Understandable concern has been expressed over the recent Presidential Decree dissolving the State Committee on Nationalities and Religion. Lack of any prior consultation is disturbing, as is also the likelihood of hasty and ill-advised amendments to legislation on freedom of conscience. Calls to retain a single authority seem more than justified.
It is less clear why religious bodies have been unanimous in calling for the retention and increased government support for the National Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morality.
I am by no means advocating some kind of free for all, with no limits. Reasonable and foreseeable restrictions are necessary in any society. This effort to present another point of view regarding the State body on public morality is made in defence of values which are too important to be manipulated by politicians, and in awareness of the need for real public dialogue.
We probably all wish that our leaders could be guided by moral considerations. The demands are not overly excessive: politicians shouldn’t lie too much, mustn’t steal and should primarily represent the interests of their voters, not their own. We are not entitled to ask for too much more in a multi-faith society where the Constitution clearly affirms separation of Church and State, stipulates that no religion shall be recognized by the State as mandatory and that each person has the right to freedom of personal philosophy and religion.
One could quote other fine constitutional provisions which politicians totally ignore or interpret at their will and to serve their political ends. It is easy also to give any number of examples of selective application of the law or criminal prosecutions and of pressure on the courts. The motives behind a criminal investigation, appointment, change in legislation etc are discussed much as in other democratic countries they dissect the latest gossip about film stars, i.e. about people out there over whom we have absolutely no influence.
Those who rage about bad language or explicit scenes on TV programmes would do well to think of the examples of corruption, selective justice and manipulation which young people see around them. Not to mention scenes where one MP hits another over the head with a chair or where the police stand by while thugs beat up peaceful protesters as in Kharkiv’s Gorky Park this summer.
The National Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morality (the Commission) was created in 2004, but virtually inactive until 2008. The reason is fairly indicative: while in theory the Head should be elected by the Commission members, he or she was always appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers, and the government kept changing.
The spurt in Commission and government concern for public morality largely coincided with the 2008 economic crisis which exacerbated the permanent political crisis in the country. A meeting was organized in parliament at the beginning of October 2008 where the Deputy Speaker and Head of the Commission seriously talked with journalists about how to “fight negative content in the news at legislative and moral-ethic levels”.
While the country’s leaders quite overtly battled for power, the Head of the Commission, Vasyl Kostytsky, seemed to go from interview to interview, explaining how the spiritual and moral health of the nation needed to be protected. Although much was said about the need for action against xenophobia, incitement to racial or religious enmity, child pornography and others, the focus remained strongly on pornography. In this, most regrettably, the Commission’s role was not constructive. Highly-publicized cases, such as the effective prohibition as “pornographic” of a novel by the well-known writer Oles Ulyanenko simply antagonized a lot of journalists and others, with accusations of censorship common. Efforts to counter hate speech which, for example in the Crimea, is being used deliberately to stir up antagonism between different ethnic and religious groups, seemed few and far between.
The divide between fine words and actual measures was vast. One typical example in summer 2009 concerned amendments to the Criminal Code regarding pornography. The story was that the amendments were needed to meet international commitments on fighting child pornography. Who would deny the need to fight this foul crime? Certainly not those human rights groups who called on the President to veto the law which criminalized possession of any pornography if for the purpose of sale or circulation. With no clear and unambiguous definition of pornography, nor any guidelines on evidence of purpose, the scope for abuse is enormous, however there is worse. The law effectively betrays those whom it was supposed to protect. Possession of images of children abused and often emotionally maimed for life is a crime whether for sale or personal perverted titillation.
It is not surprising that the number of servers in Ukraine providing child pornography is on the increase, with criminals migrating from Russia where the authorities have begun fighting this crime with real measures, not just words.
Since the new draft law on protection of public morality, despite criticism over the years, including from a Council of Europe expert, stubbornly retains the same vague and ill-defined terms, one must assume that subjective interpretation and selective application suit the government.
Only which government? In 2009 a Russian programme about Holodomor 1933 was banned by the Commission for propaganda of ethnic and religious enmity. It is unfortunately hard to believe that the same decision would have been passed just a year later..
The history is the same, morality one would think has also not changed, yet the political climate is quite different.
Most of those who so closely followed the activities of the Commission last year failed to perceive the significance of another event. On 13 July, at a seminar presenting the Ukrainian version of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Human Rights, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, Nina Karpachova spoke of its “relevance and the need to understand human rights from a Church point of view”. Each of us, of course, is entitled to our views, however we are not dealing here with a novel like the one banned by the Morality Commission, but about a policy document of the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate. And with an Ombudsperson who is called upon to defend the rights of all Ukrainian citizens whatever their convictions.
It is worth reading this document carefully. We learn, for example, that:
“One’s human rights cannot be set against the values and interests of one’s homeland, community and family”. Or the following, with its positively Soviet ring
“Certain civilizations must not impose their ways on other civilizations under the pretext of human rights protection. Human rights activity should not be used to serve the interests of particular countries”.
“Public appearances and statements should not promote the spread of sin or generate discord and chaos in society”.
Change a couple of terms just a little, and we could be hearing the sentiments of certain politicians over recent months.
Before that seminar in July 2009, another participant, National Deputy Vadim Kolishnychenko had tabled a draft resolution in parliament “On adopting a Verkhovna Rada Declaration on Human Dignity, Freedom and Human Rights”, based very closely on the “Basic Teachings”.
The Declaration aroused outrage in many circles, but in ones worst nightmare it seemed inconceivable that parliament would even consider a document so glaringly at odds with Ukraine’s Constitution and so oblivious to huge numbers of citizens of different faiths.
In August 2010 Vadim Kolishnychenko tabled more or less the same document in parliament. In the new conditions when those in power are quite openly showing preferential treatment to the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, outrage is mixed with anxious concern.
Any State ideology or preferential status for one Church is a direct infringement of the constitutional rights of other citizens.
Two years ago, the calls to fight “negative content” aroused concern, yet seemed at the same time rather comical. Negative news, we thought, could not be concealed, and the faulty cause and effect connection seemed primitively obvious. Alcoholism and drug addiction among young people did not appear out of nowhere, and politicians were not there to cure some kind of spiritual and moral malaise among the population.
Under a new Director, also appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers, the State-owned First National TV has proved remarkably capable of muffling or manipulating information unflattering to the government. There is nothing comical about a situation where State television conceals important information, including about infringements of the rights of very many believers from “the wrong Church” (prevented from travelling to Kyiv for the Festival of the Baptism of Kyiv Rus)
The folding of the National Commission for the Protection of Public Morality should provide the spur for united efforts, and dialogue, although not with the government. In most European countries it is civil society that plays a key role in maintaining certain standards in media content, while together with the press, they exercise control over the authorities. In the last days of this year so full of change, that may sound overly utopian. Nonetheless this key role can, and must, become a reality if we believe that there are universal values, enshrined in the Constitution worth upholding – together.