed under criminal investigation and sentenced to prison’.

‘SEEMO is deeply troubled by the systematic stifling of independent voices in the Kazakh media,’ said SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic. ‘Silencing critical reporting on public-interest matters undermines media plurality in Kazakhstan, and has fostered an environment of fear and self-censorship that is harmful to democracy’.

‘SEEMO calls for the release of Guzyal Baidalinova, and urge authorities in Kazakhstan to fully implement the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by its constitution and in fulfilment of its international obligations’.

Berlin-based Meydan TV facing criminal charges in Azerbaijan

VIENNA, 30 April 2016 - SEEMO is concerned by the ongoing harassment of independent online news outlet Meydan TV and its contributors by authorities in Azerbaijan.

On 20 April, Meydan TV issued a statement announcing that a criminal investigation had been initiated against the site by Azerbaijan’s General Prosecutor Office of Grave Crimes Investigation Department. The charges allege that the outlet committed ‘illegal practice and profit-making in an especially large amount, large-scale tax evasion and abuse of power resulting in falsification of elections and/or referendum results’.

Though none of the journalists contributing to Meydan TV have been formally charged, lawyer Elchin Sadigov said that 15 local contributors were named by prosecutors in the criminal case. Some of the local journalists reported that their homes had been searched and equipment was taken without a warrant, and that they have been banned from travelling outside the country. Several were subjected to tax audits.

Online TV channel Meydan TV has a reputation for critical reporting, covering alleged government corruption and violations of media freedom and human rights in Azerbaijan. Founder Emin Milli reported receiving threats from a high level politician in June 2015. Milli was jailed in 2009 on charges of hooliganism, which rights groups criticised as fabricated, and was released in response to strong international pressure in November 2010.

The outlet said that was forced to close its Baku office in order to protect its employees from a government crackdown on independent media in late 2014. The site currently operates from Berlin, Germany, where Milli is also based, with contributors reporting from Azerbaijan.

In September 2015, Meydan TV reporter Shirin Abbasov was jailed and dozens of other journalists were questioned about the activities of the outlet by Azeri authorities.

Meydan TV recently reported that the government in Baku had misrepresented the number of Azeris killed during fighting that broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh between 2-5 April. The Nagorno-Karabakh region is a disputed territory, formerly an autonomous province of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan but currently occupied by forces from neighbouring Armenia. The two states have been in a stalemate over the region for over twenty years, with occasional small-scale outbreaks of violence.

Fighting broke out between Azeri and Armenian-backed forces in early April of this year, killing dozens, and sporadic shooting has taken place even after a ceasefire deal was struck on 5 April. The conflict is highly politicized in both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

‘SEEMO is concerned by the recent lawsuit brought against Meydan TV and the ongoing harassment, threats and travel restrictions imposed on its contributors as part of the wider assault on independent media in Azerbaijan,’ said SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic. ‘In recent years, critical voices have been routinely silenced in Azerbaijan though the arbitrary application of the law, and many independent outlets and journalists have been punished for their work reporting on matters that are vital to the public interest. We strongly urge authorities in Azerbaijan to stop targeting Meydan TV and its contributors and to drop any illegitimate charges that have been brought against the outlet’.

SEEMO joins call for release of journalist and human rights defender Azimjan Askarov

VIENNA, April 24, 2016 - SEEMO has joined the international call for the release of journalist and human rights activist Azimjan Askarov (Азимжон Асқаров ) in Kyrgyzstan. 

Askarov, born 1951,  received a life sentence for his alleged involvement in the death of a police officer killed during an outbreak of violence concentrated in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.

An ethnic Uzbek journalist and human rights defender, Askarov had documented cases of abuse by police and prison authorities in Bazar-Korgon and the surrounding Zhalal-Abad region for ten years.

On 21 April, the UN experts called for the release along with the Human Rights Committee, which considered a complaint that Askarov brought against Kyrgyzstan under the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR. The committee found that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, subjected to torture and inhuman treatment and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defence. Kyrgyz authorities also failed to promptly and adequately investigate Askarov’s allegations of torture during a 2013 inquiry.

