Human Rights in Ukraine. Website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

On civic society, the political crisis, freedom of speech and more


On 24 July the Ukrainian Civic Assembly in Kyiv drew delegates from over 300 Ukrainian civic organizations. This Forum was preceded by active discussion throughout the regions as to the reasons for the political crisis which has engulfed the central authorities.  The delegates to the Assembly passed a resolution addressed to those in power with a number of very specific demands, including a call for review of the Ukrainian Constitution. Member of the Organizing Committee, Yevhen Zakharov hopes that their call will be heeded, however he sees the main achievement of the Forum in the fact that civic organizations in Ukraine feel that they have become a united community.

Would you say that the civic sector has become stronger in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution?

I think so, yes, and so, therefore, has civic society. You can in fact give fairly convincing arguments both for an affirmative and negative answer, but this is normal for any post-totalitarian society. I think that civic society is a reasonably strong force which politicians must take into account, however it has not become strong enough to force political factions to heed its demands. The process however is continuing. For example, I quite often speak at various public hearings and roundtables. Almost everything proposed there soon gets taken on board by ministers, the President or his Secretariat. So they do listen to us and pay attention to public opinion. Democracy has a selective, rather than creative function, making it possible to choose what is most acceptable. And it’s not always the best option that is seen as the most acceptable.

Should the strengthening of civic society come from the regions or from the centre?

It all depends what the organizations are like. A British scholar who studied civic movements in different countries came to the conclusion that 80% of the organizations which claim to be representing public interests are in fact created by business, the government, etc. That leaves only 20% who are effectively doing what they claim to do. This classification fits Ukraine. For example, you’ve got some “grant-eaters” for whom the money they receive is unfortunately much more important than the work they do. They can refuse to do something just because they think they won’t get anything for it.

What is civic society?  It’s a society which affirms such values as solidarity, mutual assistance, mutual trust, individualism, the right to privacy etc.

Civic organizations who hold to these values do not work because somebody is forcing them to do it, but because they want to remain true to themselves.

- What, in your opinion, needs to be done to protect freedom of speech which according to some politicians blossomed after the Orange Revolution?

- Freedom of speech did indeed gain strength following the Orange Revolution. External pressure on the media from the authorities ceased, however that from the owners of the media outlets has remained. Here it all depends on the individual owners, how civilized they are, and whether they understand that they should not put pressure on journalists.

There have not been institutional changes, for example there has been no law on public broadcasting and privatization of State-owned and municipal media has not been put through. To my amazement, however, journalists, instead of demanding the abolition of perks for journalists from State-owned media, have begun demanding the same for themselves.

In honesty, I think that journalists are to a large extent themselves to blame when they don’t properly support an ethical position and decent mutual relations, and when they lack solidarity. Some behave in such a way that I fear they won’t be able to withstand a worsening in the situation with freedom of speech. The number of journalists who are capable of withstanding pressure is very small. Some even want the old days back when material was ordered and they got paid for it. That is, there haven’t been changes at an institutional level, in terms of legislation, nor in the mentality of some journalists.

There should have been a totally new Law “On information”. Our one was completely ready, and there were others too. However now the new Deputy Minister of Justice Inna Bohoslovska is preparing yet another draft instead of using material already prepared which has been discussed a number of times.

You just mentioned material to order. How can we fight this?

While there is no general attitude that writing material for money is something contemptible, they’ll remain, there’s no getting away from them.

How often do people turn to you as a human rights defender because of violations of freedom of speech and pressure on the media?

Recently hardly at all. That’s if we compare it with the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s. During the Kuchma period people often turned to us to defend themselves against defamation, slander, persecution, not being able to print their publications when all printing presses turned them down. Following the Orange Revolution the number of such cases dropped radically however we get a lot of appeals regarding access to information. We will soon be publishing a large book with an overview of material collected from nationwide projects monitoring access to information both at central and regional levels. For example, information requests were sent to various central and regional authorities with the same questions. It was then easy to check how the authorities adhere to legislation on access to information. You can also identify the ones who are most open and those least forthcoming with information. The project has been working for the last three years. We now have a lot of specific material linked with the reasons why information requests are turned down. It’s interesting to see how the public authorities and bodies of local self-government attempt to get around giving information. The material helped us to prepare our draft Law “On information”.

