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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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    In July 2016, the Turkish people helped defeat a coup attempt that sought to overthrow their country’s constitutional order. In pursuing those responsible for the putsch, however, Turkish authorities created a dragnet that ensnared tens of thousands of people. The state of emergency declared by President Erdogan in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt remains in effect today and gives the government vast powers to detain or dismiss from employment almost anyone, with only minimal evidence. Caught up in the sweeping purge are several American citizens, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, NASA scientist Serkan Gölge. Brunson worked and raised his family in Turkey for more than 23 years. Despite the efforts of the President of the United States, among many others, he has spent more than a year in jail without trial on national security charges. In addition, Gölge and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks.    The U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing examined the factors contributing to the detention of American citizens, particularly Mr. Brunson, and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey, as well as the judicial processes to which they have been subject. Sen. Thom Tillis presided over the hearing, voicing his concerns about the treatment of American detainees in Turkey and the country’s deteriorating democratic institutions, particularly the judiciary. During the hearing, the Commission heard testimony from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan Cohen, Executive Senior Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) CeCe Heil, Pastor Brunson’s daughter Jacqueline Furnari, and Director of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit Project Nate Schenkkan.   All witnesses spoke to their concerns about the worsening political climate in Turkey and the safety of its political prisoners, including Mr. Brunson and Mr. Gölge. They also discussed the impact of these arrests on U.S.-Turkey relations and policy recommendations that could help secure their release and promote Turkey’s respect for its rule of law and other commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Mr. Cohen called on the Turkish government to end the protracted state of emergency, cease sweeping roundups, and expedite due process for all the detained. He encouraged Congress to continue engagement through in-person and written correspondence with Turkish officials to communicate concerns about specific detention cases and the broader rule of law. Mr. Schenkkan detailed the scale of Turkey’s wide-scale purges, which he described as targeting independent voices and ordinary citizens from nearly every sector and as far exceeding any reasonable scope corresponding to the failed coup attempt. He recommended that the United States explore the application of individual sanctions against Turkish officials responsible for the prolonged and unjust detention of American citizens and U.S. consulate employees. Mrs. Heil and Mrs. Furnari testified about the physical, psychological, and personal toll of Pastor Brunson’s prolonged detention. They noted that Pastor Brunson has lost 50 pounds while in detention and suffered psychologically and emotionally from his isolation and separation from his family.

  • Internet Freedom in the OSCE Region: Trends and Challenges

    On Tuesday, November 14, 2017 the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing on internet freedom in the OSCE region. The panelists – Sanja Kelly, Director of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net; Dariya Orlova, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director for Research at the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine; Berivan Orucoglu, Human Rights Defenders Program Coordinator at the McCain Institute; and Jason Pielemeier, Policy Director at the Global Network Initiative – discussed concerning developments in participating States. First, Sanja Kelly provided an overview of Freedom House’s work on internet freedom issues and described the recent edition of the Freedom on the Net report, which was released that very day. The report found that internet freedom declined for the seventh consecutive year around the world, but that the situation among OSCE participating States is more diverse. The region includes some of the report’s best performers, such as Estonia, Iceland, Germany and the United States, as well as some of its worst performers, with Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. She also noted the concerning finding that Russia is using the internet to interfere in domestic processes in other OSCE participating States. She pointed out that the “same manipulation techniques, including paid pro-government commentators, bots and fake news, that the Russian authorities have been using in their disinformation campaigns abroad, have long been used … against Russian independent journalists, political opponents and other critical voices.” After that, Dariya Orlova gave an account of the deteriorating internet freedom situation in Ukraine. To blame for this decline, she said, is the introduction of bans on several Russian internet services, including social media networks, email services and search engines. According to Dariya, there has been a lack of outspoken critique against these measures among domestic audiences. She also drew attention to the increasingly dangerous environment that online activists and journalists find themselves in. Then, she briefly explained some of the Kremlin’s tactics when it comes to weaponizing social media platforms. Berivan Orucoglu focused her remarks on the sharp decline in internet freedom that Turkey has experienced in the past few years. In her eyes, this reflects a crackdown on press freedom and freedom of expression more generally. In an effort to control the narrative, the Turkish government has jailed journalists, curbed dissent on social media, as well as in the mainstream media and otherwise intimidated critics. More often than not, national security reasons are cited as justification for these measures. In closing, Jason Pielemeier introduced his organization, the Global Network Initiative, to the audience and proceeded to place some of the aforementioned internet freedom trends into historical context. By doing so, he tried to understand the motivations of repressive regimes to clamp down on online activity. He also touched on more technical aspects of the discussion, such as data localization and the effects such measures have on intelligence operations.