The committee concluded that Askarov is entitled to full reparation, including his immediate release, adding that if a new trial is deemed necessary it must be ‘subject to the principles of fair hearings, presumption of innocence and other procedural safeguards’.

Kyrgyzstan is party to the Optional Protocol of the ICCPR, which allows the committee to receive and investigate individual complaints against state parties.

Askarov was detained in his hometown of Bazar-Korgon on 15 June 2010, accused of inciting the death of a police officer who was killed two days earlier. Askarov was at home at the time of the attack, which occurred during a period of civil unrest that began in April 2010, spurred by years of political corruption, poverty and tensions between the Uzbek minority and Kyrgyz population in the southern part of the country. More than 450 people were killed, and thousands displaced as a result of the fighting.

On 17 June 2010, Askarov was formally charged with inciting hatred and disorder, and inciting a crowd to attack a police officer, resulting in his death.

Askarov has alleged that during the initial four days of his detention, officers in the Bazar-Korgon police station explicitly referred to his journalistic work, saying ‘Because of the articles criticizing us, we will get even with you. We will make you die slowly. Now we have the opportunity and the time to punish you”. Askarov was held for two months in the police station where the deceased police officer had worked, without any safeguarding measures in place to protect him.

In September 2010, Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment.  At the time, the decision was criticised by the Kyrgyz ombudsman and international rights groups as politically motivated. In 2011 the Supreme Court agreed to hear new evidence in his  case; however the hearing was suspended and in December 2011 the same court upheld Askarov's sentence.

Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Michael Georg Link issued a statement on 22 April 2016 in response to the UN call, saying, ‘Kyrgyzstan now has an opportunity to correct this injustice, restoring both Mr. Askarov’s rights and its national human rights record in this regard. Freeing him will also send a strong signal to law enforcement and judicial actors in Kyrgyzstan that the rule of law must be upheld equally for all citizens.’

‘We stand with the United Nations, along with the OSCE ODIHR and other international advocacy groups, to call for the immediate release of journalist and human rights defender Azimjan Askarov,’ said SEEMO General Secretary Oliver Vujovic. ‘Mr. Askarov has been subjected to appalling treatment by authorities in Kyrgyzstan, and there is evidence that this treatment was a direct result of his reporting on human rights violations in Bazar-Korgon and the Zhalal-Abad region. We urge authorities in Kyrgyzstan to offer Mr. Askarov the full reparation that he is entitled to in accordance with the country’s international obligations.’

‘Additionally, we urge Kyrgyzstan to ensure that its police and members of the judiciary are adequately trained to uphold their duties as impartial representatives of state power. This kind of retribution against members of civil society, including journalists who cover matters that are in the public interest as Mr. Askarov did, is unacceptable. SEEMO also urges the relevant authorities to promptly and impartially investigate any allegations of torture or ill-treatment related to this case. Journalists must have a safe environment in order to continue their important work, and a dangerous and oppressive atmosphere for reporters can severely undermine democracy and rule of law in any country.’

Hungarian government proposes increased digital surveillance powers after Brussels attacks

VIENNA 28 March 2016 - Hungary's government approved a proposal on 24 March that would increase governmental access to the phone, internet and real-time banking activity of individuals and organisations suspected of extremism.

The bill would require a judicial order for authorities to access information about an individual or group’s activities. However, once a court order is granted, telecommunications providers would not be able to refuse the request.

The proposed legislation will be submitted to Parliament as early as April, following the 22 March bombings at the Brussels airport and Maelbeek metro station that killed 31 people and injured over 200 others. Interior Minister Sandor Pinter cited the attack, along with the November 2015 attacks in Paris where 130 people were killed, as evidence of the growing threat of terrorism in Europe. Linking the proposed digital security measures with the influx of Muslim refugees fleeing conflict in the middle east and north Africa, he said, ‘We have to learn the lesson of Brussels, and for us it’s clear that it means we have to step up security measures’.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been vocal about his disdain for Germany’s open-door refugee policy throughout the European migration crisis, taking a firm anti-Muslim stance. Almost 400,000 migrants passed through Hungary on the migration route to western Europe before it sealed its southern border in September of last year. Orban is organising a referendum to reject participation in any EU-wide resettlement scheme for refugees, has threatened to construct a fence along its border with EU neighbour Romania, and to shut down migrant reception centres and camps.

