Threats to Journalists must be addressed by institutions in…

Threats to Journalists must be addressed by institutions in Serbia

The host of the “Good, Bad, Evil” podcast, Nenad Kulacin is again the target of threats. The last threat to the presenter was sent via social networks from an anonymous account. The SafeJournalists Network (SJN) and the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), as organisations dedicated to protecting media freedom and the rights of journalists, are concerned about the rising threats targeting the presenter, and note that the competent institutions in Serbia have not yet determined the identity of any perpetrator in the cases that have been reported since the beginning of the year.

We emphasize that threats to journalists and media workers in Serbia are an almost daily occurrence that endangers their safety. Accordingly, we call on the authorities in Serbia and the international community to condemn these threats, and the institutions in Serbia to protect journalists and sanction the perpetrators of such threats.

Nenad Kulacin reported eight threats to the prosecutor’s office this year, and to this day only one decision has been made to dismiss the criminal complaint, while the other cases are still before the prosecutor’s office. Some of the threats also referred to his colleague Marko Vidojkovic or his family members. For example, the last threat that Nenad Kulacin received via social networks from an anonymous account also referred to his brother. The account “Sacha Pariss” threatened Kulacin with insults, while mentioning his hometown and his brother.

In October 2021, the mother of Kulacin was also attacked in Bor, when a person verbally attacked her and said: “Your son should be hanged.”

Also, earlier pro-government tabloids ran a campaign against Kulacin, where he was characterized as a “leading ideologue of the opposition”, “Dragan Solak’s favorite editor” and “Dragan Djilas’s poodle”, and unknown persons put up posters with his address in Belgrade on it.

Nenad Kulacin and Marko Vidojkovic, the hosts of the satirical podcast “Good, Bad, Evil”, have been receiving threats for years because of their work. In addition to anonymous threats, the outgoing mayor of Belgrade, Aleksandar Sapic, also threatened the presenters a few years ago. He said that he would “rip out the heart” of Kulacin and Vidojkovic when he met them on the street, but the institutions did not recognize these words as a threat and decided to dismiss the criminal charges.

 

Kulacin and Vidojkovic have been suffering serious threats for a long time. As a result, Vidojkovic was relocated from his home, through a scheme provided by international organizations, while Kulacin refused to move.

Inaction by state institutions, tabloid smear campaigns and public threats by government officials create a hostile atmosphere in which attacks on those critical of the government are normalised and even encouraged, which has a serious chilling effect on free speech and independent reporting.

Due to all of the above, SafeJournalists Network and Media Freedom Rapid Response call on the authorities in Serbia and the international community to condemn these threats, and institutions in Serbia to process all reports raised by journalists and to act urgently in such cases in accordance with the mandatory instructions of the Supreme Public prosecutor’s offices and in this way send a message that they stand up for the protection of journalists and media workers, but above all, respect democratic values and international commitments, such as the protection of freedom of speech.

Signed by:

SafeJournalists Network

  • Association of Journalists of Kosovo
  • Association of Journalists of Macedonia
  • BH Journalists Association
  • Croatian Journalists’ Association
  • Independent Journalists Association of Serbia
  • Trade Union of Media of Montenegro

Media Freedom Rapid Response 

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • OBC Transeuropa
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

This statement was coordinated by the SafeJournalist Network and the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Emilia Șercan

Media freedom groups demand renewed investigation into crimes against…

Media freedom groups demand renewed investigation into crimes against Romanian journalist Emilia Șercan

In an open letter to the Romanian General Prosecutor the MFRR partners have condemned the negligent and error-strewn investigation into the crimes committed against journalist Emilia Șercan.

Prosecutor General of Romania, Mr. Alex Florin Florența

First Deputy Prosecutor General of Romania, Mr. Aurel Sebastian Vălean

 

Dear Prosecutor General, Alex Florin Florența, and first Deputy Prosecutor, Aurel Sebastian Vălean,

We are writing to express our deep alarm about the failure to effectively investigate and prosecute the criminal acts against journalist Emilia Șercan and the news that the ‘resolution’ of the case is imminent.

According to our information the investigation has been riddled with negligence, delays, obfuscation and evident breaches in procedure and in the rights of the injured party, resulting in a failure to establish the suspected perpetrators. As a consequence, any ‘resolution’ of the case is likely to mean its closure.

Should the case be closed without a prosecution, the conclusions to be drawn must be that the failure was a result either of incompetence and neglect, or a deliberate effort to cover up a crime that evidence suggests may have involved a senior police figure.

Regardless, Emilia Șercan, a respected and dedicated journalist, will have been denied justice by your offices.

Such negligence is even more unacceptable given that the crimes were most likely committed as part of a politically orchestrated smear campaign after Șercan had revealed over several years that leading members of the government, judiciary, security services and the military had plagiarized their academic theses.

The crimes against Șercan started straight after she published revelations, on January 18, 2022, that Nicolae Ciucă, President of the Romanian Senate who was at the time Prime Minister, had plagiarized his doctoral dissertation.  The following day Șercan received a message threatening revenge for the exposure that she reported to the police.

One month later, Șercan discovered through a Facebook message that five private photos of her had been published on 31 adult websites.

The following day, February 17, 2022, Șercan filed a complaint for theft (of photos) and violation of privacy (publication of photos) and provided a screenshot of the Facebook message as evidence to the Romanian police.

Forty minutes after she left the police station a Moldovan website published a smear article on Șercan accompanied by the five stolen photos and the screenshot of the FB message provided to the police.

According to Șercan, only the police had received the screen shot, and therefore the Moldovan website can only have obtained it via a police leak.

The smear article was subsequently posted on 78 more Romanian websites. At least one of the five images remains accessible through 68 different websites today.

