Overview: media freedom in Ukraine

Guest article by the NGO Human Rights Platform (HRP). MLDI has been working with HRP since 2017 to provide legal defence to journalists, bloggers and independent media in Ukraine.

In early 2014 Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula was annexed by the Russian Federation. Since then the Russian Federation’s ‘hybrid war’[1] with Ukraine has dramatically changed Ukraine’s media, law and security landscapes. Today there is no doubt that one of main tools of the war is information influence – such as internet manipulation and cyber-attacks. As a result there is huge concern in Ukraine around issues of security, internet governance, press freedom and accuracy of information.

Human Rights Platform (HRP) was founded by like-minded professionals in the non-profit sector in Ukraine.  Members of the NGO aim to develop and establish civil society by supporting human rights standards. They especially place great emphasis on protecting freedom of expression, including freedom of information. One of the key priorities of HRP is the development of innovative human rights projects at the intersection between information technology and human rights theory and practice.

Untrue stories and propaganda are disseminated almost daily on the internet and in the Ukrainian media – aimed at influencing the political situation and splitting public opinion. As a result it has become a serious challenge for the government to ensure Ukrainian sovereignty, defensive capabilities, and government security – including information security. While traditional media such as TV, radio and the printed press are relatively clearly regulated, the internet remains almost completely unregulated. Concerns have been raised about possible hostile interference from other countries, how to minimise abuse of the internet, and how to protect the democratic integrity of elections.

There is a need to develop and introduce effective and balanced regulatory mechanisms, which nonetheless still protect freedom of expression. However, some of the government’s attempts to tackle the issue have led to laws aimed at blocking websites and filtering information online. At HRP we are concerned that the authors of these laws risk giving too much unrestricted power to certain authorities – such as the power to block any website – and that this could be used to target critical and independent media.

To counteract these initiatives, non-governmental organisations have needed to join forces. The first step has been analysing legislative initiatives to provide independent expert conclusions. This year, in response to the government’s ongoing attempts to regulate the internet, HRP became a co-founder of the nonprofit FreeNet Coalition. This Coalition brings together human rights experts and organisations and works to ensure the government takes rule of law principles into account around internet legislation.

Members of the Coalition have already done a lot of analytical work and prevented some potentially harmful government initiatives, such as cyber-security law #6688, which would have given unlimited power to law enforcement agencies to regulate the internet in Ukraine.  Also, the Coalition has been vocally critical  of instances of website-blocking, such the Presidential Decree blocking access to certain Russian websites. The Coalition has advised that this is incompatible with international standards on freedom of expression, the practice of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and also with domestic law. However, the government continues to block websites in accordance with the Decree. In fact, the number of websites which are blocked is only increasing.

In 2019 there will be elections for the Ukrainian presidency and parliament so internet governance issues are even more pressing. Current legislation cannot successfully navigate the challenges of online space and HRP’s lawyers, as members of working groups, are focussed on creating mechanisms which could be implemented in time for the elections.

This is just one way we are working to ensure a fair balance between, on the one hand, the right to freedom of expression and the ability to disseminate information and, on the other hand, issues of state security and the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Human Rights Platform (HRP) UkraineHow HRP supports journalists directly

Unfortunately the risks journalists face remain acute: as well as ongoing difficulty in obtaining the information they need to do their jobs, journalists also face legal attacks such as defamation charges, and physical violence.

HRP is supported by a strong network of lawyers covering all regions of Ukraine, providing prompt legal assistance to journalists and media. We also encourage discussion across society and support human rights at all levels: in drafting bills, in law enforcement practice, and even at the European Court of Human Rights.

While physical attacks against journalists remain frequent, the police investigations into them tend to have extremely low rates of effectiveness for bringing either charges or convictions. With MLDI’s support, HRP is able to provide legal assistance to journalists, helping to hold attackers responsible for their actions.

HRP is also a leader in providing legal assistance to journalists and the media around access to public information. Since most public information remains out of reach of the general public, HRP also tries to help keep government institutions in check by monitoring official websites to determine their level of information transparency, indicating where information is missing.

The professional legal assistance of HRP, supported by MLDI, helps ensure that Ukrainian investigative journalists are not afraid to uncover information even about high-ranking officials.

Unfortunately, officials often react to journalists’ investigations and criticism by initiating litigation against them. This year there has been a notable increase in the numbers of lawsuits from high-ranking officials. Currently, HRP’s lawyers are defending journalists’ rights in seven court cases initiated by two representatives from the country’s political elite. One glaring examples of such cases is Pashynsky vs Novoe Vremya. The journalists working for media outlet Novoe Vremya conducted an investigation and discovered evidence that Ukrainian Deputy Mr. Pashinsky was involved in corrupt defence procurement practices. They published an article covering all the details of the scheme. In response, the Deputy Mr. Pashinsky sued Novoe Vremya for defamation.

Defending journalists against defamation charges is of huge, influential importance to freedom of expression. HRP’s support helps protect journalists from having to pay excessive penalties as a result of civil defamation claims. This, in turn, enables journalists to report more freely.

You can find out more about HRP’s court cases on their website http://www.ppl.org.ua/baza-sudovih-sprav (in Ukranian).

[1] Hybrid warfare blends conventional military tactics with other methods of influence such as cyber-attacks, manipulation of media, ‘irregular’ military tactics and interference in elections.

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