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Euro 2012 as a pretext for political censorship

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Jan. 9, 2012, 11:28 p.m. | Op-ed — by Halya Coynash

Supporters of Ukraine's jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko take part to a protest outside the women's prison where she is being held, in Kharkiv on Jan. 5. Her continued imprisonment makes it more likely that political protests could dominate Ukraine's hosting of the Euro 2012 soccer championships this summer.
© AFP PHOTO/ MIKHAIL KUCHNEV

Halya Coynash

Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

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Yet another dangerous legislative initiative could become law in the near future, this time under the pretext of preserving public safety during the Euro 2012 football championships that Ukraine will co-host with Poland this summer. Some terrible stadium disasters, as well as scenes of violence at football matches, make laws aimed at ensuring players’ and spectators’ safety important.

This is, apparently, the aim of a draft law registered in parliament on Dec. 29 by Party of the Regions deputy. Vadim Kolisnichenko.

Most of the amendments proposed are unquestionably needed. Fireworks are dangerous, while measures are also needed to prevent racist, xenophobic or offensive chants and behavior during matches.

But why “posters, banners and flags of a political nature” are also deemed a threat to public order is less obvious.

The draft bill would prohibit “the chanting of a xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic or discriminatory nature, or demonstration of posters, banners and flags, including of a political nature, as well as other media which insult the honor and dignity of official figures, arbiters running sports competitions, teams, opponents, fans of a rival team or others before during and after sports competitions.”

Kolisnichenko makes much of the need to bring Ukrainian law into line with UEFA demands and general European standards for such events. It is difficult to imagine any European Union country imposing a hefty fine or jailing somebody for up to 15 days for holding up a banner accusing the president of political repression and demanding the release of members of the opposition.

Nor is it easy to envisage the need arising in EU countries.

This, however, is in no small part because such obvious encroachments of freedom of expression are inconceivable. Not so in Ukraine, as events late last summer showed.

During a football match on Aug. 7 in Kyiv, Dynamo fans chanted “Thank you residents of donbas for the president pederast.” The video clip on YouTube was viewed by more than a million people.

The printing company ProstoPrint swiftly came out with T-shirts reading “Thank You, Residents of Donbas,” for which they were subjected to heavy-handed police tactics for attempting to distribute the t-shirts. The owner of ProstoPrint, Denis Oliynykov, left Ukraine on Sept. 21 after the police put pressure on his firm and told the BBC Ukrainian Service that he was considering asking for political asylum in a European country

The Kyiv police, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Boris Kolesnikov, insisted that the checks carried out were linked with unlawful use of the Euro 2012 logo. Oliynykov’s assertion that the police pressure was because of the political nature of the t-shirts is more believable.

In light of the prosecution of leading opposition figures, including the seven-year prison sentence to former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, political protest is more than likely during Euro 2012. It would by most desirable for UEFA and EU countries to clearly explain to the Ukrainian authorities which restrictions cannot be imposed under a smokescreen of concern for public order during Euro 2012.

Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group.
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