The proposal also includes measure that would increase funding for border security and a new anti-terror institute. It would also require changes to existing legislation and Hungary’s constitution, and therefore must be passed through a two-thirds majority approval in the Parliament. The dominant Fidesz party falls short of this margin, but may partner with far- right Jobbik party in its efforts to pass the bill.

The prospective surveillance measures pit national security interests against individuals’ rights to privacy and data protection. Members of opposition parties in Hungary have previously resisted extending governmental surveillance powers, fearing that they could be used for political ends.

‘It is essential to safeguard individuals’ rights to privacy in the digital age’, said SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic. ‘The fundamental right to privacy, as protected by article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, reinforces both the right to freedom of expression and the right to hold and form opinions. Hungary is bound by its international obligations to ensure that any intrusion into the privacy of individuals under its jurisdiction is designed to achieve a legitimate aim that protects the rights and reputations of others, or is legitimately used to protect national security through the least intrusive means possible and only for a limited amount of time’.

‘The swift introduction of legislation that increases digital surveillance powers in the name of national security in Hungary comes at a time when emotions are running very high. SEEMO is concerned that the current environment in Hungary could enable authorities to pass legislation that does not adequately protect the fundamental rights of individuals. This could have serious consequences in the future for journalists, lawyers, or other civil society actors expressing dissent, since “national security interests” are often used as an excuse for state authorities to persecute or silence critical voices,’ Vujovic continued. ‘SEEMO urges authorities in Hungary to ensure that any legislative or constitutional changes that are made are in line with international standards, and strengthen, rather than diminish, digital privacy rights’.

Leading international free expression and press freedom groups condemn politically motivated trial

Vienna, 24 March 2016

On the eve of a trial scheduled to start on March 25, 2016, a coalition of leading international free expression and press freedom groups condemns the criminal case targeting Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, and calls on authorities in Turkey to drop all charges against them.

Dündar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, and Gül, the newspaper’s Ankara representative, face accusations of aiding a terrorist organisation, espionage and disclosure of classified documents for reports in Cumhuriyet claiming that Turkey’s intelligence agency secretly armed Islamist rebel groups in Syria. Although those claims previously had been reported widely by other media outlets in Turkey, a criminal case against Dündar and Gül was initiated after Cumhuriyet published a report on May 29, 2015 that included a video purportedly showing Turkish security forces searching trucks owned by the country’s intelligence agency that were travelling to Syria containing crates of ammunition and weapons.

Dündar and Gül were detained in November 2015 and held for nearly 100 days in Turkey’s Silivri Prison until the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the journalists’ pre-trial detention violated their human rights. Both journalists were subsequently released pending trial following a criminal court order. Nevertheless, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed that he would neither recognise nor obey the Constitutional Court’s ruling. Moreover, prominent supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) demanded that Dündar and Gül be returned to prison and they called for Turkey’s citizens’ right to turn to the Constitutional Court to redress violations of their human rights to be curtailed.

The persecution of these two journalists – a gross abuse of government authority in clear violation of the right to press freedom – is by no means an isolated case. More than 30 journalists currently languish behind bars in Turkey, of whom at least 13 are being held in direct retaliation for their work. Recent months have seen the state seizure of opposition media outlets – including the March 2016 takeover of the Zaman newspaper and Cihan News Agency. Recent months have also seen numerous violations of the right to press freedom in Turkey, including, among many others, the continued misuse of defamation and insult law, as well as anti-terrorism law, to target and silence those who publicly express their dissent from government policies.

Members of the coalition accordingly urge Turkish authorities to drop all charges against Dündar and Gül, and to free all other journalists currently detained in connection with their journalism or the opinions they have expressed. The coalition further renews its previous call on lawmakers in Turkey to take steps to reverse the country’s trend toward authoritarianism, and its call on governments of democratic countries to pressure the Turkish government to end its crackdown on independent media and to meet its human rights commitments under both domestic and international law.

