Despite the existence of legislation that aims to protect journalists, the NSJU said that Ukraine is notorious for impunity when crimes against journalists are committed.
Speaking at a conference held by the International Federation of Journalists in October 2018, Sergey Tomilenko, the head of NSJU, said that crimes against journalists had become the norm in Ukraine. He said that every four days there were acts of violence against journalists in the country, from brutal beatings to broken equipment.
In 2017-2018 NSJU recorded 175 physical violations against journalists in Ukraine, including minor acts of aggression and destruction of property.
Artyom Shevchenko, the spokesperson for the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior, reported on 1 March that in 2018, the police opened 258 criminal investigations on interfering with journalistic activity. In January 2019 alone, there were an additional 21 investigations. At the same time, however, only 26 out of the 258 cases related to crimes against media workers were passed on to the court.
“The lack of political will of the country’s leadership to really protect media workers leads to the fact that the attacks are not properly investigated, and those cases which still reach the court do not end with heavy punishment for the attackers”, head of NSJU Sergey Tomilenko told Index on Censorship’s project Monitoring and Advocating for Media Freedom. “Until recently, journalists, particularly investigative journalists, were viewed by officials as threats, and not as an important element of protecting democracy in the country.” Until recently, there has also been a political culture that legitimised humiliating journalists and the media, he added.
Tomilenko said that the NSJU has noticed that ordinary Ukrainians now feel emboldened to physically assault journalists. This is likely due to the toxic attitude toward the press created by government officials, he says. “Over the past year, we have witnessed an active uprising by the authorities–primarily representatives of the President, Petro Poroshenko, and parliamentarians of the political forces close to him–deliberate hostility towards certain journalists and the media, and calls to attack the so-called ‘pro-Russian’ media. This has resulted in the blocking of individual TV channels, the physical attacks on journalists during live broadcasts, parliamentary appeals to stop the broadcasting of individual media, and attempts to adopt draconian laws against the media.”
Tomilenko said that he was hopeful that the hostility toward journalists would abate in the future. “The victory of the new President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who does not use the rhetoric of hostility towards journalists and declares his support of freedom of speech and real political competition in the country, gives (me) hope that the Ukrainian authorities will not be at the forefront of those who reject the rights of journalists and the media.”
The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine has been calling for regular and transparent public reports by law enforcement agencies on the progress of investigations of crimes against journalists. Such reports could be used as a key tool in battling impunity. In addition, the NSJU is recommending special parliamentary hearings on journalists’ physical security and freedom of speech.
“This initiative, which we proposed in July 2017 on the 1st anniversary of the assassination of Pavel Sheremet, is particularly relevant today — when a new murder took place in Ukraine — that of regional journalist Vadim Komarov”, Tomilenko said.