Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard
Despite publicly declaring its commitment to international law and European standards, Ukraine’s state policy in 2018 was de facto aimed at creating additional restrictions for the work of independent media and journalists under the guise of fighting separatism and the need to protect the information space from Russian aggression.
In Parliament deputies from the government coalition submitted a number of draft laws for consideration that aim at obtaining the possibility to extrajudicially block online resources and the creation of additional reasons for fines and the deprivation of licenses of TV channels. The Parliament’s vote for the introduction of targeted sanctions against two TV channels broadcasting alternative views and positions was unprecedented.
The National Council of TV and Radio Broadcasting, through its functions of licensing and imposing fines, has become a tool for putting pressure on independent media in order to obtain a loyal editorial policy towards President Poroshenko.
In addition, Ukrainian and international human rights defenders recorded numerous facts ofthe Security Service of Ukraine and other law enforcement bodies interfering in the work of journalists and the activities of public organizations in order to censor materials and voiced opinions. Since 2014, representatives of the SBU have been overly broadly interpreting the provisions of the Criminal Code relating to terrorism, as well as the provisions on treason and encroachment on the territorial integrity of the state in cases against Ukrainian media workers, journalists, bloggers, and even ordinary users of social networks. In 2018, law enforcement bodies initiated new proceedings against journalists (Kirill Vyshinsky).
An equally significant problem with the observance of the right to freedom of speech and opinion in Ukraine is violence against journalists and media editorial boards. According to statistics, 96% of crimes against journalists in Ukraine go unpunished.
During 2018, a number of legislative acts were introduced in the Parliament, which (if adopted) could become a tool for the authorities to put additional pressure on independent media. The initiators of these draft laws were mainly deputies from the coalition factions “Bloc of Petro Poroshenko”and “People’s Front”. Under the aegis of countering “Russian hybrid aggression”, these draft laws contain measures that significantly restrict freedom of speech and opinion in Ukraine. In particular, we are talking about the following legislative initiatives submitted to the Parliament during 2018:
- The introduction of the possibility to block online information resources for up to 2 days (at the initiative of the Prosecutor or investigator) or indefinitely (by a court decision). Relevant draft law No. 6688 was included in the agenda of Parliament in June 2018. On July 4th the parliamentary committee on national security and defence approved the draft law. The Security Service of Ukraine publicly supported the draft law. On September 4th the parliamentary Committee on Information and Communication decided to send the document for revision. According to the human rights activists of “Uspishna Varta“, the fact that the draft law was submitted to the Parliament is a serious blow to freedom of expression and poses significant threats to the media and the free exchange of information on the Internet.
- Giving the National Council of TV and Radio Broadcasting (hereinafter – the National Council) the opportunity to impose fines and cancel the licenses of TV and radio channels for “calls for a violent change of the constitutional system of Ukraine, unleashing an aggressive war or its propaganda and/or inciting national, racial, and religious hatred and enmity”. Relevant draft law No. 9068 was submitted to the Parliament on September 7th 2018. On October 2nd the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Information Policy and Freedom of speech recommended to Parliament to adopt this draft law at the first reading as a basis. On December 18th, despite the calls of the “People’s Front” party in support of the draft law, deputies did not have enough votes to put it to a vote. According to the human rights activists of “Uspishna Varta”, if the draft law is adopted, the National Council will have virtually unlimited possibilities to put pressure on, and to even close, TV and radio companies that are undesirable for the authorities.
- The possibility of blocking the resources of the Ukrainian media that are suspected by law enforcement bodies of promoting “terrorist activities“ is stipulated in draft law No. 9725, which was registered by deputies from the “Bloc of Petro Poroshenko” and “People’s Front” factions on November 7th. After two attempts (November 20th and December 6th), the draft law was not included in the voting agenda by Parliament.
The vote of the Parliament on October 4th to submit to the National Security and Defence Council the issue of imposing sanctions against the TV channel “112 Ukraine” and “NewsOne” (Decree 2589-VIII) was an unprecedented case. The decree stipulates the following sanctions – the freezing of assets, the cancellation or suspension of licences, the prohibition of the use of the radio frequency resource of Ukraine, the prohibition of the transfer of technologies and rights to objects of intellectual property, and others.
The Parliament’s decision was made as a part of a general campaign of harassment and hate speech from the side of officials and right-wing radical groups against these TV channels. Thus, immediately after the change of management of the “NewsOne” channel in August 2018, on September 3rd the chairmen of the “Bloc of Petro Poroshenko” and “People’s Front” factions said that “the dynamics of anti-Ukrainian sentiment on ‘NewsOne’ is becoming larger” and “this channel more and more broadcasts the Kremlin’s dungeons, using representatives of the fifth column”. On September 4th representatives of these factions in the Parliament hall urged the Prosecutor General’s office and the SBU to investigate “pro-Russian” TV channels, which they call “Vata-TV”. Among the channels named by deputies were “112 channel”, “NewsOne”, and “Inter”.
