Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press, but authorities did not always respect these rights. The government introduced measures that banned or blocked information, media outlets, or individual journalists deemed a threat to national security or who expressed positions that authorities believed undermined the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Other problematic practices continued to affect media freedom, including self-censorship, so-called jeansa payments to journalists for favorable news reports disguised as objective journalism, and slanted news coverage by media whose owners had close ties to the government or opposition political parties.
In the Donbas region, Russian-backed separatists suppressed freedom of speech and the press through harassment, intimidation, abductions, and assaults on journalists and media outlets. They also prevented the transmission of Ukrainian and independent television and radio programming in areas under their control.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: With some exceptions, individuals in areas not under Russian occupation or Russian-backed separatist control could generally criticize the government publicly and privately and discuss matters of public interest without fear of official reprisal. The law criminalizes the display of communist and Nazi symbols, although there have been no prosecutions.
The law prohibits statements that threaten the country’s territorial integrity, promote war, instigate racial or religious conflict, or support Russian aggression towards Ukraine.
On September 15, the National Television and Radio Council issued a warning to Kherson-based radio station AKS for statements suggesting that Crimean Tatars were involved in terrorism. If a station receives a second warning, it could lose its broadcasting license.
On December 9, the Verkhovna Rada passed a bill to restrict imports of certain Russian books with “anti-Ukrainian content” that violated Ukrainian law. The books may still be legally imported below the commercial threshold of 100 copies.
Press and Media Freedoms: According to the NGO Freedom House, the press in the country was “partly free.”
Independent media and internet news sites were active and expressed a wide range of views. Privately owned media, the most successful of which were generally owned by wealthy and influential “oligarchs,” often presented readers and viewers a “biased pluralism,” representing the views of their owners, favorable coverage of their allies, and criticizing political and business rivals. The 10 most popular television stations were owned by businessmen whose primary business was not in media. Independent media had difficulty competing with major outlets that operated with oligarchic subsidies.
The public television broadcaster was established in 2015 and planned to be fully operational by January 2017. On November 1, the head of the public broadcaster, Zurab Alasania, resigned from his position in protest regarding a number of obstacles to establishing the channel’s operations, including the government’s diversion of the channel’s budget for other purposes. Alasania also cited complaints he had received from the government regarding investigative journalism programs on corruption produced by the broadcaster.
The practice of jeansa, or publishing unsubstantiated news articles for a fee, continued to be widespread. For example, according to the Institute of Mass Information press monitoring, the highest proportion of jeansa in regional media was found in print outlets in Mykolaiv Oblast, where 15 percent of all published articles were political or commercial jeansa.
Violence and Harassment: Violence against journalists remained a problem in the country, though attacks on journalists dropped for the second year. Human rights groups and journalists criticized government inaction in solving these crimes, giving rise to a culture of impunity.
According to the Institute of Mass Information, there were 30 reports of attacks on journalists, half as many as in 2015, and almost a 10th as many as in 2014. As in 2015, the majority of these attacks were perpetrated by private, not state, actors. There were 42 incidents of threats against and harassment of journalists, up from 36 in 2015.
The Institute of Mass Information and editors of major independent news outlets noted online harassment of journalists by societal actors, reflecting a growing societal intolerance of reporting deemed insufficiently patriotic, a development they said had the tacit support of the government. In one case, on May 10, the nationalist website Myrotvorets (Peacemaker), which allegedly has links to the Interior Ministry, published the names and personal information of more than 4,000 domestic and foreign journalists who had received accreditation from the Russian-backed separatist “authorities” in Donetsk and Luhansk. The website claimed that the journalists’ actions amounted to collaboration with terrorists. On May 24, Myrotvorets published the personal information of an additional 300 journalists. Some affected media professionals subsequently received death threats and were subjected to significant online harassment. While Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov spoke out in support of Myrotvorets, calling the journalists “liberal separatists,” President Poroshenko on June 3 condemned the website during his annual press conference. Police investigation of the case continued through year’s end.
