Advocacy letter August 26, 2021
Ukraine: Freedom House President Sends Letter to Biden Ahead of Zelenskyy Visit
Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz sent a letter to President Biden ahead of the upcoming visit from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy emphasizing the importance of placing human rights and democracy at the center of the agenda and providing recommendations to address concerning developments in Ukraine regarding freedom of expression and violence against journalists, activists, and vulnerable groups.
President Joseph Biden
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
As you prepare for the visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Freedom House urges you to place human rights and democracy at the center of an agenda that can too easily be dominated by other priorities. The United States and Ukraine share an important strategic partnership which is rooted in its shared vision of a strong and democratic Ukraine. As we have seen in recent events, military support alone cannot hold against national security threats. Ukraine’s success in building a democracy that answers to the will of the Ukrainian people and protects the rights of its citizens is necessary for Ukraine’s security and that of the United States and the world.
We understand the challenges facing Ukraine: the country continues to experience threats to its security through Russia’s occupation of Crimea and eastern Donbas and finds itself at the forefront of a malign disinformation campaign conducted by the Russian Federation. The temptation for Ukraine to prioritize these security threats at the expense of its democratic values and rights protections is real. However, any effective response must be rooted in upholding and strengthening democratic institutions. Only a strong, democratic Ukraine can be a sustainable and legitimate counter to Russia’s aggression. At this turning point with democracies around the globe under siege, the United States has a real chance to bolster democracy in Europe and beyond with its support of Ukraine. With its vibrant civil society and increasingly public demand for democratic reform, Ukraine is in a unique position to demonstrate to the world the impact of democracy-building on the security and the well-being of its citizens.
We applaud your administration for its continued support of Ukraine’s efforts to tackle corruption as an important component of its democracy. And while President Zelenskyy has taken action against corruption since he came into office, there are other areas essential to Ukraine’s democratic success that have demonstrated less progress. In your meeting and beyond, we urge you to focus on two additional issues that are key for a strong democratic Ukraine.
Fight disinformation using a rights-based approach and protect the freedom of expression
Online propaganda and malign disinformation campaigns spread false narratives to provoke conflict within society, all of which undermine trust in democratic institutions. As Russia’s neighbor, Ukraine is the testing site for Russian disinformation tactics that are then applied elsewhere, including in the United States. While there is no silver bullet solution, we believe that any attempt to tackle disinformation should be grounded in the rule of law and protect human rights. Unfortunately, President Zelenskyy continues to use executive power, without judicial review, to sanction media outlets, tech platforms, journalists, and websites under the pretext of fighting disinformation. This power was most visibly used in February, when he signed a decree adopted by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine to sanction three popular Ukrainian TV channels on the grounds that the channels were a national security threat. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine noted that this action “fails to demonstrate the necessity and proportionality.” Such broad restrictions on information without independent judicial review undermines the rule of law and amplifies distrust in institutions. Freedom House urges you and your administration to emphasize to President Zelenskyy the need to fight disinformation using a rights-based approach that protects rather than undermines the freedom of expression. That way, Ukraine will become more resilient in the fight against disinformation, and its strong democratic response to it can be the firsthand counter to Russian disinformation – a step that protects not only Ukrainian security but American security. We further recommend you to:
- Urge President Zelenskyy to ensure an open and transparent process for any sanctions or other media restrictions and for the methods of implementation, including how they address the underlying problem while maintaining respect for human rights.
- Stress to President Zelenskyy the need to base any prohibitions on media content or access to platforms on clear legal grounds through a court decision with opportunities for review and appeal based on a thorough and fair investigation of each case.
- Offer support to President Zelenskyy by urging Congress to support freedom of expression in Ukraine, with special emphasis on finding policy solutions to disinformation that are based in human rights and rule of law.
Address impunity for violence against vulnerable groups, journalists, and activists
At Freedom House, we note with great concern the significant number of physical attacks, threats, and intimidation of journalists and activists in Ukraine. Just during the first half of 2021 alone, the Institute of Mass Information, a media watchdog organization, documented 97 violations of journalists’ rights. Over three-quarters of these violations were physically violent. This has a chilling effect on press freedom in Ukraine, exacerbated because attackers are not held accountable in most cases. Further, vulnerable groups such as LGBTQI people, women’s rights activists, and Roma people in Ukraine also face systematic verbal and physical threats, intimidation, and doxing often carried out by radical right-wing groups with near total impunity. Ukraine’s democracy remains fragile if justice does not serve people, and impunity for violence targeting minorities and activists goes unaddressed. Using this year’s Democracy Summit and its key theme of promoting respect for human rights as a springboard, we urge you to ask President Zelenskyy to take a firm public stand in condemning hate and violence targeting vulnerable groups. Specifically, we encourage you and your administration to:
- Urge President Zelenskyy to push lawmakers to pass draft Law No. 5488, which would provide law enforcement the legal context to prosecute those who commit hate crimes based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Urge President Zelenskyy to address the issue of right-wing extremism by initiating legislation prohibiting state bodies from providing financial or other assistance to as right-wing radical groups that advocate the use of violence.
Freedom House has documented backsliding in democracies across the globe, which has contributed to the current 15-year decline in global political rights and civil liberties as recorded by Freedom in the World. Decisive US leadership to strengthen democracies abroad makes the United States – and the world – safer. Ukraine’s success in building a strong democracy in the face of internal resistance and external threat is of strategic importance to the United States. We encourage your frank conversation with President Zelenskyy during this crucial time and hope our recommendations facilitate such a dialogue.
Michael J. Abramowitz