On September 20th in his annual address to the Parliament, President Poroshenko also demanded to register “agents of influence” of the aggressor state. Journalists and experts suggested that President Poroshenko wants to close “NewsOne” and other opposition media under the pretext of fighting “Kremlin agents”.
A number of restrictive measures for the work of the media and the free expression of opinions are also contained in the draft laws, which are aimed at the actual prohibition of the Russian language and culture in Ukraine.
Thus, significant restrictions on the work of the media can be imposed in the event of the entry into force of draft law No. 5670-d “On ensuring the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the state language”, which was adopted on October 4th at the first reading. Among other things, the draft law stipulates that the print media must be published only in the Ukrainian language. Media can be published in other languages if the content is completely identical to the Ukrainian-language original. Electronic media should have a page in Ukrainian, which should be loaded by default as the home page.
According to the preliminary estimates of media representatives, if this law is adopted a number of Ukrainian media outlets may be closed due to a significant increase in financial costs. The Kyiv Post, the only fully-fledged separate English-language media outlet in Ukraine, has already stated that it lacks resources for the release of a second newspaper. There is also a high probability that these legislative norms will be used to fine and initiate criminal cases against opposition publications.
Against the background of active anti-Russian rhetoric on the eve of the election campaign, on October 18th the Parliament included in its agenda two more draft laws prohibiting propaganda of the “Russian world” and the “Imperial ideology of the aggressor state” in Ukraine (draft laws No. 9139 and No. 9200 respectively). According to the lawyers of the “Uspishna Varta” human rights platform, the adoption of these draft laws will pave the way for a groundless ban on the use of the Russian language and culture, as well as a ban of the Orthodox faith, referring to the alleged idea of involvement and commitment to Russia, which is contrary to the Constitution of Ukraine and international jurisprudence.
The so-called “moratoria on the Russian-language cultural product“ adopted by the regional councils of Lvov and Zhytomyr (25th October), Ternopol (6th November), Ivano-Frankovsk (7th December), and Volyn regions (20 December) have a negative impact on the freedom of speech and opinion. According to the experts of “Uspishna Varta”, these moratoria contradict Article 10 of the Constitution of Ukraine and the law “On culture”. The initiative of the deputies does not have any legal basis and is highly recommendatory. Nevertheless, the decision of the regional councils not only recommend, but also plan to control their unconstitutional implementation. For example, in the Lvov region an interdepartmental working group is being created to conduct “explanatory work” on this moratorium. It is planned to include law enforcement officers, district administration officials, and the public in the group.
The adoption of these moratoriums will have a direct impact on the work of the media and the ability to express their opinions freely. Thus, the editorial board of the Russian-language magazine “Sho” (Lvov region) has already announced restrictions on the sale of its publications in connection with the moratorium.
At the legislative level other prohibitions and restrictions on the work of the media that are not formally related to the factor of Russian aggression were also initiated. Thus, on November 20th draft law No. 9306, which stipulates criminal liability for slander, was submitted to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. The authors of the draft law (deputies from “Bloc of Petro Poroshenko”) propose to introduce criminal liability for the deliberate distribution of knowingly false statements via the “public demonstration of works in the media or on the Internet”. The proposed sanction is a fine of 8,500 to 25,500 hryvnia, correctional labor for a period of one to two years, or the restriction of freedom for a period of two to five years. The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine said that this amounts to a ban on the profession and called to boycott this draft law.
However, for the first time in the history of independent Ukraine, the Verkhovna Rada did not impose a moratorium on media checks during the 2019 presidential elections. The moratorium was supported on December 5th by the Committee on Freedom of Speech and Information Policy, but the issue was not put to a vote. It was assumed that the Committee’s amendments allowed only monitoring of language quotas on the TV and radio.
FINES AND DEPRIVATION OF LICENSES FOR TV AND RADIO CHANNELS
Supervision of compliance with the laws of Ukraine in the field of television and radio broadcasting is carried out by the National Council of Ukraine for Television and Radio Broadcasting (hereinafter – the National Council). At meetings concerning the deprivation of licenses, members of the National Council openly talk about the political expediency of their decisions, allegedly with a view to “combat separatism” and “resist Russian aggression”.
In February 2018 more than 60 media representatives and media companies made an open appeal to President Poroshenko and other authorities, urging them to stop the censorship in the country and to stop the blackmailing of editors by the National Council, which they considered to be the beginning of the collapse of freedom of speech in Ukraine. “The actual duties of this body were reduced to censorship, constant unscheduled inspections, blackmailing editorial offices regarding the extension of licenses, etc.,” says the appeal. From the major media, it was signed by the journalists of the TV channels “Inter”, “ZIK”, “NewsOne”, “112 Ukraine”, the media holding companies “Vesti Ukraine” and “Era Media”, as well as other media agencies.