The subsequent investigations included the following failures:

  • It took 14 months for the investigators to interview the six senior police chiefs alleged to have received copies of the original evidence (including the FB screenshot) and who may therefore have been the source of the leak. The identification of the six police chiefs was done, not by the prosecutor, but by Șercan using Freedom of Information requests.
  • The investigators failed, at first, to interview owners of the websites that posted Șercan’s photos as key witnesses. Following protests from Șercan, the prosecutors finally conducted interviews with three site owners, but they failed to notify and invite Șercan’s lawyer to attend the witness interview. Denying access to the injured party’s lawyer is a clear breach of Romania’s criminal law.
  • Upon appeal the Chief Prosecutor of the Bucharest Court of Appeal refused to repeat the interviews in the presence of Șercan’s lawyers, another breach of the criminal law.
  • Șercan’s Lawyer was denied access to some of the case file documents that were classified as ‘strictly secret’ by the intelligence services, despite being certified to access such documents.
  • The investigators presented evidence that another website, patrianoastra.com, had posted the screenshot of the FB post five hours before Șercan filed her complaint with the police. Such evidence, if true, would help clear the police of leaking the screen shot and photos. However, the investigators then refused a request to involve independent technical experts to examine this new evidence to determine the exact timing of the publication. Refusing the request for an independent examination is another procedural breach and renders this evidence highly unreliable. Moreover, reports by Qurium Foundation and Bitdefender conclude that the site falsified the dates of publication to a day earlier than actually published.
  • Meanwhile the crime against Emilia Șercan remains ongoing. Șercan made four separate requests to prosecutors to remove the photos, all of which went unanswered. It was only after a public appeal by 19 Romanian NGOs in July 2023 that the owner of the website with all five photos removed them, and not as a result of official action. Finally, on October 10, 2023, a full 20 months after the start of the crime and following a fifth request for action, the First Deputy Attorney General informed Șercan that they would start measures to “suppress the dissemination of the disputed photos in cyberspace”.

On October 10, Șercan was also informed by the First Deputy Attorney General that the file would be ‘resolved’ by the end of October. With nobody identified as a potential suspect, Șercan believes this can only mean the prosecutor intends to close the file with no further action.

Such a decision would be personally devastating for Emilia Șercan. It would also send a clear message to all journalists in Romania who attempt to expose crime, corruption or hypocrisy at the heart of government that the Romanian judicial system cannot be relied upon to protect them from criminal acts.

We therefore call upon you to do the following:

  • Take the immediate legal measures with due process, necessary to end the ongoing crime against Șercan by ensuring the stolen photos are no longer accessible online.
  • Fulfill the request made by Emilia Șercan to transfer the case to the General Prosecutor where a new team with the resources, the expertise and competence necessary can conduct the investigation to its conclusion.
  • Launch a separate investigation into the failures of the current investigations, the breaches of procedure and the possibility of a deliberate cover up.

We look forward to reading your response soon,

Signed by:

  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) 
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) 
  • International Press Institute (IPI) 
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU) 
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT) 
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 
  • ActiveWatch 
  • Center for Independent Journalism

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Media freedom in survival mode

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Media freedom in survival mode

Following a press freedom mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 22-25 October 2023, the partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) warn that media freedom in the country is in decline against a backdrop of new restrictive laws, hostile rhetoric and denigration of journalists by public officials, and ongoing systemic challenges to the independence of public service media.

While the country had long experienced a stagnation in its progress for freedom of the media and freedom of expression, the situation has seen an overall decline, even as the country was granted candidate status for accession to the European Union in December 2022. The MFRR organisations express their greatest solidarity with the journalists and media outlets who are working in a suffocating environment and poor working conditions.

During the three-day mission, the delegation met with a number of political and media stakeholders both in Banja Luka, Republika Srpska (RS), and in Sarajevo. We regret that RS President Milorad Dodik did not respond to our requests for a meeting.

 

Package of restrictive laws

The delegation closely examined the package of restrictive laws that have been passed or are currently in development or discussions in RS, where entity president Dodik is steadily tightening the screws on independent media and civil society organisations.

Firstly, the recent recriminalisation of defamation, passed by the Republika Srpska National Assembly in July 2023, made defamation a criminal offence with penalties including fines equivalent to 3,000 euros. While this legislation is modelled on similar problematic laws from around Europe, its impact in RS is exacerbated by broader lack of independence of the judiciary and prosecutors. Although the final text of the law was an improvement on the initial draft, the end result remains in violation of international human rights standards. The delegation welcomes the commitment given by the President of the RS National Assembly to conduct a review of the law one year after its passing to assess its impact on journalists. Our organisations are ready to contribute to such an assessment in partnership with local journalist associations.

A second so-called “foreign agent” law has passed the first vote within the National Assembly. If ultimately adopted, the legislation would require nonprofit organisations funded from abroad and active in the Bosnian Serb entity to register and report on their work. Media NGOs, which enjoy greater independence under this status, are targeted by this legislation, which is designed to stigmatise and further burden them with financial and administrative reporting.

The delegation was informed of a third legal initiative to develop a new media law in RS, that is being conducted in a non-transparent process with no proper structure or appointment procedure for the working group, posing questions over its legitimacy. Information passed to the delegation suggests this law would in particular restrict media outlets from registering as NGOs.

This package of interlinked legislation is aimed at further stifling the space for critical reporting and is contributing to a wider atmosphere of pressure and isolation amongst the journalistic community in Republika Srpska. When viewed together, the laws pose an existential threat to the future of independent journalism in RS.

At the Sarajevo canton level meanwhile, a new draft law ‘on Public Order and Peace’ would empower the police to sanction anyone spreading “fake news” including online. This law expands the definition of a public place to the internet. We urge the authorities to withdraw this dangerous piece of legislation, which includes vague definitions which would leave the door wide open to abuses and seriously undermine freedom of expression.

