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Criminal Defamation and “Insult” Laws: A Summary of Free Speech Developments in the Czech Republic
Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Numerous international documents, including those adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), establish freedom of expression as a fundamental right. The right to free speech, however, is not absolute. Consistent with international law, certain kinds of speech, such as obscenity, may be prohibited or regulated. When governments restrict speech, however, those restrictions must be consistent with their international obligations and commitments; for example, the restrictions must be necessary in a democratic country and proscribed by law. Criminal defamation and “insult” laws are often defended as necessary to prevent alleged abuses of freedom of expression. They are not, however, consistent with OSCE norms and their use constitutes an infringement on the fundamental right to free speech.

Criminal Defamation Laws

All individuals, including public officials, have a legitimate right to protect their reputations if untruthful statements have been made about them. Untrue statements which damage a person’s reputation constitute defamation. Oral defamation is known as slander; defamation in writing or other permanent forms such as film is libel. In some instances, criminal codes make defamation of public officials, the nation, or government organs a discrete offense, as distinct from defamation of a person. Truthful statements – as well as unverifiable statements of opinion – are not legally actionable as defamation. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights has held that public officials must tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private individuals: “The limits of acceptable criticism are accordingly wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual. Unlike the latter, the former inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large, and he must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance.” (Lingens v. Austria, Eur. Ct. H.R., 1986.)

Criminal defamation laws are those which establish criminal sanctions for defamation. Those sanctions may include imprisonment, fines, and prohibitions on writing. Individuals convicted of defamation in a criminal proceeding and sentenced to suspended prison terms may be subjected to the threat of immediate imprisonment if, for example, they violate an order not to publish. The existence of a criminal record may also have other social and legal consequences. In a criminal defamation case, state law enforcement agents (police and prosecutors) act, using taxpayer money, to investigate the alleged defamation and to act on behalf of the alleged victim. It is sometimes argued that criminal defamation laws are necessary to achieve the legitimate goal of providing the victims of defamation with redress. But general laws against libel and slander, embodied in civil codes, provide private persons as well as public officials the opportunity to seek redress, including damages, for alleged defamation. In such cases, the plaintiff and defendant stand in court as equals. Accordingly, specific criminal laws prohibiting defamation are unnecessary.

“Insult” Laws

"Insult" laws make offending the "honor and dignity" of public officials (e.g., the President), government offices (e.g., the Constitutional Court), national institutions, and/or the “state” itself punishable. Unlike defamation laws, truth is not a defense to a charge of insult. Accordingly, insult laws are often used to punish the utterance of truthful statements, as well as opinions, satire, invective, and even humor. Although insult laws and criminal defamation laws both punish speech, significant differences exist between them. Defamation laws are intended to provide a remedy against false assertions of fact. Truthful statements, as well as opinion, are not actionable. The use of civil laws to punish defamation is permissible under international free speech norms. The use of criminal sanctions to punish defamation, however, chills free speech, is subject to abuse (through the use of state law enforcement agents), and is inconsistent with international norms. In contrast, recourse to any insult law, whether embodied in a civil or a criminal code, is inconsistent with international norms. Their Use Today

At one time, almost all OSCE countries had criminal defamation and insult laws. Over time, these laws have been repealed, invalidated by courts, or fallen into disuse in many OSCE participating States. Unfortunately, many criminal codes contained multiple articles punishing defamation and insult. Thus, even when parliaments and courts have acted, they have sometimes failed to remove all legal prohibitions against insult or all criminal sanctions for defamation. In communist countries and other anti-democratic regimes, such laws are often used to target political opponents of the government. Today, when insult and criminal defamation laws are used, they are most often used to punish mere criticism of government policies or public officials, to stifle political discussion, and to squelch news and discussion that governments would rather avoid. It is relatively rare for a private individual (someone who is not a public official, elected representative, or person of means and influence) to persuade law enforcement representatives to use the tax money of the public to protect their reputations. In some OSCE countries, such laws are still used to systematically punish political opponents of the regime. Even in countries where these laws have fallen into a long period of disuse, it is not unheard of for an overzealous prosecutor to revive them for seemingly political purposes. The International Context

Numerous non-governmental organizations have taken strong positions against criminal defamation and insult laws. These include Amnesty International; Article 19; the Committee to Protect Journalists; national Helsinki Committees such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Croatian Helsinki Committee, Greek Helsinki Committee, Romanian Helsinki Committee and Slovak Helsinki Committee; the International Helsinki Federation; The World Press Freedom Committee; Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression; national chapters of PEN; and Reporters Sans Frontières. Moreover, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression issued a joint statement in February 2000 which included the following conclusions, based on relevant international norms:

  • “Expression should not be criminalized unless it poses a clear risk of serious harm. . . . Examples of this are laws prohibiting the publication of false news and sedition laws. . . . These laws should be repealed.”
  • “Criminal defamation laws should be abolished.”
  • “Civil defamation laws should respect the following principles: public bodies should not be able to bring defamation actions; truth should always be available as a defense; politicians and public officials should have to tolerate a greater degree of criticism. . . .”

Finally, the United States Department of State regularly reports, in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, on cases where criminal defamation or insult laws have been used and, at OSCE meetings, regularly calls for the repeal of such laws. Recent Free Speech Cases in the Czech Republic

Although the Czech Constitutional Court and the Parliament acted (in 1994 and 1997, respectively) to reduce the number of articles in the penal code under which one may be convicted for speech offenses, there has been no discernable decrease over the past decade in the volume of cases threatened or actually brought under the remaining provisions of law which permit criminal prosecution for one’s speech.

