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NGOs express concern over freedom of speech in Ukraine

On the eve of Journalist Day, 6 June, human rights organizations have issued a statement expressing concern over the escalating assault on freedom of expression and reduction of other fundamental freedoms in Ukraine.

“We believe that these disturbing trends are linked primarily with the approach of the 2015 presidential elections. It appears as though all is being done to purge the media once and for all of isolated centres of independent thought, information, communication and broadcasting, and to intimidate journalists.

The Institute of Mass Information reports that last year broke all records in Ukraine for the number of violations of journalist rights with 324 cases. That is the largest number over the last 10 years, and is seen as being linked with the impunity of officialdom and politicians.

This rising trend has continued in 2013. Thanks to journalists’ efforts the shocking attack on Channel 5 journalist Olha Snitsarchuk and Kommersant Ukraine photographer Vladislav Sodel during the “Rise Ukraine” rally on 18 May 2013 gained wide publicity. The attack was carried out in the presence of police officers who, in the words of Interior Ministry representatives “demonstrated a certain lack of decisiveness”.  They did not intervene in any way, although the law states that obstruction of a journalist in the course of their work is equivalent in terms of liability to actions against law enforcement officers. It was only because of the response from the journalist community and pressure from the public that 15 police officers who watched the attack on Olha Snitsarchuk and Vladislav Sodel faced disciplinary proceedings for their failure to act.

This situation confirmed the suspicions expressed by human rights activists on a number of occasions that the police are cooperating with criminal elements who carry out acts of violence against inconvenient journalists and civic activists. Investigations into cases involving burly thugs just get sat on.

Together with physical methods of pressure on journalists, juridical methods are also applied. The most typical was the situation involving TV Channel TVi. Among other things this yet again demonstrated the threats posed by Ukraine’s non-implementation of its international obligations. We believe that the reasons for the conflict over ownership rights of the channel lie in shortcomings in legislation and practice which members of the human rights community have pointed out to the authorities and public.  In its recommendations the Council of Europe has insisted that the public must have access to basic information about the media so that they can form their own opinion as to the weight they should give information, ideas and views expressed therein. Ukraine’s international obligations also include ensuring pluralism and there is a danger of non-implementation of this in the extremely contradictory position of the owner of TVi.

The incident with TVi has again clearly demonstrated the lack of safeguards for the work of a journalist team against interference by the media owner and vulnerability of so-called “internal press freedom”.

This effective lack of observance of European standards of freedom and pluralism is a highly dangerous trend. The assault on independent media is an attack on citizens’ constitutional right to gather, store, use and disseminate information,  History in the XX century demonstrated that dictatorships began with restriction of freedom of speech and thought, and ended with the destruction of personal independence – civil, labour, property, freedom of conscience, creative freedom.

The above-mentioned cases which, in our opinion, illustrate an ongoing reduction in freedom of speech in Ukraine, are the consequence of deep processes of degradation of political and economic institutions in the country. Media freedom as a comprehensive phenomenon, like independent courts and other independent institutions are simply redundant in the corrupt authoritarian system which is being built in Ukraine.

Yet, systemic changes, although they do not take place suddenly, are nonetheless possible. To promote such changes, the following steps are needed: amendments to current legislation in order to introduce mechanisms for safeguarding independence of editorial policy from the media owner; adoption of a law on transparent media ownership in compliance with universally accepted international standards; the creation of public broadcasting with the active participation and monitoring of civic society.

Systemic changes would also be facilitated by the creation of a truly independent socio-political Internet channel. We express our readiness to support through our own efforts a draft project independent of self-seeking motives, interference from political parties or owners in editorial policy. We will continue to support the consolidation of international standards of press freedom which is one of the pillar stones for the development of democracy in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union

Kharkiv Human Rights Group

The Centre for Civil Liberties

The Centre for Human Rights

The Institute of Mass Information

Telekritika

The Independent Media Union of Ukraine

Internews Ukraine

The Regional Press Development Institute

The Media Law Institute

The Svidomo Bureau of Journalist Investigations

The statement is open for endorsement by writing to 

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