 

Safety of journalists

Regarding the safety of journalists, the mission met with several  journalists who have been attacked because of their work, in both Banja Luka and Sarajevo. Many of the investigations into these attacks have still not been completed, mirroring a wider trend. According to the BH Journalists Association, only 25% of the cases involving journalists in the whole BH have been investigated and the rate of prosecutions remains problematic.

While physical attacks are relatively rare, verbal attacks and insults directed towards journalists by prominent politicians remain a concern. This hostility and harsh rhetoric against journalists sends a signal to the public that journalists are legitimate targets of violence and scapegoats.

The Free Media Help Line of the BH Journalists Association has had a positive impact, and the establishment of contact points within all police and prosecutors offices is a welcome step forward that was finalised by the efforts of the EU Delegation and the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, ultimately there is a continued lack of systematic and integrated institutional follow-up for all cases. The establishment of a standing working group for the safety of journalists is the next step for creating an integrated institutional response, and we welcome the commitment of the Main Prosecutor in Canton Sarajevo to participate in such a body.

 

Regulatory framework and public service media

The public broadcaster, Radio and Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BHRT), remains locked in a period of perennial crisis due to the blocked access to legally mandated lice fee funding and the lack of a sustainable funding model, undermining its institutional stability and independence.

The independence of the national Communication Regulatory Agency continues to be undermined by the politicised appointments of its director and the non-appointment of its management council. The selective approach of regulatory actions by the Agency have raised concerns, though these problematic decisions remain rare.

The legal framework for freedom of access to information has been weakened due to recent legislative changes, providing public authorities more opportunities to deny the release of data, adding onerous new hurdles for journalists, and undermining transparency. Overall the media market remains highly fragmented and real media pluralism is weak.

 

The crucial role of international community

Journalists and civil society organisations representatives that we met during the past two days expect more from the international community. The mission heard repeated concerns that in the process of ticking boxes for the progress of the country towards accession to the EU, media freedom risks being overlooked for considerations such as stability and security.

Given the fears that the situation in Republika Srpska will spill over the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we urge international organisations to unify positions, use their diplomatic leverage to defend media freedom in the whole country and always stand in solidarity with journalists and media outlets. We call on the EU delegation to make media freedom and freedom of expression a high priority in the accession negotiations.

The delegation was composed of ARTICLE 19 Europe, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the International Press Institute (IPI), the Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), as well as South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) and was supported by the journalists’ association BH Novinari.

A full report including detailed findings and recommendations will be published in the coming weeks.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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MFRR Monitoring Report - Jan June 2023

Monitoring Report – 575 media freedom violations in the…

MFRR Monitoring Report – 575 media freedom violations in the first half of 2023

Today the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) publishes the latest edition of the consortium’s monitoring report, compiling and analysing all media freedom violations recorded on Mapping Media Freedom between January and June 2023 in all EU Member States and candidate countries.

In the six month period, the MFRR partners recorded 575 media freedom violations in European Union Member States and candidate countries, involving 844 individuals or media outlets. 307 of those took place in EU Member States, while 268 occurred in candidate countries.

 

In the EU the most common type of attacks were verbal attacks (35.8%) such as insults and discrediting of journalists, to which this report dedicates one of its thematic chapters. Legal attacks were the second most prominent category (24.8%), followed by physical attacks (21.2%), attacks on property (16.9%), and censorship (14.3%).

 

The current monitoring report offers an overview of the media freedom situation across the EU and candidate countries in the first half of 2023 and it starts with a thematic chapter on the crackdown on independent media in Turkey amidst devastating earthquakes and national elections that took place at the beginning of the year, followed by a chapter on the war in Ukraine and its repercussions on media freedom.

 

The report also covers the rise in attacks on journalists and media workers by police officers and security forces and, as mentioned earlier, the rise in the discrediting of journalists and reputational attacks against them to hinder their work.

 

The report is divided into the following chapters: an overview offering data and graphics about the press freedom situation in the EU and in candidate countries in 2023, four thematic sections with quantitative and qualitative analysis regarding the aforementioned topics, and country reports offering a summary of the most relevant threats in the following EU countries: Italy, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Germany, and France; and in the following candidate countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

 

You can download the report in full using the button below.

This report was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.  

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Poland’s unfair election reinforces demands for Europe-wide Media Freedom…

Poland’s unfair election reinforces demands for Europe-wide Media Freedom Act

As the European Parliament, Council and Commission enter the final negotiations on the EMFA, media freedom and human rights groups today call for the adoption of the Parliament’s  text, which, while also in need of further strengthening, is currently the version best equipped to  roll back the creeping spread of media capture.

The recent elections in Poland underscore the need for a strong EMFA. The opposition won a majority, despite the fact the governing PiS party “enjoyed clear advantage through its undue influence over the use of state resources and the public media”, according to an interim report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

 

The recent report Media freedom at a crossroads by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) following a pre-election mission in early September highlighted the extent of political capture of the media in Poland including:

  • Converting public media into the propaganda arm of the government.
  • Weaponizing media regulators to issue arbitrary and punishing fines while threatening license removal of independent and critical broadcast media.
  • Taking over the largest regional media network through the state-controlled energy company, leading to a swift clear out of editors, who were replaced by pro-government figures.
  • Abusing of state finances to:
    • withdraw crucial advertising funds from critical media and redirect it to pro-government outlet
    • fund an unprecedented wave of vexatious lawsuits, or SLAPPs, against critical journalists.

In the case of Poland, state-led media capture was not yet extensive enough to fully control the news and information space, with private independent media demonstrating high levels of resilience. This is in part due to the financial strength of Polish media operating in a significantly larger market than in many other EU countries. However, there are not sufficient safeguards in place to prevent further capture.

 

The electoral defeat of PiS does not diminish the threat of media capture, particularly in countries where smaller markets can leave media much more vulnerable to state pressure, and must not distract European policy makers from building the necessary safeguards regardless of whichever governments are in power.