The following summary, based on available reports, describes cases that were at some stage of investigation or legal proceeding during 2001:

  • In December 2001, police asked that the parliamentary immunity of MP Ivan Langer be lifted in order to permit them to bring a charge against him of defaming businessman Peter Kovarcik.
  • Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman threatened in October 2001 to have criminal defamation charges brought against Peter Holub, editor of the political weekly Respekt, in an explicit effort to bankrupt the paper and force its closure. Zeman’s threats followed the paper’s reporting on corruption in the Czech Republic. Holub, in turn, accused Zeman of incitement to hatred of a group of people. This case has generated broad international condemnation.
  • On October 23, 2001, Frantisek Zamencnik, former editor-in-chief of Nove Bruntalsko, was sentenced to sixteen months in prison for criminal defamation in connection with his remarks regarding Bruntal Mayor Petr Krejci, Social Democrat Deputy Jaroslav Palas, and Ludmila Navarova, editor of a rival newspaper. Zamencnik had been convicted of criminal defamation twice before, but in those cases he was sentenced to suspended prison terms. The World Association of Newspapers has protested his most recent conviction and sentence.
  • On September 27, 2000, police charged Vratislav Sima, formerly an advisor to Prime Minister Milos Zeman, with criminal defamation in connection with his alleged role in an effort to discredit Social Democrat Chairwoman Petra Buzkova. Subsequently, Jiri Kubik and Sabina Slonkova, two journalists from Mlada fronta dnes, were charged with abetting a crime, a violation of article 166 of the penal code. (The underlying “crime” in this instance was Sima’s alleged defamation of Buzkova, a charge that in and of itself violated international norms.)
  • In October 2000, President Havel pardoned the two journalists, although the journalists subsequently called for the case to go to trial in order to establish a legal precedent regarding the right of journalists to protect their sources. The investigation of the journalists therefore continued until March 2001, at which time investigators concluded that Kubik and Slonkova had not committed any crime. The criminal investigation of Sima was not dropped until June 2001.
  • In September 2001, Minister of Interior Stanslav Gross announced that he would seek to prosecute Jan Kopal for anti-American statements. Kopal, a far right-wing political figure, reportedly said on September 15, “[a] country like the United States – which committed so much evil in the past, which essentially has been supporting international terrorism and participated in missions like Yugoslavia where innocent civilians were being murdered – does not deserve anything else but such an attack.” Kopal was charged with violating article 165 of the penal code (approving a criminal offense), punishable by one year in prison. (Interestingly, Gross had previously made remarks associating Kopal’s party with neo-Nazis and fascists, prompting Kopal to seek to have criminal charges brought against Gross in December 2000 for 1) defamation, 2) spreading false alarm, and 3) defamation of a nation, its language or a race or a group of inhabitants in the Republic because of their political conviction, religion or lack of religious faith.) Journalist Tomas Pecina, while stating that he disapproved of Kopal’s remarks, then asserted that he had to associate himself with Kopal’s remarks for the sake of defending Kopal’s right to free speech. On December 6, Pecina was arrested and also charged with approving a criminal offense. (Ironically, an opinion poll conducted in September suggested that a majority of those questioned believe that U.S. foreign policy was one of the causes of the September 11 terrorist attacks.2) At present, the charges against Kopal have reportedly been dropped, but the status of the charges against Pecina is unclear.
  • In September 2001, David Pecha, editor of the far left-wing paper Nove Bruntalsko, was indicted for criminal defamation (as well as supporting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights or which promotes national, racial, class or religious hatred, and spreading false alarm). In August 2001, Ministry of Justice Spokesperson Iva Chaloupkova reported that, during the first six months of 2001, seven people were convicted of criminal defamation. Three were given suspended sentences, three were fined, and one received no punishment.
  • In July 2001, two reporters from state-owned Czech Television reportedly sought to have criminal defamation charges brought against Vladimir Zelezny, Director of private television NOVA, in connection with Zelezny’s critical remarks about alleged Czech Television practices.
  • In May 2001, police reported that they were investigating the possible defamation of former Foreign Minister Josef Zielenic by current Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and Prime Minister Milos Zeman. In the same month, journalist Tomas Pecina was fined for failing to respond to police summonses for interrogation in connection with his articles criticizing police behavior. Miroslav Stejskal, Deputy Director of the Municipal Police force in Prague district 1, has reportedly begun an investigation of Pecina for the same writings.
  • On May 20 and August 24, 2001, Vilem Barak was interrogated on suspicion of having committed the crime of incitement not to fulfill, en masse, an important duty imposed by law (in this case, not to participate in the national census), in violation of article 164 of the penal code. Barak had disseminated leaflets warning that personal information gathered by the 2001 census would be insufficiently safeguarded and urging a boycott of the census.
  • In January 1998, police in Olomouc arrested and handcuffed television NOVA journalist Zdenek Zukal in connection with his 1997 reporting on alleged corruption in that locality. Zukal was originally charged with criminal defamation under article 206 of the penal code. One day before a presidential amnesty – which would have covered this offense – the charges were reclassified under article 174 and Zukal was charged with falsely accusing another person of a crime with the intent to bring about criminal prosecution of another, an offense that carries a maximum three-year prison sentence or eight years if the court determines the offender has caused substantial damage. No further prosecutorial action was taken until December 1999, when the case was revived. The case was still at trial as of June 2001 and, at the close of 2001, still appears to be before the courts. Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists have both protested this case.

In the decade since the Velvet Revolution, official censorship has completely ceased and the Czech Republic has witnessed tremendous improvements with respect to freedom of expression. At the same time, some problem areas remain. Leading political figures, such as current Prime Minister Milos Zeman and Speaker of the Parliament Vaclav Klaus (a former Prime Minister) are often openly hostile toward the media. Some politicians resort to criminal defamation charges as a means of silencing their critics; at a minimum, cries of “libel!” and “slander!” are popular substitutes for policy debate.

Finally, there are struggles in Czech society with the issue of “extremist” speech (emanating from both the far-right and the far-left) and the question of what are the acceptable parameters of public discourse. With respect to criminal defamation cases, President Vaclav Havel has pardoned many of those convicted. In other instances, those convicted have been given suspended jail sentences. Because such cases do not result in people actually going to prison for their words, they do not generate as much international scrutiny as, for example, the case of Zamencnik.

Nevertheless, the threat of imprisonment, the cost associated with defending oneself in a criminal trial, and restrictions associated with a suspended sentence (e.g., having to report to a parole officer, the possibility of being prohibited to write or publish, the possibility of being sent to jail without a new trial in the event that conditions of the suspended sentence are not met) all serve to chill free speech and the public debate necessary for a vibrant democracy.

Criminal defamation charges, however, are not the only laws used to restrict speech in the Czech Republic. There are also a number of laws that are not, per se, contrary to international norms but which may be used in ways that are inconsistent with the Czech Republic’s international commitments to free speech. One such law is the prohibition against spreading false alarm (article 199). Laws which prohibit “spreading false alarm” are justified as necessary to punish, for example, someone who falsely yells “fire” in a crowded theater or makes false bomb threats over the phone, acts which potentially or actually create a danger to the public and/or public panic.