  • Turkey’s Detention of U.S. Citizens to Be Scrutinized at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PRISONERS OF THE PURGE: THE VICTIMS OF TURKEY’S FAILING RULE OF LAW November 15, 2017 9:30AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 124 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce111517 In July 2016, the Turkish people helped defeat a coup attempt that sought to overthrow their country’s constitutional order. In pursuing those responsible for the putsch, however, Turkish authorities created a dragnet that ensnared tens of thousands of people. The state of emergency declared by President Erdogan in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt remains in effect today and gives the government vast powers to detain or dismiss from employment almost anyone, with only minimal evidence. Caught up in the sweeping purge are several American citizens, including pastor Andrew Brunson, who worked and raised his family in Turkey for more than 23 years. Despite the efforts of the President of the United States, among many others, he has spent more than a year in jail without trial on national security charges. Additionally, a Turkish-American NASA scientist and two Turkish employees of U.S. consulates stand charged with terrorism offenses despite no involvement with violent activity—a situation faced by thousands of other Turks.     The U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing will examine the factors contributing to the detention of American citizens, particularly Mr. Brunson, and U.S. consulate employees in Turkey, as well as the judicial processes to which they have been subject. One of Mr. Brunson’s family members and his U.S. attorney will testify about his ongoing detention. Witnesses will also discuss the impact of these arrests on U.S.-Turkey relations and policy recommendations that could help secure their release and promote Turkey’s respect for its rule of law and other commitments as a participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Panel One: Jonathan R. Cohen, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State Panel Two: CeCe Heil, Executive Counsel, American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) Jacqueline Furnari, Daughter of Andrew Brunson Nate Schenkkan, Director of the Nations in Transit Project, Freedom House

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine State of Internet Freedom in OSCE Region

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: INTERNET FREEDOM IN THE OSCE REGION: TRENDS AND CHALLENGES Tuesday, November 14, 2017 1:00PM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 215 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission For seven straight years, internet freedom in Eurasia has been on the decline, with countries like Russia and Turkey among the worst offenders. Independent websites are frequently censored and bloggers and netizens are being jailed for promoting human rights or documenting abuse. Meanwhile, governments are employing manipulation and disinformation campaigns to control the online information landscape and silence opposing voices, weaponizing social media to preserve power. On November 14, Freedom House will release the newest edition of its Freedom on the Net report, an annual assessment of internet access, censorship, and user rights in 65 countries, encompassing 87 percent of all internet users. Featuring the report’s main findings, this briefing will examine declining internet freedom globally and in the OSCE region, and its impact on broader democracy and human rights; growing cyberattacks against human rights defenders in Russia and the former Soviet sphere; and government use of social media to manipulate discussions and attack critics. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Sanja Kelly, Director, Freedom on the Net, Freedom House Dariya Orlova, Senior Lecturer, Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine Berivan Orucoglu, Human Rights Defenders Program Coordinator, The McCain Institute Jason Pielemeier, Policy Director, Global Network Initiative

  • Belarus: 25 Years after Signing the Helsinki Final Act

    In July 2017, Belarus hosted the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) Annual Session.  However, two decades ago, the OSCE PA refused to even recognize the legitimacy of Belarus’ putative elected representatives.  What has changed? Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, and Michael Newton, Intern

  • International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists

    By Jordan Warlick, Staff Associate and Olivia Leggieri, Intern November 2, 2017, marks the fourth International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists since the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution in December 2013. The UN chose this date in November to commemorate the assassination of two French journalists who were murdered while on assignment in Mali. This day serves as a reminder of the obligation of nations to take urgent measures to protect journalists and media workers and to bring the perpetrators of such targeted violence to justice. Currently, only one in ten cases committed against journalists worldwide ends in a conviction; since 1992, 695 journalists have been murdered with impunity in connection with their work. The assassination of Russian journalist Natalya Estemirova in 2009 illustrates these cases of impunity. Estemirova was a courageous investigative reporter who covered government atrocities in the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation, particularly after Vladimir Putin launched the second Chechen war in 1999 in response to a series of apartment bombings.  In 2006, she visited the Helsinki Commission to discuss her findings regarding human rights violations by Chechen authorities.  At the meeting, she also expressed concern about the rising justification for the use of torture as a tool of counterterrorism in many countries, observing, “You cannot protect the law using illegal methods.” Estemirova was abducted in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, on the morning of July 15, 2009, and found murdered in Ingushetia later that day. She was the fifth Novaya Gazeta journalist killed since 2000; to this day no one has been held responsible for her murder. At the time of her assassination, she was 51 years old and left behind a 15-year-old daughter. Then-Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Ben Cardin, Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee Hastings, and Ranking Members Senator Sam Brownback and Congressman Chris Smith condemned her murder. Chairman Cardin stated, “Murder and intimidation of activists and journalists is both a serious violation of human rights and an affront to any democracy.” On the one-year anniversary of Estemirova’s murder, then-Co-Chairman Representative Alcee Hastings introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to express solidarity with human rights defenders in the Russian Federation. The resolution called for an end to impunity for those responsible for such acts through the conduct of timely, transparent and thorough criminal investigations into the unresolved murders of human rights defenders, journalists, and political opposition members and the prosecution of all of those responsible for these crimes. Chechen nationalists have also targeted Russian journalist Karina Orlova, who participated in a recent Helsinki Commission briefing on systematic violence against journalists in Russia and other OSCE participating States in the region. These threats ultimately led her to flee Russia and become a correspondent for Radio Echo of Moscow in Washington, D.C.  She emphasized that attacks such as the ones she received force journalists to self-censor, but vowed to never do so herself. Ruthless regimes do not have to kill every independent, critical, investigative journalist, just enough so that others will get the message and fall silent or leave.  Violent attacks against journalists are often preceded by government-sanctioned or led smear campaigns and other forms of harassment. Participating States of OSCE are committed to protecting the freedom of the media and improving working conditions for journalists. However, violence against journalists in OSCE participating States signals a lack of compliance with the Helsinki Accords, and further, the need to bring justice to those attempting to silence the independent press. 