  • The International Press Institute (IPI)
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • ARTICLE 19
  • Index on Censorship
  • The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN)
  • PEN International
  • The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA)
  • The South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

Release of journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov a positive step in Azerbaijan, but more must be done

23 March 2016, VIENNA - The South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) welcomed a 17 March ruling by a Baku appeals court that ordered the conditional release of Azerbaijani journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov, but remains concerned about the many other journalists still imprisoned in the country.

The former political correspondent for independent Russian-language Zerkalo newspaper in Turkey was deported to Azerbaijan and arrested in April 2014 on charges of espionage for in favor of Armenia.. Mirkadyrov was correspondent in Ankara, where the Turkish authorities arrested him on 18 April 2014 and immediately extradited him back to Baku. The Azerbaijani authorities arrested him on arrival. The paper Mirkadyrov worked for was shut down after his arrest.

Authorities alleged that Mirkadyrov had been meeting with Armenian secret service agents to pass them information that threatened Azerbaijan’s security and defence capabilities. The two neighbouring states have been locked in a conflict over disputed territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh region since 1988, when the Armenian majority inside the former autonomous province of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan formed a movement to unite the province with Armenia. A cease fire agreement was signed in 1994, but Armenian forces continue to control Nagorno-Karabakh and territory in seven surrounding districts.

Mirkadyrov’s release was ordered after he was convicted of the spying charges in late December 2015 and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. The 17 March ruling ordered his release, cutting his sentence to five years’ probation.

His case is linked with the prosecution of human rights activist Leyla Yunus, who headed the Institute for Peace and Democracy in Baku. Prosecutors alleged that Mirkadyrov was recruited as a spy in 2008 by Yunus and her husband, activist Arif Yunus. Both Leyla Yunus and her husband were sentenced to eight and a half years and seven years in prison respectively, and then released by an appeals court that changed the sentences to five year probationary periods. Both have been prevented from leaving the country to seek urgent medical care.

Azerbaijan has been criticised in recent years for its poor record in upholding the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, despite its accession to the Council of Europe (CoE) in 2001. CoE human rights commissioner Nils Muiznieks has frequently raised concerns in this area, publishing a report about barriers to freedom of expression in Azerbaijan in 2013, with an update in April 2014 that noted ‘Unjustified and selective criminal prosecution of people expressing dissenting views, including journalists, bloggers and activists, continues unabated’. Muiznieks has intervened before the European Court of Human Rights in both the Yunus case and the highly-publicised case against Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in September 2015 after investigating possible high-level corruption among the President’s family members.

On 17 March, President Ilham Aliyev pardoned 148 individuals in a separate incident, including activist Rasul Jafarov, elections monitor Anar Mammadli, blogger Omar Mammadov, journalist Parviz Hashimli, blogger Siraj Karimli, journalist Tofig Yagublu and journalist Hilal Mammadov. Some analysts have interpreted the pardons as overtures to western critics of Azerbaijan’s human rights record, while others have noted that it is common for the president to issue pardons before Novruz, an important holiday that marks the beginning of spring and welcomes the new year.

‘While we are pleased to hear that Rauf Mirkadyrov has been released, we are troubled to note that many journalists and activists remain imprisoned in Azerbaijan for expressing critical views, including investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova,’ said SEEMO General Secretary Oliver Vujovic. ‘It seems that authorities in Azerbaijan have established a pattern of prosecuting journalists and activists and then later releasing them on probation as a means of intimidation. We urge authorities in Azerbaijan to drop the probationary restrictions that have been placed on Rauf Mirkadyrov, and to comply with its obligations to uphold international standards of freedom of expression, refraining from the intimidation of critical voices through questionable criminal charges’.

SEEMO welcomes release of Cumhuriyet journalists, urges authorities to drop charges

VIENNA, 28 February 2016 - The South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) welcomed the release from jail of journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, after Turkey’s constitutional court ruled on Thursday that the pair’s rights to freedom of expression and personal liberty and security had been violated by their 92-day imprisonment while awaiting trial.