There were multiple incidents of violence and harassment against the television channel INTER, which is perceived to have a pro-Russian editorial policy. According to press reports, in January protesters spray-painted “Kremlin mouthpiece” on INTER’s offices and threw rocks through its windows. On February 25, volunteer Azov Battalion fighters blocked journalists’ access to INTER’s offices after INTER broadcasters were inadvertently recorded criticizing the “heavenly hundred,” demonstrators killed during the Euromaidan protests. In June, protesters burned tires at the entrance to INTER’s offices. On August 4, Myrotvorets published hacked email correspondence purporting to show that an INTER TV journalist had coordinated the contents of an article with Russian-backed separatist leaders. On August 31, Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov publicly called on the SBU to deal with INTER, which he labeled “anti-Ukrainian.” On September 4, approximately 15 to 20 masked persons entered INTER’s offices, setting fire to the building, destroying equipment, and trapping employees in the smoke-filled building. As a result some staff members were hospitalized, including one with a spinal injury. Authorities arrested six persons at the scene; an investigation into the attack by the SBU Investigative Department continued. On November 21, five unidentified persons threw Molotov cocktails at INTER’s headquarters. Authorities opened an investigation into the incident, which continued at year’s end.
On July 20, well-known journalist Pavel Sheremet, who hosted a morning show on Vesti radio and worked for the Ukrainska Pravdaonline news outlet, was killed by a bomb in the car he was driving in downtown Kyiv (see section 1.a.).
During the year authorities detained but later released two suspects in the 2015 killing in Kyiv of Oles Buzina, who was perceived as pro-Russian. Both suspects were allegedly members of right-wing political groups. An investigation into the case remained open at year’s end.
There were multiple reports of attacks on journalists investigating government corruption. On May 24, three masked men fled in a car after beating Anatoliy Ostapenko, a journalist affiliated with the independent media outlet Hromadske Zaporizhzhya. Ostapenko was working on several investigations linking local authorities in Zaporizhzhya to corruption. An investigation into the attack continued at year’s end.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Institute for Mass Information recorded seven incidents of censorship of individual publications, down from 12 in 2015.
Both independent and state-owned media periodically engaged in self-censorship when reporting stories that might expose political allies to criticism or that might be perceived by the public as insufficiently patriotic or that might provide information that could be used for Russian propaganda.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a civil offense. While the law limits the monetary damages a plaintiff can claim in a lawsuit, local media observers continued to express concern over high monetary damages awarded for alleged libel. Government entities, and public figures in particular, used the threat of civil suits, sometimes based on alleged damage to a person’s “honor and integrity,” to influence or intimidate the press and investigative journalists. For example, on August 29, former prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, announced he would sue the investigative journalism television program “Schemes” over its claims to have uncovered evidence of his corruption, including his ownership of luxury property registered in the names of family members.
National Security: Authorities took measures to prohibit, regulate, and occasionally censor information deemed a national security threat.
The government continued the practice of banning specific works by pro-Russian actors, film directors, and singers, as well as imposing sanctions on pro-Russian journalists. According to the head of the State Film Agency, Fillip Ilienko, as of February 18, some 432 films and television shows had been banned in the country on national security grounds since August 2014. On May 31, the president signed a decree imposing visa bans on 17 Russian journalists; several dozen other journalists were sanctioned previously. The decree also lifted sanctions against 29 foreign journalists. Human rights NGOs criticized the move. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the country to “immediately rescind the decree banning Russian journalists from the country and to resist the urge to fight propaganda with censorship.”
The government continued to block Russian television channels from broadcasting in the country, based on a 2014 decision by the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council based on the perceived dangerous influence of Russian propaganda. As of year’s end, only six Russian channels were permitted to broadcast, compared to 83 Russian channels able to broadcast in the country at the start of 2014. According to the head of the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council, as of November 2, the council had issued 23 warnings to Ukrainian cable providers for violating the ban on certain Russian channels.