  • Helsinki Commission Urges Turkish President to Lift State of Emergency

    WASHINGTON—In a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday, the four senior members of the Helsinki Commission – Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Ranking Commissioner Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), and Ranking Commissioner Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20) – urged him to lift the state of emergency that has been in place in Turkey since July 2016 and immediately restore Turkey’s commitment to international standards of due process and judicial independence. The bipartisan letter, which came just hours after President Erdoğan announced a fifth three-month extension of the country’s state of emergency, was also signed by Helsinki Commissioners Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Thom Tillis (NC), Rep. Roger Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Randy Hultgren (IL-14), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). It reads in part: “We are concerned about your government’s continued actions to undermine human rights and democratic principles in Turkey. The prolonged state of emergency is gravely undermining Turkey’s democratic institutions and the durability of our countries’ longstanding strategic partnership, including more than half a century as NATO allies. Last year, the Turkish people defeated a violent and illegal challenge to their democratic institutions; today, the 15-month-old state of emergency poses a different threat to these same institutions, particularly the judiciary. By facilitating sweeping purges with no evidentiary standards, the state of emergency has upended countless innocent lives and undercuts domestic and international confidence in Turkey’s rule of law… “As a member of the Council of Europe and participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), your country officially recognizes the rule of law as a cornerstone of democratic governance. Restoring respect for fair judicial treatment would remove a persistent distraction in our bilateral relationship and help to rebuild a principles-based partnership rooted in shared commitments to collective security, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” The letter highlighted the cases of American citizens Andrew Brunson, a pastor, and Serkan Gölge, a NASA scientist, both of whom were arrested in Turkey following the coup attempt. As of mid-2017, at least seven additional American citizens were jailed in Turkey. The letter also noted the cases of two detained Turkish employees of the U.S. consulates in Turkey as well as a group of Turkish and international activists—known as the Istanbul 10—who were arrested this summer while holding a routine human rights defenders workshop in Istanbul. The full text of the letter can be found below: Dear President Erdoğan, We are concerned about your government’s continued actions to undermine human rights and democratic principles in Turkey. The prolonged state of emergency is gravely undermining Turkey’s democratic institutions and the durability of our countries’ longstanding strategic partnership, including more than half a century as NATO allies. Last year, the Turkish people defeated a violent and illegal challenge to their democratic institutions; today, the 15-month-old state of emergency poses a different threat to these same institutions, particularly the judiciary. By facilitating sweeping purges with no evidentiary standards, the state of emergency has upended countless innocent lives and undercuts domestic and international confidence in Turkey’s rule of law. In February, many of us joined over 70 of our colleagues from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to appeal to you for the immediate release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been held without trial for a year on baseless terrorism charges. We continue to be dismayed by your government’s unwillingness to heed our calls for his release and the recent imposition of four additional charges on Mr. Brunson for allegedly conspiring to overthrow your government. These allegations are preposterous. We urge you to recognize them as such, drop all charges against Mr. Brunson, and release him. Since the failed coup attempt, Turkish authorities have arrested a number of American dual citizens and two long-time Turkish employees at U.S. consulates on terrorism charges. Some of these individuals—including American citizen and NASA scientist Serkan Gölge—have been in jail for more than a year despite the prosecution’s ability to present only circumstantial evidence against them. Our citizens have also been denied the courtesy of U.S. consular assistance that would help them and their families cope with these difficult and confusing circumstances. It is clear that terrorism charges under the state of emergency are also being manipulated to suppress the activism of a group of human rights defenders arrested in early July. Authorities seized a group of ten Turkish and international activists holding a routine human rights defenders workshop in Istanbul. The group of activists, which has come to be known as the Istanbul 10 and includes Amnesty International’s Turkey Director, Ms. İdil Eser, is charged with “committing crime in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member.” A month earlier, Amnesty International’s Turkey Board Chair, Mr. Taner Kılıç, was arrested on charges of being a member of an alleged terrorist organization. Ms. Eser, Mr. Kılıç, and many of their colleagues remain in pre-trial detention. We urge you to ensure the timely, transparent, and fair adjudication of the aforementioned cases, lift the state of emergency and immediately restore Turkey’s commitment to international standards of due process and judicial independence. As a member of the Council of Europe and participating State of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), your country officially recognizes the rule of law as a cornerstone of democratic governance. Restoring respect for fair judicial treatment would remove a persistent distraction in our bilateral relationship and help to rebuild a principles-based partnership rooted in shared commitments to collective security, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Thank you for your attention to this important matter. Sincerely, 