 

If the EU is serious about protecting media freedom in Europe, and thereby ensuring free and fair elections, it must adopt the European Parliament’s position on the EMFA with all its safeguards related to surveillance, public service media, ownership transparency, editorial independence, independent national and Europe wide media regulators, media pluralism and the misuse and abuse of state funds.

 

With European elections due next year, the EU must act now to establish the rules, principles and standards necessary to protect against the further and future erosion of media freedoms in Europe.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Association of European Journalists (AEJ Belgium)
  • Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)
  • Society of Journalists, Warsaw

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Webinar – Assessing the quiet press freedom gains in…

Assessing the quiet press freedom gains in Bulgaria

31 October, 11:00 CEST.

In the last two years, Bulgaria has undergone a subtle yet steady period of improvement in press freedom. Long ranked among the worst countries in the EU for media freedom, the Eastern European country is finally now experiencing an upward trajectory after years of stagnation. After the formation of a coalition government following a protracted political crisis, there is cautious hope amongst the journalistic community that this positive momentum can now be consolidated. However, engrained challenges regarding media ownership, lawsuits and the safety of journalists continue, and recent gains are fragile.

 

In this webinar organised by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), we’ll hear from a leading newspaper editor, a media expert and press freedom advocate, and one of the country’s top media lawyers about the major developments in the last year, to ask about the conditions behind the subtle improvements in the press freedom environment and examine the many outstanding challenges that remain. The MFRR webinar will also look at the impact that the EU Commission’s planned European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) could have in Bulgaria and review the push to legislate against SLAPPs.

Moderator

Jamie Wiseman

Advocacy Officer at International Press Institute (IPI)

Speakers

Antoinette Nikolov

Director of Balkan Free Media Initiative, former journalist at bTV

Alexander Kashumov

Leading media lawyer

Velislava Popova

Editor-in-chief of Dnevnik

Omer Benjakob

Reporting surveillance: The experience of Omer Benjakob

Reporting surveillance: The experience of Omer Benjakob

Investigative tech reporter Omer Benjakob, member of the desk behind the publication of the cybersecurity focused newsletter NatSec+ for the newspaper Haaretz, speaks to OBCT/MFRR about the challenges of covering the surveillance tech industry in Israel, one of the countries that has developed this industry the most.

 

Interview by Dimitri Bettoni, originally published by OBCT

Why did you decide that cyber security and surveillance deserved special coverage through your newsletter?

Media generally have been recovering technology the wrong way for a long time, as geek culture or through financial lenses. In Israel even more, because it’s a startup pornography nation. The idea of our desk is to consolidate a focus on technology and to make sure it’s coming from a political perspective. We’ve always been exposed to the Israeli high-tech scene, learning a lot about the offensive cyber industry over the past few years. But cyber is an empty word, it just means digital. The point is that we don’t yet have a language to talk about it. While we were familiarising with these cyber firms, we understood little of what they were and what they were doing. Of course, we reported that Israel was selling technologies to other countries, but digital weapons are not the same as selling an antivirus to Saudi Arabia, right?

When we joined the Project Pegasus, we learned more about digital arms, traded with government oversight for political reasons. It’s also when we understood that we have to work together, and that our ability as journalists to collaborate is really important because these surveillance firms are multinational trying to hide their fragmented operations: they produce the technology in Israel, the seller might be a Belgian businessman, the client might be Indonesian. You can’t cover the whole story alone, so working together really helps, because everyone has different skill sets. There’s a trend in journalism, what the New York Times calls visual investigations  , which I think is a pretty good term, or what Bellingcat calls open-source investigations. Which is not exactly what we do: our desk is an open-source investigation desk focused on technology from a non-technological perspective. This is our mandate and what we try to do in our NatSec+ newsletter.

 

Take us a bit more into your newsroom. How many people are there? What are the different tasks and skills that you put in place? How do you cooperate each other, so I’ll get the picture of

Our desk is de facto a 3-man investigation team, with different sets of skills. Oded Yaron is the person leading this to operation, he covers arms technology and he’s our open-source expert in terms of documents, corporate structures, all these stuffs, very classic, hardcore Osint work. The editor of the Newsletter is a man called Avi Sharf and he’s been Haaretz’s expert plane watcher for many years. We used to treat plane watching only as leads, to feed other reporters, now it’s a stand-alone. And I do cyber and human, I deal with sources, and I try to corroborate the leads we get from the open-source activities, and that’s a really important thing. There are a lot of desks that are doing open source-work only, Bellingcat doesn’t talk to people. We’re trying to bring this digital know-how back to the core of journalistic practice. Plus the moment you open up to thinking of the digital space as a political space, it’s really like you have more stories than time.

A small example, one of the beats that I’m really involved in covering, is Wikipedia. It is not just an online encyclopaedia, but also an open-source arena, right? So I’m looking at the actual editors, who they are, and map the people trying to influence the public discourse in Israel. Wikipedia feeds Google, feeds ChatGPT, if you can manipulate that, it has massive effects. Wikipedia is seen as a geek culture product, no one would ever think it’s connected to surveillance, but it is another example of a technological arena with high political stakes. The challenge for a newsroom is that it takes time to understand and adapt the meta-narratives, then put forward coherent stories that will educate not only the public, but also the newspaper itself to think about these stories in a different way.

 

Can you elaborate more on this different way? How would you advise another young journalist covering these topics?

It touches on the key point of education. I think the biggest problem with technology is that it is wrapped up in this discourse of innovation, which prevents the public from understanding it, but also prevents journalists from properly covering and working with it. You ask any person in the public what they think about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and they have an opinion, even though they have no clue how nuclear fusion works. When it comes to digital technology, people will tell you that they don’t understand how it works, so I don’t have answers. I think it doesn’t matter how it works. We’re trying to move away from a discourse that comes attached with technology and says this is new, innovative, cutting edge, and we can’t regulate it because we don’t understand it. This stuff is new at some level, but it doesn’t pose a new regulatory problem. We’ve been regulating arms for close to a hundred years, you can’t buy a nuclear bomb on Amazon and that’s great. Let’s reach a point where you can’t buy digital spyware technologies in this manner. We’re not even having this discussion!

