Ukraine: Independent journalists and activists pay high price for their participation in EuroMaidan protests

As the EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine continue, approaching almost two months, media workers and civil society activists endure physical attacks, police persecution and psychological pressure as a result of marking their dissatisfaction with the government’s turn away from the EU and rough dispersal of peaceful protesters

In the course of the protests that were sparked in November 2013 by the President’s decision to decline a long-negotiated association agreement with the EU, the country has seen a deterioration in the protection of human rights, including freedom of expression under President Viktor Yanukovych. Attacks on journalists and human rights activists since December 2013, renewed censorship of national TV channels and a newly adopted law introducing restrictions on human rights and freedoms, are the cause of grave concern amongst civil society groups and independent media in the country.

Attacks and pressure on media on-going

On 30 November and 1 December 2013, more than 50 journalists suffered physically while covering the popular unrest in Kyiv, mostly as a result of police violence. One very serious attack took place as Western Europe celebrated Christmas Eve. The popular independent journalist and EuroMaidan activist Tetyana Chornovol was followed in her car and battered when returning home to her family one night after several weeks of taking part in the EuroMaidan demonstrations in Kyiv. Mrs. Chornovol was hospitalised, and firmly believes that the attack could have been instigated by President Yanukovych in revenge for her investigations into affairs regarding his real estate.

Despite the numerous calls by international and national human rights organisations urging the Ukrainian government to protect media workers, yet another three journalists were beaten and their equipment destroyed by police during the most recent protest actions in the Svyatoshynskyi District Court in Kyiv on 10 January.

Vitaliy Portnikov, another famous journalist who covered the recent political developments in Ukraine extensively and participated in EuroMaidan, was subjected to harassment and slander online in an attempt to discredit his work when a video was posted on the Internet calling him a homosexual and a protest against his “bad morals” was staged in front of his flat.

The civic activists of EuroMaidan are similarly pressured in the Eastern and Southern regions of the country. More than five cars belonging to activists have been set on fire, several activists have been beaten, one of the EuroMaidan leaders in Kharkiv was knifed, and criminal persecutions against other regional activists have been initiated based on unproven charges like the dissemination of pornography.

Four protesters, two of whom were journalists, are still in jail despite a special amnesty law which was recently adopted by Parliament, but has not been implemented in practice. As many protestors were imprisoned, the government was pushed to adopt a special amnesty law allowing for those imprisoned in the protests to be freed. But now officials and courts claim that the law is vague and thus do not implement it.

Meanwhile, the road police are working to seize driving licenses from participants of AutoMaidan (a parallel movement with car drivers marking their support for EuroMaidan) who organised a protest rally to the country residences of the President, Prime-Minister, Minister of Interior and the Prosecutor General.

Looming repressive scenarios

In an interview with, Savik Shuster, a well-known journalist (in Ukrainian) of the post-soviet region and the TV host of one of the most popular Ukrainian political talk-shows, suggested that the Ukrainian government in its attempts to repress the protest movement will follow the Russia-inspired “road map”. This would entail a monopolisation of the media space, introducing visa requirements for EU and US citizens, and the adoption of a law modeled on the similar Russian legislation that will make it difficult for Ukrainian civil society organisations to receive funds from foreign partners and to de facto cooperate with international peers.

Already on 2 December – only two days after the brutal dispersal of peaceful protesters in Kyiv the draft law on combating extremism was registered in Parliament by MP Vadym Kolesnichenko of the pro-government Party of Regions.  The draft law is almost a precise translation of the Russian law on combating extremism activity and would allow for the banning any peaceful assembly, closing down legal entities, suppressing media and blocking web-sites based on the notion of “extremism”. Read more about Media Law Institute’s legal opinion on the Draft Law on Combating Extremism in English here.

On 16 January, Parliament adopted the draft law 3879 which introduces significant amendments into a series of Ukrainian laws including Criminal Code, the law on Civil Society Organisations, the law on the judiciary and many others. The new law is believed to significantly curb human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Amongst other things, the law introduces considerable fines for functioning of online media without registration and entitles Parliament and the President to dismiss members of the national broadcasting regulator at any moment.Read more about the draft law 3879 here.

Online and social media influential in the protest movement

There are also signs that the government is re-introducing censorship of the national TV channels which are the major news source for most Ukrainians. With state TV channel being heavily biased, a situation which also prompted several journalists to leave their work places on state media in December 2013, many Ukrainians turned to newly emerged, independent, online independent initiatives. These include aforementioned (a private journalistic online initiative committed to the values and principles of public broadcasting), and hromadske radio, as well as social media like Facebook and Twitter.

“Social media and Internet news sites play an important role in diffusing information and for this reason may have been highly influential – perhaps even at unprecedented levels compared to prior protests internationally – in motivating people and framing their protest claims,” is one of the conclusions of a survey about the recent Ukrainian protests conducted by Oxford scholars Olga Onuch and Tamara Martsenyuk.

Interestingly, Ukrainians also seem to have changed their attitude towards financing public and community media out of their own pockets. According to a survey in September 2013 commissioned by Telekritika with the support of DANIDA (in Ukrainian), 58 per cent of respondents in Ukraine were not ready to pay for public broadcasting and 25 per cent were ready to pay less than 2.5 EUR per month. However, the online, independent media managed to raise around 78,000 EUR in charity donations (in Ukrainian) during the very first month of its work which coincided with the outbreak of protests in Ukraine in November and December 2013.

Independent media and civil society collaborate

The recent protest events have shown that Ukrainian civil society and media are able to react and consolidate themselves quickly and effectively when freedom of expression and other civil rights are threatened. The next few months will show whether this consolidation will contribute to furthering democratic media development in the country, or will be marginalised and pushed underground, depending on whether the government’s stronghold on the protest movement and activists tightens further.