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The ‘Peacekeeper’ Vigilante Website and Freedom of Speech in Ukraine

The 2013-2014 pro-European Union protest movement in Ukraine known as the ‘Euromaidan’ is officially celebrated in Ukraine and is largely recognized in the West as a pro-democratic, peaceful, popular revolution against the ‘corrupt autocratic regime’ (according to the mainstream Western and Ukrainian media) of president Victor Yanukovych. Ukrainians should now breathe more freely, live better and enjoy the rule of law and freedom of speech. And yet today, under the supposedly democratic, post-Euromaidan government, there is much less freedom in Ukraine and much more political violence.

Examples abound. They include the official banning of Russian social networks, movies, books and other cultural products; persecutions and imprisonment of citizens holding dissenting opinion; searches of the offices of media outlets that dare to criticize the new Ukrainian power holders; attacks by ultra-right nationalists against journalists and media offices with the connivance of the state; cyber-bullying of journalists and bloggers who hold alternative opinions, carried out by so-called porokhoboty – bloggers and opinion leaders who propagate the ‘official’ truth with the informal support by the administration of President Petro Poroshenko; increasing state control of television channels through the oligarchic owners of these channels. And the list goes on and on. (For a detailed and well-researched analysis on freedom of speech and opinion in Ukraine, I refer the reader to the recent report presented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe by the Ukrainian human rights platform Uspishna Varta in September 2018.)

One of the new forms of intimidation of journalists and citizens who do not agree with the ‘official’ version of what is happening is Ukraine is the public exposure of their personal data by anonymous denunciators using the snitch Ukrainian website with the telling name ‘Myrotvorets‘, which translates as ‘Peacekeeper’ from Ukrainian. The website lists the names of journalists, Ukrainian citizens and foreign citizens accused of holding anti-Ukrainian and ‘pro-Russian’ views, foreigners who joined the military forces of the non-recognized ‘peoples republics’ of Donetsk and Lugansk, names of Russian volunteers assisting the republics or fighting on their side, and people who have entered Crimea through the territory of Russia instead of Ukraine. The Myrotvorets vigilantes cast their net really large: even a reposting from a Facebook group supporting the Anti-Maidan resistance movement in Ukraine is grounds for accusation of “treason”. The listing of persons on the website includes his/her profile on social media, home address and phone number, and personal data of relatives.

The Myrotvorets website formally calls itself the ‘Center for Research of Signs of Crimes against the National Security of Ukraine, Peace, Humanity and International Law’. Its self-described role is to provide information to law enforcement authorities and security services about “pro-Russian terrorists, separatists, mercenaries, war criminals, and murderers”, as it is stated on the home page of this ‘research center’. The information is obtained through illegal means, such as hacking and phishing of computers or searching through open sources.

Myrotvorets is curated by the security and intelligence services of Ukraine. A group of ‘volunteers’ began collecting data on “terrorists and separatists” in the summer of 2014. This group was led by Georgy Tuka, a Ukrainian politician and ‘activist-patriot’. In December of 2014, Anton Herashchenko, a deputy of the Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) and an advisor to the Minister of Interior of Ukraine, officially announced the Myrotvoretsproject. He called upon “conscious citizens” to use the website to denounce “terrorists” of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk republics and their sympathizers in Ukraine and abroad, helping thus the Security Service of Ukraine and the Ministry of Interior to identify ‘enemies’ of the state.

By April 13, 2015, the Myrotvorets database had grown to contain over 30,000 records, including the names, phone numbers and home addresses of the journalist and writer Oles Buzyna and the former deputy of the Verkhovna Rada Oleg Kalashnikov. Kalashnikov was an active participant in the Anti-Maidan protests in Kyiv in December 2013 – February 2014 and one of the organizers of the Victory Day celebration in Kyiv on May 9, 2015.

Oles Buzyna was a well-known historian, journalist, and writer. He saw Ukraine and Ukrainian culture as part of a common Russian civilization. He criticized the ultra-nationalist, violent groups of the Euromaidan protests and took an active Anti-Maidan position. He was a target of many public and hidden threats from the Ukrainian extreme right militants. Like Kalashnikov, he was shot dead close to his home, in broad daylight, on April 16, 2015. The criminal investigations into these two cases have been dragging on for three years now with no prospect of being solved.

On May 7, 2016, Myrotvorets published names, phone numbers, and addresses of over 4,000 Ukrainian and foreign journalists from leading Western media that were accredited in the Donetsk People’s Republic. It stated that journalists who were risking their lives covering both sides of the conflict “collaborated with terrorists”. Anton Heraschenko explained that Myrotvorets obtained these data by hacking the accreditation lists of the authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics in the last two years. Besides the journalists from international news agencies, such as BBC, AFP, CNN, Deutsche Welle and New York Times, these lists contained also the names of employees of NGO-s.

The publication of that data provoked an international scandal. The Head of the European Union Delegation to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, called upon the Ukrainian authorities to take the names of journalists out of the public domain because disclosure of personal data violates international norms and Ukrainian legislation. However, his appeal was ignored. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic expressed concern about published personal information of journalists on Myrotvorets and called it an ‘a very alarming development’. In July of 2017, following a continuing international pressure, the National Police of Ukraine opened a criminal investigation into Myrotvorets‘ activities. However, the website continues to operate, while courts, the SBU, the State Border Service and other departments continue to use the data against Ukrainian citizens.