But I think the big lie with covering technology is that it is nowhere. Think of how we conceive cloud technology. No, cloud actually means servers in Iceland. If you’re covering cloud hacking, somewhere there’s an office, there are people. Many times, technology reporting is much easier than other fields because people in the business don’t perceive themselves as part of the defence apparatus. If I were to reach out to the head of the IDF’s military technology unit, he would hang up the phone. But if I’m calling a company whose clients are in the military, they think of themselves as a company, and they have a very specific vision of a journalist: as a troublemaker, or someone coming to do PR for them. The work is to break that dichotomy, people respond well if you know what the company does and you’re able to create a dialogue. Plus, they think they’re saving the world, right? That they’re inside this ethical tech club, they’re making the world a better place and they’re proud of what they do. You have an entry point here, because you can reach out to them, and they usually respond.

Of course, as an Israeli I was lucky, I come from a small country in which I am part of the élite: I’m white, I’m Jewish, and I’m from Tel Aviv. While some of my friends decided to go into media, many others did not, so there’s this elitist network all over this small country that you can tap into, which also includes family. But I still get tons of pushback, it’s okay that the people I write about disagree with me and explain that not all surveillance is bad and the like. It’s very important not to hide behind the keyboard, for example by making requests for comments face to face.

 

There is an urgence to define the ethics of surveillance technologies. How would you discuss that within your group?

The main challenge of our times is that we must not let the tech firms dictate the ethics of journalism. Such a debate would be completely linked to their desire to stay untaxed and unregulated. I know reporters who will tell me they would never use an avatar or fake accounts because it’s unethical due to the platform’s terms of use. Who cares, they’re not part of our ethical debate, they’re for profit companies. As journalists, ethical dilemmas are to be discussed with your editor, and each newspaper has their own ethical autonomy.

The other interesting ethical debate is that not all surveillance is evil. If you were to look at the field there, everyone thinks NSO is terrible. In that sense I have a quite conservative position. I don’t think we should ban spyware and I’ve become convinced that it’s a legitimate form of technology that we want governments to have. We want to be able to track people who smuggle, who turn women into sex slavery, and track revenge porn. We want that technology and we need the law and the international understanding to govern it. What is not legitimate is that military-level technology is being privatised and sold on the market. That is a massive problem.

 

Governments were responsible for serious abuses. Can journalists or others be targets of legitimate surveillance by law enforcement agencies?

In our ethical debate, we thought spyware is terrible and, post Pegasus project, we realised that all governments use it. Now we’re at the very phase of legal versus not legal, which I find childish. Let’s take the Spanish example: the government lawfully used spyware against the Catalan movement  . Whatever your political opinions are, they’re not blowing up buses, you might hate it, but it’s a political movement, not an armed military uprising, right? Then you have the Moroccan spying  on the Spanish government, unlawfully we say. So the issue is not about lawfulness, in a context where national security is the skeleton key concept that is being used to justify almost everything. After many investigations, we realised that a lot of surveillance practices are not illegal at all. Instead, it should be shameful for a person to sit in a meeting with the politician and say they also have 500,000 avatars to twist the public debate. The normative approach lacks the ability to create stigmatisation of bad surveillance abuses. We need public debate for that.

 

In Israel, how the context affects people’s mentality and approach to the idea of technology as a saviour or a threat?

If Edward Snowden  ’s case would have happened in Israel and he finds me, saying “I have a great story and I have documents: Israel is listening to everyone”, I’d respond “Great, but what’s the story?”. Israeli society is extremely jaded. People believe they’re under surveillance and they have zero problem with it, because they know the person surveying is their brother or cousin, and they accept that they must give up personal freedoms or that their rights might be exploited. This challenging mentality shapes the background of a lot of our journalistic work.

The second problematic aspect is that it creates an ethical framework in which a lot of Israelis think that whatever is good for Israel, maintains Israel’s security, or improves Israel diplomatic standing is okay. NSO sold surveillance tech to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia did terrible things with it. It’s fine, because maybe soon Israel will make peace with the Saudi. Pegasus was in the backyard of the Abraham Accords  . We call it cyber diplomacy, the focus is not who you sell to or what they do with it, the problem is if it’s good or bad for Israel. This is the only question that matters.

Third interesting point is that all of my sources in all of these cyber firms belong to the Israeli left wing liberal standards: pro Lgbtq+, concerned by the environment, none of them is pro Netanyahu, and in theory they support peace and a government that was advancing a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they think that if these tech trade agreements allow Israel to make peace with the Arab world, it’s a good thing. It’s an extension of a logic that is directly connected to the occupation [of the Palestinian Territories, ndA]. Within the army culture, there’s a say, which is called the good soldier at the checkpoint. Somebody needs to be at the checkpoint, and the question is if it’s going to be a nice white liberal, or an angry racist right winger. And the answer is that it’s always better that it be someone like me. I did go to the army, even though we didn’t support the occupation, because it’s better for us to be there. And this logic continues into the tech space.

 

And into journalism as well?

The Israeli media is very much connected to the army and the military radio is where a lot of young journalists start. This also makes us very knowledgeable about the military. Organically we’re all experts, we all have inside sources, and so on.
The army’s ability to control the narrative in Israel is reduced because I can always call my cousin, who’s on the front line right now, and he’ll tell me what’s happening. In that sense we’re perceived as a threat because we’re now exposing Israel’s military-industrial complex, and we’re doing it in a way that undermines Israel’s ability to use these technologies for its benefits.
For instance, all of these surveillance technologies are used nonstop  in the West Bank, and that’s the elephant in the room: the fact that even for the most liberal Israelis, this is a given. Israelis don’t usually think their army may do something bad. Maybe the government is doing something bad with the army, but they trust the army and all its weaponry. This is extremely problematic, because the Palestinians living in the West Bank are not our civilians, they don’t have rights.