Such laws, however, are not intended to gag journalists, quash political debate, or silence those who question the safety of the Temelin nuclear power plant. (Article 199 was used as a basis to deport Greenpeace demonstrators in July 2000 and a German environmentalist in March 2001.) Other criminal laws subject to abuse are the prohibition of defamation of a nation, race or group of people (article 197), the prohibition of incitement to hatred of another nation or race (article 198) and the prohibition against supporting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights or promoting national, racial, class or religious hatred (article 260). Such laws are generally justified as necessary to protect the most vulnerable minorities, and those who support them often point to the Czech Republic’s unhappy experiences with fascism and communism.

In addition, those who support such laws sometimes argue they are useful if not necessary tools to address the criticism that the Czech Republic has failed to do enough to combat racially motivated violence against Roma and others. In some cases, however, it appears that these laws are being used in ways that are not compatible with international free speech norms. In November 2001, a prosecutor in the Breclav region charged Roman Catholic Priest Vojtech Protivinsky with defamation of a nation, race, or group of people. In this case, the “group of people” were members of the unreconstructed, hardline Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia who were offended when Protivinsky actively called on people not to vote for them in upcoming elections. The case was cut short when President Havel pardoned Protivinsky.

In September 2001, David Pecha (case noted above) was charged with supporting a movement aimed at suppressing human rights, defamation and spreading false alarm. In June 2000, Michal Zitko, now 29, was charged with supporting a movement aimed at suppressing the rights and freedoms of citizens. His Prague-based publishing house, Otakar II, had issued a Czech-language edition of Mein Kampf. (Zitko had previously published the U.S. Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.) He was convicted later that year but, in February 2001, a higher court sent the case back to a district court for reconsideration in light of several errors identified by the higher court. In November 2001, Zitko’s conviction was upheld, and he was sentenced to three years in prison, suspended for five years, fined two million crowns, and ordered to report to a probation officer twice a year to prove that he is leading an orderly life.

Zitko, who has portrayed himself as an easy scapegoat for the government’s failure to prevent embarrassments such as the erection of the ghetto wall in Usti nad Labem, is appealing the decision. Sources include: Amnesty International; Article 19; Britske listy; the Committee to Protect Journalists; Czech News Agency; East European Constitutional Review; Freedom in the World (reports published by Freedom House); Index on Censorship; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; World Press Freedom Committee. Relevant Czech Laws

News reports about persons charged with criminal defamation or “insulting” public officials, government offices or national institutions often do not cite the specific legal basis for the charges. In Czech Republic, the laws which appear to give rise to such charges include the following: Article 49 (1) (a) of the Simple Offenses Act provides that anyone who offends another person by insulting or exposing him or her to ridicule may be punished by a fine. Article 154(2) of the Penal Code prohibits gross insults or defamation of an organ of state administration in the exercise of its function or in connection with its function, punishable by up to one year in prison. Article 206 of the Penal Code prohibits the dissemination of false and discrediting information about another person, punishable by up to two years in prison. If the defamation occurs in the broadcast or print media, the punishment may increase to five years. In addition, someone convicted under this article may be banned from working as a journalist. Other Laws of Concern

The laws listed above are, on their face, inconsistent with international free speech norms. In contrast, the laws below are not, per se, in violation of international norms. Rather, they may be applied in a manner that unduly restricts free speech.

  • Article 164 of the Penal Code prohibits incitement to commit a criminal act or not to fulfill, en masse, an important duty imposed by law, punishable by up to two years in prison.
  • Article 165 of the Penal Code prohibits publicly approving of a crime or praising the perpetrator of a crime, punishable by up to one year in prison.
  • Article 166 of the Penal Code prohibits assisting an offender with the intent of enabling the offender to escape prosecution or punishment, punishable by up to three years in prison.
  • Article 174 of the Penal Code prohibits falsely accusing another person of a crime with the intent to bring about the criminal prosecution of that person. This crime is punishable by up to three years in prison or up to eight years of a court determines that the offender caused substantial damage.
  • Article 197 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of a nation, its language or a race or a group of inhabitants in the Republic because of their political conviction, religion or lack of religious faith, punishable by up to two years in prison or three years if committed with at least two other people.
  • Article 198 of the Penal Code prohibits incitement to hatred of another nation or race or calls for the restriction of the rights and freedoms of other nationals or members of a particular race, punishable by up to two years in prison.
  • Article 199 of the Penal Code prohibits intentionally causing the danger of serious agitation among a part of the population by spreading false, alarming information (sometimes translated as “scaremongering”), punishable by up to one year in prison. If the information is transmitted to the mass media, to the police or other state organ, the crime is punishable by up to three years in prison.
  • Article 260 of the Penal Code prohibits supporting or propagating a movement aimed at suppressing human rights or which promotes national, racial, class or religious hatred, punishable by up to five years in prison. Punishment may be up to eight years in prison if the offender commits this act using the media, as a member of an organized group, or during a state defense emergency.
  • Article 261 of the Penal Code prohibits publicly expressing support for a movement aimed at the suppressing human rights or which promotes national, racial, class or religious hatred, punishable by up to five years in prison.
  • Article 261 (a) of the Penal Code prohibits publicly denying or approving or trying to justify Nazi genocide or other communist or Nazi crimes against humanity, punishable by up to three years in prison.

Note: After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia both inherited the former federation’s penal code. In the case of the Czech Republic, a new criminal law was adopted in 1993, retaining all the communist-era prohibitions on defamation. In 1994, the Czech Constitutional Court struck down those provisions of Article 102 which prohibited defamation of the parliament, the government, the constitutional court, and public officials. In 1997, Articles 102 (prohibiting defamation of the Republic) and 103 (prohibiting public defamation of the President) were repealed.

(1) In addition to the cases outlined here, news reports describe many other cases where prominent individuals are either the alleged victim or perpetrator of defamation, but the reports do not make clear whether the legal action was based on the civil code or criminal code.

(2) “Poll shows majority of Czechs blame US foreign policy for terror attacks,” Prague CT1 Television in Czech (September 22, 2001). Translation by Foreign Broadcast Information Service, September 23, 2001.