  • Kyrgyzstan election: A historic vote, but is it fair?

    For the first time in the history of Kyrgyzstan, an elected president is due to peacefully hand over power after elections take place on Sunday. But critics say the political environment in Central Asia's "island of democracy" is deteriorating. Here's a look at the issues there - and who's likely to come out on top. Elections in Central Asia are usually easily predictable - the incumbent or the ruling party's candidate wins the vote with an overwhelming majority. But the vote in Kyrgyzstan offers a real competition and choice. Nearly 60 people applied to run in the race, 13 of whom were registered to stand. Two later dropped out. The incumbent, President Almazbek Atambayev, must leave office after six years. Under the Kyrgyz constitution, he may only serve one term. In neighbouring states, laws have often been changed to allow the incumbent to run again but this did not happen in Kyrgyzstan. President Atambayev also promised not to go for the prime minister's job in order to stay in power. Although one of the main candidates - Sooronbay Jeenbekov - is from the president's party, he is not guaranteed to win the vote. He faces a strong opponent - Omurbek Babanov, a prominent businessman and a former prime minister. Some candidates made the unusual move of endorsing their opponents after the campaign started. Experts say that they went through all the trouble of getting into the race in order to increase their political influence. They try to build a greater support base, which they use to negotiate a favourable deal with stronger candidates before pulling out of the race. Politicians can easily change sides, because it's not ideology or a political platform but their own personality that they use to appeal to the voters. Observers say that over the last couple of years the political climate in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating. The Helsinki Commission wrote that "the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government's treatment of political opposition, civil society and human rights defenders". President Atambayev has demonstrated increasing intolerance to criticism. The Sentyabr TV station which opposed him was closed last year for extremism, and activists say that there were blatant procedural violations during the trial. Several popular independent media outlets were sued and heavily fined for insulting the president. The government also tried to intimidate critics on social media. Security services identified Facebook users who criticised the president, and gave them warnings. Several political opponents of President Atambayev have also been sent to prison. Earlier this year, leaders of the opposition People's Parliament movement were jailed for allegedly plotting a coup. Omurbek Tekebayev, a former ally of President Atambayev who turned into a prominent critic, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud and subsequently barred from running for the presidency. Experts saw this case as politically motivated. The atmosphere got particularly tense following a major diplomatic spat between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It started last month after a meeting between the president of neighbouring Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and Mr Babanov. In an unusually harsh speech, President Atambayev accused his Kazakh counterpart of interfering in Kyrgyzstan's affairs, and warned them of worse to come. "I will speak differently if our neighbours don't come to their senses," he said. Since the beginning of the campaign, there have been numerous reports of violations by various candidates. There have been reports of people going house-to-house with a list of names and addresses and offering money to citizens if they vote for Mr Jeenbekov. Mr Babanov was also accused of vote-buying, and the Central Elections Committee issued him three warnings for violation of campaign rules. The Babanov team complained that security services were putting pressure on their candidate by recording their meetings and conversations and arresting his supporters. An influential MP, Kanatbek Isakov, was detained and charged with an attempt to organise a coup. Security services denied any political motive for the arrest, but Mr Babanov said that Mr Isakov had been arrested because he endorsed him. Despite all this, many voters feel encouraged by the fact that there are several strong candidates. In their view, this will ensure that the outcome is not rigged. "Our politicians know that the people will rise if there are serious violations, so they won't go into that," said one voter in the second city, Osh. Kyrgyzstan has experienced two major uprisings that ousted presidents in the past. And in both cases, rigged elections fuelled the protest mood.    