 

What kind of legal threats did you experience, what measures you implemented for your protection, and what kind of advice can you provide to other newsrooms who are willing to engage in this kind of reporting?

We always have a rigid legal process, even much more than most newspapers in terms of requests for comments. I really recommend telling companies at least a week or two before you’re publishing that you’re writing about them, and to give them the opportunity to meet you off-the-record to set the record straight. What concerns private companies may be different from what you are really interested in. Once you are within that dialogue, you can fact check and set the record straight on things that if you got wrong, you would get sued. We’re two years into this reporting on cybersec and we got zero lawsuits, which I think is a really good sign.

Also, this is really relevant for us, we live in a country with a military censor that has the right to tell me that I can’t publish certain things because they harm national security. It’s not a binding decision and the newspaper can challenge the decision. Ironically, really sensitive material will get flagged at that point: the fact that something will or will not be allowed for publication is actually a really big indicator of whether it’s true or not. So in that sense I can then rebuild my story in a way that it’s fine.

 

Is there a certain level of self-censorship in this sense when reporting on the tech surveillance industry?

I don’t think it’s self-censorship, not more than any other reporter who works with inside sources. Even if you write about the police right? You have to balance between maintaining your sources within the police but also be critical. But I think it’s the same challenges. Maybe that’s the real challenge: we have to cover the digital world like we cover everything else.

 

How do you manage your personal and digital safety? What kind of guidelines or protocols do you follow?

That’s the hardest stuff. I have two companies providing high-end, extremely expensive digital defence for me at a pro-bono level. I use a system of codes to maintain my notes, so if you were to open my phone notebook you wouldn’t be able to understand who I’m talking to. We do use 2-step verification. We once did an entire project completely on paper, the worst thing we’d ever done, it was terrible, it drove us crazy. The more you learn, the more you realise how much you’re exposed. You’re constantly updating and changing, but the sad answer is that you can’t stay safe. We have this joke that we like to tell ourselves: remember, in the end it’s going to be in a newspaper! There’s a phase for secrecy, then we have to let it go. And we have kind of reached the point of making peace with the fact that some information may leak.

 

My final question is more about the psychological burden of doing this work. How do you cope with that, at personal level and at newsroom level?

A lot of journalists go through this kind of ups and downs. As a very internal newsroom dynamic, editors can be very demanding, and you need someone who actually understands you. As an investigative reporter, you step into very scary, crazy worlds. It’s scary to be inside them, but also it’s also very hard to carry the burden of knowledge, and the consequences of being unable to publish and people won’t know anything. If your editor doesn’t understand your urgency and the weight you’re carrying, and is just thinking about headlines and deadlines, then you’re going to reach a bad place. It’s also very important to share, you need other reporters that you can talk with, and I also say that I’m a very big fan of going into therapy. I do go to therapy, and while it’s not stigmatised in Israel, it’s also not that common in the newsrooms. The debate on mental health is now opening, there is a shift to that. And my newspaper has once sent me on vacation, telling me listen, I think you should take a few days off. That is the nice kind of thing that can happen, isn’t it?

This article was coordinated by OBCT as part of tthe Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Italy: Roberto Saviano’s conviction a major blow to free…

Italy: Roberto Saviano’s conviction a major blow to free expression

The undersigned international media freedom, free expression, and journalist organisations express shock over yesterday’s criminal conviction of writer and journalist Roberto Saviano, in a case brought by current Italian PM Giorgia Meloni, and we convey our full solidarity with him.

On 12 October 2023, the Criminal Court of Rome convicted Saviano of criminal defamation. The case was initiated by Meloni in November 2021, prior to her assuming the current role of Prime Minister. The criminal lawsuit accused Saviano of aggravated criminal defamation due to his critical comments about Meloni’s persistent anti-migrant stance, voiced during the television programme, Piazza Pulita. Saviano’s remarks came after Piazza Pulita covered the tragic death of a six-month-old baby from Guinea, one of the migrants who drowned  in the Mediterranean when Italian authorities delayed their rescue efforts.

 

The prosecutor had asked for a fine of 10,000 euros for the criminal charge while its civil law counterpart demanded an additional 75,000 euros in damages. The judge acknowledged the mitigating circumstances, mentioning the moral motivation that led Roberto Saviano to formulate his criticism. The criminal court ordered the writer to pay a fine of 1,000 euros, and 2,600 euros of legal expenses; a further compensation for civil claims of the plaintiff will be determined by a civil court. The final text of the decision that includes the judge’s reasoning will be published in 90 days. 

 

We believe that Roberto Saviano’s criminal conviction sets a dangerous example which may further facilitate attempts to muzzle critical commentary on public officials and political leaders, bearing grave consequences not only for Roberto Saviano, but also for Italy’s wider press freedom. Defamation laws used to silence criticism have a chilling effect on the society as a whole, and can lead to self-censorship among writers, journalists, activists and human rights defenders and the general public. 

 

The right to freedom of expression encompasses the right to express opinions and ideas that may be considered offensive, shocking, or disturbing. The ECtHR has clarified that public figures, especially those in political roles, should tolerate a higher degree of criticism and scrutiny due to their prominent position in society. Criminal prosecution to suppress criticism against public officials is a violation of the right to freedom of expression as protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

 

Our organisations  have been observing how public officials have been increasingly using defamation lawsuits to target journalists and writers reporting on issues of public interest. We emphasise the necessity of ensuring a conducive work environment for journalists in Italy to empower them to report on crucial topics in the public interest and to pose challenging questions without the fear of facing legal threats. Using a criminal defamation lawsuit to silence critical voices cannot happen in a democratic society. We call again the urgent need for Parliament to comprehensively reform outdated defamation laws in Italy and bring them in line with international freedom of expression standards.  