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    WASHINGTON—Following this week’s manipulated vote to amend Russia’s constitution to further weaken the separation of powers, strengthen the presidency, and allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following joint statement: “As we have seen time and again in Putin’s Russia, the outcome of this vote was decided long before the ballots were tallied. “Thanks to a fraudulent plebiscite ‘legitimizing’ the rubber stamp of Russia’s parliament, the Russian people—along with those living under Russian occupation—will remain under the thumb of an increasingly powerful Putin who could rule until he is in his eighties. “State-sponsored fraud, coercion, and obfuscation make it impossible to know the true will of the Russian people, who deserve a responsive, democratic government in line with Russia’s OSCE commitments.” From June 25 to July 1, 2020, citizens of Russia and residents of illegally-occupied Crimea and Russia-backed separatist regions of the Donbas could vote either for or against a package of more than 200 amendments to Russia’s constitution. Because the vote was not technically classified as a referendum, regulations and procedures that would usually apply—including a required minimum voter turnout level—were disregarded. Russia’s Central Election Commission released preliminary results showing overwhelming support for the amendments hours before the last polls closed, which under normal circumstances would be illegal. The potential for voter fraud was increased by the Russian Government’s decision to spread the voting over the span of a week and introduce electronic voting in some areas, ostensibly to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Independent journalists have received credible reports of people being paid to create multiple false profiles to vote online, employees being coerced into voting by their superiors, and the use of online tools to track voter participation. Individuals documented ballot-stuffing and other irregularities at polling places.  The package of amendments was approved overwhelmingly and with little discussion by President Putin and both chambers of the Russian parliament on March 11, 2020, then rapidly cleared by the regional parliaments and the Constitutional Court. It required a nationwide vote to come into force. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 20 years. He can now pursue two more six-year terms after his current term expires in 2024.

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Human Rights At Home

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online hearing: HUMAN RIGHTS AT HOME Implications for U.S. Leadership Thursday, July 2, 2020 11:00 a.m. Watch Live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission By signing the Helsinki Final Act, the United States committed to respecting human rights and the rule of law, even under the most challenging circumstances. Recent developments in the United States—including George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police and subsequent protests—have put U.S. human rights commitments to the test in the eyes of the world. During this online hearing, witnesses will discuss these events, the U.S. response, and the resulting implications for U.S. leadership in foreign policy. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Ambassador (ret.) Ian Kelly, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Malcolm Momodou Jallow, Member of Parliament (Sweden) and General Rapporteur on Combating Racism and Intolerance, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Nkechi Taifa, Founding Principal & CEO, The Taifa Group, LLC; Convener, Justice Roundtable; and Senior Fellow, Center for Justice, Columbia University

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings Urges Belarus to Allow Real Political Competition in Upcoming Elections

    WASHINGTON—In light of the recent crackdown on protesters and arrests of prominent presidential candidates leading up to the August 9 elections in Belarus, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “Every OSCE participating State, including Belarus, commits to holding free and fair elections. Belarusian authorities have made this impossible by arresting and intimidating presidential candidates, journalists, and activists in the early stages of campaigning. There can be no free choice when the system is rigged in favor of the incumbent. I call on President Lukashenko to order the release of those who have been detained for political reasons and allow real political competition in Belarus.” Belarusian presidential candidate and popular YouTube personality Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested in early June. His wife, who has decided to run in his place, has received numerous threats. Another presidential candidate and former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babaryko was also detained, along with his son, after authorities raided the bank’s offices. Journalists, members of civil society, and others have been arrested during rallies and peaceful protests against Lukashenko’s regime. An estimated 140 people across Belarus were detained on June 19 alone, the last day for presidential candidates to collect signatures to get on the ballot. According to international observers, Belarus has not had free and fair national elections since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

  • Hastings: To Promote Human Rights Abroad, We Must Fiercely Protect Them at Home

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of a 57-nation OSCE meeting on freedom of expression, media, and information, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) released the following statement: “In the United States, we have witnessed a devastating series of attacks by authorities against journalists covering the nationwide protests calling for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In many cases, reporters have been injured, harassed, or arrested even after explicitly identifying themselves as members of the press. “If the United States wants to remain a credible voice in the promotion of human rights abroad, we must fiercely protect them at home. This Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on the critical topic of freedom of expression, media, and information represents an important opportunity to take an honest and critical look at America’s own record in recent weeks on protecting journalists and safeguarding press freedom.” According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, as of June 15, there have been more than 430 reported press freedom violations since the beginning of the national Black Lives Matter protests on May 26. This includes at least 59 arrests; 268 assaults (including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets and projectiles); and 57 cases of equipment/newsroom damage. OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings (SHDM) are convened three times annually on topics chosen by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. The first SHDM organized by the Albanian chairmanship,  “Addressing All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination,” took place May 25-26, 2020. The June meeting on freedom of expression, media and information includes participation by non-governmental civil society organizations, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and representatives from OSCE participating States.

  • Disinformation, COVID-19, and the Electoral Process

    Listen to audio of the briefing on Facebook.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of 2020, the stakes could not be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing featured three expert panelists who each examined the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explored opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects.  Some of the more urgent concerns they noted were the increased politicization of the information space and the rise of nonstate actors.  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic International Studies, noted, “Russia does not create the weaknesses; they simply exploit them.  And this is where I think it’s very important to understand that in the U.S. system they’re exploiting, obviously, our partisanship.  So we are offering them the weakness, and then they use it wherever they can.” Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program and author of the upcoming book How to Lose the Information War, said the goal is often simply to bombard the information space with so much conflicting information, the voter loses interest: “They want people to consume less news and to feel like participation at all stages of the process is futile, whether that means communicating with our elected representatives, participated in civil society, or even the act of voting itself.” She added that partisanship cannot be permitted to frame the response to disinformation. “Disinformation is not a partisan issue,” she said.  “If we’re to make any progress in protecting our democracies, we need to not only clearly recognize the threat that disinformation poses but reject its tactics whole cloth.  Any government that uses disinformation cannot hope to fight it.” Chatham House’s Sophia Ignatidou called for a US-EU approach to combatting disinformation that was rooted in international human rights. She noted, “The reason for doing that is that international human rights law is suitable to deal with an issue that doesn’t respect any physical boundaries.  And it can provide a more holistic view of the issue of disinformation which we are lacking sometimes.” Ignatidou also challenged one of the primary arguments that some of the big tech companies use to push back against regulation – freedom of expression – as misleading, because “the problem with disinformation is dissemination patterns and scale, not content, per se.  And freedom of speech does not equate [with] freedom of reach.” Other questions centered on the importance of OSCE election monitoring missions paying more attention to how disinformation impacts the atmosphere surrounding an election in the months leading up to it.  The discussion ended on a positive note as all three panelists, when asked to cite examples of successful efforts to mitigate disinformation, spoke about the importance of using trusted, credible voices at the grass-roots level and of building resilience among voters in a nonpartisan fashion.  Related Information Panelist Biographies Podcast: Helsinki on the Hill | Defending against Disinformation A Global Pandemic: Disinformation Hearing: The Scourge of Russian Disinformation Briefing: Lies, Bots, and Social Media

