Tuesday, July 26, 2016

We Don’t Censor, Says Serbian Government, But Don’t Believe The Lies

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic at the Belgrade exhibition Uncensored Lies

Gordana Knezevic

“See, there is no censorship in Serbia!”

That was supposed to be the message of an exhibition that opened last week in Belgrade.

An exhibition in a gallery in the Serbian capital’s downtown displayed 2,500 items from the local press and social networks, including editorials, front-page articles, and tweets critical of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Articles and cartoons from the website of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service are among the exhibited items. 

The reason? The communications department of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) have said that the media is constantly crying foul over government censorship. With this exhibition, the party wanted to prove the opposite -- and show that Serbia is a shining beacon of press freedom. Yet the title of the exhibition, Uncensored Lies, makes sure to label all of its content -- all critical coverage of the prime minister -- as lies.

RFE/RL cartoonist Predrag “Corax” Koraksic, who is well represented in the exhibition, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that the SNS “concocted” this exhibition. “But it seems that they failed to anticipate how it would appear to others or what its effect would be. I think it’s a clear own goal,” said Koraksic.

From the Uncensored Lies exhibitionFrom the Uncensored Lies exhibition
From the Uncensored Lies exhibition
From the Uncensored Lies exhibition

Belgrade-based journalist Olja Beckovic is not amused. Her current affairs TV show, Impressions Of The Week, was taken off the B92 channel without any explanation in 2014. The program Beckovic moderated and produced for almost 20 years was Belgrade’s version of speakers' corner.

Once a bastion of media freedom in Serbia under Milosevic, B92 has come under increasing pressure in recent years from the government. In a number of interviews, Beckovic has claimed that B92 was acting on orders from Vucic, and she compared media freedom in Serbia to its nadir under Milosevic. “I think it’s truly insulting and humiliating that in 2014 we seem to have turned the clock back to 14 of 20 years ago, and that the only way to change things is to once again take to the streets,” Beckovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

“I think everyone has had enough and everyone feels humiliated. We’d all hoped that the day would come when we would fight for our basic rights in some other way,” she said.

Despite being the most popular TV program on B92, the management decided to move Impressions Of The Week to a cable channel, which was unacceptable for Beckovic. The station did not reverse its decision, even after public demonstrations in front of B92 requesting the return of the popular show. 

“What is really on display here is the prime minister’s obsession with himself,” Beckovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service on July 19. “And the fact is that he clearly keeps a careful record of everything that anyone has ever dared to say to him, including tweets, apparently.”

Uncensored Lies exhibitUncensored Lies exhibit
Uncensored Lies exhibit
Uncensored Lies exhibit

Back in 2014, the shutdown attracted some international attention. The Brussels-based European Federation of Journalists joined its Serbian branch in protesting B92’s decision to drop the program, saying it “has the unmistakable odor of censorship.”

The government, however, stood firm. The Serbian defense minister and SNS vice president at the time, Bratislav Gasic, was quoted as saying: “Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic isn’t afraid of any TV show and is not in any way connected to this.” He was responding to a claim by a member of parliament that the show had been taken off the air on the prime minister’s instructions.

And in 2016, responding to claims that the censorship exhibition was actually yet another form of pressure on the media, prominent SNS member Maja Gojkovic responded: “It’s not pressure. My party’s Communications Department has simply gathered some articles, cartoons, programs, in which Aleksandar Vucic, his family, and his allies have been portrayed in the most negative way. It’s not meant as criticism, but those are just lies.”

Many, however, are not convinced. To those Serbs concerned about the survival of an independent media, an exhibition purportedly celebrating media freedom seems more like the government’s brazen attempt to give notice to its critics that it is keeping an eye on them.

Rights Group Says Turkey Coup Detainees Have Been Tortured

Turkish authorities have detained more than 13,000 people in a crackdown following the failed military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Amnesty International says it has "credible evidence" that Turkey has tortured hundreds of people detained in a wave of arrests following a failed July 15 coup attempt.

The global rights watchdog said on July 24 that some of those in custody were being "subjected to beatings and torture, including rape, in official and unofficial detention centers in the country."

Turkish authorities have detained more than 13,000 people in a crackdown following the failed military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some 6,000 of those detained have been formally arrested.

London-based Amnesty International cited interviews with doctors, lawyers, and an official in a detention center in saying that evidence suggests detainees have been subject to brutal abuses.

A senior Turkish official was cited by the AFP news agency as denying the group's allegations and pledging that the country would not violate human rights.

"The idea that Turkey, a country seeking European Union membership, would not respect the law is absurd," the unidentified official was quoted as saying.

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

Thousands Stand In Line To Mourn Slain Journalist Pavel Sheremet In Kyiv

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko lays flowers on the coffin containing the body of journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed by a car bomb, during a memorial service in Kyiv on July 22.

