(Kiev) – Ukrainian police assaulted and injured dozens of journalists and medical workers while trying to disperse street fighters and protesters in Kiev from January 19 to 22, 2014. Ukraine’s international partners should press Ukraine to investigate serious human rights violations and prosecute those responsible in accordance with international due process standards.
During its ongoing investigation of the government response to protests in Kiev, Human Rights Watch documented 13 cases in which the police beat journalists or medical workers, shot them with rubber bullets, or injured them with stun grenades. Ukrainian nongovernmental groups documented more than 60 such cases. Available evidence suggests that in many cases police deliberately targeted journalists and medics who were not participating in the protests.
“It is possible to accidentally hit one journalist or medic during violent confrontations, but not dozens,” said Anna Neistat, associate program director at Human Rights Watch, who is in Kiev. “Police faced enormous challenges during the street fighting, but that’s no excuse for deliberately targeting reporters and medics or for not taking precautions to spare them.”
Most of the journalists and medical workers were injured during the violent clashes on Hrushevskogo Street on January 19. Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water cannons to disperse protesters, some of whom were throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks and were carrying baseball bats and large sticks with pointed ends. Other journalists were injured in confrontations in Kiev in the following days.
In all cases Human Rights Watch documented, journalists said they were wearing a brightly colored vest marked “Press,” or a helmet with the same marking, and were holding video cameras, photo cameras, or tripods.
On January 19, journalists stayed together as a large group away from the direct line of confrontation between the protesters on the one hand and riot police and Interior Ministry troops on the other. Several journalists interviewed independently told Human Rights Watch that police threw more than 20 stun grenades toward the group, injuring at least eight journalists with shrapnel.
Other journalists were hit directly by rubber bullets, some in the face or on their hands as they were holding their equipment. In one case Human Rights Watch documented, the police threw a young female photographer to the ground, hit her on the head, kicked her, and shot her with a rubber bullet at close range as she was trying to escape. Ukrainian groups documented additional cases of such direct attacks.
The paramedics and medical volunteers Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were wearing clothing clearly marked with a red cross. They said that as they rushed in to access and evacuate the wounded, the police made no attempt to hold fire, and some believed the police tried to hit them directly. The medics said that the indiscriminate, and possibly targeted, police fire made it very difficult to assist the injured effectively.
A statement posted on the Interior Ministry’s website on January 23 said that police using a loudspeaker had ordered protesters to disperse several times on January 19, warned them that their violent actions were unlawful, and said that the police would have no choice but to use force [in Ukrainian, “special means”] against them. Such warnings, however, do not relieve the police of their duty to exercise restraint and in no way justify any deliberate attack against journalists or media workers.
Law enforcement agencies have the right and duty to stop violent attacks on police and public buildings, Human Rights Watch said. But in doing so, they are obliged to respect basic human rights standards in the treaties to which they are party, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and those specifically governing the use of force in police operations as embodied in the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
The Basic Principles, requiring restraint and proportionality in the use of force, explicitly call on law enforcement officials to “ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment.” The failure to protect medical personnel, let alone deliberate targeting of medics, violates this principle.
Targeting journalists covering public protest is also incompatible with Ukraine’s human rights obligations, and specifically the requirement to respect the right to freedom of expression, including media freedom.
The Ukrainian authorities should conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the incidents in which the riot police used force against journalists and medical workers, Human Rights Watch said.
Given that the authorities have made little progress in investigating prior incidents of police violence, Ukraine’s international partners should press Ukraine for criminal investigations and prosecutions in accordance with international human rights obligations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, both of which include Ukraine as a member, should urgently consider their role ensuring independent and impartial monitoring and reporting on human rights developments and progress on investigations in Ukraine.
“Journalists and medical workers were performing their professional duties, were unarmed, and posed no danger to the police during the Kiev protests,” Neistat said. “Every instance of violence against them should be fully investigated and those responsible should be punished.”