What can you tell us about pressure on the local media?

Over the last year this pressure has increased and it’s seen in all regions of the country. This is also linked with the primitive level in political life. Since the owners (founders) of local media outlets are closely linked with regional politics, they want the media outlets to write only good things about them and when journalists or editors refuse, they begin to put pressure on them. During the last year the situation has worsened. We’ve written about this in the annual report just released Human Rights in Ukraine – 2006, in both the sections on freedom of speech and on access to information. All delegates and guests to the Civic Assembly received copies of the report.

Tell us about the main objective of the Ukrainian Civic Assembly

I would say that the main aim was to provide civic society activists the opportunity to express their views publicly on the political crisis and its causes, the threats and challenges it poses, as well as possible ways for overcoming it. Those present formulated their demands to politicians who must finally stop their destructive behaviour, since it could lead to pretty serious consequences which will become even larger-scale the longer they continue.

We’re viewing a very gloomy landscape after the battle with almost all institutions of power compromised and some with their reputation totally destroyed.  This cannot continue.

At regional meetings of the Civic Assembly which had delegates from 318 organizations, three issues were discussed: the threats and challenges posed by the political crisis; demands to politicians; and the task for civic organizations in overcoming the crisis. There are reports presenting the results of these discussions. The analysis is quite thorough and convincing. One sees that a trend is developing towards abuse of the law which is becoming positively endemic, and demonstrates the entrenchment of a primitive political culture where all gets decided by a few leaders of factions, while all the rest are just the supporting cast. And we are also seeing the inculcation of an effectively passive electoral law when the right to stand for office has been removed. To get onto the parliamentary or local candidate lists, you need to be a member of the party or cow tow to party leaders who very often show a far from adequate understanding of the problems in society. Political life is thus becoming primitive. All the present parties are like the Communist Party of Ukraine since they’re all based on democratic centralism.

All of this could have disastrous consequences. In addition, the amendments to the Constitution of 2004 are in fact the cause of the present systemic crisis. At the Assembly the main results were discussed: the creation of two centres of decision-making within one executive branch of power; a rift in the unity of foreign and domestic policy; corruption of the courts altogether, and of the Constitutional Court in particular, and so forth. It was also noted that the elections in themselves would not resolve the problem that fundamental elements of Ukrainian politics needed to change. It would be better to write a fundamentally new Constitution, and this should not be done by politicians or deputies, but by a special body – a Constitutional Assembly whose members will not have the right to stand for office as deputies of any levels for 10 years after the passing of the Constitution. They will then create a Constitution not for themselves alone, but for all citizens of Ukraine.

What results would you most hope for following the Civic Assembly?-

- Most of all I hope that civic organizations feel that they are not alone, that we have some goal to move towards, to grow and develop. For me that is the main thing. I think politicians will in fact listen to our opinions, but for the moment civic society is not capable of dictating anything to them. We will call for changes to legislation which will envisage the creation of effective levers of influence of members of the public on the authorities and control over their activities and those of their officials. We will seek restoration of the right of individuals to take direct part in the elections without needing to go through parties; the introduction of a system of open regional candidate lists or partial return to the majority electoral system (in the first instance when forming bodies of local self-government) and the creation of effective mechanisms for liability of representatives of the authorities elected by the public. So that people can demand that a deputy resign or be stripped of their mandate for non fulfilling or keeping to their pre-elections programmes.

So not the main thing that politicians hear you?

- The main thing is that society as a whole hears us, including politicians, and that the organizations who take part in the Forum feel themselves to be a community. Such forums can make a great contribution to general progress.

Yevhen Zakharov, Co-Chair of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group was speaking with Svitlana Ostapa from “Telekritika” on 26 July 2007 

(very slightly abridged)

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