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Criminal Defamation and “Insult” Laws: A Summary of Free Speech Developments in Slovakia
Friday, December 14, 2001

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 discreet 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 dollars 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 on cases where criminal defamation or insult laws have been used in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and, at OSCE meetings, has frequently called for the repeal of such laws in recent years.

Illustrative Slovak Cases

Since the establishment of an independent Slovak state on January 1, 1993, there have been a steady trickle of people who have been charged with “insulting” or defaming public officials. At present, for example, journalist Ales Kratky is facing charges of criminal defamation in connection with his May 2001 criticism of a speech delivered by President Rudolf Schuster. If found guilty, Kratky faces a possible two-year prison term. In March 2000, journalist Vladimir Mohorita was sentenced to four months in prison for criticizing the government’s decision to allow NATO aircraft to use Slovak airspace during the Kosovo crisis. In a substantially larger number of instances, individuals (most often journalists and politicians) have been threatened with charges of defamation or insult. Indeed, it is a time-honored tradition in Slovakia to accuse one’s political enemies of defamation.

In addition to free speech concerns presented by recourse to criminal defamation and insult laws, developments in Slovakia have raised other free speech concerns. For example, the charge of defamation of race, creed or nationality has become increasingly popular in recent years. Deputy Jan Slota, widely known for his inflammatory anti-Hungarian and anti-Roma rhetoric, survived an effort to strip him of his parliamentary immunity in 1999 as a prelude to charging him with defamation of race, creed or nationality. More recently, Romani activist Alexander Patkolo has been threatened with the charge of spreading alarming information and human rights lawyer Columbus Igboanusi has been threatened with charges of spreading alarming information and defaming the Republic of Slovakia. Sources include: Amnesty International (AI); Article XIX; the Committee to Protect Journalists; East European Constitutional Review; “Freedom in the World” reports (published by Freedom House); Index on Censorship; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; U.S. State Department annual Country Reports on Human Rights; the World Press Freedom Committee.

Relevant Slovak 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 Slovakia, 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 him or exposing him to ridicule may be punished by a fine. Article 102 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of the Republic, National Council of the Slovak Republic, Government or the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic, punishable by up to two years in prison. Article 103 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of the President of the Republic for the execution of his powers or for his activities in the political life, punishable by up to two years in prison. 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.

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    WASHINGTON—Following today’s announcement of the first 52 individuals and entities sanctioned under the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) issued the following statement: “I welcome the Administration’s announcement of the first-ever sanctions list under the ‘Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.’  This groundbreaking tool for combating human rights abuses and corruption around the world is especially relevant in parts of the OSCE region, where in many countries, corruption is met only with impunity. The United States can now hold individuals like Artem Chayka, Albert Deboutte, and Gulnara Karimova accountable for their roles in sustaining kleptocratic regimes. I am hopeful that the Administration will continue to review and build upon this new list to make it as tough and meaningful as possible.” The “Global Magnitsky Act,” which was passed in 2016, extends the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the globe. Both pieces of legislation have served as a model to hold individual perpetrators accountable for human rights violations and combat kleptocracy and corruption worldwide.