Thus, in May, the head of the National Council Yury Artemenko on the air of “Channel 5” said that closing the channel isn’t beneficial, since indignation may arrive from Europe and Ukrainians themselves, but imposing systematic fines is profitable and possible. “If a channel is closed – let’s say I love or hate some channel, for example, Inter – you understand that fault will be found and so many people will rise, and Europe will shout that an oppositional channel was closed. But a fine is a good practice, which we saw on the quotas for Ukrainian songs. They pay, whine, cry, but they pay,” he said.
The fines imposed by the National Council are mainly related to the media that is in opposition to the current government and broadcast alternative opinions and assessments on the political agenda. The media close to President Poroshenko and the parliamentary coalition factions, on the contrary, received preferential licenses and were not fined for violations committed on the air.
On July 11th the National Council decided to fine the TV channel “Inter“ for 4 million hryvnia because of a concert shown on May 9th 2018 on the occasion of Victory Day. “Inter” believes that the fine was imposed exclusively for “condemning Nazism as a manifestation of fascism” and intends to defend their interests in court.
On August 29th the National Council also decided to carry out an unscheduled check of the radio station “Radio Vesti“. According to the regulator, on July 18th the proportion of Ukrainian-language programs on the radio was 42.4% versus the 55% of the daily volume of broadcasts required by law. The management of the media holding company “Vesti” has repeatedly reported about the systematic pressure being put on it by the authorities. On November 1st the National Council decided to fine the “Vesti” radio station 22,800 hryvnia for violating the norms for transmission in the Ukrainian language.
On August 29th it became known that the “NewsOne” TV channel was transferred to the management of the lawyer Andrey Portnov, who previously held the post of the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, for 3 years. Immediately on August 30th the National Council announced a warning to the TV channel for the alleged broadcasting of TV programs made after August 1st 1991 that contain the popularization or promotion of law enforcement bodies, the army, and other military or security forces of the “aggressor state”. On September 20th the National Council appointed an unscheduled on-site inspection of “NewsOne”.
In addition to fines, a tool of the National Council that is used to exert pressure is the issue of extending or renewing the licenses of radio and TV channels. The media loyal to President Poroshenko coordinated this issue without difficulties (radio “Novoye Vremya”, the TV channel “Pryamoy”). The TV and radio channels that refused to coordinate their editorial policy with the Presidential Administration continued to have difficulties with the renewal of their licenses in 2018.
On January 24th the ZIK TV channel reported that pressure was being put on its activities after it interviewed an opposition politician. Only after it became known that the composition of the owners had changed did the National Council on March 22nd satisfy the channel’s application for the renewal of its broadcasting license.
The news information channel “112 Ukraine” also reported that pressure was being exerted on it. In May the head of the National Council Yury Artemenko in an interview with “Channel 5” said that the National Council does not intend to extend the license of the channel “112 Ukraine”, because it allegedly negatively influences public opinion. Channel “112” regarded the threats of the officials about the non-renewal of its license for 2 months prior to a review as the obstruction of journalistic activities and demanded the dismissal of Artemenko.
On November 1st the National Council appointed an unscheduled inspection of the “NASH” TV channel (Maksi-TV), which was launched by the opposition politician Evgeny Murayev on November 7th. On December 6th the National Council refused to reissue the name and program concept of the TV channel. The leadership of the channel called the decision of the National Council illegal, biased, and politically motivated.
RESTRICTIONS IMPOSED ON FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND OPINION BY LAW ENFORCEMENT BODIES
CENSORSHIP OF JOURNALISTS AND MEDIA AGENCIES BY THE SECURITY SERVICE OF UKRAINE
Ukrainian and international human rights defenders recorded numerous instances of the SBU and other law enforcement bodies interfering in the work of editors and journalists and the activities of public organizations in order to censor materials and voiced opinions regarding the conflict in Donbass and relations with the Russian Federation. In an open appeal to President Poroshenko in February 2018, more than 60 representatives of Ukrainian media companies demanded to stop censorship in the country and, in particular, to assess the activities of the SBU units that wiretap and survey journalists.