Christopher Miller

KYIV -- Thousands of mourners strode in a solemn procession through Kyiv’s Ukrainian House on July 22 to honor journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car bombing that has shaken Ukraine’s media community and sent shock waves into Russia and Belarus.
Sheremet, a journalist at news website Ukrayinska Pravda, was driving to a radio station to do a morning show two days earlier when the bomb exploded. The Interior Ministry said the explosives were “skillfully” planted underneath the car and that the blast may have been set off by a “remote-controlled or delayed-action” detonator.
Surveillance footage showing what media reports said was the placement of a bomb under the car the night before the blast was posted on the Internet, but there was no word on suspects or a specific motive. Colleagues believe Sheremet was targeted for his work as a journalist.
Europol and the FBI are assisting Ukraine in investigating Sheremet’s slaying.
“We never thought something like this would happen,” Nataliya Humenyuk, co-founder of the independent Hromadske.tv channel and a friend of Sheremet, told RFE/RL as she stood beneath a giant photograph of him smiling and flashing a peace sign.
Most of those paying their last respects to Sheremet were Ukrainians, but there were also Russian and Belarusian citizens in attendance. The 44-year-old had previously worked in Russia and his native Belarus, where he faced pressure from the authorities for his reporting.

A mourner pays tribute near the casket and portrait of Sheremet at the memorial service.
A mourner pays tribute near the casket and portrait of Sheremet at the memorial service.

Mourners included family, friends, colleagues, lawmakers, and government officials, among them President Petro Poroshenko. Members of Ukraine’s military and volunteer battalions set up to fight against Russia-backed separatists in the east also came out to bid him farewell.
Some carried carnations of yellow and blue -- Ukraine’s national colors. Others brought red and white roses. Mourners brought the flowers in even numbers, as is customary for grieving and funerals, and mounds of them spilled off a table.
Tears flowed as people approached Sheremet’s open casket. Many stopped momentarily to cross themselves and say a little prayer. Some laid a gentle hand atop the coffin. They choked up as they looked down at the body of the journalist, dressed in a dark suit and tie and resting atop a bed of red and white roses.
Before walking away, mourners embraced Sheremet’s longtime partner and colleague, Ukrayinska Pravda owner and founding editor Olena Prytula, and whispered their condolences in her ear. Prytula was accompanied by members of Sheremet’s family and close friends.
Nearby, a candle flickered beside a bunch of golden sunflowers and a black-and-white photograph of Sheremet smiling. A digital screen played a slideshow of scenes from his life: speaking at a protest in Minsk in the 1990s before a poster of a scowling President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; looking over the shoulder of a colleague typing away in one of the many newsrooms he worked in over the years; wearing a wide smile and curly wig at a costume party; strumming a guitar.
Addressing mourners, lawmaker and former journalist Mustafa Nayyem said that Sheremet’s legacy would live on despite his death.
“He will always be with us,” he said.

Ukrainian police examine the car in which Sheremet was traveling when he was killed.
Ukrainian police examine the car in which Sheremet was traveling when he was killed.

Anatoliy Hrytsenko, an independent member of parliament and former defense minister, recalled Sheremet as a “brave and honest man.” He said his killing was a “terrorist act” and the investigation into the crime would be a “test” for Ukrainian law enforcement and, in particular, Interior Ministry Arsen Avakov.
Because the car Sheremet was driving belonged to Prytula, law enforcement are investigating the possibility that she was the target of the attack, among other theories. She has been provided a security detail for protection.
But the ZN.ua and Ukrayinska Pravda news sites cited an unidentified law-enforcement source as saying, based on a preliminary examination of the evidence, that Sheremet appears to have been the intended target of the bombing.
The source told the news outlets that a surveillance camera near the home of Sheremet and Prytula recorded the moment an unidentified person placed an explosive device under Prytula’s car the night before the blast.
A blurry video posted on the Internet later on July 22 shows at least two figures, one possibly female, walking near parked cars with what looks like a suitcase. One figure appears to lean over a car.
Sheremet drove Prytula’s car to the Radio Vesti office at the same time each morning five days a week, a routine that was likely known to attackers, the ZN.ua and Ukrayinska Pravda reports cited the source as saying.
The source also said that an examination of the remains of the car, as well as an autopsy of Sheremet’s body, indicate that the bomb was intended solely to target the driver.
“If the blast of the explosion had gone downward, it would have been essentially extinguished in the ground, but it blew upward and to the left,” the source was quoted as saying. “This was an attack meant exclusively for the victim of the killing.”
An autopsy showed that Sheremet suffered injuries “incompatible with life,” the source said. He died because of a “rapid and critical” loss of blood in about one to two minutes.
Sheremet's body was to be repatriated to Belarus, where a funeral service will be held in the capital, Minsk, on July 23. Sheremet will be laid to rest beside his father.