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Corrosive Impact of Disinformation on the Electoral Process

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: DISINFORMATION, COVID-19, AND THE ELECTORAL PROCESS Thursday, May 21, 2020 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Register to attend. Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental measures of a democratic society. During the 2016 presidential elections, many Americans became aware for the first time that disinformation can be easily coupled with technology by state and nonstate actors to disrupt and muddy the information space in the months, weeks, and days leading up to an election.  The use of disinformation to influence elections has since become a pervasive and persistent threat in all 57 OSCE participating States, one which many countries still struggle to adequately address. With presidential, parliamentary, or local elections scheduled in 15 OSCE participating States before the end of the year, the stakes cannot be higher. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another level of complexity, as Russia, China, and Iran are all attempting to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Governments in the region are struggling to respond, with some enacting measures that further restrict the free flow of information and threaten press freedom. This briefing will examine the implications of this emerging threat to the electoral process and explore opportunities for nations, state and local governments, the private sector, and civil society to collaborate to identify and mitigate disinformation’s corrosive effects. Expert panelists scheduled to participate include: Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Nina Jankowicz, Disinformation Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center Science and Technology Information Program; author of “How to Lose the Information War” Sophia Ignatidou, Academy Associate, International Security Programme, Chatham House

  • World Press Freedom Day in the OSCE Region

    Madam Speaker, I rise today to emphasize the urgency of global press freedom, particularly across the 57-nation region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Earlier this week, we celebrated World Press Freedom Day, a day originally proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 to celebrate the fundamental principle of a free and independent press. On this day and beyond, we honor journalists and media professionals for their tireless service in reporting the truth, sometimes at the risk of their own personal safety. World Press Freedom Day serves as an important reminder to governments around the world to respect their country’s commitment to press freedom. The U.S. Helsinki Commission, of which I am Chairman, is charged with monitoring compliance with human rights and security commitments in the OSCE region. Freedom of the press is a foundational commitment to human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, however, some leaders view the media as a threat and seek to silence individuals and outlets through financial, legal, and physical means. What these leaders truly fear is that journalists will expose corruption, human rights violations, abuses of power, and other undemocratic behavior. According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Madam Speaker, I also rise to applaud the undaunted service of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir. His leadership as an independent monitor for these issues among OSCE participating States has offered candid review of our collective challenges, while demonstrating the importance of OSCE institutions.  Mr. Désir’s team has provided impeccable service to help nations implement their international commitments to this end through country visits and legislative review, as well as hosting expert conferences.  I encourage my colleagues to closely follow his work and to learn more about his mandate by reviewing the proceedings of the U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing I chaired with Mr. Désir on July 25, 2019 addressing “State of Media Freedom in the OSCE Region.” Madam Speaker, amid this global pandemic, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution. Unfortunately, too many journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly false, misleading, or unofficial information. This is unacceptable. Earlier in April, I released statements expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia and the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán amid the coronavirus pandemic. During these trying times, strong journalism and access to accurate, unbiased information are essential tools for countering the spread of the disease. I ask my colleagues to join me in urging states to recognize the indispensable role of the media during this time and to reverse policies that in any way discourage freedom of expression.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in a Time of Pandemic

    The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments around the world to take extraordinary measures in the interest of public health and safety. As of early April, nearly two-thirds of the 57 participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had declared “states of emergency” or invoked similar legal measures in response to the crisis. Often such measures have enabled governments to enact large-scale social distancing policies and suspend economic activity to save lives and preserve the capacity of national public health infrastructure to respond to the spread of infections. At the same time, human rights organizations and civil society activists have expressed concern regarding the breadth of some emergency measures and recalled the long history of government abuse of emergency powers to trample civil liberties. Exactly three decades ago, OSCE participating States unanimously endorsed a set of basic principles governing the imposition of states of emergency, including the protection of fundamental freedoms in such times of crisis. In 1990 in Copenhagen, OSCE countries affirmed that states of emergency must be enacted by public law and that any curtailment of human rights and civil liberties must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the Copenhagen Document, emergency measures furthermore should never discriminate based on certain group characteristics or be used to justify torture. Building on these commitments a year later in Moscow, participating States underscored that states of emergency should not “subvert the democratic constitutional order, nor aim at the destruction of internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Moscow Document stresses the role of legislatures in imposing and lifting such declarations, the preservation of the rule of law, and the value of guaranteeing “freedom of expression and freedom of information…with a view to enabling public discussion on the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as on the lifting of the state of public emergency.” In some corners of the OSCE region, however, national authorities are violating these and other OSCE commitments in the name of combatting coronavirus. While many extraordinary responses are justified in the face of this crisis, government overreach threatens the well-being of democracy and the resilience of society at a critical time. Download the full report to learn more.

  • Hastings and Wicker Troubled By Mounting Harassment of Opposition Members, Activists, and Journalists by Government of Azerbaijan

    WASHINGTON—In response to the Government of Azerbaijan’s mounting harassment of Azerbaijani opposition members, activists, and journalists, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “During this pandemic, public health precautions do not excuse politically-motivated repression. We are deeply troubled by reports that the Government of Azerbaijan is further squeezing its people’s access to free expression, media, and information through arrests, fines, harassment, and possibly torture. Authorities should cease exploiting this global crisis to limit the speech of members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and other activists and reporters.” In recent weeks, Azerbaijani authorities have detained, questioned, jailed, fined, and, in one case possibly tortured opposition members and journalists affiliated with the country’s main opposition party, the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), and opposition-aligned media outlet Azadliq. Since the global spread of the novel coronavirus, the Azerbaijani Government has intermittently cut off internet and phone access to PFPA Chair Ali Karimli, preventing him from communicating with the outside world, including conducting interviews with media. Last week, a coalition of opposition parties accused the government of torturing PFPA activist Niyameddin Ahmedov while in custody. Other PFPA affiliated activists and writers, including Aqil Humbatov, Faiq Amirli, and Saadat Jahangir, have been detained for allegedly violating quarantine rules after speaking or reporting critically about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Wicker and Cardin Urge Pompeo to Work with EU High Representative to Advance EU Magnitsky Sanctions

