Guest blog: How Human Rights Platform lawyers protect freedom of speech

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Posted on: 
29 Nov 2018

Disclaimer: This article reflects the views of the partner organisation featured and does not necessarily represent official opinion of the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI).

In the current conditions it's vital to have professional and accessible legal help available to Ukranian journalists and other media. It enables them to be more confident while collecting and disseminating critical and socially important information. Legal support also helps journalists comply with professional standards and means that they don’t have to practice self-censorship. Since 2017 the NGO Human Rights Platform (HRP) has supported nearly 70 court cases involving journalists or media, as part of the Effective Legal Protection of Freedom of Speech in Ukraine project, funded by Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI).

The Institute of Mass Information (IMI), a Ukrainian non-profit organisation which monitors violations of journalists’ professional rights, registered 281 freedom of speech violations in 2017, and 72 since the beginning of 2018.

According to another calculation, done by the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, there have been 143 violations of journalists’ professional rights registered since January 2017, 64 of them in 2018.

Whatever the calculations, lawyers from Human Rights Platform have been assisting journalists and other media in 67 cases of violations. In 38 cases the journalists or other media were provided with remote legal assistance (online) – including advice on how to defend their rights in legal proceedings and support drawing up procedural documents. In 29 cases lawyers from HRP represented media directly in court.

Currently, we have already obtained two final judgments in favour of journalists. Eight cases are still in pre-trial investigation, 10 are in courts of first instance, two are in appellate courts, and three cases have reached courts of cassation. Moreover, three applications were applied to the European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR). One more strategic case is pending before a court of first instance however after a little success – as the appellate court decided to send the case back for reconsideration.

The geography does not influence the activities of the Effective Legal Protection of Freedom of Speech in Ukraine project; HRP’s lawyers are ready to help journalists and media all over Ukraine.

One of the project’s successes is the final court decision in the case of investigative journalist Arina Krapka vs the charitable foundation Only Together, owned by the Ukrainian politician Igor Palycya. The journalist investigated the funding sources of Mr Palycya’s ‘private army’. Due to the legal assistance of HRP’s lawyer, the journalist successfully defended her right to information in the appellate court. However, while conducting the investigation Arina Krapka was harassed and watched, and because of the pressure, she could not work in her hometown anymore and had to leave it.

“My case caused a public resonance and helped to prove that the ‘private army’, which was involved in a number of unlawful actions in our region, is yet funded by the Ukrainian politician Igor Palycya” – the journalist said.

With HRP’s support the regional newspaper Druzhkivka managed to defend its right to describe a situation happening in the city, in one of its articles. The newspaper was sued by the head of the regional department of the Pension Fund of Ukraine who had not liked an article which was critical of the quality of services provided by the department. Using his power, the head of the department decided to put pressure on the media by suing it for defamation in order to prevent criticism. However, due to the legal assistance provided within the Effective Legal Protection of Freedom of Speech project, the newspaper from small city in the Donbas region managed to prove its case and protect its right to freedom of speech.

“We believe that our case is of fundamental nature. If we publish a rebuttal of what all the citizens see and endure, then what are we allowed to cover in the articles at all?!” - said Eugen Fialko, the editor of the newspaper.

Another illustrative case is that of Tetyana Kozyreva, an investigative journalist working for the leading Ukrainian online news site Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth). The journalist was investigating the case of American lobbyists. Despite the exhausting debates with the National Joint Stock Company Naftogaz the proceedings involved, owing to consistent line of defence, conducted by HRP’s lawyer Oleksandr Burmahin, Ms Kozyreva managed to defend her position in both first and appellate court instances. Unfortunately, there is still fight for the right to information in cassation instance.

HRP has also undertaken strategic litigation in a case which has already caused flash mobs across the country. The case involves the General Prosecutor’s Office’s unprecedented request for access to 17 months’ worth of cell phone data from the well-known investigative journalist Kristina Berdynskykh.

Ms Berdynskykh works for the Ukrainian magazine Novoe Vremya Weekly and investigates and reports on corruption cases. She is a witness in a case against Artem Sytnyk, Head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). It is suspected that Mr Sytnyk may have divulged state secrets to journalists. The General Prosecutor’s Office’s request for over a year’s worth of phone data includes phone calls, SMS, and the geolocation data, however Kyiv’s Pechersk District Court granted access. The journalist appealed against the decision. Another investigative journalist Natalie Sedletska – Chief Editor and host of the well-known Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Schemes investigative television show – also appeared in the case. HRP’s lawyer Liudmyla Opryshko is acting on behalf of Ms Berdynskykh in court and the lawyer's arguments became a decisive point in the proceedings at the appellate stage. Ms Opryshko proved that investigator had not shown legal basis for the need to obtain the journalist’s phone data. In addition, the lawyer declared the inadequacy of the attempt to obtain the data of such large period. The appellate court satisfied the complaint of the journalist by partly revoking the decision to grant the access to the data, and sent the decision to the court of first instance for reconsideration. 

HRP has also seen positive results in court cases where the NGO provided remote (online) legal support – in the form of detailed advice and drawing up procedural documents so that journalists can defend their rights in court by themselves. The journalists and media have obtained 11 judgments in their favour, two applications applied to the European Court for Human Rights, and 25 cases are pending before national courts.

Most cases supported within the Effective Legal Protection of Freedom of Speech in Ukraine project are cases where lawyers defend journalists and media from a corrupted system – where reform is hard and not always efficient.

Professional legal assistance not only helps defend rights in courts but also to improves society’s trust in a fair justice system and increases the belief that it is worth fighting for fairness together.

The project provides legal support to journalists and media in the forms of: representing their interests in courts, drawing up legal documents, and giving legal advice.

Read the Digest of Court Cases (PDF)