Cumhuriyet newspaper Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar and Ankara Bureau Chief Erdem Gül were arrested in November 2015 following a report in May that alleged Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) had tried to send trucks carrying weapons over the Syrian border to opposition forces in January 2014.

The story sparked public and political outcry, since many in Turkey oppose the government’s support of opposition forces in the Syrian conflict. The government countered the allegations with a claim that the trucks contained medicine for members of the Turkmen minority in Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated on live television that "Whoever wrote this story will pay a heavy price for this. I will not let him go unpunished".

He later personally filed a criminal complaint against the two journalists, charging them with committing espionage by revealing state secrets and aiding terrorists through an alleged connection between the Cumhuriyet journalists and the exiled opposition Gulen movement.

Dündar and Gül were arrested in late November, and each could be sentenced to one aggravated life sentence and one life sentence, plus an additional 30 years’ imprisonment.

The constitutional court ruling reverses a lower court decision to hold the two journalists for the duration of their trial. However, the journalists still face the same heavy charges in proceedings that are scheduled to begin on 25 March 2016.

While the charges against Dündar and Gül have not been dropped, there is hope that the new ruling will positively affect the outcome of the March trial. The Erdogan administration has long faced criticism for its harsh crackdowns on freedom of expression and the media. The European Union, which has recently stepped up its accession negotiations with Turkey in exchange for help with the large number of migrants moving through the region, exerted pressure by reminding Ankara that it needed to show ‘full respect’ for human rights in order to become a member state.

In a statement published online by the diplomatic European Union External Action Service, spokesperson Catherine Ray praised the journalists’ release, saying, ‘This decision represented a needed step in the right direction in Turkey for guaranteeing freedom of expression, one of the essential foundations of the European Union, and we believe all charges against the journalists will be dropped’.

‘SEEMO stands in support of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, and urges authorities in Turkey to drop all charges against them,’ SEEMO General Secretary Oliver Vujovic said. ‘While we are happy to see that these journalists are no longer being held in pre-trial detention, there is still the very serious matter of their upcoming trial. Journalists who are reporting in matters in the public interest, like Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, need a safe and free environment in order to perform their vital watchdog role. I sincerely hope that the relevant authorities in Turkey will make use of this opportunity to improve the country’s human rights and freedom of expression record by fully clearing both of all charges’.

SEEMO concerned by reforms that threaten media freedom in Poland

VIENNA, 21 February 2016 - SEEMO has joined the chorus of human rights and freedom of expression groups expressing concern over recent legislative reforms made by the Law and Justice Party / Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) that threaten freedom of expression in Poland.

Initial outcry began after a late-night session on 30 December 2015, when the new PiS-dominated parliament passed legislation empowering its treasury minister to appoint and dismiss the managers and supervisory board members of public television and radio broadcasters Telewizja Polska (TVP) and Polskie Radio. This is a power that formerly lay with the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT); however, a recent report indicates that political influence has been exerted through the council by previous political administrations.

The new media law was followed by another piece of legislation approved by President Andrzej Duda in February 2016 that increased government surveillance powers and access to digital data. Under the new surveillance law, police would not have to ask internet service providers for permission to access metadata about the online activity of Polish citizens. The measure does not include provisions for judicial oversight, and could easily undermine individual privacy and the professional anonymity that journalists require to protect their sources.

Legislative reforms in Poland have been the subject of fierce debate across Europe since the Law and Justice Party (PiS) assumed power after elections in October 2015. The party is commonly cited as nationalist and conservative, with close ties to Roman Catholicism church. The induction of the PiS follows an eight-year rule by the centrist Civic Platform.

The new PiS administration won the majority of seats in the lower house of Parliament during elections, allowing it to govern without having to win the approval of or form a coalition with other parties. PiS also won a majority in the Senate, which has the power to approve or reject legislation. This dominance within the Parliament has positioned PiS as the strongest political party to take office since the fall of communism.

Rights advocates have been quick to react to the media law, including OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic, who urged Polish officials to withdraw the measure, stating, ‘I fear the hastily introduced changes will endanger the basic conditions of independence, objectivity and impartiality of public service broadcasters’.