Representatives of the SBU and law enforcement bodies used the situation with the dramatization of the “murder” of the journalist Arkady Babchenko to intimidate and coerce journalists into self-censorship. On May 29th law enforcement bodies reported about the murder of the Russian journalist living in Kiev Arkady Babchenko. On the same day, a number of officials claimed that there was the “trace of the Kremlin” in the crime. On May 30th at a briefing the head of the SBU Vasily Gritsak and the Prosecutor General of Ukraine Yury Lutsenko reported that the journalist is alive. The SBU explained that the dramatization was needed in order to identify the perpetrators of the alleged contract killings of more than 30 (later 47) Ukrainian journalists and public figures. However, the video and statements of the detained “client” of this “murder” presented by the SBU caused experts to cast doubts about the participation of the Russian special services in this case and about the expediency of this dramatization in general.International organizations and diplomatic missions demanded to clarify the need to stage the death of Arkady Babchenko, calling it an “extraordinary measure”. In addition, the International and European Federation of journalists (IFJ-EFJ) condemned the growing number of threats against journalists in Ukraine made by government officials and called on the Ukrainian authorities to stop such acts of harassment aimed against journalists and representatives of journalistic organizations. Authoritative organizations also condemned the so-called “list of traitors” who criticized the government in the situation with Babchenko. This list was published by the Press Secretary of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine Larisa Sargan. It included, amongst others, the journalist Miroslava Gongadze and the Chairman of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine Sergey Tomilenko. The OSCE representative on freedom of the media Harlem Desir called the publication of the list and the accusation of journalists of betrayal “unacceptable and dangerous”.
SEARCHES IN MEDIA OUTLETS AND INTERFERENCE IN THE WORK OF JOURNALISTS
During the year, law enforcement bodies carried out searches in the editorial offices of independent media agencies and secret investigations against journalists.
Thus, despite the protests and concerns of international organizations, on February 8th 2018 the office of the media holding company “Vesti Ukraine” was captured with the active participation of government agencies, law enforcement bodies, and civilian mercenaries. As a result, journalists were prevented from lawfully occupying their office, machinery, equipment, and personal belongings were seized, the editorial office was trashed, gas of an unknown origin was used against the journalists, and journalistic activity was obstructed. The holding company emphasizes that it occupies the office legally as it has lease agreements with the owner, whose right to use these premises is not limited. After the office of the media holding was captured it was held byunknown persons of an athletic build drinking alcohol and destroying the equipment and furniture of the journalists. Since 2014 the National Council, representatives of law enforcement bodies, and ultra-right groups have been systematically putting pressure on the media holding “Vesti Ukraine” (radio “Vesti”, the newspaper “Vesti”, the “vesti-ukr” and ubr.ua websites, the UBR TV channel).
On March 5th the SBU carried out more than 25 searches in different regions of Ukraine at the homes of persons who allegedly promote Russia in carrying out anti-Ukrainian actions. According to the Ukrainian media, searches, in particular, took place in Kiev, Dnepr, Kharkov, and Odessa. In Kiev, the SBU searched the apartment of the journalist Yury Lukashin.
On May 15th the SBU carried out searches in the editorial office and in the homes of employees of the news agency RIA “Novosti Ukraine”. As a result of the searches the editor-in-chief of the agency Kirill Vyshinsky was detained. He was charged with treason (part 1 of article 111 of the Criminal Code). The sanction on this charge stipulates up to 15 years of imprisonment.
Other media companies in Ukraine also reported that the authorities and law enforcement bodies were putting pressure on them.
Thus, on September 18th the publication “STRANA.ua” reported that an SBU officer threatened to punish a journalist of the publication. It was precisely this journalist who took a picture of President Poroshenko’s villa in Marbella (Spain) in May 2018. On October 1st the editor-in-chief of the publication, Igor Guzhva, announced that he had obtained political asylum in Austria. The team of investigative journalists from “Bihus.info”, under the leadership of Denis Bigus, also reported that its editors and journalists were being surveyed by the Security Service of Ukraine.
On September 4th “Radio Svoboda” expressed its indignation regarding the decision of the Pechersky court to provide the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine with access to the personal information of Nataliya Sedletskaya, the chief editor of the “Schemes” investigation program. Later, in accordance with the decision of the Kiev Court of Appeal, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine was granted the right to access a smaller amount of data from the journalist’s phone. The OSCE urged the Ukrainian government to respect the privilege of Sedletskaya as an investigative journalist and to adhere to international standards and OSCE commitments.
Attempts to also put pressure on YouTube channels featuring socio-political content were also recorded.
On July 12th the Pechersky court of Kiev adopted a ruling allowing investigators of the National Police of Ukraine to contact Google with a request to obtain data about a number of YouTube channels, including the channel of the well-known journalist and video blogger Anatoly Shary.
DEPORTATION AND NON-ADMISSION OF FOREIGN JOURNALISTS
Despite the sharp reaction of the OSCE and other organizations, the practice of deporting and not allowing foreign journalists to enter Ukraine continued in 2018. As was reported by the Security Service of Ukraine at the end of 2018, the department banned 83 “Russian propagandists” from entering Ukraine.
Thus, on May 2nd the State Border Service at the request of the SBU didn’t let journalists from Italy, the Czech Republic, and Russia enter Ukraine to cover commemorative events in Odessa, referring to the fact that these journalists previously “improbably covered the events in Ukraine”.
