Six years after Maidan, how free is Ukraine?

Matthew Schaaf,
Ukraine Office, Freedom House
United States

Large swathes of Ukrainians took to the streets in late 2013 and early 2014 to defend their dignity and human rights against encroachment by an increasingly authoritarian leader. Not only had President Yanukovych presided over major declines in human rights and fundamental freedoms in Ukraine, but he had also sold the country out to Russia in the view of many. The Revolution of Dignity, as the 2013-2014 revolution came to be known, was in response to these abuses.

In 2013, just before the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine was rated as Partly Free in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report assessing the condition of political rights and civil liberties around the world. Given the numerous abuses detailed in the report and by many others, the Partly Free rating was not a surprise. Yet, six years after the revolution, Ukraine is again rated as Partly Free, this time in Freedom in the World 2021. In fact, Ukraine has been rated Partly Free in Freedom in the World since its independence, except for the period 2006-2011, between the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity, when it barely made it into the Free category.

How is it possible that a country, apparently so determined to break with its past that its people tossed out an authoritarian leader, elected new ones, and launched deep reforms, is still considered as free as it was before the first and second revolutions? Part of the reason, according to Freedom in the World 2021, is that corruption remains endemic, with efforts to combat graft meeting persistent resistance and experiencing major setbacks. The war with Russia and the occupation of parts of Ukraine also loom large due to their major impact on social, economic, and political life. Without a doubt, reforming the judiciary, getting corruption under control, and ending the war will go a long way towards improving the lives and human rights of millions of people in Ukraine.

The freedom of Ukraine’s residents is also stifled by an ongoing plague of violence. This violence, taking place outside of the conflict zone, is largely uncontrolled and is aimed at punishing people and discouraging them from expressing themselves, or sharing ideas or information. Since Ukraine’s independence, journalists have been targeted with such violence, while more recently, other communities have become targets. Freedom in the World 2021 notes how journalists continue to experience violence and intimidation, with the courts and law enforcement failing to protect journalists’ rights or prevent impunity for crimes against them. There is little accountability for those responsible for the persecution of investigative journalists, attacks on journalists, or dozens of other incidents in which muzzling the media was the primary goal. Like many human rights challenges, this is a problem not just of imperfect laws, but also of a lack of political will to take these threats seriously and marshal the resources to ensure accountability for attacks on journalists. Year after year, new commissions are convened and promises made focused on better protecting journalists with little impact on this frightening dynamic.

Violence and threats against journalists have contributed to censorship and self-censorship. Among journalists, 98% reported censorship in one form or another of topics perceived to be unpopular among the public or against the interest of the state according to a 2019 survey by ZMINA Human Rights Centre. Censorship also affects ordinary people. Sharing opinions on contested topics like identity, corruption, or LGBT+ rights, or being a civic activist – activities central to democratic discourse – increasingly leads to threats of or actual violence. The phenomenon of doxing, or the publication of personal information online (such as the location of a person’s home) in an implicit encouragement of harassment and vigilante violence against them, is also on the rise. While doxing may have started with the infamous Myrotvorets initiative, which began doxing journalists in 2015, this tactic continues to this day, especially on the Telegram messaging platform. New doxing targets include students and other people targeted for expressing allegedly “anti-Ukrainian” views, supporting women’s or LGBT+ rights, or sharing views considered to be outside of the mainstream.

Make no mistake, Ukraine has made important strides in human rights since the Revolution of Dignity. While many reforms are contested, the country is moving in the right direction. Yet unchecked violence because of what people think or say is preventing Ukraine from transforming into a democratic and pluralistic society where everyone can live a dignified and free life. Taking violence seriously and prosecuting those responsible should be at the top of the agenda for human rights reforms.

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