Media professionals continued to experience pressure from SBU and the armed forces when reporting on sensitive issues, such as military losses. On July 8, the press center of the Antiterrorist Operation (ATO) asked the SBU to suspend the accreditation of journalists representing two Ukrainian and one Russian media outlets that were reporting from Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast. The journalists had released a video considered by the ATO headquarters to violate the rules for reporting from a conflict area, since it disclosed soldiers’ faces, locations, and weaponry. After the request to remove it, the Ukrainian Hromadske journalists removed the video from their YouTube channel, but Russian journalist, Yulia Polukhina, published the material in Novaya Gazeta. After later receiving concurrence, Hromadske published an abridged version of the video approximately three weeks later. The HRMMU considered the response of the ATO headquarters to be disproportionate to the violation.
On February 24, the SBU deported Russian journalist, Mariya Stolyarova, and banned her from re-entering the country for five years. Stolyarova worked as a broadcast editor of “Podrobnosti Nedeli” (“Details of the Week”) at INTER TV. Before the deportation the SBU conducted an investigation regarding an obscene statement Stolyarova made on air during a broadcast of material related to the “heavenly hundred” protesters who were killed during the Euromaidan demonstrations. Law enforcement officers also questioned Stolyarova’s stay on territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and her alleged coordination of storylines with Russian-backed separatists.
Nongovernmental Impact: Russian-backed separatists in eastern areas of the country harassed, arbitrarily detained, and mistreated journalists (see section 1.g.). According to the HRMMU, “persons living in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ know that expressing their opinion freely and publicly was not acceptable in armed group-controlled territory,” that “armed groups are directly influencing and shaping the content in local media,” and that they require favorable coverage as the cost of retaining registration to operate.
According to the HRMMU and media reports, on January 4, the “Ministry of State Security” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” detained Kyiv-based blogger and activist, Volodymyr Fomichev, and charged him with unlawful possession of weapons. On June 27, he pled guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. Fomichev’s family insisted the conviction was baseless and the result of a forced confession. During the “hearings,” Fomichev gave his father a sweater covered with blood, raising concerns about mistreatment by “investigators.”
Actions to Expand Press Freedom: On February 4, parliament passed a law criminalizing the illegal seizure of materials collected, processed, and prepared by journalists or of technical devices they use in their professional activities. The law also introduces a penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment for unlawfully denying journalists access to information, unlawfully banning them from covering particular topics, or for any other action impeding their professional activity.
Authorities did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. Law enforcement bodies monitored the internet, at times without appropriate legal authority. Authorities did not restrict content or censor websites or other communications and internet services.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 49 percent of persons in the country used the internet in 2015.
Human rights groups and journalists that were critical of Russian involvement in the Donbas region and Crimea reported that opponents subjected their websites to cyberattacks, such as coordinated denial of service incidents and unauthorized attempts to obtain information from computers, as well as coordinated campaigns of “trolling” and harassment on social media.
Users of social media, particularly Facebook and VKontakte, sometimes had their access temporarily blocked for innocuous or political posts that other users mischaracterized as “hate speech” and flagged as terms of service violations.
In its yearly Freedom on the Net report, Freedom House assessed in November that internet freedom in the country deteriorated for the second year in a row, noting that, “Ukrainian authorities have become less tolerant of online expression perceived as critical of Ukraine’s position in the conflict, and the government has been especially active this year in sanctioning social media users for ‘separatist’ and “extremist” activities, with many users detained, fined and even imprisoned for such activities. Meanwhile, Russian-backed separatist forces in the east have stepped up efforts to block content online perceived to be in support of Ukrainian government or cultural identity.”
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were several reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. On November 4, the SBU announced that it had banned 140 Russian cultural figures from entering the country, as their actions or statements conflicted with the country’s interests.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.