    WASHINGTON—In a letter released today, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ask the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, to expedite the adoption of EU sanctions on human rights abusers, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. The letter reads in part: “In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality... “It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation... “It was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world.” The U.S. Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which authorizes the President to impose economic sanctions and deny entry into the United States to any foreign person he identifies as engaging in human rights abuse or corruption, has been an important asset in the U.S. diplomatic toolkit. In December 2019, High Representative Borrell announced that all Member States unanimously agreed to start preparatory work for an equivalent of Global Magnitsky, adding that such a framework would be “a tangible step reaffirming the European Union’s global lead on human rights.” The Baltic States, Canada, and the UK already have adopted similar legislation. However, the current proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption, nor does it include any reference to Sergei Magnitsky by name. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear Mr. Secretary, As the original sponsors of the Magnitsky Act, we aim to increase the impact of the legislation worldwide by encouraging our allies to join us in sanctioning bad actors. At the moment, the European Union (EU) has agreed in principle to adopt their own sanctions similar to those provided by the Global Magnitsky Act, but certain issues remain. Therefore, we ask that you work with Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to ensure the EU adopts and implements the most thorough and effective sanctions package possible. Our first concern is that the EU seems to have stalled in putting together the details of their Magnitsky sanctions regime because of the global health crisis. In December, High Representative Borrell announced that there was political agreement to move forward on a Magnitsky-like piece of legislation, which his team would begin drafting. Since then, we fear this work has been sidelined. In this time of global crisis, dictators and kleptocrats are only increasing their bad actions, making it more important than ever that the EU move quickly to make the EU Magnitsky Act a reality. Our second concern is that the proposal for an EU Magnitsky Act does not include sanctions for officials involved in corruption. It has become clear that corruption and human rights abuse are inextricably linked. The lack of provisions to sanction corruption would weaken the comprehensive Magnitsky approach. It would also lead to difficulties synchronizing U.S. and EU sanctions by enabling corrupt officials barred from the United States to continue operating in the EU, thus diminishing our deterrent and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to exploitation. Finally, we are concerned that the EU is not planning to include Magnitsky’s name on the sanctions regime. It was Sergei Magnitsky who stood up to a ruthless, violent, and corrupt state and demanded fairness and accountability for his fellow citizens. And it was Sergei Magnitsky who started this very effort to end impunity for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Omitting the name of Magnitsky, who was jailed, tortured, beaten, murdered, and posthumously convicted, would indicate a lack of resolve to stand up to brutal regimes around the world. Therefore, we request that you ask the High Representative Borrell to expedite the adoption of their sanctions, include provisions for sanctioning corruption, and ensure that the EU sanctions regime bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name. It is important that we do not let our guard down and continue our global leadership in this important area. Sincerely, Benjamin L. Cardin                                                       Roger F. Wicker Ranking Member                                                          Co-Chairman

  • Remarks from Sen. Cardin Concerning COVID-19 Emergency Responses

    OSCE PA Webinar: Respecting Human Rights And Maintaining Democratic Control During States of Emergency Thank you, Mr. President Tsereteli and Secretary General Montella, for organizing this dialogue.  Director Gisladottir and Mr. Abramowitz, thank you for the work each of you is doing to shine a light on the human rights and democracy implications of emergency measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the implications of other government actions taken during this public health crisis that may threaten the health of our democracies. As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the measures we introduce and which our governments implement are consistent with OSCE standards on human rights and democracy, including the 1991 Moscow Document’s commitments regarding states of emergency. Those actions must be necessary, proportional, transparent, and temporary. Emergency provisions which restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the media are especially concerning and may actually undermine our efforts to address this health emergency. We need to ensure that journalists, medical professionals, scientists and others can provide the public with information we need to battle covid.  Muzzling independent voices undermines public confidence in government at a time when that confidence and public cooperation is critical to the success of the safety measures we need.  And yes, sometimes this means governments are going to hear they they’re not getting it right and sometimes governments will need to make course corrections. But there’s a big difference between addressing bad news and suppressing bad news.  A robust civil society is a critical partner to each of our governments and will strengthen our resilience.  Unfortunately, just this virus exploits vulnerabilities of pre-existing conditions, some governments may exploit the human rights limitations already in place before this pandemic, including laws or practices that unduly restrict civil society, or limit the freedoms of expression, association, or assembly. President Tseretelli, your appointment of a Special Representative on Civil Society last August could not have come at a more important time.  I hope members of this assembly will advance efforts to protect the core fundamental freedoms that are essential for civil society voices to be heard and support the work of my colleague, Special Representative Pia Kauma. We also need to ensure that civil society voices continue to be heard within the OSCE.  As we look ahead to how the participating States organize human dimension activities this year, and particularly the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, it is critical that we preserve the access and openness that have made the OSCE such an important forum for human right defenders.  Whether OSCE meetings are in person or online, those standards of access should be preserved. Finally, democratic institutions, including as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and free elections, must be preserved even during states of emergency.  I think this is really one of the most important contributions of the 1991 Moscow Document — it speaks to these exact points: “A state of public emergency may not be used to subvert the democratic constitutional order.” “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the normal functioning of the legislative bodies will be guaranteed to the highest possible extent during a state of public emergency.”  “The participating States will endeavor to ensure that the legal guarantees necessary to uphold the rule of law will remain in force during a state of public emergency.”  We may need to make changes in how our courts hear cases or the mechanics of our elections.  But a health emergency does not diminish our commitment to ensure the integrity of our democratic institutions. The United States will proceed with our elections in a manner that ensures the public’s safety and respects the rights of voters, and consistent with our OSCE commitments.  Thank you.

  • Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency

    Statement at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Webinar: Respecting Human Rights and Maintaining Democratic Control during States of Emergency President Tsereteli, Secretary General Montella, it is good hear from you.  I am pleased to see that this Assembly has found ways to communicate, cooperate and collaborate — in spite of the distances that keep us apart, and as an expression of our shared commitments to our roles as legislators. At last year’s annual session, I was the lead sponsor of a supplementary item on “the role of civil society — individuals and non-governmental organizations — in realizing the aims and aspirations of the OSCE.”  The resolution we adopted in Luxembourg acknowledges the critical role civil society plays in enhancing security and cooperation across all OSCE dimensions. I appreciate President Tsereteli appointing our colleague, the Honorable Pia Kauma, as the Assembly’s Special Representative to be an advocate for civil society engagement and she has done a great job so far. I am sorry, but not surprised that some governments have taken the need for emergency measures as an opportunity for repressive measures. Hungary is the only OSCE participating State that does not have a sunset clause for the expiration of its emergency measures, or requiring parliamentary approval for an extension.  Parliamentary oversight is absolutely essential, especially when governments seek to exercise extraordinary powers. I believe we must also pay particular attention to those measures that relate to freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.  I am also troubled by the heavy-handed disciplinary and punitive approach utilized in some areas, which exacerbates existing discriminatory and unconstitutional policing.  I want to thank you, Director Gisladottir, for your attention to this and speaking out against the hate crimes and scapegoating of minorities, refugees and migrants. In the next legislation that will come before the U.S. Congress, I will support provisions to address hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in our societies recently highlighted by the pandemic. The February 25 profiling murder of Ahmaud Aubrey by his neighbors in the state of Georgia demonstrates the urgency of our fight for equity and justice for all beyond our current crisis. But I would like to pause here for a moment, to reflect on violations of fundamental freedoms that some governments had already imposed even before now.  If a law or practice violated OSCE human rights and democracy norms before the pandemic, circumstances now will surely not cure that violation. Threats against journalists, restrictions on academic freedom, imprisoning people for their political views, and impeding or even criminalizing NGOs’ access to and communication within and outside their own countries — all of that is still inconsistent with OSCE commitments, and the pandemic does not change that.  Principle VII of the Helsinki Final Act still holds: individuals still have the right to know and act upon their rights. I therefore add my voice to the international calls from OSCE institutional bodies and others around the world for the release of all prisoners of conscience given this pandemic. Prison populations are particularly susceptible to community spread. To address dangerous overcrowding, governments should work first and foremost to release those imprisoned for exercising their internationally recognized rights or those wrongly imprisoned contrary to international commitments.  I regret Turkey's decision in particular to approve a plan to release 90,000 prisoners that excluded relief for any of the thousands of political prisoners, including opposition politicians, civil society activists, employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, and many more. Which brings me back to the important work of Special Representative Kauma.  Civil society is not a luxury, it is essential.  If anything, it becomes even more important during an emergency when governments may legitimately exercise powers, but those powers may not be unlimited, unchecked, or unending.  A vibrant civil society plays a critical role in holding governments to account, particularly at times of great social stress.  Those human rights groups, the parent-teacher organizations, book clubs, or food banks— all enrich our societies. Colleagues, this pandemic has upended elections across the OSCE region.  According to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s factsheet, forty OSCE participating States — including my own — have elections scheduled for this year. As we all rise to meet the challenge of conducting elections safely, we must maintain transparency regarding the entire electoral process, especially any changes to the timing of elections, methods of voting, or measures that impact campaigning.  The United States is already debating these issues in preparation for November. Even in a pandemic, international and domestic election observation remains vital.  We must find a solution to ensure that they are engaged and included even now. 

  • Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker Commemorate World Press Freedom Day

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statements: "Given these uncertain and unprecedented times, it is more important than ever that journalists and media professionals are able to work freely and without retribution," said Chairman Hastings. "Unfortunately, journalists remain in jail throughout the OSCE region, while states like Russia, Azerbaijan, and Hungary criminalize providing essential information and transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media continues to be assaulted under the pretense of punishing allegedly 'false,' 'misleading,' or unofficial information. This is unacceptable." Read Chairman Hastings' full Congressional Record statement. “Journalists across the globe risk their safety, and some even their lives, to report the truth," said Co-Chairman Wicker. "On World Press Freedom Day, we honor a freedom that is a cornerstone of democracy and should always be protected in any healthy society. During this pandemic, good journalism and unflinching investigative reporting are essential as we work to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and get our economies started again. Now more than ever, I urge all OSCE states to uphold this fundamental freedom." According to the latest reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, 250 journalists are imprisoned worldwide for their work, 64 journalists are missing, and 1,369 journalists have been killed since 1992. Additionally, Reporters Without Borders' 2020 World Press Freedom Index found that global press freedom has deteriorated by 12 percent since 2013. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued a joint declaration on freedom of expression and elections in the digital age, particularly noting challenges to press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 17, Chairman Hastings and Co-Chairman Wicker released a statement expressing concern with the latest attacks on press freedom in Russia amid the coronavirus pandemic, including death threats to Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Earlier in April, Chairman Hastings also denounced the unchecked power granted to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban following his request to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Helsinki Commission Leaders Appalled by Latest Attacks on Press Freedom in Russia

    WASHINGTON—Following recent threats to the life of Russian journalist Yelena Milashina by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the forced removal of her Novaya Gazeta article on the coronavirus response in Chechnya by Russia’s media regulatory agency, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) released the following statements: “I am appalled—though not surprised—that the Government of Russia is using a global pandemic to restrict media freedom at a time when access to accurate information is vital,” Chairman Hastings said. “Yelena Milashina does not deserve death threats for simply doing her job. I condemn these attacks; Novaya Gazeta must be able to operate freely to provide truthful and timely information to the Russian people.” “Independent journalists need to be protected so they can continue to do the important work of keeping the public informed, especially in times of crisis,” said Co-Chairman Wicker. “Chechen strongman Kadyrov has a history of support for lawlessness and extrajudicial killings, and his threats should be taken seriously. A government that fails to protect journalists like Yelena Milashina will also contribute to a culture where other citizens are afraid to speak out.” After the passage of an April 1 law criminalizing “misinformation” regarding the coronavirus, the Government of Russia has begun to target news agencies and individuals who have criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. RFE/RL’s reporting on Russia’s handling of the coronavirus has been targeted for review in the State Duma, and the apartment of an activist in St. Petersburg was searched and her electronics seized for calling attention to insufficient local quarantine conditions on social media. Journalist Yelena Milashina has received previous death threats from Ramzan Kadyrov for her reporting on Chechnya. In February 2020 she was attacked by unknown assailants in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. She received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department in 2013 and appeared at Helsinki Commission events on Russia’s North Caucasus in 2009 and 2010.  

