Ukraine

Ukrainian Flag, Adopted January 28, 1992

Ukrainian Flag, Adopted January 28, 1992.

By Cara Filippelli

Introduction

Ukraine gained independence from Soviet Russia on Aug. 24, 1991 and is currently considered a republic. However, Ukraine still faces political unrest and conflict with Russia. The current political distress in Ukraine is paving the way for change by bringing international attention to the country’s free speech and free press issues.

Reporters Without Borders, an international organization which promotes free press internationally, publishes a World Press Freedom Index every year ranking 180 countries in terms of speech and press freedom. For 2015, they ranked Ukraine 129, also stating that this is the worst year since the country’s independence in 1991. The political dilemmas facing the country have led to protesting which has been combatted with violent police forces, therefore attempting to stifle freedom of speech. Reporters Without Borders explains that the country’s freedom of speech ranking has decreased due to the government’s violent response to the Euromaidan protests which began in November 2013.

Historical Background

Ukraine is located in Eastern Europe bordering the Black Sea. It is positioned in between Poland, Moldova, Romania, and Russia. Its land area is 603,550 square kilometers and the population as of July 2014 was 44,291,413. The country formerly was considered a part of the Soviet Union but gained independence on Aug. 24, 1991. A constitution was adopted on June 28, 1996 which remains to be considered the country’s fundamental law.

Since its independence, Ukraine has continued to face political unrest. One of the most significant events representing the country’s governmental conflicts was the 2004 Orange Revolution. In the fall presidential election, incumbent president Leonid Kuchma and his chosen Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych used state resources, media, and private funding in an attempt to defeat the opposing candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. However, when their tactics failed, Kuchma’s government added over one million votes to Yanukovych’s tally in the second round of voting on Nov. 21, 2004. In response to the electoral fraud, Yushchenko called his supporters to protest in Independence Square in the capital city of Kyiv. Hundreds of thousands protested and remained on the square until the Supreme Court annulled the official results of the second round and set a reelection to take place on Dec. 26, 2004. Yushchenko won in the second round of voting. The protests that took place and commemoration of the Orange Revolution marks a turn in Ukrainian history acknowledging the power of speech and assembly. Since the revolution, the country continues to face political unrest. In 2010, Yanukovych became Yushchenko’s successor until 2014, when he was removed from power during the Euromaidan protests.

Free Speech

Since adoption of the constitution in 1996, Ukraine has challenged the limits of free speech. Article 34 of the Constitution of Ukraine states “Everyone is guaranteed the right to freedom of thought and speech, and to the free expression of his or her views and beliefs” and “Everyone has the right to freely collect, store, use and disseminate information by oral, written or other means of his or her choice.” However, the article also states that speech may be restricted “in the interests of national security, territorial indivisibility or public order, with the purpose of preventing disturbances or crimes, protecting the health of the population, the reputation or rights of other persons, preventing the publication of information received confidentially, or supporting the authority and impartiality of justice.” While such exceptions may seem reasonable and even similar to much freer countries’ constitutional articles, several conflicts throughout Ukraine’s history suggest that the freedom is not entirely upheld.

On a grand scale, Ukrainian politics have seen several massive protests, beginning with the Orange Revolution. The revolution challenged political corruption and set a precedent for handling similar situations. The fact that the Orange Revolution protests proved to be successful in gaining attention and resulting in change, gave hope to the Ukrainian people, paving the way for later protests.

Euromaidan is the name given to Ukraine’s most recent political protests. The protests began in November 2013 as a student uprising to protest the president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych. Students were upset because Yanukovych campaigned to sign an association agreement with the European Union which he did not do. The protests quickly gained momentum and international attention, lasting until February 2014. As the protests grew, they were met with aggressive police force including tear gas, pepper spray, and batons which were even used to hit people over the head. As the protests grew increasingly dangerous, Ukrainian legislature passed anti-protest laws on Jan. 16, 2014. These laws restricted forms of speech including unsanctioned gatherings, wearing a mask or a hat that makes identification difficult, blocking access to public buildings, and setting up unauthorized tents or stages. Many of the laws involved jail time as a penalty. The public reaction to these laws was ironically met with more protests resulting in violent police conflict. The law was repealed only days later by leader of the ruling Party of Regions, Aleksandr Efremov, who made the announcement on Jan. 19, 2014 in Kiev. Yanukovych announced a new coalition government to be formed within the next ten days just before being ousted from power and fleeing the capital, thus ending the affair.

Ukraine remains in a current state of political unrest due to internal affairs as well as fighting with Russia. Given the unrest, the country’s political environment is likely to continue changing; though at this time it is difficult to determine which direction the change will go. Given the immense protests in Ukraine which have challenged its government, it is safe to say the people of Ukraine believe in the power of protest and will continue to exercise the practice despite barriers.

Free Press

In 2012, Article 171 was implemented into the Ukrainian legal code prohibiting interference with the professional activities of journalists. However, those who interfere are rarely persecuted under the act; likely due to the fact that many are government officials or government supporters.

Freedom House’s ranking of Ukraine’s press freedom has gotten worse in the previous years due to the violence against journalists during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests. At least 50 journalists were known to be directly targeted and attacked due to their coverage of the protests.

On Dec. 24, 2013 Tetyana Chernovil, a journalist known for her investigations into government corruption was followed and brutally beaten by several men. She suspected the attack was order by President Yanukovych because she believed she had been caught investigating the construction of his new mansion.

There are many cases in Ukraine of murdered journalists pointing to similar government motives. Vyacheslav Veremiy died of severe blood loss in a hospital in Kiev on Feb. 19, 2014 after being attacked with baseball bats and shot by several men suspected to be pro-government protestors known as the “titushki.” Veremiy was also covering the Euromaidan protests.

