Watch your words!

A defamation suit presently underway in Severodonetsk has largely escaped media attention. Given the amount of virtual ink shed over recent days analyzing Yanukovych’s rebooted Cabinet of Ministers this would seem most unwise. If the suit is successful, it could be a precedent of grandiose proportions with ramifications not only for journalists, but for all those political analysts intrepid enough to voice an opinion about political influences on the new government.

One year after the Verkhovna Rada ignored protest and reintroduced the potential for crippling defamation suits, one newly elected MP has assessed his moral suffering over alleged defamation at 1 million UAH. Yuliy Ioffe has taken Oleksy Svyetikov, Editor of “Third Sector” and Head of the Luhansk Regional Branch of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine to court over an article by Svyetikov published back on 12 February 2012. The article clearly states that the author is expressing his opinion regarding likely candidates in single-mandate electoral districts at the parliamentary elections. He suggests Ioffe’s likely candidacy for the seat which the latter did in fact win and positions him as part of the group around Dmytro Firtash and the head of the President’s Administration Serhiy Lyovochkin.

The newly-fledged Party of the Regions MP gives no indication as to why he endured this alleged defamation until almost a month after the October elections. He is now denying any connection with Firtash and Lyovochkin and indeed suggests that no such group exists. He is demanding removal of a long (and somewhat outdated) analytical article containing only one small section which he objects to; retraction of “false information” as per his wording; and moral compensation to the hefty sum of 1 million UAH. In his response, Oleksy Svyetikov states that he was expressing his opinion in the article and that furthermore he does not see how such information could compromise the claimant. His opinions are precisely that and not information which can be retracted. They were also based on many years as a political analyst and are in fact shared by very many analysts. He has therefore offered to post Ioffe’s statement but considers that removal of the whole article would constitute censorship.

During the preliminary hearing on 24 December Judge Alexandrova advised the claimant to provide evidence of the moral suffering he had, supposedly sustained ignoring the respondent’s objection that the claimant should himself have provided such justification already.. She also rejected Svyetikov’s application to have Firtash and Lyovochkin called as witnesses. This the respondent believes is necessary in order to ascertain whether there is in fact such a group of influence which Ioffe is denying, their links with Ioffe and whether they regard the suggestion that a person is part of this group as “negative information”.

These give grounds for concern about the possible outcome of this case. It seems clear enough that if this case must go before the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg will support the respondent’s right to express such a view about a public figure. Whether or not Ioffe does belong to this group of influence, he is rejecting the opportunity to present his case on the same website, but making unreasonable encroachments on freedom of expression and demanding a wildly disproportionate figure in moral compensation.

Victory at the European Court of Human Rights is a lengthy process while the likely fallout of this case in Ukraine would be enormous and swift in coming. The media is full of articles both from Ukrainian analysts and such authoritative Western analysts as Anders Asland about spheres of influence within the current political regime in Ukraine. Is every analyst who suggests a link with “the Family” (around President Yanukovych) or billionaire Rinat Akhmetov to tremble awaiting massive defamation suits? Most journalists and analysts will simply choose to keep their heads low.

This was undoubtedly one of the reasons why the State duty restrictions protecting journalists from excessive libel suits were removed last year. It may well be the motive behind this current law suit making the latter’s outcome critical for freedom of expression in Ukraine.

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