Mixed reaction to proposals for new protest laws in Ukraine

Peaceful Assembly

In May, Ukraine asked the Council of Europe's Venice Commission for an opinion on two draft laws to protect the freedom of peaceful assembly. The Venice Commission welcomed the government's efforts to provide a legal framework in line with international standards and outlined a number of improvements that could be made to the drafts: These include:

  • ensuring that the concept of assemblies is properly defined to capture the 'gathering of people for expressive purposes'.
  • properly providing for spontaneous assemblies, without the need for a notification procedure.
  • grounds for restricting assemblies should be harmonised with Ukraine's constitution.

Ukrainian human rights activists received the drafts more cautiously and warned that one of the draft laws could legalise forcible dispersal of peaceful protests. According to Mykhailo Lebed, an expert with the human rights coalition 'No to the police state', the law does not address the root causes of protest repression witnessed in 2013:

'[The] most brutal violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly of November 30, 2013, caused a nationwide protest. Freedom of assembly is one of the most fundamental freedoms for Ukrainians. Today we are witnessing attempts to take revenge on the changes that Maidan was demanding and that the current authorities are claiming.'

The law introduces a 48-hour notification period and, according to local activists, allows authorities to ban protests at any time and gives unlimited powers to local authorities to forcibly disperse protests. Local activist Mykhailo Kamenev added that the new draft law is being supported by the judges that adopted decisions banning the Maidan demonstrations in November, 2013.

Expression

The Association of European Journalists is reporting more cases of abuse and intimidation against journalists in Donbass and Crimea. Published in October, AEJ’s latest Media Freedom Report for Ukraine covers the past two years and highlights violent attacks, office raids and official obstruction of the activities of Ukrainian journalists in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, which was occupied by the Russian Federation in March 2014. According to the report's authors, the rate of impunity across the whole of Ukraine was again very high in 2015, with only 11 out of 171 cases so far brought to court. In contrast, cases of physical abduction, violence and legal harassment against journalists fell compared to 2014, when local elections sparked violent acts allegedly by Russian-backed separatists, forcing dozens of journalists from those regions into exile.

Activists and foreign diplomats continue to call for the release of Oleg Sentstov, a Ukranian film-maker who is detained in Russia and has been sentenced to 18 years in prison as a result of his opposition to Russia's annexation of Crimea. On 10th October, activists organised an special solidarity event in support of Sentsov and other Ukrainian political prisoners detained in Russian jails. The event included activist and musician Andrei Khliyvynuk, Eugene Stepanenko a film and theatre director turned soldier, Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot and members of the Belarus Free Theatre. In mid-December, the USA's permanent representative to the UN Samantha Power made a public call for his release. 

Ukraine has fallen one place on an annual ranking of online freedoms - Freedom on the Net, compiled by Freedom House. Ukraine now ranks 38th and remains only 'partly free'. Fredom House reports that social media and ICT applications are not blocked in Ukraine, but there are cases when access to information is restricted and bloggers and activists are arrested.