The lawyers of the Ukrainian human rights platform Uspishna Varta have established that in the last four years, data from Myrotvorets has been used as evidence in 28 court cases in all stages – from pre-trial inquiries to adjudication of the culpability. Ukrainian courts rely on these non-verified data to grant access to a person’s confidential banking data, phone conversations and e-mails; to identify suspects; to arrest and detain people; to extend periods of detention; and to start in-absentia pre-trial investigations. Myrotvorets website data is used not only in criminal cases but also in civil offenses as well, such as revocation of parental rights or permission for a child to travel abroad without a father’s permission.

From the legal point of view, publishing personal data without a person’s consent violates personal security and the right for the protection of personal data. It also violates Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the right to a fair trial for all.

And yet in spite of appeal of many international organizations to shut down its illegal activities, Myrotvorets remains up and running. By failing to intervene, the Ukrainian state silently approves it. Moreover, it is impossible to sue anyone associated with the website because all of the denunciations on it are anonymous. Myrotvorets claims to be an NGO, however it is not registered as such. The domain and the host of the website are outside of Ukraine – one is located in the US and another is registered to the name of a citizen of Thailand. Hence, in strictly legalist terms, Ukraine does not have juridical power over it. Nevertheless, Ukrainian authorities use its data for repression against its own citizens.

My name is on the Myrotvorets website, too. In April of 2015, I went on a media fact-finding tour to the war-affected city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine with the purpose of witnessing how the residents of Donetsk and the broader Donbass region are coping in the difficult circumstances of Ukraine’s armed attacks against them. The press tour was organized by the German-Russian NGO ‘Europa-Objektiv’. The personal data of journalists participating in the tour were published on the Myrotvorets website. Under my name, it is written that I consciously violated the state border of Ukraine and that I “manipulated socially important information”. The webpage contains a facsimile of the main page of my Canadian passport with all its personal data.

Stating that I illegally crossed the Ukrainian-Russian border is a lie. Our delegation traveled from Rostov, Russia to Donetsk by bus and, indeed, crossed the border on the Ukrainian side. The border was under the control of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). There is no law in Ukraine that qualifies such crossing as illegal. And the claim that I manipulated socially important information is ridiculous for a country that declares itself democratic and free. In a free, democratic country, no one should denounce and threaten another person for merely expressing a different point of view or presenting information that contradicts the ‘official’ or mainstream version of facts.

The publication of my Canadian passport data on the Internet is a violation of international norms on the protection of privacy. It is an attempt to intimidate journalists and to silence those who seek to understand both sides of the armed conflict in Ukraine and inform the international community about it. People behind the snitch website Myrotvorets published my personal data in the hope that the Security Service of Ukraine will use the information to harass or prosecute me. As a proof that data of Myrotvorets is used by Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), I have an official letter by the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine declaring that, following a request from the SBU, they put me under an official ban from entering the territory of Ukraine for three years.

I have sought to draw the attention of Canadian government authorities to this dirty practice of the state organs of Ukraine which Canada so proudly supports. For one year and a half, I have e-mailed and phoned my Member of Parliament requesting a meeting to discuss the matter, but without success. I also consulted a Canadian lawyer who said that, essentially, Canada has no duty but does have the right to take action against Ukraine on my behalf. However, given complex legal issues involved in the process, Canada would most likely rely on Ukraine to intervene. I also know that with the unconditional support to the current Kyiv regime by the Canadian political leadership, no Canadian politician will publicly condemn actions of the Ukrainian state organs. So I am left with no choice but to draw as much attention as I can to the inacceptable, illegal practices of the Myrotvorets website and the people behind it.

Western countries are reluctant to acknowledge that the Euromaidan, which they so eloquently supported, did not bring more freedom to Ukraine. On the contrary, it brought tighter control of the media by the state and its proxy oligarchs; political repression against people with dissenting views, including imprisonment, searches, and interrogations; and acts of aggression by ultra-right, vigilante groups against opponents of the current political regime in Kyiv while police stand by without intervening.

Ukraine is suffocating. To breathe, it needs freedom – journalistic freedom to report what is happening on the ground, personal freedom to speak up and not be afraid of repression by the state apparatus, public freedom to conduct open and honest discussions about the present crisis and the common future, inclusive of all citizens of Ukraine. I hope that this article will contribute to public awareness of the dire situation with the freedom of speech in Ukraine, although I am very skeptical that it will lead to any response from Canadian or Ukrainian authorities.

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Halyna Mokrushyna, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and journalist. Her research interests include the challenges of the post-Soviet transition in Ukraine; social and economic inequality in the post-Soviet context; historical and cultural divisions within Ukraine; social memory and politics of memory; relations between Russia and Canada and the broader context of the post-cold war world and relations between the East and the West. Her articles on these subjects were published on Counterpunch, Truthdig, and Truthout websites.

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