  • Systematic Attacks on Journalists in Russia and Other Post-Soviet States

    Representative Steve Chabot, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, opened the briefing with a statement highlighting the importance of a free and independent press in Russia and Eastern Europe, saying that it was more important now than ever to counter an increasingly bold Vladimir Putin and the spread of Kremlin-backed media. The Congressman affirmed support for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and how their work helps foster a greater independent press in the region. Jordan Warlick, U.S. Helsinki Commission staffer responsible for freedom of the media, introduced the panelists: Thomas Kent, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL); Amanda Bennett, Director of Voice of America (VOA); Nina Ognianova, Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Karina Orlova, Washington correspondent for Echo of Moscow. Thomas Kent summarized the work and reach of RFE/RL in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He outlined the pressures that RFE/RL journalists face in the region covering the issues that matter to local people. Kent described the plight of several RFE/RL journalists who have been either attacked or detained due to their work, including Mykola Semena in Russian-occupied Crimea and Mykhailo Tkach in Ukraine. He added that reporting on corruption is often the most likely cause for attacks on journalists and that social media has expanded the reach of journalists work in the region. Amanda Bennett discussed the work of Voice of America in the region and its efforts to expand freedom of speech in the region. She outlined the vast audience of VOA broadcasting and emphasized that the Russian government has directly attacked VOA reporters. Bennett stated that VOA’s mission in Russia and the former Soviet Union, as with other regions around the world, was not only to provide high quality content to the audience and journalists alike, but also help foster an independent media, free from harassment. Representative Adam Schiff, Co-Chair of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus, gave remarks about the importance of an independent media in the former Soviet Union. He noted that journalists are often the first to suffer a backlash from authorities, as they investigate and report on issues that regimes do not want to draw attention to. Representative Schiff told the panel that he, along with then-Congressman Mike Pence, reestablished the House Freedom of the Press Caucus not long before the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. He thanked the panelists for the work to not only highlight attacks and harassment against journalists in the region, but also their efforts to protect and assist them and to further press freedom. Nina Ognianova highlighted numerous cases that the Committee to Protect Journalists had worked on in recent months with specific discussion of the situations in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan. Ognianova detailed the case of the harassment and temporary flight of Russian reporter Elena Milashina following her work on the torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. Also listed were the cases of Belarus-born journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bombing in Kyiv in July 2016, the abduction and detention of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli for his investigation of President Ilham Aliyev’s assets in Georgia, and the concerning claims of slander against journalists by the Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Providing the audience with a firsthand perspective, Karina Orlova described her decision to flee Russia due to her work as a journalist. Karina spoke of how her Radio Echo of Moscow talk show garnered unfavorable attention from Chechens, following discussion of the Charlie Hebdo attacks on 7 January, 2015, and the magazine’s depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Ramzan Kadyrov directly threatened her station and her editor, Alexey Venediktov, right after the show. She detailed threatening phone calls from self-described Chechens her that labeled her as an enemy of the state. Karina raised other incidents of violence and intimidation against journalists, such as the attack on Oleg Kashin, which was directly ordered by the Governor of Pskov, and a lack of action to bring the perpetrators to justice. She also spoke of censorship by the Russian authorities, particularly towards any journalists that refer to the annexation of Crimea. Karina emphasized that sanctions against the Russian state and elite are working, despite claims to the contrary. Although some journalists are unfortunately forced to self-censor due to safety concerns, Karina refuses to do so herself.

  • Helsinki Commission Advisor Observes German Elections in Berlin

    By Scott Rauland, State Department Senior Advisor On September 24, 2017, over 50 parliamentarians and staff from 25 countries fanned out across Germany as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) team that was invited to observe German parliamentary elections.  This marked the first time that an OSCE PA Election Observation Mission (EOM) has deployed to Germany.  Although the OSCE PA does not have the resources to observe every election, the organization tries to be present in major elections that are politically important. I was pleased to represent the U.S. in that effort as the State Department’s Senior Advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Members of the OSCE PA team were briefed by German government officials, representatives of the major political parties, political analysts, and other experts in the two days leading up to the election.  On election day, members of the OSCE PA observation mission visited over 300 polling stations in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Cologne and Duesseldorf, just a fraction of the more than 90,000 polling stations located in Germany in 299 constituencies.  In a press conference held on September 25, George Tsereteli, the Special Coordinator for the EOM, noted, “Germany has once again demonstrated that its commitment to democracy is undiminished. Highly competitive and well-run, these elections were an opportunity for voters to express their choice in a process that benefits from and is based on broad trust among society.”  One sign of that trust was the almost complete absence of election observers from any of the participating political parties at the 14 polling stations my team visited in Berlin – all six major parties seemed to be relatively confident that the elections were being administered fairly. While the OSCE PA team was in Germany at the invitation of the German government, and although the public has the right to observe the voting process in Germany, my observation team was denied access to one of the polling stations we had hoped to observe.  That incident was thankfully the exception amongst the 300 polling stations visited by the OSCE PA EOM, but was a reminder that efforts to promote transparency in the conduct of elections must be ongoing, even in countries where the commitment to democratic elections is high. With more than 4,800 candidates running, and numerous strong political parties, Germany’s 61 million voters had a wide range of options to choose from. Women represented slightly less than 30 per cent of candidates, but played a prominent role in leadership positions in parties’ campaigns. “This was the first time we’ve deployed a full observer team to Germany, and the welcome of our mission by all German officials and political parties that we met is a positive signal that the country is ready to pay continued attention to democratic processes,” said EOM Head of Mission Isabel Santos. “Changing political cultures in many countries and new challenges such as cyber attacks mean that we must all dedicate time and effort to preserving democratic systems.”

