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ODF visits PACE: “Civil liberties in Ukraine and Kazakhstan at stake”

On the occasion of the Spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a delegation of human rights defenders and civil society experts was present in Strasbourg between Monday 23 and Wednesday 25 April, 2018.

The Open Dialog Foundation brought together: the President of the Foundation, Ms Lyudmyla KOZLOVSKA; Ms Assem TOKAYEVA, freelancer and former journalist RFE/RL for the Kazakhstani service; Mr Andrew CHERNOUSOV, leading expert at the “Kharkiv Institute for Social Research” and promoter of several monitoring groups on civil liberties in Ukraine; and Ms Paola GAFFURINI, Advocacy Officer for the Foundation.

The three-day mission was dedicated to the most pressing issues concerning civil liberties in Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Non-democratic trends in the aforementioned countries were thoroughly discussed with  PACE  members from different national delegations and Permanent Representations to the Council of Europe. Among them, Chairman of the French delegation, Ms Nicole TRISSE (France; NR), and Chairman of the Swedish delegation, Mr Jonas GUNNARSSON (Sweden;SOC); as well as Irish lawmaker, Mr Paul GAVAN (UEL) and Austrian MP, Mr Andreas SCHIEDER (SOC).

More specifically, Ms Kozlovska explained how, in authoritarian Kazakhstan, ongoing attacks on freedom of expression, freedom of  assembly and freedom of press resulted in a crackdown on independent media outlets, repression of peaceful civil society movements  and blocking of social media platforms. Together with PACE members, Ms Kozlovska and the guests discussed the urgent for a written declaration, emphasizing the need for international pressure and intergovernmental diplomacy to encourage Kazakhstan to fulfil its international obligations. She made reference to individual cases of persecuted bloggers such as Mr Sanat Dosov and Mr Ruslan Ginatullin, and activist Ms Ardak Ashim. Ms Kozlovska also brought attention to the ongoing interrogations and arrests of peaceful supporters of the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which was recently labeled an “extremist organisation”.

During her intervention, Ms Kozlovska reiterated:  “we noticed that international pressure is crucial to obtain the release of political prisoners as exemplified by the case of civil activist Talgat Ayan; however there are still 38 persons being subjected to politically motivated prosecution, unlawful imprisonment and even punitive psychiatry in Kazakhstan. Further cooperation between the country and international organisations should be subject to strict conditions in terms of human rights and democratisation”. During the meeting, other urgent cases of political prisoners were mentioned – among them, those of Mukhtar Dzhakishev, Iskander Yerimbetov, Max Bokayev, Kenzhebek Abishev and Almat Zhumagulov.

Further insights into freedom of speech and freedom of the press were given by Ms Tokayeva, an experienced RFE/RL journalist for the Kazakh service ‘Azattyq’ (Freedom), who was fired for having criticised the senior management’s policy for inserting Kazakh propaganda into the service. Concrete examples of the Kazakhstani government’s interference in the editorial line were presented. Among them, she recalled the tendency to extensively cover events dedicated to the celebration of authoritarian leaders, to duplicate fake news originally published on Kazakhstani or Russian state-media outlets or to censor reports critical of the government. As a consequence, news inconvenient to state authorities concerning the politically motivated prosecution and imprisonment of activists, bloggers and editors became underreported.

She added:Taking into consideration the mission of RFE/RL to promote democratic values and institutions by reporting the news in countries where free press is banned by the government or not fully established,  PACE should urge RFE/RL to stop the practice of dubious cooperation with the censored media outlets in the regions where it broadcasts.  Moreover, to reinstate its professional journalists recently fired under the pretext of “reorganisation” in its Kazakh and Tajik services. PACE should encourage the US Congress as soon as possible to start reform of the US International Broadcasting system in order to defend post-Soviet area audiences from the growing influence of Russian authoritarian propaganda and from the interference of certain post-Soviet governments.”

Ms Tokayeva underlined the dangers that a biased editorial policy could have on the Western audience, recalling that RFE/RL is a worldwide outlet and an important source of objective information for European and overseas readers.

As a follow-up to the motion for a resolution on the preservation of civil liberties in Poland, Ukraine and Moldova, signed by 30 PACE members during the last winter session, Ms Kozlovska and Mr Chernousov, provided further recommendations and updates on the need for a plenary debate on the topic.

Particular attention was dedicated to the worrying situation in post-Maidan Ukraine, where law enforcement bodies continue to harass investigative journalists, pro-reform politicians, representatives of anti-corruption NGOs and human rights activists. As explained by Mr Chernousov, between March and July 2017 the Verkhovna Rada and the President of Ukraine introduced stringent draft laws regarding civil society organisations with new provisions for electronic declaration and financial reporting. In his appeal, Mr Chernousov said that such initiatives are “an unconcealed attempt to strengthen the state’s influence on an active and independent public sector in the state through the creation of additional reporting for all civil society organisations that [according to the draft laws] receive financial and other sources and services provided on a gratuitous and irrevocable basis with the use of tax exemptions or tax-free regime”.  

CSOs in Ukraine are concerned not only with the additional obligations set out in the draft laws but also with the radical measures in case of violations. Non-profit organisations might, for example,  have their activities excluded or blocked if they fail to comply with the rules of reporting.

Despite the conclusion of the Venice Commission dated March 16, 2018 which demanded the revocation of such measures and urged Ukrainian authorities to abide by  international standards of free association and democratic safeguards, Mr Chernousov argued that “the provisions of these bills violate the principles of freedom of association and contain explicit signs of an instrument for arbitrary and selective application”.

Ms Kozlovska urged PACE members to initiate a debate in the forthcoming months to shed light on the practices of reducing the space for CSOs. Other blatant examples, such as the unprecedented attacks on civil society organisations in Poland or the persecution of pro-reform activists in Moldova, were restated during the meetings and inserted in the context of the motion for a resolution. Particularly, she underlined the need to align EU macro-financial conditions with matters of human rights with the current three-year funding arrangement recently concluded between the International Monetary Fund and the Republic of Moldova.

Read the written declaration on Kazakhstan:

Read the motion for a resolution on Poland, Ukraine and Moldova: