Viacheslav Yakubenko: Jounralists often lack the most basic legal knowledge

A competition for the best journalist work “Against torture” has just ended in Kyiv. The fourteen winners from different regions of the country took part in a three day seminar on prevention of torture and ill-treatment by the police. The main themes included: the rights of detainees and defendants; specific features of the judicial system; European Court of Human Rights standards, etc.


Members of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, presenting the results of the competition, stressed the important role the media can play.

Denis Kobzin, Director of the Kharkiv Institute of Social Research pointed out that their latest survey had found that a much larger number of people now view torture and ill-treatment by the police as unacceptable. He says that this is to a large extent thanks to human rights groups and the media.


Viacheslav Yakubenko, who defends cases involving freedom of speech, access to information and appeals against unlawful actions by the authorities, spoke with Telekritika about cooperation between the media and human rights groups.


He stressed that people had died in police stations before, however this year, thanks to civic activists, organizations, and the media, such cases had become widely known.

“The greatest effect is from the increased attention from television channels to such cases. Journalists are less inclined to fear providing truthful information about what happens in some police stations. Some cases have become highly publicized.”.  Viacheslav mentioned the case of student Ihor Indylo, who died in the Shevchenkivsky Police Station the night before his 20th birthday.  He says that cases where somebody has died can galvanize public opinion, whereas people scarcely react to banal practices, dating from Soviet times, like hitting a person on the head with the Criminal Code.  Deaths in police custody are a turning point in the public’s attitude to torture by the police.


Asked about the winning entries in the competition, Viacheslav said that the publications and video material are a pleasant exception, where journalists are not just looking for sensation, but trying to grasp the essence of the problem and ascertain which rights were violated.  He was impressed that in most of the works, instead of a one-sided attack on the police or a specific police unit, both sides of the story. Journalists had tried to obtain information from various sources and check it.


As far as other members of the press are concerned, he says the main thing is that they are beginning to understand the importance of raising the issue of torture and are less afraid of covering actions and violations by the police. At the same time, he believes, most journalists’ legal knowledge is inadequate. There are even mistakes with terminology where journalists muddle terms like “detainee”, “accused”, “court verdict” and “court ruling”. He says that while it’s generally understandable, such mistakes undermine the public’s confidence, and make it hard for those with greater legal knowledge to view the journalists as serious and professional.


Journalists need to know what rights they have in accordance with the Laws on Television and Radio Broadcasting and on the Printed Media however that does not resolve the problem of basic ignorance about terminology.


Individual seminars are not enough, he believes, there needs to be a change in the system of journalist education.


Asked about cooperation between the media and human rights groups, he says that unfortunately most journalists are not particularly interested.  You don’t have sensational stories, cases of corruption by parliamentarians, etc. Human rights groups are involved in everyday problems which ordinary people confront and which result in conflict with the authorities.

He is convinced that journalists should remember that looking for sensation and other stories to raise their outlet’s rating is only part of a journalist’s work. Journalists have a responsibility to society, they are, as the European Court of Human Rights often points out, the watchdogs of democracy. Journalists should therefore remember that influence lies not only in getting a better rating or higher salary, but in the chance to improve life in their country.


How effective can cooperation be between journalists and human rights activists?


For human rights activists the main thing is not to provide specific details about who was beaten up, etc, but to explain to journalists how they can help prevent violations of civil rights. There have been cases in Ukraine where media intervention helped to resolve various problems, getting an innocent man out of prison, for example.


In 2009 after video footage was published with prisoner Viacheslav Mushynsky recounting how he had been brutally beating in the office of the Head of the Vinnytsa SIZO [remand centre], Kozachysyn, the latter was dismissed.


This year, following publication of information about the death in police custody of Ihor Indylo, the Minister of Internal Affairs signed an order to have members of human rights organizations and the media involved in the official investigation. Obviously we’re not talking about the situation as in Soviet times when an article in the paper resolved any problems, however publicity can really help.


What effect on cooperation between journalists and human rights activists did the closure of the Department for the Monitoring of Human Rights in the Work of the Police have?


All the assistants to the Minister in the regions were involved in monitoring human rights violations. They are now trying to register an association on the basis of the staff of the former Department. However the problem is that with the dissolution of this department the possibility disappeared for the media to receive objective information which took into account different sides of the issue. Now we just have unsubstantiated claims from those detained and their relatives, or statements from the police that all is fine and there were no violations. The people working in the Department were able to act as intermediaries between the police and civic society, enabling the media to receive balanced information.


Under the former President the position of the police regarding civic and human rights organizations and the media was clear. Such incidents as when a journalist had a finger pressed on his eye, or the checks of civic organizations, or the search of the flat of Dmytro Groisman (and, without court order, of the office of the Vinnytsa Human Rights Group – translator), did not arise. What can you say about the methods of Viktor Yanukovych’s team?


There are no ideal administrations. When Viktor Yushchenko was President, his relations with the media were also tense.  We can recall the irritable way in which he responded to questions from Ukrainska Pravda journalist Serhiy Leshchenko about the money his son used to buy an expensive car. It was under Yushchenko that the iron fence on Bankova St (where the President’s Offices are located) appeared which wasn’t there under Kuchma. Nonetheless the present regime has gone much further. Here we are talking not only about freedom of speech. Mr Yanukovych’s guards have a specific idea about journalists’ rights. Those outrageous cases where a journalist’s arms were wrenched behind his back and he was thrown on the asphalt, or when journalists carrying out their duties were thrown out of the Ukrainian House, are truly unprecedented. There was nothing like that under the previous administration. It is vital to make the administration realize that civic society will not tolerate such actions and will use all peaceful means to counter them.


We saw from the incident in Zhytomyr where journalists present during the search of Belarusian opposition figures were accused of obstructing the work of the people that in the regions the relations between the media and the police are fairly specific. We can recall the disappearance of the Editor of the Kharkiv newspaper “Novy Styl”, Vasyl Klymentyev and dozens of other cases. Does the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union follow such cases? What journalists’ rights in the regions are most often violated?


The basic right of access to information guaranteed by Article 34 of the Constitution is fairly often violated. Journalists are stopped from attending this or that event and in many cases one can speak of a criminal offence – obstructing the professional activities of a journalist. The Security Service [SBU] use more subtle methods, with so-called intellectual conversations. Although such conversations are often impossible to prove or officially complain about, we are dealing with particularly dangerous things, especially at regional level, where journalists have a somewhat different attitude to their place in society and know much less about their rights. The situation is not as catastrophic as in Russia, where journalists are intimidated on a wide scale and physical force, even murder is used. However the trend is pretty bad and it’s vital to react now.


In cases involving interference in professional actions, Ukrainian human rights organizations and the media are more and more often turning to international organizations. How effective, in your opinion, are such appeals?


That is not legal defence, but more like moral pressure, assuming that, say, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will explain to our authorities how they mustn’t treat journalists or human rights activists. Since in Ukraine the legal system has becoming stalled over recent times, it is by no means always possible to count on an objective ruling from a Ukrainian court, and appeals to international organizations make sense. However if we are speaking about the basics of a law-based state, the optimum variant is to try, by continuing judicial reform, to make the judiciary independent so that Ukraine is able to protect human rights in its own courts, and not, as now, be in the second or third place for the number of applications to the Court in Strasbourg.


Asked about the use of journalists in criminal investigations, Mr Yakubenko noted that there are presently no legal mechanisms for journalist investigations into criminal cases, and so one has to hope for conscientious and effective work by the law enforcement agencies.


Viacheslav Yakubenko is a media lawyer and specialist in information law; co-founder of the International Association of Media Lawyers, created in Belgrade in 2004, and the co-author of the textbook “Media Law”. He has represented leading Ukrainian journalists, writers and human rights organizations, including Vakhtang Kipiani, Marko Ahatov, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and others.

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