  • Chairman Hastings Denounces Unchecked Power Granted To Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Following the Hungarian Parliament’s decision on Monday to accept Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s request for unlimited power to rule by decree in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Prime Minister Orban has taken gross advantage of the fear and uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic to secure the power to rule by decree in perpetuity. Instead of focusing on the well-being of Hungarian citizens likely to suffer from the coronavirus, he has chosen to prioritize preserving his parliamentary majority and permanently consolidating his control of the Hungarian Government.  “At both the global and national levels, defeating the coronavirus will require extraordinary social solidarity, not unchecked executive power.  The further concentration of powers in Hungary will only pave the way for the further concentration of corruption.” Among other provisions, the new law allows for up to a five-year prison sentence for spreading false or distorted information regarding the fight against the coronavirus, which could be used against journalists reporting on the state of Hungary’s hospitals or health care delivery.  The law also suspends elections.  Hungary has recently completed a cycle of elections (parliamentary, European Parliament, and municipal) with no other major elections scheduled until 2022. In the meantime, by-elections and referenda are prohibited.  The law, which lacks a sunset clause, may only be repealed by a two-thirds vote of parliament, or terminated by the Prime Minister himself. In 1991, Hungary—along with all other OSCE participating States—adopted the Moscow Document in the aftermath of a coup attempt in Russia. The agreement includes specific provisions on states of emergency.  In particular, the OSCE participating States agreed to “in conformity with international standards regarding the freedom of expression, take no measures aimed at barring journalists from the legitimate exercise of their profession other than those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”   On March 30, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir warned that emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region, including Hungary, must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight. Since 2010, Viktor Orban has systematically dismantled a system of checks and balances, facilitating the consolidation of control by the Fidesz government. In April 2019, the Helsinki Commission hosted a briefing to explore developments in Hungary, including issues related to the rule of law and corruption.  

  • E.U. Tries Gentle Diplomacy to Counter Hungary’s Crackdown on Democracy

    European leaders were reluctant to pick a fight with Prime Minister Viktor Orban a day after he secured powers to rule by decree indefinitely. BRUSSELS — The European Union’s written response to Hungary’s effective suspension of democracy omitted one important word: Hungary. A day after the Hungarian Parliament passed sweeping emergency measures allowing the far-right populist leader Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly as part of the country’s response to the coronavirus, the European Commission on Tuesday reminded its members to respect rights. But it was a muted first response from the one institution that can take on Mr. Orban, and it appeared aimed at balancing the political imperative of cooperation in the era of the coronavirus with the risk of emboldening him. “It’s of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in a statement that made no mention of Mr. Orban or Hungary. The European Commission is the European Union’s executive branch, and it often describes itself as “the guardian of the treaty” that created the bloc of 27 democracies. But Mr. Orban has long been in an open struggle with parts of that treaty. He has said frankly that he does not believe in liberal democracy — which the European Commission says is fundamental to the European Union’s values. The severe measures adopted Monday in Budapest may dramatically ratchet up the confrontation between the Orban government and European Union institutions in Brussels. Hungary’s new legislation suspends elections and also allows the prime minister to suspend existing laws and rule by decree. One vaguely worded section also says that people found to be spreading “falsehoods” or “distorted truths” that obstruct the authorities from protecting the public may be punished with prison sentences of up to five years. That new tool that may allow Mr. Orban to further curb the press freedoms long in his cross hairs. To be sure, in the face of the epidemic, European countries have all to lesser or greater extent adopted emergency measures curbing liberties, including measures that require citizens to register any movement and observe curfews. But Hungary’s new rules are the most far reaching. And rights experts, political analysts and academics say that, given Mr. Orban’s track record and espousal of “illiberal democracy,” the measures he says he is taking to fight the virus could become fixtures in Hungarian public life, used to crack down on opposition well after the threat of the virus passes. European Union officials believe that the statement issued Tuesday, which came from Ms. von der Leyen personally, sent a clear message to Mr. Orban — even without naming him. European Commission lawyers are now closely watching how he enforces Hungary’s new measures, the officials said. But they said that now — as Europe battles to stem the spread of the virus and mitigate its catastrophic economic damage, and with many nations suspending some liberties — was not the moment to pick a fight with just one member. That measured approach surprised some observers, despite the fact that the commission often takes a conciliatory stance toward wayward members in a bid to entice them to reform voluntarily. (That has never worked with Hungary.) “It is bizarre,” Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament who belongs to the German Greens political party, said of Ms. von der Leyen’s statement. “The decision that the Hungarian Parliament took yesterday is a watershed moment,” Mr. Freund said. “Now you have to do something, or we really lose democracies.” Mr. Freund and other members of the European Parliament believe that even before the European Commission opens a formal investigation into Hungary’s new law, which would take months, it should use existing rules to put pressure on Mr. Orban. “If we end up after the crisis with a virus well fought but democracy lost in several member states, that’s an unacceptable situation,” Mr. Freund said. Daniel Kelemen, a professor European Union politics and law at Rutgers University, said the epidemic could prove an opportunity for the Hungarian leader. “Throughout his consolidation of power, Orban has counted on the European Union to be distracted with other crises,” he said. “But now,” Mr. Kelemen said, “the scale of this crisis does call for consolidation of power for the executive, so it gives him more effective cover for this next stage of escalation.” Mr. Orban’s hold on power was unparalleled by European Union standards well before Monday’s vote authorizing him to rule by decree. In practical terms, Mr. Orban and his allies already controlled the legislative and executives branches of government, and had stacked the Constitutional Court. With Mr. Orban’s parliamentary opposition unable to slow his political machine, the European Union has shown itself to be the only entity capable of curbing his power, but the results have been mixed. Lengthy and cumbersome European Union legal proceedings could not stop Mr. Orban and his allies from taking over the Hungarian media landscape, weakening the independence of the judiciary, levying a special tax on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding, or ejecting the Central European University from the country. In the end it may be Mr. Orban’s love for European financial aid, not freedoms, that acts as a brake on his government. “Aware that the European Union is watching, Orban is likely to tread modestly at first,” said Mujtaba Rahman, the head of Europe at Eurasia Group consultancy. “He will not wish to put at risk the €5.6 billion windfall granted to Hungary by the European Parliament last week as its portion in the union’s efforts to battle the coronavirus." President Trump has warmly embraced Mr. Orban. Mr. Trump’s ambassador in Hungary has spoken glowingly about Mr. Orban’s grip on power and said that Mr. Trump would love to have the powers of his Hungarian counterpart. But Mr. Orban’s autocratic tendencies have long alarmed others in Washington, particularly lawmakers who serve on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. A congressional delegation visited Hungary last year to investigate democratic backsliding.

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