EU Says Turkey's Mass Firings Of Teachers, Judges 'Unacceptable'

The European Union has expressed "concern" over Turkey's jailing or firing of thousands of people suspected of involvement in a failed coup attempt and urged the country to respect human rights and the rule of law.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 21 declared a three-month emergency to strengthen state powers to arrest suspected coup participants while firing or suspending over 60,000 people he says were coup sympathizers in schools, universities, the police, military, and the judiciary.

"We are following the developments...very closely and with concern," said a joint statement by the bloc's foreign affair's chief, Federica Mogherini, and enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn on July 22.

They called the targeting of teachers, judges, and journalists in particular "unacceptable" and said Turkey should respect "rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms, including the right of all individuals concerned to a fair trial."

The EU call came as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in a phone call to conduct "investigations into the coup's perpetrators...in ways that reinforce public confidence in democratic institutions and the rule on law." 

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Iran Arrests 40 'Terrorists' In Restive Southeast

Iranian media reports say authorities have arrested 40 people suspected of plotting an attack against military installations in the country's restive southeast, near the border with Pakistan. 

Iran's official IRNA news agency reported that those arrested belonged to a "terrorist group," but did not name the group. 

IRNA quoted Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli as saying that those arrested had built a tunnel, which they had planned to use for "carrying out attacks and militant activities."

Earlier this month, four Iranian border guards were killed near the Pakistani border. 

Iran's southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been the scene of deadly fighting in recent weeks between Iranian border guards and militants.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Video Civilians Subjected To Unlawful Detentions, Disappearances, Torture In Eastern Ukraine, Watchdogs Say

Ukrainian forces detain a pro-Russia separatist in the village of Chornukhine in the Lugansk region in August 2014.

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 21.07.2016 12:29

Eugen Tomiuc

Civilians have been subjected to extended arbitrary detention, disappearances, and even torture by both sides in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, two leading rights watchdogs warn in a joint report.

The July 21 findings by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuse Ukrainian authorities and pro-Kyiv paramilitary groups of holding civilians suspected of supporting or having connections with Russia-backed separatists. It says separatists incarcerated civilians suspected of backing or spying for the Ukrainian government.

In some cases, detainees were used as a negotiation chip for prisoner exchanges, the groups say in the report, titled You Don’t Exist: Arbitrary Detentions, Enforced Disappearances, And Torture In Eastern Ukraine.

Authorities in Kyiv reacted to the report by promising to investigate, while a representative for separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk called the findings "absurd."

'Immediate' Action Needed

The rights groups say they were driven to join forces by the magnitude of the problem.

"The reason why we speak with one voice is because the problem of arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances and torture in connection with the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine is very big and demands immediate action by all sides involved in the conflict," HRW’s Tanya Lokshina told RFE/RL.

The groups looked in detail at 18 alleged cases of arbitrary, prolonged detention of civilians by both sides in the conflict, which has claimed more than 9,400 lives since April 2014.

The report says that, in most cases studied, civilians were held without any contact with the outside world, including with their families or attorneys.

Most of those detained were ill-treated and even tortured, and some were denied medical care for injuries sustained in detention, the report says.

The report says pro-government forces, including volunteer battalions, detained civilians, then handed them over to the SBU, which ultimately moved them into the regular criminal justice system.

WATCH: Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed rebels have carried out arbitrary detentions and used torture, Tanya Lokshina from Human Rights Watch tells RFE/RL:

Both Sides In Ukraine Conflict Must Stop Arbitrary Detention -- HRWi
July 21, 2016
Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed rebels have carried out arbitrary detentions and used torture, Tanya Lokshina from Human Rights Watch told RFE/RL.

Russia-backed separatists, meanwhile, held civilians in isolation for weeks or months without charge and, in most cases, subjected them to ill-treatment, the report notes. In the territories held by the separatists -- parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces -- local security forces operate in a complete rule-of-law vacuum, it says.

Detained, Tortured By Both Sides

One case, that of a 39-year-old man whom the report names only as Vadim, stands out in particular, because it says he was held in secret detention and tortured by both sides. 
Vadim was apprehended by Ukrainian forces in April 2015, the report says, while traveling on a bus from Ukrainian-controlled Slavyansk to his hometown of Donetsk -- one of the main cities held by Russia-backed separatists. It says he was questioned by Ukrainian forces about his ties in Slavyansk, called a “separatist thug,” then kept in unacknowledged detention at a base, interrogated and tortured, then transferred to another facility, which the report says was maintained by SBU personnel.

The groups say Vadim spent another six weeks there without any contact with the outside world, was tortured with electric shocks, burned with cigarettes, and beaten by interrogators demanding he admit he had ties with the separatists. After he was released, the report says, he returned to Donetsk only to be immediately arrested by the Russia-backed authorities, who kept him incommunicado for another two months and beat and ill-treated him over suspicions he had been recruited by the SBU during his previous captivity.