On June 26th Russia Today correspondent Paula Slier, as well as the Russian TV presenter and representative of the Union of Journalists of Russia Evgeny Primakov, who arrived in Kiev for an OSCE conference, were not allowed to enter Ukraine. On July 10th in Kiev the British journalist John Warren was not allowed entry with a ban on entry for 3 years due to unauthorized visits to Crimea in September-October 2015.
On July 18th the SBU banned the Chairman of the Union of Journalists of Russia Vladimir Solovyov from entering the country for three years. The OSCE representative on freedom of the media Harlem Desir stated that he was “disappointed” with the non-admission of Solovyov, and that “travel restrictions affect the free flow of information”.
During the 30 days of martial law (from November 26th to December 26th) border guards on the Ukrainian-Russian border refused entry to 6 journalists from Russia. This concerns the employee of the “Staraya Rus” publication Elena Nikolaeva and Yuliya Nikitina from “Fontanka”. In addition, border guards didn’t let the correspondent of the newspaper “My District” Elena Vladykina and the journalist of the “SCOOP” network Anastasiya Drozdova enter the country. The reasons for which the journalists were denied entry were not explained. On December 4th two more journalists from Russia were also not allowed to enter Ukraine. In general, during the period of martial law entry into Ukraine was denied to 1650 Russians.
In addition, the SBU deported journalists living in Ukraine who have foreign citizenship.
On July 17th the staff of the Kiev SBU detained in Nikolaev the Turkish oppositional journalist Yusuf Inan, violently brought him out of his house in Nikolaev, and, without the right to appeal, was extradited to Turkey. Inan ran an opposition Internet website and was put on the wanted list by the Turkish authorities. The extradition of the journalist caused a wave of indignation among human rights defenders in Ukraine and abroad.
On January 2nd 2019 employees of the SBU detained the founder of the “Glavnovosti” news website Pavel Karnazytsky. He was deported to Belarus and banned from entering Ukraine for 3 years. The SBU claims that Karnazytsky conducted “destructive activity, spreading anti-Ukrainian propaganda and fake information” in Ukraine. The lawyer of the journalist noted that his client was forced to leave Belarus because of political persecution and since the late 90’s has lived in Ukraine.
ARRESTS OF JOURNALISTS AND BLOGGERS
In 2018 the political persecution of journalists and public figures because of their opinions and convictions continued in Ukraine. From those cases that are known to the “Uspishna Varta” human rights platform, “political” cases against journalists, public figures, and politicians are initiated as a rule under the articles “Crimes against the foundations of the national security of Ukraine” (Articles 110-114¹ of the Criminal Code of Ukraine).
According to statistics from the General Prosecutor’s Office for 2015-2018, under these articles a report was submitted on suspicion of 711 cases. At the same time, in 38% of these cases (276) suspicions were handed over in 2018. Most often, law enforcement bodies applied the following articles:
- Articles 110 and 110-2 “Infringing on the territorial integrity and inviolability of Ukraine” – a total of 302 suspicions;
- Article 109 “Actions aimed at forcibly changing or overthrowing the constitutional system or seizing state power” – 198 suspicions;
- and article 111 “State treason” – 147 suspicions.
In 2018 the prosecutor’s office filed in court 182 cases under the articles on national security with a indictment (a total of 483 cases in 2015-2018). Most of the charges under these articles that had the legal team of “Uspishna Varta” had the opportunity to study are based on “formal suspicion”, without a corresponding evidence base and with violations of the rules of procedural law.
As a result, hundreds of people for several years were (or continue to be) in pre-trial detention centers, without a court decision, without the right to bail, and without any alternative. Among them are the journalists Ruslan Kotsaba, Dmitry Vasilets, Vasily Muravitsky, Kirill Vyshinsky, Pavel Volkov (other cases are in the section “Monitoring of human rights cases”). In January 2015 the journalist from Ivano-Frankovsk Ruslan Kotsaba was convicted of treason for publishing a video that opposed military mobilisation. He spent 524 days in a detention center without an alternative. In the spring of 2016 the court sentenced Kotsaba to 3.5 years in prison. In July 2016 the court of appeal fully acquitted and released the journalist. In March 2017 the Prosecutor’s office received an appeal, and the Supreme Court returned the case to the appellate instance for reconsideration. Hearings on the Kotsaba case continued in 2018. Thus, on February 19th the Dolinsky court of the Ivano-Frankovsk region returned the indictment to the prosecutor’s office for being incompatible with the norms of the law of Ukraine. On May 29th a similar decision was made by the Lvov Court of Appeal. However, in October in Ivano-Frankovsk the Security Service of Ukraine filed a renewed case against the journalist for treason and disruption of mobilization. According to the journalist, the charges have not changed, the evidence also remained the same. In his opinion, all this litigation is necessary only to prevent the consideration of the case in the European Court of Human Rights.