  • Helsinki Commission, House Freedom of the Press Caucus to Hold Briefing on Attacks on Journalists in Russia, Post-Soviet States

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the House Freedom of the Press Caucus today announced the following joint briefing: “SYSTEMATIC ATTACKS ON JOURNALISTS IN RUSSIA AND OTHER POST-SOVIET STATES” Wednesday, October 4, 2017 3:00 PM Senate Visitors Center SVC-208 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission A free press is an essential pillar of democracy, keeping governments accountable and citizens informed. Autocratic regimes seek to intimidate and silence the press by systematically targeting journalists. A muzzled independent media is powerless to prevent the domination of the state-driven news narrative and public misinformation. Today, journalists in Russia and post-Soviet states risk intimidation, harassment, arrest, and even murder for their work. Those who criticize the government or investigate sensitive issues like corruption do so at their own peril. More often than not, cases remain unresolved and victims and families do not see justice. This briefing will address key questions regarding journalists in Russia and other post-Soviet states: their important role and impact; concerns over their rights, safety, and protection; and future support and promotion of media freedom in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) region. Opening remarks will be provided by the Co-Chairs of the House Freedom of the Press Caucus: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) The following panelists are scheduled to speak: Thomas Kent, President and CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Amanda Bennett, Director, Voice of America Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists Karina Orlova, Washington DC Correspondent, Echo of Moscow

  • Kyrgyzstan: Prospects for Democratic Change and the Upcoming Presidential Election

    Two weeks before the upcoming presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan—potentially the first peaceful transfer of power under regular circumstances in the region—campaigning is in full swing. On October 15, Kyrgyz citizens will participate in democratic elections, though serious concerns remain.   This briefing was moderated by Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Everett Price. In his remarks, he positively noted the current president’s decision to respect his constitutionally-determined term limit and hold regularly-scheduled elections for his successor. He cautioned, however, that the country’s weak political institutions and the ruling party’s abuse of administrative resources could undermine the fairness of the vote. He also observed that the disqualification of certain opposition candidates and restrictions on journalists have adversely affected the election climate. Dr. Erica Marat from the National Defense University discussed the political situation on the ground in Kyrgyzstan and reviewed the political background of the two main candidates, Atambayev loyalist Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Kyrgyz billionaire, Ömürbek Babanov. Anthony Bowyer, Senior Program Manager for Europe and Eurasia at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), reviewed ongoing electoral monitoring efforts in Kyrgyzstan, underscoring the importance of these elections for the region and U.S. interests therein. Finally, Freedom House representative Marc Behrendt offered his insight on Kyrgyzstan’s enduring interethnic tensions and poor human rights record, offering a sobering reminder of the work that remains to be done in order for the Kyrgyz Republic to become a full-fledged democracy. During the briefing, questions pertaining to Russian influence over the country and its politics, as well as other regional, geo-political considerations were also highlighted as part of a general discussion of Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development and the trajectory of Central Asian politics.

  • Human Rights and Democracy in Russia

    From September 11 to September 22, 2017, the OSCE participating States meet in Warsaw, Poland, for the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).  The HDIM is Europe’s largest annual human rights event. Over the course of two weeks, the 57 participating States will discuss compliance with consensus-based commitments on full range of fundamental freedoms, democracy, tolerance and nondiscrimination, and humanitarian concerns. The Russian Federation has adopted, by consensus, OSCE commitments relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms, free and fair elections, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary. However, in many areas the Russian government is failing to live up to its commitments. Download the full report to learn more. Contributors: Erika Schlager, Counsel for International Law, Scott Rauland, Senior State Department Advisor, and Michael Newton, Intern