 

As Saviano’s lawyer has announced that the decision of the court will be appealed, we will continue to monitor the legal proceedings of the Rome court and stand strong in  support of the Italian writer and journalist.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe 
  • Blueprint for Free Speech 
  • Civil Liberties Union for Europe 
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) 
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) 
  • Frente Cívica, Portugal 
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU) 
  • Fondazione Libera Informazione 
  • Index on Censorship 
  • International Press Institute (IPI) 
  • Meglio Legale 
  • OBC Transeuropa 
  • The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation 
  • The Good lobby Italia 
  • South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

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Preventative wiretaps

Preventive wiretaps: A violation of the right of defence?

Preventive wiretaps: A violation of the right of defence?

After the book by former journalists Bisignani and Madron, which talks about 400 politicians and journalists controlled by the services, the alarm came from former MP Marco Cappato, who fears being under surveillance. The government denies, but the debate is about the law that regulates preventive wiretapping rather than the specific case.

 

by Paola Rosà

Originally published by OBCT, available also in ITA.

“I absolutely rule out that there is or has been any wiretapping activity against MP Marco Cappato”. Thus, a few hours after the public alarm raised by the treasurer of the association Luca Coscioni, a statement   from the undersecretary to the Presidency of the Council Alfredo Mantovano denied on behalf of the government the rumors about an alleged permanent control operation against Cappato, candidate in the Senate by-elections in Monza in October. Similarly, with a much more detailed statement   which arrived very quickly, the undersecretary had responded in May to the allegations contained in the book by Luigi Bisignani and Paolo Madron, “The powerful at the time of Giorgia”, published by Chiarelettere, in which there was talk of 400 unauthorised interceptions against politicians, journalists, former members of the government, and members of the opposition.

Allegations and denials

“I have never authorised, as the delegated Authority for the security of the Republic, any form of interception of political representatives or journalists”, wrote Mantovano at the end of May  , defining the scenario envisaged by the book as “very concerning”.

These two sensational cases stirred up the political debate for a few days in recent months, but did not lead to complaints or requests for corrections: it had happened in May, with the advertising launch of the book by Bisignani and Madron, and it also happened at the end of August, with the video   posted on Twitter by Marco Cappato, then shared by Ansa   and by various newspapers, for a total of almost half a million views.

Cappato’s complaint was detailed: “I formally ask the Prime Minister to verify whether the information that reached me anonymously that from February 2023 I am allegedly subjected to ‘computer tapping’ of the telephone (permanent and total interception) with state trojans and that wiretaps have been underway in my usual places of work and life since March of this year. The monitoring would be carried out by the Information and Security Agency – Aisi – at the request of the Information Department for the Security of the Republic – Dis – Authority delegated by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers for any cases of contesting the crime of subversive association and any crimes found during the investigation”.

It is not yet known whether the leak that Cappato says he trusts blindly has been artfully manipulated, whether the institutions are hiding something or whether these are unfounded statements. Even in the case of the 400 alleged wiretaps against politicians and journalists, the only comments were by Matteo Renzi, former head of government, and Vittorio di Trapani, president of the Fnsi. “It is urgent to clarify the matter”, was the request   of the president of the journalists’ union. “It would be an unprecedented scandal”, Renzi wrote   in Il Riformista.

Preventive interceptions by the police and secret services

The interceptions mentioned by Bisignani and Madron are be the so-called preventive interceptions, legal for the police and secret services as long as they are authorised in advance by a magistrate. These wiretaps are different from those targeting suspects: the Criminal Procedure Code establishes the differences from procedural wiretaps, which allow the continuation of investigations (articles 266-271 of the Criminal Procedure Code) or facilitate the search for fugitives (art. 295, co. 3, 3-bis and 3-ter c.p.p.). On the other hand, preventive ones, whether police or intelligence, have public security functions and serve to understand whether there are potential risks for the stability of the country’s institutional and economic system.

The mechanism for this type of wiretapping, carried out by the services delegated by the President of the Council of Ministers and subject to authorisation by the Attorney General at the Court of Appeal of Rome, is simple: the head of government can delegate, under their political responsibility, the directors of the security information services to carry out interceptions of communications or conversations between those present, even if these take place in the home, in a private place of residence, or in their appurtenances, including the acquisition of external data (the so-called metadata) relating to telephone and electronic communications and the acquisition of any other useful information. Thus the Code of Criminal Procedure integrated by other provisions contained in the Pisanu decree of 2005, in the Code of anti-mafia laws of 2011, and in the Budget Law of the Meloni government of December 2022.

Also on the Carabinieri   website, managed by the Ministry of Defence, there is a precise definition: “It is a tool that allows to detect live and with the maximum level of relevance the level of danger both of the clans operating in a territory and the danger of individual subjects. Regardless of the possibility of developing judicial investigations arising from the elements acquired, they can indicate the priorities on which to intervene with targeted preventive investigations”.

The right to defence and to be informed

But as Leonardo Filippi, professor emeritus of Criminal Procedure at the University of Cagliari, writes in the online magazine Penale Diritto e Procedura  , the changes recently introduced by the government increasingly lead to the question to what extent our Constitution tolerates “a limitation of fundamental freedoms for the purposes of crime prevention without even subsequent information to the person who suffers it”. The question is all the more justified by the fact that the recent changes do not indicate “any serious crime to be prevented, therefore an authorisation for any crime would be legitimate, even trivial or considered inoffensive, as long as the operations are considered indispensable for carrying out prevention activities” of the secret services. Instead, argues Filippi, “it is left to the Attorney General at the Court of Appeal of Rome to make a generic assessment of the indispensability of the prevention activity for the purposes of carrying out the prevention activities delegated to the security information services: if they consider them indispensable, they authorise, with their own reasoned decree, the interceptions”.

