IPI BLOG: Nine shocking criminal cases involving journalists in Europe in 2013
From Britain to Belarus, the long arm of the law tries to strangle the media
By: Steven M. Ellis, IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser
VIENNA, Dec 23, 2013 – Europe was plagued by a number of outrageous criminal cases against journalists this year, including several in countries held up as champions of human rights.
The International Press Institute (IPI) saw many such cases across the world, many of which made their way into the 2012-2013 World Press Freedom Review. But many did not, and a number of those arose from Europe, raising concerns that developments on the continent are weakening the foundations of its democracies.
In order to bring those concerns to light and strengthen European nations’ commitment to the human rights they champion, IPI presents here nine outrageous criminal cases involving journalists in Europe in 2013.
- Journalists may be ‘terrorists’ for revealing government spying on citizens
Officials in the United Kingdom in August cited anti-terrorism law to detain David Miranda – the partner of Glenn Greenwald, a former Guardian journalist to whom former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret intelligence on government surveillance – and seized Miranda’s computer and other materials. The move prompted Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to reveal that authorities came to the newspaper’s offices this summer to smash computer hard drives. Earlier this month, Rusbridger was summoned to appear before Parliament, where he was all but accused of treason, and the country’s top counter-terrorism officer announced that authorities were considering whether to charge members of the newspaper’s staff as terrorists.
- Prize-winning photo albums ordered destroyed as ‘extremist’
A Belarus court in April concluded that some 41 albums containing winning images from the “Belarus Press Photo-2011” contest were “extremist” and ordered their destruction. The albums were seized at the border with Lithuania in November 2012 and the KGB argued that photos inside – which depicted life in Belarus, including images of protestors opposed to President Alexander Lukashenko and a police crackdown – were intended to humiliate the country. Some of the photos were reportedly snapped by photographers with international news agencies, including AP, Reuters and AFP.
- Editor sent to prison on complaint of politician charged with fraud
Authorities in Azerbaijan detained journalist Avaz Zeynalli in October 2011 after pro-government lawmaker Gular Akhmedova accused him of extorting money to avoid the release of compromising information. Akhmedova resigned from parliament in 2012 after a video surfaced appearing to show her soliciting a bribe in exchange for a seat in parliament, and a court in December 2013 sentenced her to three years in prison for fraud. Zeynalli reportedly maintained that he only spoke with Akhmedova after she repeatedly tried to contact him through others, and he said she offered him money in exchange for loyalty. The charges pending against Akhmedova apparently did not damage the credibility of her complaint: Zeynalli was convicted in March 2013 and sentenced to nine years in prison.
- Authorities try journalist – twice – for publishing list of possible tax evaders
Police in Greece detained investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis in late 2012 after he published in his Hot Doc magazine a list of names of some 2,000 Greek residents who held Swiss bank accounts and were therefore viewed by many Greeks as potential tax evasion suspects. Vaxevanis was found not guilty of violating privacy following an unusually swift trial in 2012, but prosecutors appealed. He was tried on the same charge for a second time in 2013, but acquitted, again, last month.
- Reporter jailed for naming witness whose identity was not yet ‘protected’
Authorities in the Republic of Macedonia / Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia detained Tomislav Kezarovski, an investigative journalist at daily Nova Makedonija, in May over two articles he wrote in 2008 naming a witness in a 2005 murder case. Prosecutors said he allowed the witness to be intimidated, leading the case to collapse. Kezarovski argued that he never disclosed the witness’ surname and that allegations that police knowingly induced false testimony from the witness were a matter of public interest. Reports also indicated that the witness’ identity was granted “protected” status only after Kezarovski’s articles were published. Kezarovski was convicted and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, but released to house arrest in November pending a final decision on the sentence.
- Prosecutor sends 79-year-old editor to prison for criminal defamation
A prosecutor in Italy authorised the arrest of Francesco Gangemi, 79, in October after the journalist failed to ask for home confinement instead of imprisonment. Gangemi, editor of monthly magazine Il Dibattito, faced six years in prison for eight libel convictions and one perjury conviction. He variously accumulated the string of libel convictions over the previous seven years, while the perjury charge was tied to his refusal to divulge his source for accusations of financial misconduct. The sentence was reduced to two years before he was taken into custody. Gangemi’s son, noting that his father was disabled and suffered from cancer, called the imprisonment “grotesque”. Gangemi was released days later to serve his sentence under house arrest.
- Journalists reporting on Arctic protest detained for ‘piracy’
After Greenpeace activists opposed to Arctic oil drilling tried to scale the side of a Gazprom platform in the Pechora Sea in September, Russia’s coast guard boarded their ship, detained everyone aboard – including two journalists covering the protest – and charged them all with piracy. Russian photojournalist Denis Sinyakov, a former freelancer for Reuters and Agence France-Presse, was aboard on assignment for news website Lenta.ru. British videographer Kieron Bryan maintains that he was aboard as a freelancer, despite initial reports that he worked for Greenpeace. Both journalists faced up to 15 years in prison before the charge was reduced to “hooliganism”. The pair, and most of the activists, was bailed after two months behind bars. Charges were expected to be dropped under an amnesty bill passed the week before last by Russia’s Duma, but it remained unclear whether the journalists would be allowed to leave the country.
- Country A arrests blogger after Country B accuses him of spying for Country C
Highlighting a growing problem whereby some states have been accused of manipulating Interpol arrest warrants to target critics abroad, authorities in Serbia arrested Zoran Bozinovsky, owner of muckraking website Burevesnik, in November on a warrant requested by the Republic of Macedonia / Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Bozinovsky – whose often-criticised, tabloid-style website has published files and information alleging corruption and other bad acts by Macedonia’s government – reportedly faces charges of espionage, extortion and criminal conspiracy. The country for which he allegedly spied was not officially named, but some media have said it is Greece, with which Macedonia remains locked in a bitter dispute over its name.
- Journalists ‘violate senior’s privacy’ by reporting alleged attempts to exploit her
Prosecutors in France sought charges against five journalists in September for violating privacy laws by posting online copies and transcripts of recorded conversations involving billionaire L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. The journalists received the recordings, made in 2009 and 2010, from the then-octogenarian’s butler, who claimed he was trying to protect her from hangers-on out to exploit her fragile mental state and siphon off her money, some of which was allegedly used to illegally fund political campaigns. The journalists – Mediapart’s Edwy Plenel, Fabrice Arfi and Fabrice Lhomme, the latter now with Le Monde, as well as Le Point’s Franz-Olivier Giesbert and Hervé Gattegno – contest the charges, arguing that the materials were posted in the public interest. A trial date reportedly has yet to be set. In July, a court fined Mediapart and Le Point and ordered them to remove the copies and transcripts from their websites.