While Ukraine’s media availability is considered much more progressive than other formerly Soviet nations, it is still challenged by declining pluralism and an emphasis on entertainment rather than the reporting of political corruption. However, the Ukrainian people have access to the Internet and other media outlets which likely played a key role in public awareness leading to the Euromaidan protests. Hopefully this access will remain and such awareness will lead to further political freedom.

Critical Comparison

At first glance, Ukraine’s legal system is seemingly similar to that of the United States. Both hold their constitution as the highest regarded law and include a hierarchy of courts to make important decisions and provisions. Although Ukraine faces political unrest, most average citizens possess their inherent human rights which are secured by not only Ukraine’s legal system, but also a higher council which oversees civil cases in many European countries. The European Court of Human Rights oversees civil cases in independent European countries to ensure they are in line with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights (1950). The convention was drafted to require participating countries to uphold the civil rights granted to its citizens. So although Ukraine has its own Supreme Court, many civil cases end up going to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Ukrainian constitution also has articles similar to the United States’ First Amendment which pertains to free speech. The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Similarly, Article 34 of the Constitution of Ukraine states “Everyone is guaranteed the right to freedom of thought and speech, and to the free expression of his or her views and beliefs. Everyone has the right to freely collect, store, use and disseminate information by oral, written or other means of his or her choice. The exercise of these rights may be restricted by law in the interests of national security, territorial indivisibility or public order, with the purpose of preventing disturbances or crimes, protecting the health of the population, the reputation or rights of other persons, preventing the publication of information received confidentially, or supporting the authority and impartiality of justice.” The articles and amendments pertaining to free speech in both the Ukrainian and United States’ constitutions are founded on the same principles of speech as a basic human right.

The Constitution of Ukraine also includes a separate article which specifically pertains to the freedom of assembly. Article 39 states “Citizens have the right to assemble peacefully without arms and to hold meetings, rallies, processions and demonstrations, upon notifying in advance the bodies of executive power or bodies of local self-government. Restrictions on the exercise of this right may be established by a court in accordance with the law and only in the interests of national security and public order, with the purpose of preventing disturbances or crimes, protecting the health of the population, or protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons”. The mention of such guidelines implies that the Ukraine is not as permissive as the United States in relevance to the freedom of assembly.

This is reflected by governmental reaction during significant political protests, especially Euromaidan. Perhaps one of the country’s most significant court cases regarding freedom of assembly is Shmushkovych v. Ukraine (2013). On March 17, 2009 Mykhaylo Volodymyrovych Shmushkovych, vice-president of Zelyonka, a non-governmental youth organization, applied to hold a peaceful assembly in front of the Odessa City Council building on March 19, 2009 to call for the completion of the construction of residential buildings contracted by the Council’s Department of Construction. The council replied stating that under Article 185-1 of the Code of Administrative Offences he would have had to inform them at least ten days prior to the planned event. Therefore, carrying out the assembly would be considered unlawful. Shmushkovych and other participants proceeded with the assembly at the set date and time anyway. The District Court charged him with violating public order under Article 185-1. Shmushkovych appealed and the case worked its way up through the court system to the European Court of Human Rights. The court sided with Shmushkovych and held that Article 185-1 was in violation with Article 11 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights which states “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” The article goes on to mention that this right may only be restricted if necessary for national security or public safety. This is similar to precedents set by United States decisions. The case of Shmushkovych v. Ukraine can be compared to the United States Supreme Court decision of Snyder v. Phelps (2011). In the case Fred W. Phelps and other members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside of a funeral for an American soldier. The picketers remained peaceful and stayed positioned at a distance permitted by present authorities. The court ruled that Phelps and the other picketers were within their constitution rights of assembly. Although the cases were based on different grounds of conviction, the final decision set a precedent that a citizen’s right to assemble cannot be restricted based on inconvenience or unpopular opinion.

Conclusion

Although Ukraine is considered more limited than the United States in terms of free speech and free press rights, its constitution and legal system are evidently influenced by the United States and may one day reach similar freedoms. The fact that Ukraine is a fairly new country means that it will continue to change politically; similar to the way that the United States has progressed since the drafting of its constitution. A variety of cases will set precedents for Ukraine’s interpretation of its constitution and may one day lead to an environment encouraging more free speech.

Works Cited
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*# EuroMaidan: Rising for Freedom and Democracy in Ukraine. Ontario, Canada: Brine, 2014. Print.
“2015 World Press Freedom Index.” 2015 World Press Freedom Index. Reporters WIthout Borders, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
Cohen, Ariel. “Ukraine’s Anti-Protest Laws: A Step Backwards in Time.” The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation, 24 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
“Constitution of Ukraine.” Legislationline. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
*Hankivsky, Olena, and Anastasiya Salnykova. Gender, Politics, and Society in Ukraine. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2012. Print.
Merrills, John G. “European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
*Miller, Alexei. The Ukrainian Question: The Russian Empire and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century. Budapest: Central European UP, 2003. Print.
*Motyl, Alexander J. Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1993. Print.
*Stoner, Kathryn, and Michael McFaul. Transitions to Democracy: A Comparative Perspective. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013. Print.
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“Ukraine.” Freedom House. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
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“Ukrainian Activist-journalist Tetyana Chernovil in Intensive Care after Beating.” The Guardian. N.p., 26 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
“Ukrainian Parliament Repeals Controversial Anti-protest Laws.” RT News. N.p., 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
“Vyacheslav Veremiy – Journalists Killed.” Committee to Protect Journalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

 

Last Updated on April 30, 2015

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