The change compared to the past is not insignificant: if preventive interceptions were previously approved when the Public Prosecutor believed there were “investigative elements” that justified the prevention activity, now the authorisation must be based exclusively on the fact that such interceptions are “essential for carrying out the activities delegated” to the services themselves.

A critical element of preventive interceptions lies, according to prof. Filippi, in the total absence of the right of defence, as there is no formal suspect or charges. Filippi writes: “Given the natural secrecy of preventive activities, the procedure for verifying the regularity of operations and subsequent destruction is not assisted by any guarantee to protect the person subjected to ante delictum collections, who is, ordinarily, destined to remain unaware of the activities carried out against them.

And he continues: “However, the targets of interception and therefore of the limitation of the secrecy of their communications or conversations would have the right at least to be informed of the capture of their dialogues, once the prevention needs have been satisfied”.

All the more disturbing, then, is the thought, fuelled by what is written in Bisignani and Madron’s book, that in recent years such interceptions have expanded and have included newspaper editors, MPs, and members of the opposition.

Unconfirmed rumors from Copasir

At the moment there are no complaints or requests for corrections on the book, which in any case has undergone some television censorship: at the beginning of June Mediaset had cancelled two appearances by Bisignani in Nicola Porro’s programme “Quarta Repubblica”, and in “Stasera Italia”, the talk hosted by Barbara Palombelli, communicating the cancellation a few hours before the broadcast.

On the other hand, there could be a judicial initiative against Bisignani by Tim, which at the beginning of July announced   that it had given a mandate to its lawyers to proceed in court to protect the actions of its employees and shareholders. In fact, on 2 July, Bisignani returned to the subject of wiretapping in an article in il Tempo   (“The 400 intercepted without their knowledge”), and had said that, in a hearing at Copasir (Parliamentary Committee for Security) on 20 June, Tim’s head of security and public affairs Eugenio Santagata confirmed that the activities of the former telephone monopolist would include not only carrying out interceptions useful for national security, but also extending them, if the authority so considered, to ordinary citizens, with what is commonly defined as a “trawl” system.

Here Bisignani quotes his co-author Madron: “According to what Madron was able to ascertain from some members of the Parliamentary Committee for Security (and the Secret Services) who requested anonymity”, the manager would have reported that among the institutional activities of his group there is the possibility of listening to the voice and airwaves of unaware Italian citizens. With the possibility, depending on the interest of the conversations captured, to extend the listening to other users too: the so-called trawl system. With this Bisignani alleges that under the grounds of national security there would be a risk of violating everyone’s privacy.

The hearings at Copasir and a parallel investigation by the Rome prosecutor’s office are at the moment the only concrete consequence of Bisignani and Madron’s book; the hearings are secret, and everything Bisignani writes in retrospect are conjectures which, although denied by the government and Tim, remain debated on the political scene. For the rest, there are no other complaints or requests for rectification affecting the book, which over the summer had some success with the public, including at the Trento Economics festival and in presentations in Capalbio, Avellino, Rome, the Vicenza Golf Club, and the Kalè bathing establishment in Castellaneta Marina in the province of Taranto.

This article was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

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Alican Uludag

Turkey: International groups alarmed by the targeting of journalist…

Turkey: International groups alarmed by the targeting of journalist Alican Uludağ

The undersigned media freedom, freedom of expression and human rights organizations denounce the inflammatory rhetoric directed at Deutsche Welle (DW) Turkish service reporter Alican Uludağ by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) officials and call on the Turkish authorities to ensure journalists’ safety. Journalists must be able to freely publish information they obtain on matters of public concern, without any risk of violence.

On October 10, DW Turkish service reporter Alican Uludağ published a news report revealing developments about the controversial case of Sinan Ateş, former leader of the Grey Wolves, the paramilitary wing of MHP, who was assassinated in the center of Ankara in December, 2022. Uludağ reported allegations that İzzet Ulvi Yönter, deputy leader of MHP had tried to bribe one of the prosecutors with a position on the Supreme court if suspects affiliated with the MHP were released.

 

Following Uludağ’s report, Yönter shared a post on his X account, targeting Uludağ by writing “If you do not prove these disgusting claims, you are a vile and shameful slanderer. We will settle the score in the judiciary.”

 

Semih Yalçın, another MHP deputy leader also posted “Those who attempt to slander our deputy leader İzzet Ulvi Yönter will be held accountable to the relevant authorities. We will not remain silent while people such as Alican Uludağ, who lack honor and dignity, try to cast a shadow of doubt on our party and companions. Let this go on the record.”

 

Following the MHP posts there was a pile on of harassment and threats of violence on social media targeting Uludağ. In response, Uludağ wrote that he is not afraid of the threats he received. He said he will continue to shed light on Ateş’s murder.

 

Earlier in January 2023, Voice of America (VoA) Turkish service reporter Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu was also targeted by MHP officials. The events unfolded after her attempt to ask MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli about the assassination of Sinan Ateş, to which Bahçeli responded by telling the journalist to “mind her business”, after which Yazıcıoğlu was pushed out of the way by an MHP MP. Following this, she was targeted on social media by one of MHP deputy leaders, İsmail Özdemir, who accused her of being an “agent provocateur”.

 

We reiterate our call on the government to guarantee that journalists are able to do their work free of intimidation and harassment. Politicians, in particular, have a responsibility to avoid online harassment of critical journalists which, unchecked, can quickly lead to violence.  Authorities must take all measures to ensure the safety of journalists.

Signed by:

  • International Press Institute
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA)
  • Platform for Independent Journalism (P24)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

This statement was coordinated by IPI as part of its #FreeTurkeyJournalists campaign and members of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) consortium, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

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