WATCH: Town Councilor Tells Of Detention Without Trial By Ukrainian Security Forces

Town Councilor Tells Of Detention Without Trial By Ukrainian Security Forcesi
July 21, 2016
Kostyantyn Beskorovayni, an elected councilor for the Communist Party in the town of Kostyantynivka, says he was held in unlawful detention in various locations by Ukraine's Security Service (SBU), from November 2014 until February 2016. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which documented his testimony, said Ukrainian authorities told them it had no knowledge of his case.


'Totally Absurd'

Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service that authorities would seek to find those responsible for any violations.

"It will be possible to conduct adequate checks in cooperation with the [Ukrainian] ombudsman. As the Justice Department we are ready to join to this process," Petrenko said. 

Earlier, Oleksandr Tkachuk, the SBU's chief of staff, denied the existence of SBU-run detention facilities. Tkachuk told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service that the SBU is ready to provide rights watchdogs access to all its premises to show that it is not holding anyone in arbitrary detention.

But Tkachuk said authorities would study the report and investigate possible human rights violations by members of Ukraine’s law-enforcement agencies.

Representatives of the separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine also denied the existence of secret detention facilities on the territory under their control, parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

"We have no hidden prisons. I am personally monitoring the treatment of our prisoners and their state," Darya Morozova, who is identified as an ombudsman for the separatist group Donetsk People's Republic, told the Interfax news agency.

WATCH: Ukrainian Priest Tells Of Beatings In Separatist Captivity

Ukrainian Priest Tells Of Beatings In Separatist Captivityi
July 21, 2016
Ukrainian Priest Father Valentin told RFE/RL's Current Time TV of daily beatings from Russia-backed separatists who detained him in November 2014, and held him for 15 months.

Vladislav Deinego, a representative of another group seeking independence from Kyiv, the Luhansk People's Republic, also flatly rejected the findings of the report.

"This is totally absurd. Our security services are obviously engaged in exposing subversive actions and sabotage, but this work is legal and transparent. Any hidden prisons are out of the question," Deinego told Interfax.

Bargaining Chips

The report warns that all people held by the warring sides in eastern Ukraine are protected under international human rights law.

"International human rights law, international humanitarian law ban arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment. The ban on torture is absolute. Torture is, in fact, a war crime," HRW’s Lokshina said.

In some cases, the report says, detentions constituted enforced disappearances, because “the authorities in question refused to acknowledge the detention of the person or refused to provide any information on their whereabouts or fate.”

A particularly serious accusation in the report is that captors on either used the possible release of detainees as a bargaining chip for prisoner exchanges.

"Almost in all of the 18 cases that we investigated for the purposes of our joint report, release of civilian detainees was at some point described by the relevant side in the context of prisoner exchanges," Lokshina said.

In nine out of the 18 cases, they were in fact exchanged, says the document, noting that the practice raises grave suspicions that civilians may be detained intentionally for bargaining purposes.

'Deeply Entrenched Practices'

While it is difficult to estimate the actual number of civilians who have fallen victim to such abuses, the document quotes the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which stated in a report last month that “arbitrary detention, torture, and ill-treatment remain deeply entrenched practices” in the region. 

"The cases we documented jointly with Amnesty International may only represent the tip of an iceberg," said HRW’s Lokshina.

The two watchdogs call on both the Ukrainian government and the separatists who hold parts of eastern Ukraine to "immediately to put an end to enforced disappearances and arbitrary and incommunicado detentions."

They call on both sides to apply "zero-tolerance" for torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and urge them to thoroughly investigate accusations of torture and ill-treatment in detention and hold those found responsible to account.

Turkey Formally Charges 99 Generals, Admirals For Coup Attempt

Turkish plainclothes policemen accompany soldiers, who have been detained following a failed coup attempt on July 15 , on a bus as they arrive at an Istanbul court on July 20.

Turkey has formally charged 99 military generals for their role in the failed coup attempt on July 15.

The 99 generals represent about a third of the country's military top brass.

Around 50,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants, and teachers have been rounded up, sacked, or suspended since the military coup attempt. 

Many are suspected of having links to the alleged orchestrator of the coup, U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has strongly rejected any involvement. 

The Turkish government on July 20 also banned all academics from foreign travel as part of wide-ranging restrictions put in place in Turkey. 

The announcement comes one day after Turkey's High Board sacked 1,577 deans at universities across Turkey and revoked the licenses of some 21,000 teachers working in private institutions.



Meanwhile, Turkey's telecom agency on July 20 blocked access to the WikiLeaks website one day after it leaked hundreds of thousands of e-mails from the ruling Justice and Development party.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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