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Freedom Of Expression Crushed In Ukraine By Legislation And Police

January 24, 2014
Woman begs police not to attack protestors (Pic courtesy BBC)

Freedom of expression and assembly became targets of assault both in Ukraine’s legislature and on the streets of Kiev, as the embattled government of President Viktor Yanukovych passed emergency legislation to criminalise libel and police attacked protestors. Over forty journalists covering the clashes were injured.

The new round of protests – after an earlier wave popular dissent, which turned violent in December – began after the Ukrainian parliament passed Act 3879 on January 16 that the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said copied “some of the most repressive provisions of recent Russian legislation.” The legislation contained provisions under which the penalty for defamation could be damages between 50 to 300 times the minimum wage, 150-240 hours of public service work and under “aggravating circumstance” up to two years in prison, said RSF.
“International experience has shown that criminalizing media offences and, even more so, making them punishable by imprisonment, helps to create a climate of intimidation that discourages journalists from tackling sensitive subjects,” said RSF.
The new law also prescribed prison sentences for “extremist content” which RSF said were not defined, up to three years in prison for circulating pictures of judges, policemen and members of the Special Forces, while internet sites could be closed without a warrant. In what are very similar to laws enacted in Russia, the Ukrainian parliament also introduced provisions that would cripple NGOs that try to “influence state decisions, change government policy and shape public opinion and are foreign funded.” They will have to register as ‘foreign agents.’
Following the hasty passage of Bill – there was no debate – and its promulgation into law with Yanukovych’s signature on January 17, all hell broke lose as a crowd of 200,000 incensed by the draconian provisions in the law took to the streets. Incidentally, the Act 3079 also bans public protests.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) quoting Ukrainian media, protests turned violent on January 19 when dissenters attacked the police with stones and Molotov cocktails. In the ensuing melee CPJ said 42 journalists were injured mostly by stun grenades and rubber bullets, while some had reported being shot in the eye or leg. Some were detained and had cameras and other equipment damaged.
“Journalists in Ukraine are under attack in the street and in Parliament,” said CPJ’s deputy director, Robert Mahoney. “We deplore the assaults on reporters covering the protests in Kiev and call on the security forces to respect the right of journalists to work in safety. We also urge the government to repeal the laws, which give Ukraine some of the most repressive media legislation in Europe.”
Among those who were assaulted and detained were Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s reporter Dmytro Barkar and his cameraman Ihor Iskhakov as they were filming the clashes. RFE/RLreported that its Ukrainian service was providing live-stream video of the protests when Barkar and Ishakov “were attacked by members of the elite Berkut police force. The two were separated and held for five hours without access to a phone or legal aid after being beaten and struck on the head and body with batons.”
RFE/RL’s Chairman Jeff Shell condemned the attack: “Attacking journalists under any circumstances is unacceptable. This was an egregious and shocking suppression of free press that left our reporters badly injured and in need of emergency medical care. There needs to be a prompt and thorough investigation.”
Meanwhile the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) wrote to leaders of the European Union to condemn the violence through their respective organisations and “take all actions, including sanctions, necessary under your rules and statutes to force the Ukraine government to respect the statutes of the Council of Europe of which they are a member and the conventions and covenants which they ratified.”
“The IFJ and its affiliate unions worldwide believe that the recent actions by the Ukrainian government, its Head of the Security Service, Oleksandr Yakymenko, and its Security Council, Andriy Klyuyev, are a step back from their international obligations and are aimed at instilling a climate of fear among journalists and at destroying freedom of speech, peaceful gatherings and political pluralism in the Ukraine,” said the letter signed by IFJ President Jim Boumelha and EFJ President Mogens Blicher-BjerregÃ¥rd.
RSFsaid the Ukraine-based International Media Institute (IMI) had a complete list of the injured went on to report that “Oksana Romanyuk, who heads IMI and who is the Reporters without Borders representative in Ukraine was again described as a ‘foreign agent’ – a synonym for a spy – by the state TV station ‘UT1′ last weekend.”
Meanwhile on Tuesday, January 21, in fresh confrontation five protestors were killed and 1700 injured reported AFP. Earlier, two anti-government activists were abducted. One of them Igor Lutensko, a civic sector coordinator, was abducted from Zhovtneva hospital in Kiev beaten and then left in a forest. He reappeared at Euromaidan with injuries later. The other, Yuri Verbytskii did not. His body was later found in the woods Ukrainskaya Pravda reported.
On Wednesday Yanukovych had talks with opposition leaders that included Vitaly Klitscho, the former world heavyweight boxing champion who called for snap elections as a way out of the imbroglio. Meanwhile, The Guaradian UK said, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was defiant blaming the victims for their own deaths. “The participants of these disturbances cannot be called peaceful. These are criminals, who are disturbing order. I want to officially state that the victims are the responsibility of the troublemakers.”
On Friday, (January 24), BBC said that Yanukovych had held talks with religious leaders and agreed to use all “legal measures” if a solution to the crisis is not found and “also promised to amend anti-protests laws rushed through parliament last week and reshuffle the government at an urgent session of parliament due to begin on Tuesday.” But BBC said as talks appeared to stall protests began spreading from Kiev to the regions as regional offices were attacked by anti-government dissenters.  
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.