Journalist Dmitry Vasilets and his colleague Evgeny Timonin were detained by the SBU on November 24th 2015 on charges of information assistance to terrorism (article 258-3 of the Criminal Code). They were accused of setting up a YouTube channel and a number of other services for the-then non-existent information resource “Novorossiya-TV”.
After almost two years of being detained in pre-trial detention and accused in litigation, in September 2017 the Andrushevsky court of Zhytomyr convicted Vasilets and Timonin to 9 years in prison. In February 2018 the Kiev Court of Appeal overturned the verdict, sending the case for a new trial to the court of first instance and changed the measure of restraint to house arrest. Vasilets and Timonin were wrongly in jail for 820 days.
During 2018 “Uspishna Varta” monitored the re-trial of Vasilets-Timonin in the Borodyansky district court of the Kiev region. After the postponement of a number of court sessions, the first preparatory hearing on the case took place only on October 16th. The court granted the request of the defenders and returned the indictment to the Prosecutor’s office for revision, referring to the numerous violations committed during the pre-trial investigation and the non-compliance of the indictment with the requirements of the Criminal Procedure Code. On December 13th the Kiev Court of Appeal overturned the decision of the Borodyansky court and granted the appeal of the Zhytomyr Prosecutor’s office. Court sessions concerning the Vasilets-Timonin case will continue in 2019.
Journalist and blogger Vasily Muravitsky was detained by the SBU on August 2nd 2017 on charges of treason. He is charged with the fact of concluding a standard employment contract with an international Russian agency, where he had his analytical column. He spent 11 months in a pre-trial detention center without an alternative. As of January 2019 he continues to be under house arrest. Amnesty International recognized Muravitsky as a prisoner of conscience.
The lawyer of Muravitsky reported to the “Uspishna Varta” human rights group that in the indictment there is no crime, and the most stringent measures of detention are wrongfully imposed on the journalist. Muravitsky was detained by the staff of the SBU in the maternity hospital where his wife gave birth to their child.The SBU put pressure on the journalist and blackmailed him by threatening to involve his loved ones if a guilty plea isn’t made.
The “Uspishna Varta” human rights platform monitored the 10 court hearings concerning the case of Muravitsky that took place in 2018. Thus, at the hearings on May 7th, June 1st, and June 13th the court sent the materials of the investigation for revision, prolonging the journalist’s measure of restraint. On June 27th the Korolevsky court of Zhytomyr changed his measure of restraint to house arrest. During subsequent hearings the court examined the evidence of the Prosecutor’s office and extended the journalist’s measure of restraint. Thus, on October 24th, during another court session the Prosecutor provided Muravitsky’s e-mail correspondence, including spam letters reporting that the journalist allegedly had won a prize in the form of a sum in Russian rubles, as proof of his guilt.The journalist’s defence insists that the written evidence submitted by the Prosecutor cannot be recognized by the court as admissible.
During the hearings of November 16th and December 12th, the court continued its examination of the prosecution’s evidence in the case. On January 10th 2019 the court decided to extend the measure of restraint imposed on the journalist in the form of around-the-clock house arrest for another 60 days. The court hearing on the case of Muravitsky will continue in 2019.
Representatives of the right-wing radical group “C14” systematically appear at court hearings concerning the case of Muravitsky, which can be regarded as the exertion of pressure on the court. On August 6th, immediately after the court hearing, they attacked Muravitsky and doused him with zelenka. On September 28th representatives of “C14” attacked a lawyer and a journalist in the courtroom. The police, who arrived after the incident happened, did not bring the attackers to justice.
The journalist and blogger Pavel Volkov was arrested on September 27th 2017 on charges of part 2 of article 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine – infringement of the territorial integrity of Ukraine (by a group of persons) and article 258-3 – rendering other assistance to terrorists. He is accused under both articles because of his publications on the Internet. During the pre-trial investigation and the trial Volkov spent 13 months in jail without an alternative. Despite the deteriorating health of Pavel, during this period the Shevchenkovsky court of Zaporozhye extended the measure of restraint imposed on the journalist in the form of detention.
During 2018, the “Uspishna Varta” human rights platform monitored court sessions concerning Volkov’s case. Hearings were held at least once a month, and the journalist’s measure of restraint was extended. At the hearings on July 5th and August 27th the Prosecutor did not attach new evidence to the case. At the hearing on September 13th the court granted the request of the lawyer of Volkov to recognise two volumes of the proceedings as inadmissible evidence. The hearing on September 25th didn’t take place because the judge fell ill.
In connection with the replacement of the judge, at a hearing on October 25th the Prosecutor filed a motion to have the indictment considered from the beginning. Thus, all the evidence that had been previously appealed by Volkov’s lawyers started to be considered by the court again. At the same time, the court refused to satisfy the motion of the Prosecutor to extend the measure of restraint imposed on Volkov in the form of detention, without having chosen an alternative. After spending more than a year in jail in Zaporozhye the journalist was finally released.
