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Legal attack on a newspaper highlights the need for free speech reforms

Ukrainian Media Group v. Ukraine  | 2005

Legal attack on a newspaper highlights the need for free speech reforms

 …according to analysts [the case] had an instant impact on Ukrainian courts and immediately became an effective way to protect journalists from politicians’ lawsuits.

Ganna Yudkivska, Judge of the European Court of Human Rights, writing in The Impact of the ECHR on Democratic Change in Central and Eastern Europe

Background

During the 1999 Ukrainian presidential campaign, the newspaper The Day published articles criticising two of the candidates, questioning their ability to lead the country.

The two candidates lodged defamation proceedings against the newspaper, claiming that the articles were untrue and had damaged their reputation. The court found in favour of the politicians. The newspaper was ordered to pay damages and to publish corrections.

The owners of The Day complained that the decisions were a type of political censorship, which interfered with the newspaper’s ability to freely pass on information.

The case came at a time when reports from international bodies and non-governmental organisations had expressed grave concerns about free speech in Ukraine.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The Strasbourg court ruled that the owners of The Day had been punished merely for publishing someone’s opinions. The approach taken by the Ukrainian courts had violated the right to free speech.

By this case, we turn over a historical page, and perhaps we open up a new perspective. The European court was of a great help for the Ukrainian journalist.

Larisa Ivshyna, editor-in-chief of The Day, quoted by VOA Ukraine

Follow-up

After the case had been sent to the European court, Ukrainian defamation law was changed. In 2003 an amendment specified that opinions do not have to be proved and are exempt from defamation claims.

The law also introduced other protections for free speech, including the rule that journalists would not be liable for publishing false information if they had acted in good faith and had verified the information before publication. 

Furthermore, in 2005 certain sections of the Ukrainian civil code (which had been criticised by the Strasbourg court) were changed. This further protected free speech in Ukraine.

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers continues to monitor freedom of expression in Ukraine, under the Myrskyy group of cases.