European Court finds Ukraine violated journalist’s free press rights

New York, August 11, 2006—The European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday that Ukraine violated the press freedom rights of a newspaper editor convicted in 2001 on criminal defamation charges stemming from a series of stories about two government officials.

The court found that Oleg Lyashko, former editor of the independent Kyiv weekly Polityka, reported on matters of public interest and ordered the Ukrainian government to pay him 3,000 euros (US$3,860) in compensation.

A court in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, had sentenced Lyashko to a two-year suspended prison term and barred him from working as a journalist during that time. The case stemmed from complaints filed by former Prime Minister Vasyl Durdynets and Odessa region police chief, Gen. Ivan Hryhorenko, over articles published in 1997. The articles alleged that Durdynets had made personnel and other decisions for self-serving reasons, and that Hryhorenko had a connection to a purported criminal.

The court, ruling from Strasbourg, France, found that the “articles concerned a matter of public interest and that there was no evidence to suggest that [Lyashko] deliberately intended to damage the reputation of those concerned or the police force in general.”

The court said “all four articles were framed in particularly strong terms.” But it said that “they were written on matters of serious public interest and concerned public figures and politicians” and thus “the language used could not be regarded as excessive.” The court also found that the conviction and sentence could have “considerable chilling effect” on freedom of expression.

Ukraine’s government did not immediately comment on the ruling. The European Court of Human Rights has authority to review the actions of domestic courts, issue findings and recommendations, and levy monetary sanctions.