  • Democratic Change in Kyrgyzstan Topic of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: KYRGYZSTAN: PROSPECTS FOR DEMOCRATIC CHANGE AND THE UPCOMING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION Tuesday, September 26, 2017 10:30 AM Senate Visitors Center (SVC) Room 202 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kyrgyz people will go to the polls in October in a pivotal election that will determine the country’s next president and the next chapter in its fragile democracy. In contrast to some other leaders in the region who have manipulated term limits to remain in power, current President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev is abiding by his constitutional term limit. However, the vote takes place amid mounting concerns of democratic backsliding, particularly regarding the government’s treatment of political opposition, civil society, and human rights defenders. Additionally, the election marks only the second peaceful transition of power through elections following two revolutions – in 2005 and in 2010. This turbulent history serves as a reminder of the importance of building the popular legitimacy of Kyrgyzstan’s political institutions. The briefing will examine the political dynamics surrounding the vote, the conduct of the election campaign thus far, and broader human rights issues in Kyrgyzstan. The following experts are scheduled to participate: Marc Behrendt, Director for Europe and Eurasia Programs, Freedom House Anthony Bowyer, Caucasus and Central Asia Senior Program Manager, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) Dr. Erica Marat, Associate Professor, College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University

  • The Daily 202

    ...How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. How can the United States combat the war of information that Russia is waging against the West? Lawmakers and witnesses at a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing yesterday sought to examine Moscow’s propaganda efforts — both domestically and abroad — and questioned whether our country is any more prepared to stop a similar attack in the future. “In their weakness, the Kremlin bets big. So far, the gamble has paid off — because for years they have been strolling across an open battlefield,” testified Molly McKew, an information warfare expert. “To secure our information space, we need an integrated understanding of the threat, and an integrated set of measures that can be taken to counter it[.]” Here's what the experts recommend to stop similar attacks: A whole-of-government response, which includes reevaluating the role of U.S. military and counterintelligence actors to secure cyber space. “Our most experienced assets should not be boxed-out of defending the American people,” McKew said. More information. This includes telling Americans about Russian information operations, and what they aim to achieve. Stopping the bots, which robotically amplify information and articles based on an algorithm, since “the U.S. does not protect the free speech of computer programs,” said Human Right’s First Melissa Hooper, who specializes in Russian policy and human rights law. Hooper also stressed the need for creating an appeals process where consumers can contest instances of content removal “and receive quick and efficient redress.” “We cannot use the same means of information control as the Kremlin to secure our information space,” McKew said. “Our mirror-world version of Russian information control: not to control the internal information environment, but ensure its integrity; not to harden views, but to develop positive cognitive resistance efforts to build resilience in our population; not to argue that there ‘is no truth,’ but to promote the values and idea that we know matter.”

  • At Forum, Experts Slam Russian 'Disinformation' Campaigns Aimed at West

    WASHINGTON — The German Marshall Fund says it has documented Russian interference in the elections or political affairs of at least 27 countries since 2004, ranging from disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to cyber attacks. The Helsinki Commission held a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill focusing on what it called the "scourge" of Russian disinformation conducted both at home and abroad. “Through its active measures campaign that includes aggressive interference in Western elections, Russia aims to sell fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU,” charged Republican Senator Corey Gardner. “Russia’s ultimate goal is to replace the Western-led world order of laws and institutions with an authoritarian-led order that recognizes only masters and vassals.” US election meddling Other experts agreed during a session in which few if any defenders of Russia were represented, reflecting the increasingly adversarial relationship between the two countries. Molly McKew of the communications consulting firm Fianna Strategies spoke with VOA about reports that Russia targeted U.S. voters on social media during last year's presidential election campaign. “I think even the Kremlin is surprised at how easy it is to use social media as an amplification tool for the kind of narrative that they do,” she said. McKew said opinion polls show most Americans do not believe disinformation could work on them. But she says the Russian government uses marketing and basic psychology to influence people to vote for a certain person or to stay at home on election day. In an era when many get their own personalized news feeds on Facebook or Twitter, she said, people can be targeted individually with what she calls ads, smears or lies. RT, Sputnik broadcasts U.S. complaints of Russian disinformation have focused frequently on the broadcasts of the Moscow-backed RT television network and Sputnik news agency, which have denied they are spreading propaganda. When it was reported this week that the FBI recently questioned a former White House correspondent for Sputnik as part of an investigation into whether it is acting as an undeclared propaganda arm of the Kremlin, the news agency said in a statement: "We are more than happy to answer any questions the [Department of Justice] or the FBI might have. Sputnik is a news organization dedicated to accurate news reporting. Our journalists have won multiple media awards throughout the world. Any assertion that Sputnik is anything but a credible news outlet is false." However Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO John Lansing, who also spoke at the forum, agreed with others on the magnitude of the Russian threat and said the United States must counter Russian disinformation, but do so by with objective news and information. “The United States will not do propaganda,” said Lansing, whose agency oversees U.S.-funded broadcasting around the world. “And in fact we have a firewall protection, a legislative firewall that makes it impossible for the government to interfere with our independent editorial decision-making.” Lansing, who oversees the Voice of America and several other U.S. government-funded broadcasters, said he has seen a "global explosion of propaganda and lies," and that his agency is focused on getting accurate information to Russian speakers around the world. The forum was shown a promotional video for "Current Time," a Russian-language news network jointly operated by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which Lansing said, "helps viewers tell fact from fiction." "The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts," Lansing said. "The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences and alternatives to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent and professional news and information." Germany, France elections Melissa Hopper of Human Rights First said Germany appears set to fend off attempts by Russia to interfere in its elections later this month. She said Berlin acted early, after the U.S. election last November, to establish a government-wide task force to counteract Russian manipulation of social media. Hopper also said France was successful in thwarting Russian interference during its elections in April and May, with the French media agreeing not to cover information that came from cyber attacks. But she warned that Russia has quite an “arsenal” at its disposal, including a worldwide media program with an annual budget of more than $300 million. She said Russian online media “weaponizes” false media narratives, especially about minority populations such as immigrants or LGBT communities, which can lead to physical threats in the real world.