Hearings concerning Volkov’s case resumed on November 21st. As proof of the journalist’s guilt, the Prosecutor’s office presented videos showing a snippet of a rally in Zaporozhye in 2013, as well as an interview with Volkov in 2012, in which historical, cultural, and philosophical issues were discussed. The defence noted that the case file contains evidence that is not relevant to the prosecution.
On January 9th 2019, after a one-month break and the cancellation of six previous hearings, the hearings concerning Volkov’s case resumed. The defence of the journalist filed a motion to have a number of inspection reports declared as inadmissible evidence due to procedural violations that took place during the investigation.
The editor-in-chief of RIA “Novosti Ukraine” Kirill Vyshinsky was detained by the SBU on May 15th 2018 on suspicion of treason (part 1 of article 111 of the Criminal Code). Ever since this moment he has had no alternative to being in the detention center of Kherson.
Vyshinsky’s lawyer told the coordinators of “Uspishna Varta” that the journalist as the main suspicion is charged with a number of journalistic publications from March 2014, published in the “Opinions” section of RIA “Novosti Ukraine”. These articles allegedly contain calls to change territorial integrity and propagandistic appeals. The SBU became interested in these articles only 4 years after they were published.
In an interview with the human rights activists of “Uspishna Varta” during the hearing on December 11th, Vyshinsky himself said that, in addition to materials from 2014 on the website of RIA “Novosti Ukraine”, he is also charged with state treason for an article published on May 15th 2018 (the day of his detention) with the title “The attack on the UOC led to the refusal of autocephaly”. The article presents the opinion of an expert expressing skepticism about the prospect of obtaining autocephaly. In this material the expert’s opinion is stated on 11 lines and the position of the UOC-KP is stated on 17 lines.
Concern about the detention of Vyshinsky and the consequences that it can lead to in terms of freedom of the media in the country was expressed in the Council of Europe, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the office of the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Despite the concern of the international community about the situation with RIA Novosti, no reaction from the Ukrainian authorities followed. The parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Speech took the side of the SBU and said that the detention of Vyshinsky was justified, which actually legitimized the actions of law enforcement bodies aimed at putting pressure on independent media and journalists.
The Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke about possibly exchanging Vyshinsky for the Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov.
The “Uspishna Varta” human rights platform monitored the trial of Vyshinsky in the Kherson City Court and the Court of Appeal in the Kherson region. At the first hearing on May 17th the Kherson City Court ordered the arrest of Vyshinsky for 60 days without the right to bail. At the hearings on July 11th, September 6th, and November 1st the court supported the motion of the prosecutor’s office to extend the term of the journalist’s detention for another 60 days. At the hearing on December 28th the arrest of Vyshinsky was extended until January 27th 2019.
The Appellate Court of the Kherson region, starting with the hearing on June 1st, systematically refuses the motion of Vyshinsky’s defence to change the measure of restraint, thus confirming the decision of the court of first instance. Lawyers say that the appeal review is being dragged out. For example, on September 26th the journalist was not taken to court, and on October 2nd the court hearing did not take place due to the reappointment of judges.
The defence of Vyshinsky states that in civilized countries the conditions of the journalist’s detention in the Kherson pre-trial detention center would be considered as torture, since the windows were removed from cells and rooms for the course of investigative actions. Vyshinsky’s defence insists on the journalist undergoing an independent medical examination. During his stay in the pre-trial detention center his health has significantly deteriorated.
On September 25th the Security Service announced the completion of the criminal proceedings investigation concerning the case of Vyshinsky and the preparation of materials for transfer to the court. However, on October 10th the Prosecutor’s office said that the investigation concerning the case of Vyshinsky hadn’t been completed and the examination continues. At the same time the Prosecutor-General denied the information of the SBU about the completion of the investigation of the journalist. The Prosecutor’s office announced the completion of the pre-trial investigation concerning the case of Vyshinsky only on January 10th 2019.
RESTRICTING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND INFORMATION EXCHANGE ON THE INTERNET
During 2014-2018 the state’s policy was aimed at restricting freedom on the Internet. Such a policy was publicly justified by the need to confront Russian aggression and fight against separatism in the East of Ukraine. In 2018 the trend of restricting freedom of expression on the Internet continued.
Thus, on May 14th 2018 President Poroshenko, in accordance with decree No. 126/2018, enacted the decision of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine from May 2nd to introduce new sanctions for 3 years against 1,748 individuals and 756 legal entities, including a number of media agencies. The list of resources whose activities were blocked in Ukraine included the RIA “Novosti Ukraine” website, the websites of “Russia-24”, “Pervy Kanal”, “NTV”, and others (the television channels themselves were blocked in 2014). The sanctions list also included the Ukrainian media companies “Media Innovation Group”(“Ekonomicheskiye Izvestiya” publication) and “Ukrainian Business Portal LLC”, which are a part of the “Media Invest Group” holding company. The “WebMoney” payment system, which was used by 4 million Ukrainians, was also banned.
