Protecting Your Voice In A Pandemic:
A COVID-19 Free Expression Information Center
In response to—and under the cover of—the COVID-19 global pandemic, governments around the world have implemented strict surveillance measures and exacerbated preexisting restrictions on free expression. PEN America has created this page to help journalists, writers, human rights defenders, and protestors equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to protect their rights and continue their important work. Below, you will find the latest news and key developments from Ukraine—to learn more about what is happening on the ground in other countries, click through our pages on Uganda, Myanmar, and Honduras.
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Last updated on 07/16/2021.
Activists call to cut ties with Lukashenko regime, Violations of Freedom of Speech, and Other News
On July 14, Ukranian human rights activists and NGOs released an open statement to the President of Ukraine, demanding that Ukrainian authorities cut ties with the Lukashenko regime following new waves of repression in Belarus and ongoing crackdowns on peaceful protestors. Also on July 14, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine recognized the law “On Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language,” as constitutional, recognizing the Ukrainian language as the official state language in Ukraine. The website of the Crimean Human Rights Group was blocked on July 13, due to publications about illegal military conscription in Crimea. In other news, Secretary of National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, denied claims that the NSDC intends to place sanctions on some media outlets. In addition, according to the Institute of Mass Information’s “Freedom of Speech Barometer,” over the past six months, there were 97 recorded cases of violations of freedom of speech. Of these, 76 were cases of physical aggression against journalists. Lastly, in another study conducted by IMI, it was found that 53% of IMI women journalists have been sexually harassed because of their professional activities, while 17% of male journalists had experienced sexual harassment on the job.
In a closed-door session on July 6, a court in Russian occupied Crimea extended the detention of Vladyslav Yesypenko, an RFE/Rl freelance correspondent, by six months. Yesypenko has been held since March. According to reports from the State Service for Special Communications, on July 6 there was also a network attack on Internet providers of the websites of the President, the Security Service, as well as other authorities. In other news, the Supreme Court of Ukraine decided to transfer the case of the murder of Cherkasy journalist Vasyl Serhienko to the Darnytsia District Court in Kyiv. Finally, on July 1, investigators from the Kyiv DBR completed their pre-trial investigation into the case of a patrolman who intentionally obstructed the professional activities of “Hromadske” journalist Bohdan Kutepov. According to the investigation, in April 2020, a policeman knocked out Kutepov’s mobile phone and broke the stabilizer during a live broadcast of a protest rally in front of the Cabinet of Ministers building.
Journalists obstructed, Media Access, and Other News
Journalists continued to face individual and occupational obstructions to their work. An editor and a producer of different media outlets dealt with threats and damage to personal property, and one journalist is pursuing charges against a regional deputy who attacked him online. The National Police are refusing to continue investigations into mass obstruction of journalists in the coverage of Medvedchuk’s criminal case, prompting widespread frustrations. A working group has been established to discuss crimes against journalists. The Verkhovna Rada, as with many other localized government offices, continues to deny the media access to official spaces due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, in Mykolaiv and near a plant belonging to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, the quadcopter of journalists from “Center of Journalistic Investigations” was shot down. Finally, the office of the president of Ukraine is close to appointing a new press-secretary after the departure of Julia Mendel.
MEDIA STILL BLOCKED FROM FULL ACCESS TO GOVERNMENT OFFICES
Speaker for the Verkhovna Rada stated that journalists will be allowed to fully access the parliamentary space “when the situation allows.” These halls have been closed to the public and the press since March 12 2020, when Speaker Razumkov signed an order on public safety. In the year since, the building has partially opened, but journalists still cannot access the second floor of the building. Courts around Ukraine have similarly used the COVID pandemic as justification for blocking media coverage.
WORKING GROUP ESTABLISHED TO DISCUSS CRIMES AGAINST JOURNALISTS
An interdepartmental working group, comprised of various media and regional NGO representatives, is set to discuss crimes against journalists. One case they will consider is that of a Ternopil Regional Council Deputy who faces charges for threatening a journalist for the publication Berezh.Info on June 18. These were the same individuals involved in a dispute in May, and the conflict is officially moving through the legal system. These threats were prompted by an April 7 Facebook post concerning the wife of the deputy.
Below you will find significant governmental, civil societal, and technological trends shaping the state of freedom of expression in Ukraine today.
HUMAN RIGHTS NGOS AND MEDIA COMMUNITY CONCERNED THAT COURT DECISIONS THREATEN FREEDOM OF SPEECH
In a recent statement, a number of human rights NGOs and members of the media community have expressed serious concerns over the quality, proportionality, legality, and fairness of court decisions in cases against journalists, publications, and Internet users in Ukraine. The authors of the statement point out that the number of court decisions has recently increased, according to which investigative journalists must refute information about the facts proved in journalistic investigations. The statement claims the court decisions are questionable in terms of their compliance with national legislation in Ukraine as well as international human rights standards. The statement was signed by the ZMINA Human Rights Center, the Human Rights Platform, the Institute of Mass Media, the Interdisciplinary Research and Education Center for Combating Corruption in Ukraine, the Digital Security Laboratory, and the Blueprint for Free Speech.
SINCE JANUARY LAW ENFORCEMENT HAS REGISTERED 180 CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS FOR CRIMES COMMITTED AGAINST JOURNALISTS
Between January and September 2020, 180 criminal proceedings for crimes committed against journalists were registered in Ukraine. Of these, nine indictments were submitted to the court. Under Art. 171 (“Obstruction of professional activity of journalists”) of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, 137 criminal proceedings were registered, of which 59 were closed. Under Art. 345-1 (“Threat or violence against a journalist”) of the Criminal Code, 41 criminal proceedings were registered, of which 12 were closed.
STUDY FINDS OVER 80% OF UKRANIANS HAVE BEEN EXPOSED TO DISINFORMATION
According to a recent media consumption survey from Internews and media watchdogs, more than 80% of Ukrainians have been exposed to false rumors and disinformation about COVID-19. This includes rumors such as the coronavirus is a bioweapon made in a Chinese or a US laboratory, invented by the media, or caused by the launch of 5G internet technology.
Ukraine lockdown measures include requirement to carry ID cards
According to Privacy International, the Ukrainian government imposed strict lockdown measures in April. Specifically, these measures required people to carry ID cards. As of October 30, 2020, this requirement is still in place.
Draft Law on Disinformation
The Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Information Politics presented the Draft Law on Disinformation on January 20, 2020. This law aims to create regulations to fight the spread of disinformation. Specifically, the proposed law allows for the creation of a special office of Information Commissioner by the government. This office will be responsible for identifying fake news and will punish those who disseminate it by way of fines, criminal charges, and censorship. This law will be debated in the Fall of 2020.
Draft Law on Media
On December 27, 2019, the Parliament of Ukraine introduced a new Draft Law on Media. This draft law defines “online media” as “the regular dissemination of information, use of a separate site or page in social networks for dissemination with an individualized title and editorial control.” Under the draft law, media outlets are subject to obligatory registration. This law will be debated in the Fall of 2020.
- Institute of Mass Information is an independent non-profit aimed at promoting the positive impact of media on civil society in Ukraine.
- Detekor Media is a Ukrainian media watchdog that works to establish democratic, free and
professional media in Ukraine and foster aware media consumers.
- The Academy of Ukranian Press (AUP) is an independent non-profit and NGO that promotes critical and informed media consumption as well as socially responsible journalism in Ukraine.
COVID-19 and FREE EXPRESSION:
Reports and Trackers
- Law Library of Congress: Freedom of Expression During COVID-19
- Institute of Mass Information: Freedom of Speech Barometer
- Freedom House: Democracy Under Lockdown
- Article 19: The Global Expression Report 2019/2020
- University of Oxford: Coronavirus Government Response Tracker
- ICNL: COVID Civic Freedom Tracker
- Varieties of Democracy: Pandemic Backsliding Tracker
- PEN America: Online Harassment Field Manual
- Global Cyber Alliance: Cybersecurity Toolkit for Journalists
- Security In-a-Box: Digital Security Tools and Tactics
- Consumer Reports: Security Planner
- Tactical Tech: Holistic Security Manual for HRDs
- Front Line Defenders: Workbook on Security – Practical Steps for HRDs at Risk