In many Eastern European and Central Asian countries, media discourse suffers from the freedom of expression not being respected. Nonetheless, the situation is not hopeless, according to Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch. He shared his insights in a D+C/E+Z interview, which was finalised shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.
You are observing a huge and diverse world region on behalf of Human Rights Watch. It spans eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey as well as Central Asia. What do these countries have in common?
It is fascinating to see how powerful the human right of freedom of expression is everywhere, despite people facing such huge challenges. The internet and social media have made it even more important. Authoritarian regimes feel particularly threatened, but some democratically elected governments feel threatened too. The methods used to restrict the freedom of expression vary depending on the kind of political order.
Please give examples.
In Kazakhstan, the government in January shut down the internet entirely for several days. An authoritarian state was responding in a draconian manner to peaceful protests. In Turkey, however, the opposition is systematically repressed by other means. Using the pretence of anti-terrorism legislation, the government removed legislators from parliament and even detained some of them. Most victims belong to Kurdish parties. The result is that an important minority is deprived of its fundamental right to political representation. In Hungary, a democratic EU member, the government is trying to take control of the media. The authorities used petty formalities to withdraw the license of Klubrádió, one of the last independent radio stations. The lesson is that we have to pay very close attention to what is happening, whether in Europe or other parts of the world.
In Russia, opponents of President Vladimir Putin live dangerously. One of the most prominent is Alexei Navalny. He almost died after being poisoned and is now held captive in a prison camp. Does Russia respect human rights?
Well, we are currently seeing a nadir in regard to human rights in Russia. What happened to Navalny, happens to less well-known people too. Journalists are sent to prison. The government is closing down civil-society organisations and independent media outlets. New legislation serves to undermine the rights of assembly and free expression. Putin knows that freedom of speech puts his power in question, so he does what he can to stay in control. Every passing day, life is getting tougher for the few independent media outlets that are still operating in Russia. On the other hand, Putin is taking advantage of media issues for diplomacy purposes. The most recent example is that Russia banned Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public international broadcaster, from operating in Russia. At the same time, the country is promoting RT, its own broadcaster. Putin’s focus is on national interests, not media freedom. It matters of course, that RT is under direct government control, whereas DW is run by a pluralistic board and is obliged to adhere to journalistic standards such as indicating sources and checking facts (full disclosure: Hugh Williamson worked for DW from 1995–1999).
Russia’s neighbour Belarus has been making headlines too. In August 2020, the re-election of autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko was controversial, and mass protests arose (see Hans Dembowski on www.dandc.eu). Dissidents were arrested and freedom of speech was restricted. How do you assess matters there?
From the human-rights perspective, Lukashenko’s decision to crush the protests was terrible. One result is that the country hardly has anything one might call an independent civil society any more. The opportunities citizens have for getting involved in public affairs have been reduced to what we last saw decades ago. Quite obviously, Russia is paying close attention. Putin fears that, one day, public protests may spread in his country, which is why he supports Lukashenko generously.
By comparison, we get far less news from other former Soviet republics. What is the scenario in Central Asia?
Well, it is a complex region (see my article on www.dandc.eu). Turkmenistan stands out as a totalitarian state. It gives absolutely no scope to dissident opinions and independent media. The regime censors the internet heavily. It is even illegal to use a virtual private network (VPN) at home. Turkmenistan has been sealed off systematically, so we hardly get information concerning human rights. Websites are often blocked in Tajikistan too. On the other hand, the governments of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan officially endorse the freedom of expression. However, the Kazakh government is exerting pressure on independent media, and in Uzbekistan in February, a Muslim blogger was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison because of a single Facebook post. Human Rights Watch has documented his case. Something like that does not happen in a truly open society. The only central Asian nation where meaningful investigative journalism is feasible is Kyrgyzstan. It matters and deserves further support.
In which directions are things developing in this region?
Things are getting worse in various ways, as my examples have indicated. Kyrgyzstan has just passed legislation which permits authorities to shut down websites if they spread disinformation. What exactly amounts to disinformation, is not defined however, so it is left to arbitrary decision-making. On the other hand, we must not forget that people are rising up in growing numbers to express grievances. In January, average citizens took to the streets in Kazakhstan, venting their anger about rising fuel prices. They were actually quite brave. They were risking arrest because, as a matter of principle, rallies are not allowed. Nonetheless, the protests spread nationwide and fast. The point is that exasperated people are willing to take risks. In all countries we are discussing, there are people who fight for human rights. Human Rights Watch and others support them in doing so.
What can western democracies like Germany or the USA do?
Well, they can speak up for those who are doing good work in the countries concerned, including civil-society organisations. A tangible cause is to support professional journalistic training. Of course, governments want good foreign relations, and Kazakhstan, for example, is resource rich. Nonetheless, western diplomats should put human rights high on the agenda in bilateral negotiations.
You keep mentioning the internet. How important is it in regard to the freedom of expression?
It has become the crucial space for freedom of expression. Only thanks to the internet did protests spread like wildfires in Kazakhstan. In Turkey, many cases of domestic abuse only became known thanks to social media, as Human Rights Watch has reported. Abused victims did not go to the police they did not trust, but they did attract attention on social media – and that, in turn, helped to put pressure on state agencies. More generally speaking, the internet has become essential in many ways. When a state shuts it down, not only the freedom of speech is affected. Economic and social rights suffer too – just consider online banking or digitised health services.
What about online disinformation (see Rishikesh Thapa on www.dandc.eu)?
It is known that in Russia there are propagandists posting pro-Putin comments online in order to manipulate public opinion. We must assume that other countries in the region rely on troll factories as well (see Alan C. Robles on www.dandc.eu). Trolling is a huge challenge because it has an impact on people’s perceptions and is changing our society. Disinformation is designed to promote a certain reading of reality and reduce the space for other ideas. Accordingly, it reduces the scope for critical discourse. It is therefore an indirect tool for limiting the freedom of expression.
What you say sounds quite sobering, especially given the many negative examples.
We must not be too pessimistic. The key to success is to make even better use of the internet in ways that support people’s self-determination and freedom of expression, which must not be confused with fake news and conspiracy theories. It is inspiring, for example, that Lukashenko’s opponents who had to leave Belarus are now organising online. They are spanning great distances, from Ukraine to Poland and the Baltic states. While there are depressing examples, hope is justified just as much.