According to the Security Service of Ukraine, in 2018 the department blocked access to more than 300 Internet resources “used by Russia to wage hybrid war against Ukraine”. It was also reported that “preventive measures” were taken against 220 administrators of online communities who spread destructive content to an audience of more than 10 million Internet users. The press center said that the SBU is investigating 83 criminal proceedings against the owners and administrators of the communities of an “anti-Ukrainian nature” who “deliberately spread calls to overthrow the constitutional system and state power, mass riots and other illegal actions”. Later the SBU reported that 49 social network administrators, 29 of who were issued suspicion, were brought to justice for so-called “anti-Ukrainian propaganda”, and 20 court sentences have already entered into force.
Neither the names nor the place of residence of the detainees were reported by the Security Service of Ukraine, and, respectively, human rights activists and lawyers cannot respond promptly to such cases. Below are just some examples of the cases of the detention of social network users that were recorded in the framework of the monitoring of the “Uspishna Varta” human rights platform:
On March 22nd the SBU reported about the detention of a resident of Kiev because of their posts on social networks. According to the Security Service, the detainee posted appeals on the Internet for the seizure of state power, for which he subsequently received a monetary reward from representatives of the so-called DPR. The detainee involved several other people in this activity.
On April 26th the SBU announced that it was exposing and preventing the attempts of Russian special services to carry out provocations for the May holidays through the use of prohibited social networks. In particular, the SBU “ceased the activities of a group” consisting of two Kievans and three residents of the Odessa region who administered anti-Ukrainian public pages on the social networks “VKontakte” and “Odnoklassniki”.
On May 8th SBU officials said they had identified and stopped attempts by the Russian special services to carry out provocations on May 9th using prohibited social networks. Two residents of the Kiev and Sumy regions who administered communities on the social network VKontakte were detained.
On May 24th the SBU reported about the detention of an “anti-Ukrainian agitator” in Odessa. According to the Security Service, the woman posted “anti-Ukrainian materials” featuring appeals to change the border and constitutional system of Ukraine, as well as the promotion of terrorism, on her Russian social network pages. Another “anti-Ukrainian Internet agitator” was detained in Odessa on September 14th.
In August the SBU said that it allegedly exposed and blocked the activity of a network of online agitators recruited by the Russian special services for the preparation of interference in the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine. The residents of the cities of Dnepr, Krivoy Rog, and Nikopol who allegedly were the administrators of groups on social networks were detained.
On November 5th the SBU reported the arrest of 9 community administrators on social networks. We are talking about residents of Odessa, Kiev, and Severodonetsk who, according to the SBU, “published political news that was sent from Russia and called for acts of disobedience and riots”. On November 6th the prosecutor’s office and the SBU also reported about the detention of a citizen of Ukraine who was distributing a video on one of the most popular video hosting websites.
The detainees are, as a rule, charged with having deliberate, political, and ideological motives,distributing materials calling for deliberate acts aimed at changing the boundaries of the territory and the state border of Ukraine (part 1 of article 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine), or committing wilful acts for the purpose of changing the boundaries and the state border of Ukraine (Article 109 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine).
Most of the accused agree to a deal with the investigation and plead guilty in exchange for a suspended sentence. In 9 out of 14 court decisions under Article 109 of the Criminal Procedure Code that the legal team of “Uspishna Varta” found in the register, the accused admitted their guilt in full. As a result, the court limited itself to interrogating the accused or approving an agreement between the accused and the prosecutor on the recognition of guilt. Although criminal procedural law prohibits sentencing solely on the basis of guilty pleas, the use of guilty plea agreements allows the prosecution to circumvent this guarantee. As soon as the plea agreement is submitted to the court, the court terminates the consideration of the case regardless of what stage the proceedings are at. It is disturbing that the defendants may have entered into such agreements under duress.
For example, on August 30th a resident of Mariupol received a suspended sentence for sharing a post on the “Odnoklassniki” social network. The court sentenced him to 3 years of jail, but after the convicted declared their guilt, his term was reduced to a 1 year conditional sentence. Due to the fact that the man shared a post of the group “Antimaidan (South-East)” in March 2017 on his personal social network page, he was charged under article 109 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine.
There are cases when users of social networks are sentenced in absentia.
In July the Lutsk city district court sentenced a local resident to 6 years in prison for posting pro-Russian and separatist publications on the “VKontakte” social network. The verdict was announced in absentia and noted in court, since they do not know the whereabouts of the convict.
In December, the court sentenced in absentia a resident of Ternopol to 2 years of imprisonment for distributing on “VKontakte” alleged appeals to Russia to start military aggression against Ukraine. The legal team of “Uspishna Varta” analysed the sentence and noted that a part of the indictment is based on data from the scandalous website “Mirotvorets”.
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