  • The Magnitsky Act at Five

    In 2009, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was brutally murdered in prison after uncovering the theft of $230 million by corrupt Russian officials. On December 14, 2012, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was signed into law in the United States, establishing punitive sanctions – including financial freezes and visa restrictions – for those complicit in Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights abuses in the Russian Federation.  For the past five years, the Magnitsky Act has served as a basis for fighting corruption in Russia and the Putin regime’s systematic violations of the human rights of Russian citizens. On the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, the Helsinki Commission examined the implementation of the legislation, the resistance of the Russian government to it, and the impact of sanctions on senior members of Putin’s inner circle. The Commissioners heard testimony from William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, Garry Kasparov, Chair of the Human Rights Foundation, and the Hon. Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, began by recognizing the retirement of Amb. David Killion, Chief of Staff of the Commission since 2014, and thanking Amb. Killion for his service. Before introducing the witnesses, Sen. Wicker condemned the corruption plaguing the Russian government, and quoted the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who called the Magnitsky Act “the most pro-Russian law passed in the United States.” Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Co-Chairman of the Commission, criticized the Russian government’s response to the Magnitsky Act. He described the harm done to vulnerable Russian orphans by their government’s decision to ban American parents from adopting children from Russia. Mr. Smith also noted that he and many other Americans involved in the passage of the Magnitsky Act have since been denied visas to enter Russia. This response, he said, shows that the Magnitsky Act “struck right to the heart of the Kremlin’s elite.” Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the Helsinki Commission’s ranking senator, praised the witnesses for their commitment to promoting human rights in Russia, and thanked the members of the Helsinki Commission and other members of Congress who played a role in the passage of the Magnitsky Act. Mr. Cardin also recognized the passage of Magnitsky legislation in Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom, and recalled the power of American leadership on human rights, noting that, “when we lead, we find that other countries follow.” William Browder, the first witness to testify, recalled the historic nature of the Magnitsky Act. “On the day it passed, I could never have predicted how far the Magnitsky Act would spread around the world,” he said. “Without exaggeration, it has become the most important piece of human rights legislation passed in this century.” He also called attention to the future of the Magnitsky movement, noting that the parliaments of Ukraine, South Africa, and Gibraltar are considering introducing similar legislation. In closing, Mr. Browder presented several suggestions to the Commission, including adding additional names to the list of sanctioned individuals, and encouraging other G7 countries to adopt Magnitsky legislation. Garry Kasparov reiterated that the targeted sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act only apply to corrupt officials, and not the Russian people. “Russian national interest and Putin’s interests are diametrically opposed in nearly every way,” he said. “This is why legislation that targets Putin and his mafia is pro-Russian, not anti-Russia.” Mr. Kasparov observed that the Kremlin’s reaction proved the worth of the Magnitsky Act, and that, “it is essential to increase the pressure, to continue with what works now that the right path has been confirmed.”  At the conclusion of his testimony, Kasparov observed that “Putin and his gang . . . aren’t jihadists or ideologues, they are billionaires. . . .  Follow the money, the real estate, the stock and reveal it, freeze it, so that one day it can be returned to the Russian people from whom it was looted.”  More succinctly in a follow-up question, he quipped, “Banks, not tanks.” Irwin Cotler gave an overview of the passage of the Canadian Magnitsky Act, and described the goals of the global Magnitsky movement. The aim of Magnitsky legislation is “to combat the persistent and pervasive culture of corruption, criminality, and impunity and the externalized aggression abroad, of which Putin’s Russia is a case study” and “to deter thereby other prospective violators,” he said. Passing such legislation also “tells human rights defenders, the Magnitskys of today, that they are not alone, that we stand in solidarity with them, that we will not relent in our pursuit of justice for them, and that we will undertake our international responsibilities in the pursuit of justice.”

  • The Legacy of Sergei Magnitsky

    By Woody Atwood, Intern In 2008, a Russian tax lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky representing Hermitage Capital Management in a dispute over alleged tax evasion discovered a $230 million fraud being committed by Russian law enforcement officers assigned to the case. Magnitsky reported the fraud to the authorities and was arrested soon after by the same officers he had accused. For almost a year, Magnitsky was held in squalid prison conditions, denied visits from his family, and beaten by guards. Despite developing serious cases of gallstones, pancreatitis, and cholecystitis, he was denied medical attention. On November 16, 2009, Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in his cell. He had been imprisoned for 358 days, just seven days short of the maximum legal pre-trial detention period in Russia. A year later, Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), then Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, directing the U.S. Secretary of State to publish a list of individuals involved in Sergei’s detention and death, and enabling the government to deny these individuals entry to the United States and freeze their American assets. The bill was reintroduced in the next Congress as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This version covered all individual who commit extrajudicial killings, torture or otherwise egregiously violate the human rights of activists or whistleblowers in Russia. Both houses of Congress passed the new bill in late 2012 as part of the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. On December 14, 2012, President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law, establishing severe consequences for the worst human rights violators in Russia. Just weeks after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, the Russian parliament and government responded by passing a law banning American families from adopting children from Russia. The law immediately terminated adoptions that were being processed, and many children, including children with serious disabilities, who were due to leave Russia were never able to join their American families. In 2013, the Russian government also issued a list of 18 American officials banned from entering Russia. In 2015, Sen. Cardin and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who was then chairing the Helsinki Commission, introduced the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to expand the authorities established by the original Magnitsky Act to include the worst human rights violators and those who commit significant acts of corruption around the world. The legislation required the President to annually issue a list of individuals sanctioned under it on Human Rights Day (December 10) or the soonest day thereafter when the full Congress is in session. The global version was passed in December 2016 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. The story of Sergei Magnitsky and the actions of the U.S. Congress have sparked a global movement to hold individual perpetrators accountable for their human rights violations and corruption. In the last year, Estonia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania have all passed their own Magnitsky laws. In honor of Human Rights Day and the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, and to correspond to the deadline for the annual Global Magnitsky List, the U.S. Helsinki Commission is holding two events related to the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky. On Wednesday, December 13, at 3:00PM Commission staff will lead a public briefing on “Combating Kleptocracy with the Global Magnitsky Act,” and on Thursday, December 14, Commissioners will hear testimony on “The Magnitsky Act at Five: Assessing Accomplishments and Challenges.”