There has been a significant civil response within Poland, as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in January to protest the new laws and the way that PiS introduced them. The media and surveillance legislation are only two of many new reforms that have been passed swiftly through the PiS parliament since the party assumed power in November. Late- night, early-morning, holiday, and weekend law-making sessions have increased sharply under the leadership of PiS co-founder and party leader Jarosław Kaczyński. The president of Polish think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs, Jacek Kucharczyk, has stated that these unusual hours and quick turnaround for new provisions makes it difficult for the public - and the media - to follow the legislative changes that the PiS is introducing.

In December 2015, the PiS-led Parliamentary lower chamber passed an amendment that would require Poland’s constitutional court to pass the majority of its rulings with a two-thirds vote, and at least 13 of its 15 members present. Before the amendment was signed into law, important court rulings were passed before a chamber of nine judges with a simple majority vote; most cases were decided before a chamber of five. Additionally, the amendment introduced dramatically increased mandatory wait times - up from two weeks to three to six months - between the date that a request for a ruling is made and the date that a verdict may be delivered. Critics fear that requiring such a high threshold of consensus for every case would severely inhibit the court’s functioning, effectively weakening its power as a check on Poland’s legislative bodies.

The changes to the way the court functions were made after a controversial move by the new government to ignore the appointment of several judges by the outgoing Civic Platform administration, replacing the former nominees with judges chosen by PiS. Prime Minister Beata Szydło claimed that the change was necessary to ensure a proper balance of power between court judges appointed by the new and old governments; however, some critics have speculated that the judicial changes are part of a strategy to ensure that the new government’s legislative agenda can be easily pushed through Parliament without facing strong judicial opposition.

These sweeping changes prompted the European Union to launch an investigation into whether the PiS is meeting its rule of law obligations in January. The EU investigation is likely to conclude in March.

The Polish government has requested the opinion of the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Venice Commission, which issues advisory opinions on constitutional matters within CoE member states. A delegation from the Venice Commission met with PiS officials for two days in early February, and will release its findings at its next plenary session on the 11 and 12 March in Venice.

Public broadcaster TVP has recently been a forum for political accusations. On 17 February the Institute of National Remembrance, a national archive that stores sensitive materials and has close ties to the PiS, claimed that recently-discovered documents discredit former anti-communist political leader – and PiS opponent - Lech Walesa as a communist informant.

On 18 February TVP ran footage of Walesa, the nation’s first post-regime president, celebrating a 1989 agreement to hold democratic elections by toasting with communist officials. Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki appeared on TVP saying, "Walesa has an agent's past, of course he does. For the last 27 years I not only suspected this but was almost sure".

PiS officials are alleging a conspiracy between the former Solidarity union leader and the former communist regime, saying that Walesa took money as a communist spy in the 1970s, and then allowed the communist leadership to retain power behind the scenes after the country transitioned to democracy.

Walesa and PiS party head Kaczynski have had a fraught relationship since 1990, when President Walesa dismissed Kaczynski and late his brother from positions within his administration. In 2015, Walesa publicly advocated for elections to be held early, saying that he believed that PiS policies posed a threat to the future of Polish democracy.

‘SEEMO joins the many international and civil society organizations that have condemned the recent media and surveillance laws passed by the PiS-led government,’ noted SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic. ‘The media play a vital role in any democracy by presenting varied political views, and reporting on government activities so they can be freely debated by a society. Its impartiality is crucial. The new media and surveillance laws – and the circumstances under which they were passed - can be understood as part of a larger pattern that undermines the proper functioning of democracy. The parliament has failed to allow enough time for public debate to occur over dramatic changes that remove checks on its own power, and has hand-picked public broadcasting staff in order to further its own political agenda.’

‘Freedom from state influence and surveillance of the media is especially vital in states that have negotiated the transition from communism to liberal democracy. It would be tragic to see the progress that Poland has made since 1989 decline. We will be keeping a close eye on the situation as it continues to develop, and we eagerly await the conclusion of both the EU investigation and the Venice Commission’s findings in March.’