(Kyiv) – Recent legislative amendment requires activists and journalists reporting on government corruption to file public declarations of their personal assets, Human Rights Watch said today. The new requirement is vague and could be used to deter or punish investigative journalists and partners of anti-corruption nongovernmental groups for doing their job.

Under the new amendment, activists and journalists working with independent organizations involved in anti-corruption work, as well as members of public councils, must publicly declare their personal assets – even though they do not receive public funding – in the same manner as state officials. President Petro Poroshenko, who signed the amendment on March 27, 2017, should initiate urgent steps to annul the new measure, which is an unjustified interference with freedom of expression and other rights protected by Ukraine’s human rights obligations.

“This new requirement is a slap in the face of Ukraine’s anti-corruption activists and its international partners who have been calling for a more transparent government,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The requirement conflates state officials, who have a responsibility to divulge their assets because they enjoy certain privileges of office and their work is funded by tax payers, with private citizens who report on issues of public interest.”

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko attends a news conference in Tallinn, Estonia on January 23, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Under the amendment, activists, journalists, and others who fail to file asset declarations would face criminal charges and up to two years in prison, the same penalties government officials face.

The new measure is a part of package of amendments to Ukraine’s 2014 law on preventing corruption and a 2006 law on military duty and service.

The original amendments, introduced by President Poroshenko on March 10, proposed exempting military personnel engaged in active duty in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine from publicly declaring their personal assets. They did not include the amendment affecting independent groups and journalists, which was later introduced by a member of parliament.

Parliament adopted the measure by a large majority on March 23. The following day, some members tried to introduce a measure to annul the vote results, but the parliament did not let it come to vote.

Following the Maidan mass protests in 2013-2014, Ukraine’s political leadership pledged ambitious anti-corruption reforms to create a more transparent government. One of the key reforms has required Ukraine’s state officials to publicly declare their assets annually through an online filing system.

Anti-corruption legislative reforms were among the conditions the Ukrainian government agreed to fulfill to meet requirements for visa-free travel by Ukrainians to the European Union.

Several of Ukraine’s international partners immediately condemned the new legislation. The Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, said on Twitter: “E-declarations should target corruption in public administration – not hamper work of civil society.”

The United Kingdom embassy in Kyiv stated on Twitter that the law was a “serious step back [and…] could limit NGOs capacity, expose them to pressure & affect reform.” The United States embassy in Kyiv also noted on Twitter that “[m]embers of civil society play vital role for transparency; targeting them is a step backwards.”

Independent groups and journalists are essential to Ukraine’s anti-corruption reform and should not be intimidated or punished for their work, Human Rights Watch said.

The amendments targeting anti-corruption activists and journalists are incompatible with respect for several human rights – such as freedom of expression and the right to privacy – protected by international treaties to which Ukraine is a party, as well as in its own constitution. For example, Ukraine is a party to both the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which require any interference with either freedom of expression or right to privacy to have a legitimate aim and to be necessary and proportionate to achieve that aim.

In this case, laws that are designed to – or in practice have – a chilling effect on members of civil society and on media reporting on abuse of state power and public office are not a justified interference with freedom of expression standards under international law. Insofar as public officials are already required to comply with the measures that would now extend to private journalists and activists, the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, have repeatedly held that public officials may be subject to greater scrutiny than others. Restrictions that prevent such scrutiny are in general not compatible with freedom of expressions standards. Likewise, even if the interference into the personal finances of journalists and activists had a legitimate aim, to base that interference simply on the work they do is not justified as either necessary or proportionate.

President Poroshenko promised to facilitate the creation of a working group to amend the signed law to exclude the new measure against activists. However, creating a working group could take time, and, meanwhile, the new amendment could have an immediate chilling effect on activists and journalists, Human Rights Watch said.

“No one is fooled by the true purpose of this amendment,” Cooper said. “President Poroshenko should urge parliament to immediately annul it. Such measures have no place in a reform-minded government.”