The report from the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, updated on Wednesday, welcomes a new civil liberties strategy put in place by President Volodymyr Zelensky in March. However, in practice, it found numerous worrying examples of the state exceeding its powers.
Specifically, it blasted a decree signed by Zelensky imposing sanctions against opposition MP Taras Kozak, and the shuttering of three news channels owned by his company, which were declared to be pro-Kremlin.
“This decision is contrary to international human rights standards, as it lacks justification of its necessity and proportionality, and was not taken by an independent authority,” the rights watchdog said.
The president’s allies defended the move in February, insisting it was “not about the media and not about freedom of speech,” but was “just about effectively countering fakes and foreign propaganda.” A Zelensky adviser, Mikhail Podolyak, argued that without action, the opposition media would “kill our values.”
However, critics point to the fact that the channels made their content in Ukraine, with Ukrainian staff, and met a demand for domestic programming for the sizable population of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Russian news, films and other content imported from the neighboring country have already been the subject of bans since 2014, after Moscow reabsorbed the Crimean peninsula.
In addition, the UN rights chief warned that four draft laws being considered by Ukraine’s parliament that aim to punish “collaborationism” with supposedly hostile powers “also raise concerns, as they do not appear to be in line with international standards on freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association.” The Commissioner’s office added that “they could further have a negative impact on reconciliation and social cohesion.”
Furthermore, the watchdog notes, similar allegations have been used to target opposition MPs, such as Kozak and the leader of his party, Viktor Medvedchuk. “Members and staff of opposition political parties and their supporters faced criminal charges that carry severe penalties, for alleged illegal activities, including high treason,” it said.
Medvedchuk, the leader of the country’s largest opposition party, and Kozak are currently facing treason charges, but the details of the specific allegations against them have been kept under wraps. The Commissioner’s office said it “is following these cases, as well as existing tensions between supporters and opponents of various parties, which has significantly intensified following these developments.”
The report also warns that “respect of fair trial rights remained an issue,” and that journalists, politicians, LGBTQ+ people and other minority groups faced acute threats to their safety.
In February, when the government first began to take legal action against him, Medvedchuk told RT in an exclusive interview that the actions against opposition broadcasters were illegal and accused Zelensky of taking the country down the path of establishing a “dictatorship and usurping power.” He is now under house arrest while prosecutors prepare the case against him.
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