Freedom of Expression in Western nations or Who can Serve as Role Model?

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Baku, 13 September 2017 –

As it has already been reported the director of "Turan Information Agency'' Mehman Aliyev was taken into police custody on 24 August 2017 upon the verdict issued by the Yasamal District Court of Baku. He was charged with illegal entrepreneurship (article 192.2.2. of the Penal Code), tax evasion (article 213.1) and abuse of power (article 308.1).

That event was nearly a gift for those who search for any opportunity to launch a black PR campaign against Azerbaijan. They have immediately produced statements, alleging that democracy, freedom of speech and human rights are violated in Azerbaijan. Certain like-minded entities that are controlled from the same command center have almost simultaneously embarked upon a crusade against Azerbaijan. Those very entities choose to turn a blind eye on the developments in the countries of their own. In this context, it would be fascinating to scrutinize reports and papers by the leading international institutions, as well as international and local NGO’s with respect to human rights violations in the recent years in the Western nations.

Analyses reveal that in 2016-2017 the Western countries that pride themselves with strong democratic traditions saw violations in the area of protection of human rights and freedoms and ensuring the rule of law, including limiting of the freedom of speech. The problems registered in the area of freedom of speech include violence – attacks, intimidation and even murder – against the journalists that report on the issues of social relevance. Other violations include amendments to the defamation laws that contravene with the practice of the freedom of speech.

In her Regular Report to the Permanent Council of the OSCE that covered the period from 2 December 2016 to through 9 March 2017[i], the organization’s then the Representative on Freedom of the Media raised the problems with the freedom of the speech in the OSCE area, including the Western democracies. In the report the OSCE representative condemned the murder of the two journalists in Finland and setting ablaze of the journalist’s car in Cyprus. She also expressed concern about the cases involving the safety of journalists in Italy and the questioning and search of a Canadian photojournalist at the U.S. border.

Elsewhere in Denmark, the report expressed concern in connection with the draft law on website blocking. Particularly because the draft law failed to meet international obligations on freedom of expression, given its provision of very broad powers to block sites, the absence of procedural guarantees and the lack of safeguards for human rights, including freedom of expression.

Another troubling development was registered in the Netherlands regarding the draft Law on Intelligence and Security Services, in particular on the potential impact of this law on the confidentiality of sources of journalists. In France, a journalist was thrown out of a public event when he tried to pose a question to a presidential candidate. Also in the U.S., two reporters, among others, were arrested in the morning of Inauguration Day and charged with "rioting or inciting to riot”.

The Council of Europe’s "Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists''[ii] also publishes information regarding the violence against the media representatives. For example, during the G20 summit that took place in Hamburg, Germany on 7 and 8 July 2017, numerous journalists have been victims of police violence while covering the protests taking place in the city. They were insulted by police officers and hit with tear gas, despite the fact that they were identifiable by their cameras and press cards. The Platform also has drawn attention to the attacks on two journalists in Croatia and a police raiding the home of a journalist as well as the police interrogations of the journalists and cases of intimidation in Belgium.

The situation with the issue of criminal defamation laws was also on the radar for the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media. Concern was registered with Ireland’s Defamation Act, the Crime and Courts Act in Britain and a libel case brought by the Economy Minister against the journalist in Malta.

The "Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists'' published information regarding the sentencing by a court of an editor in chief of the online newspaper in a libel case in Italy. Detention of an investigative journalist and arrest of a publisher and director of a newspaper in Greece were also among the developments reported by the platform.

Another defamation related issue reported was the Draft Bill on the Improvement of Enforcement of Rights in Social Networks in Germany. The Draft Bill proposes a system, whereby ‘Social Networks’ would face severe administrative penalties (fines) for failing to remove content that violates 24 already-existing provisions of the German Criminal Code – including offences as varied as "defamation of religions'' (blasphemy), defamation of the President of the Federation, criminal defamation and insult, and denial of National Socialist-era crimes, among others.

Furthermore, on 7 March 2017 the OSCE Representative presented the "Defamation and Insult Laws in the OSCE Region: A Comparative Study''[iii] report that was critical of the criminal sanctions applied to the defamation cases. The report showed that among others, in Andorra, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Monaco, the Netherlands and Portugal defamation and/or insult committed against a public official carries a harsher punishment than the same act committed against a private person. And that imprisonment is a possible punishment in each case except for Bulgaria and France. Report stated that those provisions directly contradict the principles established by international courts and the OSCE RFoM. The countries like Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, San Marino and Vatican penalize abusive, offensive or insulting conduct directed at public officials in the course of official business.

The "Freedom of the Media 2017''[iv] report by the Freedom House was highly critical of the fact that the global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in major democracies. According to the report, "Amid growing concerns over terrorism, many major democracies, including Britain, France and Germany, have recently passed laws that tip the balance in favor of eavesdroppers and lack sufficient oversight mechanisms and safeguards against abuse''.

Furthermore, in the countries like the United States and Poland the politicians launched or escalated efforts to shape news coverage by delegitimizing the mainstream media, exerting political influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profile of friendly private outlets.

The abovementioned clearly demonstrates that the violations of law in those countries are associated directly with the performance of the media and have to do with curtailing of the freedom of the speech. When it comes to Mehman Aliyev’s case, his detention is based on the charges outside of journalism. In a state governed by the rule of law no occupation can provide privilege or immunity. Everyone is equal before the law and must abide by the national legislation. Therefore, those circles who aim to lecture Azerbaijan must first take a look around in their own backyard and only then, try to lead by the example.

As far as the media representatives are concerned, Azerbaijan’s President has always shown attention and care to journalists’ needs. He has regularly instructed relevant state bodies to invalidate outstanding debts of certain media outlets. He has also issued numerous decrees aimed at improving social welfare of the journalists, including providing free apartments. It is no coincidence that during the recent ceremony where the media representatives took delivery of their new homes, the President called them his assistants in his daily work.

It is line with the very policy that President Aliyev, driven by the principles of humanism, has immediately responded to Mehman Aliyev’s appeal and recommended the law enforcement bodies to review his case. Considering the recommendation, Baku’s Yasamal District Court decided to release him. The move was in the spirit of the 10 February 2017 Executive Order by the President on improving the performance of the penitentiary system, humanization of the punishment policy and expansion of alternative punishments and procedural enforcement measures not associated with isolation from society.

There is no doubt that President’s action has derailed the plans of those who conspired against Azerbaijan.

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