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AEJ Ukraine’s annual media freedom report highlights abuse and intimidation against journalists in Donbass and Crimea

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The AEJ’s Media Freedom Report for Ukraine covering the past year highlights violent attacks, office raids and official obstruction of the activities of Ukrainian journalists in ‘occupied’ parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The rate of impunity (official failures to properly investigate and prosecute perpetrators) across the whole of Ukraine was again very high in 2015, with only 11 out of 171 cases so far brought to court, it is reported.

The latest annual Report, citing Ukrainian data sources and specific cases, notes that cases of physical abduction, violence and legal harassment against journalists fell compared to the figures from 2014, a year of local elections when violent acts allegedly by Russian-backed separatists forced dozens of journalists from those regions into exile. The Report concludes that ‘The function of media in the occupied territories is effectively performed now by social networks’,

The AEJ Ukraine Media Freedom Report covering attacks against freedom of speech and harassment of journalists, was written by Ievgen Diemenok for the AEJ’s Congress and General Assembly in Kilkenny, Ireland on November 4 and 5. The full report is printed below:-

“ Ukraine is still suffering from the outrageous influence oligarchs have on its mass media as well as information war with Russia, as reported in the World Press Freedom Index published by the international NGO promoting freedom of information and freedom of press Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Nevertheless, RSF gave Ukraine a higher ranking than before: it now occupies the 107th position against 129th a year before. RSF reports a significant fall in abuses faced by journalists.

2015 saw 301 cases of freedom of speech violations on the unoccupied territory of Ukraine against a much higher number in 2014 (995 cases), according to the annual research report «Freedom of Speech Barometer» presented by the Institute of Mass Information.

«Taking into account the Crimea (43) and the occupied territories of Donbas (16) the number of freedom of speech violations this year made up 360 cases. The categories with the most violations were obstruction of professional work (100 cases), which is half of what it used to be last year ( 2014 – 150, 2013 – 130). According to IMI data, the peak of obstruction was in September and October 2015, during the campaign for local elections», said the report. Physical abuse and attacks rank second with 58 cases, which is one fifth of last year cases (286 cases in 2014 and 97 in 2013).

The main violations in 2015 came from private individuals and unknown abusers. The top three violations also included threats and harassment, 2015 saw 36 of such cases (against 98 cases in 2014 and 35 in 2013). 2015 saw a increased tendency for cases when the access of journalists to public infromation was limited. This year there is a twofold increase of such cases (33) against last year (14) and 13 cases in 2013. On February, 27 a staff photographer for Segodnya newspaper Sergei Nikolaev was mortally wounded as a result of shelling crossfire in Pesky village of Donetsk region.

On April, 16, a writer and blogger Oles Buzina was shot in Kyiv. His professional activity is believed to be the main cause for his murder. A journalist from Luhansk Maria Varfolomeyeva was kept captive for over a year by LNR militants. She was captured while shooting residential buildings in the streets of Luhansk on January, 9, 2015. To compare with, in 2014 IMI reported 79 cases of kidnapping journalists and keeping them as captives. There were also 12 cases of censorship which is 11,5 times less than in 2014 (138 cases). 2015 saw 43 cases of freedom of speech violations in the Crimea annexed by Russia. The Russian FSB suspected journalists of «extremism», some mass media such as the Crimean Tatar channel ATR was forced to stop broadcasting due to the work permit on the occupied peninsula being denied by Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications).

As for the occupied territories of Donbas, the militants of the so-called «LNR» and «DNR» captured many journalists, blocked Ukrainian TV channels and radio channels and attacked the premises of journalists. In 2015 the leading regions with the most violations (except the occupied territories) became: Kyiv (60), Kyiv region (5), Nikolayev region (21) and Odessa region with 20 cases. Despite a smaller number of freedom of speech violations, there is a critical problem of impunity. According to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, in 2015 only 11 cases under the article 171 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (obstruction of legal professional activities of journalists) had criminal complaints in court. Yet this is more than in 2014 when only 6 cases were taken to court.

2016 saw freedom of speech in Ukraine getting better again – during the first six months IMI experts recorded in general 129 cases of freedom of speech violations which is less than during the corresponding period in 2015 (143). Yet taking into account the occupied territories of Donbas and the Crimea, the number of violations made up 154 cases (175 in 2015). Physical abuse of journalists is still on the same level – during the first six months of 2016 23 cases of abuse and 23 cases of threat and harrassment were reported. The most common violation became the obstruction of legal professional activities of journalists with 45 cases which is more than in 2015 with 34 cases. Yet there is an improvement in the access of journalists to the information – there were only 9 violations recorded during the first six months this year against 16 last year.

There were 22 cases of freedom of speech violations in the occupied Crimea in the first six months of 2016. The mass media experienced a lot of pressure from FSB, law-enforcement agencies, Roskomnadzor, judicial authorities and private individuals. 3 cases were reported on the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions against 11 cases in 2015. Such a small number of violations can be explained by the fact that dozens of journalists left this area and dozens of mass media stopped their activity. In fact, the function of media on the occupied territories is performed now by social networks. LNR authorities blocked more than 100 Ukrainian news websites while DNR authorities ordered to stop the broadcasting of almost all Ukrainian TV channels.

In July 2016 a car bomb killed a pioneering journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv. The car belonged to the owner and co-founder of Ukrainian Pravda, where Pavel worked, Olena Prytula. The Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko named the main version of the murder revenge for his professional activity.

This September a TV channel Inter came under attack. One of the TV channel’s offices was set on fire by attackers who left a sign «Inter is a Kremlin agent». The arson attack was condemned by the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media and the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.

In February 2015 a journalistRuslan Kotsabawas arrested in Ivano-Frankivsk for calling on Ukrainian men of military age to defy compulsory military draft. He spent over a year in prison awaiting trial and was found guilty of hindering the legitimate activities of Ukrainian Armed Forces during a special period and sentenced to 3,5 years of imprisonment with property confiscation. On February, 10 Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union named Kotsaba’s arrest «persecution on political grounds». According to the Union’s Head of the Board Yevgen Zakharov, Kotsaba can be regarded as «political prisoner» with his arrest for 60 days infringing the right for freedom and being the disproportionate reaction of the state. The Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Valeriya Lutkovska said in a statement that the Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the freedom of expression had been violated and such restriction of freedom is unacceptable in a democratic society. In July 2016 Kotsaba was acquitted by the Appeal Court and then released.

The arrests of Ukrainian journalists travelling to Russia on personal purposes continue. In the evening of September, 2, 2016, a journalist of the national news agency Ukrinform Roman Sushchenko was detained in Moscow on charges of espionage even though he has been working as a correspondent in Paris for 6 years.

The international organization Reporters ithout Borders describes Sushchenko as a professional and objective journalist and believes that FSB accusations have no grounds. The organization’s representative in UkraineOksana Romanyukbelieves this to be a political case and that Sushchenko is a hostage of further political negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

Yet again, another Ukrainian journalist Nikolai Semena, a freelancer for a project of Kyiv Radio Liberty office «Crimea: the Reality» was charged with making public calls to separatism and undermining Russia’s territorial integrity in April 2016. He is currently in Simferopol on strict orders not to leave the peninsula. On October, 4 the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted a statement on the illegal detention by the Russian government of Ukrainian journalists Roman Sushchenko and Nikolai Semena. The statement of deputies addressed the European Parliament, the parliaments of the EU member states, the USA, Canada and Japan, the OSCE Chairman and the representatives of international organizations on grounds of illegal detention and deprivation of liberty of Ukrainian journalists.”

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