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Two Belarusian Journalists on Trial for Covering Protests

What happened: Two Belarusian journalists for the Polish-funded Belsat satellite television station went on trial today in Minsk for “organizing public events aimed at disrupting civil order,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reportsKatsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova were arrested in November while covering a rally commemorating Raman Bandarenka, who died after a beating by a group of masked assailants. A guilty verdict could bring up to three years in prison for each of the journalists. 

More context: The two reporters were among at least 10 members of the press detained in Belarus at the time of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ December 2020 prison census. Authorities in Belarus have tightened the reins on reporters since long-ruling strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s declaration of victory in August presidential elections sparked widespread protests and arrests.

Worth noting: At the end of last month, the Belarus Journalist Association and Reporters Without Borders said they had referred to the UN 15 cases of Belarusian journalists arbitrarily arrested since August, Voice of America reports. The groups said 2021 brought a turn for the worse, with manufactured criminal charges being brought against journalists that could lead to prison terms. 

Polish Media Go Dark to Protest Advertising Tax Proposal

What happened: At least 45 independent broadcasters and newspapers across Poland have joined a 24-hour news blackout today to protest a proposed advertising taxEuronews reports. The government says it needs the money to shore up its coronavirus-battered finances. Government spokesman Piotr Mueller said the tax proceeds would go to  health and cultural purposes and likened it to initiatives in other European countries. 

More context: The popular independent channel TVN went off air, and newspapers blackened their front pages in protest, Agence France Presse notes. The TVN24 news channel displayed a white message on a black background that read, “This is where your favorite program was supposed to be.” 

Worth noting: In an open letter to the authorities ahead of the blackout, dozens of private media companies wrote, “such drastic action is necessary because without free media there is no free choice, and without free choice, there is no freedom,” the BBC reports. Mueller told TVN the tax proposal is still in its early stages and has not yet been approved by ministers. 

Polish Journalist’s Harassment Complaints Yield Apology in Uzbekistan

What happened: Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry apologized to Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, a Polish journalist who was allegedly pressured to write positive articles about Uzbekistan in exchange for a renewal of her press accreditationRadio Free Europe writes. Pikulicka-Wilczewska also said she was sexually harassed by an employee of the ministry. After international rights groups protested Pikulicka-Wilczewska’s treatment, the Foreign Ministry employee was fired and her press accreditation was renewed. 

More context: Pikulicka-Wilczewska shared the story of her harassment on Twitter, after her complaints got little traction at the Foreign MinistryEurasianet writes. “The incident involving the journalist Agnieszka Pikulicka is absolutely unacceptable in Uzbekistan or in any other country,” Tanzil Narbayeva, the chairwoman of Uzbekistan’s senate, said. Still, Pikulicka-Wilczewska said the resolution was not a sign of change, since the scandal had forced the authorities’ hand, according to Eurasianet. 

Worth noting: Although press freedom in Uzbekistan has improved since the death of dictator Islam Karimov in 2016, critics of the authorities still face retaliation. Earlier this week, a blogger critical of the local government in the southern Surxondaryo region was detained on an extortion charge his family says was trumped up, RFE writes

Hungary, Italy Slammed for Migrant Pushbacks

The Big Story: UN, Courts Chastise EU Countries Over Violence Against Migrants

What happened: The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, issued a stinging rebuke to several unnamed European countries it accuses of engaging in “pushbacks” – forcibly moving migrants and asylum seekers off their territory. Courts have recently ruled against Hungary and Italy for the practice.

More context: “The pushbacks are carried out in a violent and apparently systematic way. Boats carrying refugees are being towed back. People are being rounded up after they land and then pushed back to sea. Many have reported violence and abuse by state forces,” UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, said in a 28 January statement. Although the EU Court of Justice declared Hungary’s pushbacks illegal in December, the country has since forced almost 5,000 people over the border into Serbia, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. In January, a court in Rome ruled against the Italian government in the case of a Pakistani citizen who was successively forced back into Slovenia, Croatia, and finally Bosnia despite expressing his intention to apply for asylum, Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso writes.

Worth noting: Frontex, the EU border control agency, suspended operations in Hungary last week following the ECJ ruling, Deutsche Welle reports. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson welcomed the decision.

Concerns of Voter Suppression Ahead of Kosovo’s February Elections

What happened: Critics are calling the vetting process for members of the Kosovo diaspora eager to cast ballots in next month’s elections too restrictive, Radio Free Europe writes. Kosovo extends citizenship – and therefore the right to vote – to former Yugoslav citizens, those who lived there in January 1998, and “direct descendants” of those groups, whether at home or abroad. But elections officials must call registered voters who live abroad to verify their identity and eligibility, and they will make only three attempts to reach them.

More context: Acting President and Parliament Speaker Vjosa Osmani called snap elections for 14 February after a Constitutional Court ruling toppled the government because one of the votes that brought it to power came from a parliament member who had been recently convicted of a crime. The ruling determined that convicted criminals cannot run for or sit in parliament for three years after conviction. 

Worth noting: Kosovo’s Central Election Commission has refused to certify the election lists of the main opposition party and front-runner, Vetevendosje, and two parties in the ruling coalition because they include people convicted of crimes in the last three years, bne IntellinNews writes. Vetevendosje leader Albin Kurti was convicted of carrying out tear gas attacks in parliament in 2015-2016.

Russian Stripped of Special-Language Status in Moldova

The Big Story: Moldovan Constitutional Court Overturns Law Granting Special Status to Russian

What happened: A court in Chisinau has overturned a new law giving special status to the Russian language, Reuters writes. Although it did not make Russian an official language, the measure required that the names of goods, services, and medicines be written in Russian as well as Moldovan and, EU Today writes, that government agencies use Russian when dealing with Russian speakers. 

More context: The official language in Moldova is Moldovan, a dialect of Romanian, according to the country’s constitution. Russian, which was the official language while Moldova was part of the Soviet Union, is still widely spoken. Domnica Manole, president of the Constitutional Court, said the law conferred on Russian “a status similar to the state language,” in violation of the constitution. 

Worth noting: Manole also cited the 2014 census, in which 78 percent of Moldovans said they speak Romanian, compared with about 9 percent who said they speak Russian, Romanian daily notes