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Ukraine: State’s Grip on Media Tightens, Affects Bloggers

According to the latest statement [ENG] by Reporters Without Borders, since President Yanukovych came to power in February 2010 the situation with the free media in Ukraine has declined steeply, which is reflected by the increasing number of press freedom violations in the country.

Among the recent incidents is the court ruling [ENG] on withdrawal of frequencies from TV channels TVi and Channel 5 (two channels still providing independent and fair TV news coverage [ENG], according to a Ukrainian media watchdog Telekritika), and their redistribution in favor of Inter, the country's most-watched channel, which, coincidentally, belongs to the chief of the State Security Service (SBU) Valeriy Khoroshkovskyy.

Another episode (mentioned in a recent GV post) included SBU summoning and interrogating a blogger after he criticized Yanukovych, for allegedly threatening the president’s life.

The latest incident involves blogger and journalist Olena Bilozerska, who frequently covers protests and unrest. On Jan. 12, her Kyiv apartment was raided and searched [ENG] by police, and her professional equipment was confiscated. Law enforcement authorities said [ENG] the search was carried out because of Bilozerska’s possible involvement in an attempt to set on fire Party of Regions‘ public reception office. According to Bilozerska, the link to a YouTube video of the arson attack was sent to her through email. She then posted it online, condemning the attack and symbols appearing in the video.

This is how she describes [UKR] the events on her blog:

Обшук тривав приблизно з 8:30 до 14:30. Перерили квартиру догори дном, конфіскували всю техніку, а саме – системний блок, нетбук, принтер, сканер, фотоапарат, відеокамеру, усі можливі флешки і всі жосткі і компакт-диски, навіть із фільмами, диктофон, і навіть стареньку “мильничку” батька. Тобто – повністю позбавили мене можливості працювати.
[…]
МЕНІ НЕ ДОЗВОЛЯЛИ ЗВ”ЯЗАТИСЯ З МОЇМ АДВОКАТОМ СИДОРОМ КІЗІНИМ! Я встигла лише набрати його номер, як у мене одразу ж відібрали всі телефонии.
[…]
Після допиту мені повернули мобільні телефони, принтер, сканер і ще кілька дрібних речей, але не повернули головне – комп”ютер, нетбук, фотоапарат і відеокамеру, без чого я реально не можу працювати. Коли повернуть – невідомо.

The search lasted approximately from 8:30 am till 2:30 pm. They turned the whole apartment upside down, confiscated all equipment, in particular – a PC hard drive, a netbook, a printer, a scanner, a camera, a video camera, all possible USBs, external hard drives and CDs, even those with the movies, an audio recorder, and even my father’s old [consumer] camera. That is – they've denied me every opportunity to work.
[…]
THEY WOULD NOT LET ME CONTACT MY LAWYER SYDOR KIZIN! As soon as I dialed his number, they took all the telephones away from me.
[…]
After the interrogation I got my cell phones, printer, scanner and a few other little things back. But they did not return the most important things – my computer, notebook, camera and video camera, without which I really cannot work. When they would return them to me is unknown.

Reporters Without Borders were among those commenting [ENG] on the incident:

The police said they carried out the search because Bilozerska was involved in disseminating a video on the Internet that showed an act of arson. But article 17 of Ukraine’s media law says “journalists may not be arrested or detained in connection with their professional activities and their equipment may not be confiscated.”

A Ukrainian human rights organization Vinnytsya Human Rights Group (VHRG) has also issued a statement condemning [UKR] the events:

З інформації, яка доступна для аналізу на цей момент, цілком очевидно, що порушення недоторканності місця, за яким мешкає п.Білозерська, а також вилучення міліцією майна цієї особи пов‘язані не з безпосередньою причетністю п.Білозерської до вчинення злочинів, а з намаганням правоохоронних органів отримати інформацію, зібрану журналістом у ході легітимного виконання професійних обов‘язків та завдань. Попри твердження влади, що вказане втручання пов‘язане із розслідуванням злочину (підпал офісу однієї з політичних партій в м.Києві), влада не навела жодних доказів намагання збалансувати інтерес кримінальної юстиції та гарантій вільного здійснення журналістами своєї професійної діяльності.

Based on the information currently available for analysis, it is clear that the breach of privacy of Ms. Bilozerska’s home and the confiscation of her property are not tied to her alleged connection with the committed crimes, but rather to the law enforcement officials’ intent to get hold of information collected by the journalist during her legitimate professional activity. Regardless of the authorities’ statements that the indicated incident is associated with the investigation of a crime (arson at a political party’s office in Kyiv), they have not provided a single piece of evidence of attempting to balance criminal justice's interests with the norms guaranteeing freedom of journalistic activity.

In the statement, VHRG also noted [UKR]:

Журналіст Білозерська ніколи не приховувала своїх політичних переконань та свою підтримку певним ідеологіям чи політичним лідерам. Проте це не виключає її з-під гарантій на вільне одержання та передачу інформації, встановленими Європейською Конвенцією про захист прав людини та основоположних свобод і розвинутих у відповідній юриспруденції Європейського суду з прав людини.

Journalist Bilozerska has never attempted to hide her political convictions and support for particular ideologies and political leaders. This, however, does not exclude her from having the right to receive and disseminate information set forth by the European Convention on Human Rights and enjoying the principal freedoms elaborated in the practice of the European Court of Human Rights.

It must be added that this is not the first instance of pressure on Olena Bilozerska – the previous cases have already put her on GV's Threatened Voices watchlist.

On her blog, Bilozerska provides [UKR] a personal assessment of the situation:

Моя оцінка ситуації: тиск суттєво посилюється. І цим не закінчиться. […]

My take on the situation: the pressure is on the rise. And it will not stop here. […]

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