  • The Scourge of Russian Disinformation

    Russian disinformation is a grave transnational threat, facilitating unacceptable aggression by Russia both at home and across the 57-nation OSCE region. Russian disinformation helps support rampant violations of OSCE norms by the Putin regime, ranging from internal human rights abuses to military intervention in neighboring states to interference in elections in several countries. On Thursday, September 14, 2017, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on Russian disinformation in the OSCE region. Sen. Cory Gardner (CO) presided over the hearing on behalf of Commission Chairman Sen. Robert Wicker (MS). Witnesses included Mr. John F. Lansing, CEO and Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors; Ms. Molly McKew, CEO of Fianna Strategies; and Ms. Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society Programs at Human Rights First. In his opening statement, Sen. Gardner described the serious threat that Russian disinformation poses to the liberal international order, and underscored “how it undermines the security and human rights of people in the OSCE region.” Russia’s goal, he said, is “to sow fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliances such as NATO and the EU.” Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) highlighted the impact of Russian disinformation campaigns in Ukraine in conjunction with the recent invasions of Crimea and the Donbas. He also noted the extent of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and observed that such disinformation campaigns take advantage of our democratic institutions to advance Russia’s strategic agenda. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) characterized Russia’s disinformation efforts as a part of a strategy of “hybrid war,” and emphasized the need for the United States and its allies to develop counter-disinformation strategies as part of a “hybrid defense.” Mr. Lansing, the first witness to testify, outlined the structure and scope of the BBG’s broadcasting operations, and the role it plays in countering disinformation abroad. “The Russian strategy seeks to destroy the very idea of an objective, verifiable set of facts,” he said. “The BBG is adapting to meet this challenge head on by offering audiences an alternative to Russian disinformation in the form of objective, independent, and professional news and information.” He also described the BBG’s recent expansion of programming in the Post-Soviet space, and its flagship Russian-language program "Current Time," launched in February 2017. In her testimony, Ms. McKew described Russia’s disinformation campaign as “the core component of a war being waged by the Russian state against the West, and against the United States in particular.” She noted, “These manipulations don’t create tendencies or traits in our societies.  They elevate, exploit, and distort divides and grievances that already are present.” She also emphasized the need for a coordinated response from the United States Government and its allies, and proposed an increased role for the U.S. military in countering disinformation. Ms. Hooper reminded the Commission that, while Russian disinformation has taken center stage in recent U.S. policy debates, it is only one of many methods employed by the Russian government to advance its agenda. “It’s part of a coordinated effort to disrupt and attack liberal norms wherever the opportunity arises using economic influence, electoral disruption, [and] the weakening of multilateral institutions,” she said. She also discussed the upcoming German parliamentary elections, and the potential for disinformation to influence its outcome. She commended the German government’s efforts to warn the public about disinformation, but criticized recent legislation that would increase censorship on social media. In response to a question from Sen. Gardner, Ms. Hooper noted that countering disinformation requires more than fact-checking false claims, and emphasized the need for a strategy of proactive narrative communication. Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) concurred with Ms. McKew’s statement that, in order to combat the threat of Russian disinformation, it is necessary for the Administration and Congress to come to a consensus on the existence of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) inquired about the potential for Russian influence in upcoming elections by means of anonymous campaign spending, and about the role that the international banking system plays in sustaining corruption in Russia and neighboring states. Rep. Smith and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (NH) sought the witnesses’ opinions on the recent news that Russian state-owned networks RT and Sputnik are being investigated for possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Ms. McKew spoke in favor of stricter enforcement of FARA, while Mr. Lansing responded that he has concerns about retaliatory restrictions on U.S.-funded media in Russia. “I believe that this disinformation is one of the biggest threats that our democracy faces today,” said Sen. Shaheen. “This is a threat to the foundations of American democracy. It has nothing to do with Republicans and Democrats.”

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