13 June 2012

IFEX members shine light on dirty rights record of Euro 2012 hosts

Cause for celebration? IFEX members use Euro 2012 to highlight rights abuses in the host country Ukraine
Cause for celebration? IFEX members use Euro 2012 to highlight rights abuses in the host country Ukraine
REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its European arm are asking journalists at the Euro 2012 football tournament to look beyond the glitzy new stadiums in the host country Ukraine and see how their colleagues have been the victims of threats, attacks and censorship.

A leaflet produced by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) highlights cases of unsolved killings and disappearances of journalists in the country, as well as examples of media being taken off air or harassed because of their work.

Perhaps the most well-known case is that of journalist Georgy Gongadze, who was kidnapped in September 2000 and found beheaded. The journalist had been investigating corruption at senior levels of the Ukrainian government, including at the very top, of the administration of former President Leonid Kuchma. Secret tape recordings allegedly implicate Kuchma himself as having a hand in Gongadze's death.

At the moment, the trial of Gongadze's suspected murderer, General Pukach, is being held, "inexplicably" behind closed doors, says IFJ.

IFJ president Jim Boumelha said, "Despite repeated promises by President Yanukovych to ensure justice, the record of his government has been to gag journalists and stifle their right to inform."

Ukraine's dire free expression record extends to human rights in general, say IFEX members. Human Rights Watch notes that Ukraine struggles with the issues of gay, migrant and asylum-seeker and cancer patient rights. For instance, Human Rights Watch points out, homosexuality has been officially legal in Ukraine since 1991, but Ukraine has no laws against discrimination due to sexual orientation.

According to Freedom House, under Yanukovych's government, Ukraine "has suffered significant decline in an alarmingly short period of time," raising real doubts about their chances of joining the EU.

During the football championship, some EU countries urged Ukraine to improve its human rights record. Sports ministers from Denmark and the Netherlands held three hours of talks on corruption, police brutality, homophobia and impunity before their nations met in a Group B match in the eastern city of Kharkiv on 9 June, reports Reuters. They also met victims of alleged police torture.

"Our role in the European Union is to push for change by the politicians in the country. The people I have spoken to… show that you can be randomly arrested and tortured," Dutch Health and Sports Minister Edith Schippers told Reuters.

"That is not a sign of a civil law state that wants to be part of the EU," she added.

Other politicians from EU states have also boycotted matches being held in Ukraine during the month-long tournament, says Reuters. Germany, France and Britain have led an unofficial boycott over the jailing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister sentenced to seven years in prison last October for abuse of office.

Tanya Mazur, Amnesty International's Ukraine director, asked for help to ensure an independent body is set up as planned to investigate alleged police crimes.

"It was a really good opportunity for us because the Ukrainian government is very sensitive to any statements from the EU. We hope there will be follow-up," Mazur told Reuters.

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