The freedom of speech in the ATO zone: how cases of deaths, pressure and harassment of journalists are investigated?

Human rights defenders claim: journalists’ activity in the East of Ukraine is restricted both by illegal armed groups and state institutions that hinder the professional work of media staff and censor their information. Apart from that, there are numerous cases of beating, unlawful arrests, detention, and even murders of journalists.

In the report “Suppressed Voices: Right for Freedom in Armed Conflict” representatives of Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, citing the Institute of Mass Information (hereafter – IMI), provide the following data:

In 2014, minimum 995 cases of denial of freedom of speech were documented (which is twice higher than in 2013 – 496 cases and three times higher than in 2012 – 324 cases). In eight months of 2015, the IMI documented 95 cases of denial of freedom of speech, which includes a murder of one journalist, 36 cases of beating and attacking journalists, 48 cases of obstruction of legitimate professional activity of journalists, and 10 cases of censor.

For 2014, the International Committee to Protect Journalists documented deaths of five journalists and two media workers, which included one representative of Ukrainian media and six representatives of foreign media. In nine months of 2015, a death of one representative of Ukrainian media was documented.

Lack of justice in hundreds of murders of journalists around the world is recognised as one of the major threats to the freedom of press. Though international organisations tend to pay more attention to this problem, it still must be acknowledged that there was a little progress in reducing the levels of impunity for the last ten years. As the Special report of the Committee to Protect Journalists (October 2014) indicates, impunity is not just one story that ends with a death of a journalist. As a result of impunity, an intimidation climate is developed. If no one is punished, killers become more daring and violence repeats.

According to the registered data, for June-August 2015, 42 media representatives have fallen victims to crimes, out of which 23 persons are journalists; whereas for the same period, only 24 criminal cases under Art. 171 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine were open (which means that roughly for every second journalist, it is impossible to identify which crimes he/she has fallen victim to).

Going by Oleksiy Bida, UHHRU expert, the difficulty of facts collection also lies in mistrust of the affected persons. “During the conflict, the white and black perception of the world increases. Consequently, one has to take one of the sides, turning a blind eye to violation and, may be, crimes. Sometimes it is difficult to explain that human rights defenders are guided by the rule of law and are obliged to record violations from both sides, irrespective of their personal sympathies,” – Mr. Bida notes.

UHHRU experts pay particular attention to public importance not only of mere registration of facts of murders and deaths of journalists, but of informing the public of taken response measures, the course and the results of the investigation, as well.

Currently, human rights defenders admit that the public is hardly informed about the investigation process of even the most widely known crimes of this category. Thus, Internet monitoring testifies the prevalence of “the veil of silence” regarding the circumstances found by the investigation and the response measures taken by representatives of law enforcement authorities towards death cases among media representatives in 2014-2015 in Ukraine.

In particular, these include the case of journalists whose deaths Nadiia Savchenko is being accused of. Did local legal authorities conduct any investigation of these journalists’ deaths at all? If they did, what is the current stage of this investigation? What was found?

Unfortunately, even considering the need for respecting secrecy of local investigation, the public does not have enough information regarding conclusions on this notable case, while the investigation Committee of the Russian Federation has already finished the pre-trial investigation and, as of September 22, 2015, collegium of judges of Donetsk town court of the Region of Rostov, the Russian Federation, conducts hearings of the case.

In its report, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union also provides a number of recommendations for state authorities to improve the situation with the freedom of speech.

The event was held with the finance support of the Government of Canada through the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), program “Human Rights First”.

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