  • Helsinki Commission to Assess Magnitsky Act at Five

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: THE MAGNITSKY ACT AT FIVE: ASSESSING ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND CHALLENGES Thursday, December 14, 2017 9:30 AM Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Live Webcast: http://www.senate.gov/isvp/?type=live&comm=csce&filename=csce121417 In 2009, Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was brutally murdered in prison after uncovering the theft of $230 million by corrupt Russian officials. On December 14, 2012, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act was signed into law in the United States, establishing punitive sanctions – including financial freezes and visa restrictions – for those complicit in Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights abuses in the Russian Federation.  For the past five years, the Magnitsky Act has served as a basis for fighting corruption in Russia and the Putin regime’s systematic violations of the human rights of Russian citizens. On the fifth anniversary of the Magnitsky Act, the Helsinki Commission will examine the implementation of the legislation, the resistance of the Russian government to it, and the impact of sanctions on senior members of Putin’s inner circle. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and author of Red Notice. Browder has led the fight to seek justice for Sergei Magnitsky and his family in both the U.S. and abroad. He will outline Russian opposition to his anti-corruption efforts and his work to help pass similar legislation around the world. The Hon. Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights; Former Canadian Member of Parliament, Attorney General of Canada, and Minster of Justice. Cotler will provide details about Canada’s recent passage of its Magnitsky Act, its importance to Canada, and Russian resistance to the legislation. Garry Kasparov, Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and author of Winter Is Coming: Why Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. Kasparov will explain the threat Putin’s regime poses toward the United States and analyze the Magnitsky Act’s efficacy.

  • Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting: The Role of Free Media in the Comprehensive Approach to Security

    By Jordan Warlick, Policy Advisor From November 2 to November 3, 2017, Helsinki Commission staff participated in the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on the Role of Free Media in the Comprehensive Approach to Security. Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings are convened a few times per year on specific subjects that are determined to deserve distinct focus by the Chairmanship-in-Office. Like the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Supplementary Human Dimension Meetings bring participating States and civil society actors together, facilitating dialogue on challenges to human rights issues in the OSCE region. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, identified this topic – the role of free media in the comprehensive approach to security – as one of his four priorities at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in September 2017: “My second priority will be to protect media freedom in the new security context….I fully support the efforts of governments to combat terrorism and create safer societies, but let me repeat this simple fact: there are ways to achieve these goals without compromising on our hard-fought fundamental freedoms.” Unfortunately, some governments in the OSCE region consider a free press to be a threat to national security, and worse, persecute or silence journalists in the name of the security. Certain governments and nationalists justify the censorship of journalists by labelling them unpatriotic, even enemies of the state.  Since the failed coup attempt Turkey, for example, hundreds of journalists have been arrested and media outlets shuttered on the basis of national security. The mere suspicion that citizens are part of the Gulenist movement – the group that the Turkish government blames for the coup attempt – can result in many years in prison, or even life sentences.  Journalists, as well as civil society as a whole, have been particularly targeted by terrorism-related charges. However, despite that freedom of expression and national security are often pitted against each other, the two are not mutually exclusive – in fact, they are complementary. An independent, free, and pluralistic media can play a role in peacebuilding and conflict prevention, countering prejudices or misperceptions, and preventing extremism and radicalization. Still, in a world where terrorists spread radical ideas, prejudiced organizations perpetuate intolerance, and government-sponsored bots disseminate misinformation, the tension between freedom of expression and national security seems greater than ever.   The conference featured three sessions: the first, on free media as a basis for European security; the second, on the role of the media in peacebuilding and conflict prevention; and the third, on the role of media in counteracting disinformation, “hate speech” and radicalization. Panelists and participants present discussed the tension between freedom of expression and security interests, the pressures independent media faces from this tension, and best practices for governments to uphold free media and expression commitments in this context. The OSCE takes a comprehensive approach to security, subscribing to the idea that political-military security, human rights, and economic governance are mutually reinforcing ideals. It is important to encourage dialogue on best practices to ensure that participating States remain true to the ideals that the OSCE was founded upon, despite sometimes challenging circumstances.

  • Prisoners of the Purge

    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. 

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