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Ukraine Media Freedom report at AEJ annual Congress in Vilnius

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The Annual report on attacks against freedom of speech and harassment of journalists in Ukraine, by Ievgen Diemenok

Since the 2014 Maidan revolution, the Ukrainian authorities have adopted a number of reforms, including media ownership transparency and access to state-held information, but more is needed to loosen the oligarchs’ tight grip on the media and encourage editorial independence. The information war with Russia is still a source of concern.

In 2016, the authorities again proved powerless to protect media outlets from attacks such as journalist Pavel Sheremet’s murder, the publication of the personal data of thousands of journalists accused of “treason,” and an arson attack on Inter TV’s headquarters. In the lawless separatist-controlled areas in the east, there are still no critical journalists or foreign observers.

The World Press Freedom Index, published by the international NGO promoting freedom of information and freedom of press Reporters Without Borders (RSF), raised Ukraine’s ranking in the 2016 Index to 107th position (against its 129th position in 2015). In the 2017 list Ukraine occupied 102ndplace.

The year 2016 saw 146 cases of freedom of speech violations on the unoccupied territory of Ukraine against a much higher number in 2015 (301 cases), according to the annual research report «Freedom of Speech Barometer» presented by the Institute of Mass Information.

The categories with the most violations were obstruction of professional work (108 cases), which is almost at the same level as last year (2015 – 100). Physical abuse and attacks rank second with 30 cases, which is twice less than last year (58 in 2015).

There were also 7 cases of censorship in 2016 compare to 12 in 2015.

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 journalist Ruslan Kotsaba was 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 without Borders describes Sushchenko as a professional and objective journalist and believes that FSB accusations have no grounds. The organization’s representative in Ukraine Oksana Romanyuk believes this to be a political case and Sushchenko a hostage of further political negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

Roman Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist illegally detained in Moscow, was left behind the bars when the Moscow City Court made a decision to extend the measure of restraint on November, 10, thus rejecting the defense appeal attempting to free Sushchenko. Ukrinform informs that this information was reported by the journalist’s lawyer Mark Feigin.

The lawyer also mentioned that the defense team counts on the court hearings starting in January 2018.

The National Union of the Journalists of Ukraine demands more attention to the issue of impunity for crimes committed against journalists, for example, Parliamentary hearings on the problem, the Head of the National Union of the Journalists of Ukraine, Sergei Tomylenko, said. The National Union’s secretary Valery Makeev provided the prosecutor’s office with data on investigating crimes against journalists. For instance, in 2015 only 15 cases were terminated in court, in 2016 just 12 cases and so far in 2017 only 3 cases.

Since the beginning of 2017 the Institute of Mass Information (IMI) recorded 74 cases of obstruction of journalists’ news gathering activities, 34 cases of blocking access to information, 31 cases of threats, 24 cases of physical abuse and 5 cases of censorship.

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