Express-analysis of court system state in Kharkiv region by mass media monitoring
2017 turned out to be rich in newsbreaks in the judicial sphere, which undoubtedly focused the media attention on court proceedings in Kharkiv and the region. The coverage of the judicial system functioning in the media allows us to diagnose important aspects of the current judiciary state and also to reveal the contours of how the public evaluate the judiciary. In addition, in the context of recent President’s decrees on the local courts reorganization, a similar regional analysis of the judiciary status will help to predict the implications of the reform implementation.
Monitoring of the resonant court cases’ coverage was conducted at the regional level. The following media in Kharkiv region were included in the monitoring field: «MediaPort», «NewsRoom», «Media Group «Objectiv»», «Kh.Vgorode», «Status Quo», «Gоrоdskоy Dozor» and «Gоrod X».
During the analysis the most resonant court proceedings of 2017 were selected (infographic given below). Internet media was analyzed by the number of relevant materials on these topics and their emotional coloring. Such monitoring has given an opportunity to make conclusions about what exactly attracts the attention of Kharkiv media in the field of judicial activity and in what way they cover resonant court proceedings.
Top-5 most loud proceedings: content analysis of media resources
An accident on Sumska Street
The loudest event in 2017 according to the number of publications became the judicial proceedings against the perpetrators of an accident in Sumska Street. On October 18, terrible tragedy shook the country. An accident at the intersection of Sumska Street and Mechnikov’s lane occurred in the evening. Lexus RX-350 under the control of 20-year-old Elena Zaitseva collided with the Volkswagen Touareg under the control of 49-year-old Gennady Dronov. After the collision, Lexus was thrown on the sidewalk. As a result of the accident, six people died (five of them at the scene of a road accident), another five people were injured.
Already on October 20, a suspect Lexus driver Elena Zaitseva was brought to court in order to get further precautionary measures determined. On October 30, Gennadiy Dronov went live on the talk show “Ukraine Speaks”, where he expressed his point of view regarding what had happened. On December 13, a regular court hearing was held, during which Zaitseva admitted her guilty, and the court continued the preventive measure to both suspects until February 10. On February 7, the term of detention was extended until April 7, 2018, without defining a bail.
This case, of course, is very controversial. From the very beginning, the negative image of the first suspect, Elena Zaitseva, was created in the information resources. The media have such headlines: “Zaitseva took opiates before the accident – the results of analyzes”, “Zaitseva was on trial in the shoes of a thousand dollars”, “A trial over Zaitseva: The defendant does not admit her guilt”. This, certainly, provided a kind of “triggers” for the public. At present, the volume of publications has decreased significantly, and the media have published factual material based on data from the courtroom.
There are quite a lot of questions to proceeding from journalists and lawyers. It is reported that an aggravating circumstance, such as the presence of defendant opiates in the analysis, has disappeared from the case. The prosecutor’s office explained that they could not prove the drug intoxication of Elena Zaitseva. Also in the case there is no data on the speed on which Gennadiy Dronov was driving.
The public is closely monitoring the progress of the case. The media publish videos and post on their pages links of the online broadcast of court hearings on the road accident in Sumska st. Such resonant court proceedings seemed to be indicative of the level of lawyers’ qualifications and process organization. But instead, the audience faces a completely different picture: lawyers read their speeches from smartphones, allow themselves to use communications during the meeting. This, of course, is not a gross violation of judicial ethics, but it imposes a certain imprint on unprofessionalism on lawyers, though.
“Attack on the territorial integrity of Ukraine”
Kharkiv region is characterized by a large number of “anti-maidan” cases, litigations of which have been endured since the very 2014. In the process of Kharkiv media monitoring on this indicator, we paid attention to the information on the tags of “separatism”, “assault of the Kharkov regional state administration” and the names of the main figures of such cases in 2017: Yudaev, Kromsky, Apuchin and others. According to the results of the analysis, Kharkiv’s media can be divided into two groups: those that fully cover every event associated with such affairs; and those who mostly do not inform the public about it. Thus, the first group includes MediaPort, NewsRoom, Media Group “Objectiv” and StatusQuo. The opposite situation is with media “Kh.Vgorode”, “Gorodskoy Dozor” and “Gorod X”: during the last year there were few publications with the listed tags.
Special attention needs to be given to those who are charged with “encroachment on the territorial integrity of Ukraine”. In total, in 2017, 211 publications appeared on the subject in the media. But among them we have separated publications related to the cases of the former Slovyansk mayor Nelia Shtepa and ex-deputy Andriy Lessk, since the specifics of these two proceedings, above all, is that on the bench of defendants are the former high-ranking officials.
If, however, to speak about the emotional coloration of publications on the given topics, it is worth noting a few vivid examples. In particular, on the information resource “Gorodskoy Dozor” in the headline of the article on the amnesty of Sergei Yudaev emphasis was placed on the author of the relevant law: “One of the organizers of the assault of the Kharkov regional state administration was released from the courtroom by the law of Savchenko”.
In general, information about court sessions on criminals is provided solely as a factual material without evaluative judgments towards one or another violator of the law.
On the example of these cases one more problem of the judicial system of Kharkiv region is found: judicial proceedings are delayed. In particular, it proves the trial of those participants responsible for the terrorist attack near the Palace of Sports. According to the lawyer of the victims, defenders of suspects several times voiced withdrawals of the panel of judges as a whole, judges – separately, the chairman, the prosecutor. Subsequently, one panel judge went to the decree. The defense party demanded that the case be heard from the beginning because of the appearance of a new judge. The case is delayed for the fourth year already. This, of course, does not contradict the legislation in force, but demonstrates its drawbacks that can be used by process participants for their own purposes.
The case of the so-called “whopper”
An extraordinary scandal was also accompanied by the case of the installation of a memorial sign in the form of an Angel, more commonly known in the social networks as ” whopper” on Freedom Square. The story began in the fall of 2016, when the Kharkiv city council announced a blitz contest for the project of a new monument at the site of the demolished “leader of the proletariat”. On February 3, by decision of the jury, the 86-meter figure in the form of an angel was announced as the winner. Later on the website of the city council a petition was created, the demand for which was the abolition of the results of the competition. More than 5000 thousand people supported it with their own signatures. On February 6, activists held a campaign against the installation of a monument on the square under the windows of the Dzerzhinsky district court. Soon, the court found that the contest was illegal and canceled its results. The Kharkiv Administrative Court of Appeal agreed with this decision. The case of a memorable sign was to be considered by the High Administrative Court of Ukraine in December 2017, but the meeting did not take place “because of important reasons”. Although the decision on the installation of the monument has not been taken yet, however, this may well be considered the most loud event in 2017 in terms of confrontation between the current Kharkiv authorities and the public.
At present, according to the Kharkiv media, the case is directed to a higher instance, and the court in a new compound will start considering it. Kharkiv’s media continues to cover the process of the trial in the meantime. Most publications on this subject in 2017 were made on the site MediaPort, while the media resource “Gorodskoy Dozor” devoted only 3 materials to this topic.
It is also interesting that only one of these three publications on the “Gorodskoy Dozor” highlights the state of litigation regarding the installation of a monument on Freedom Square. The publication of March 30 informs the public that “the city council will appeal against the court order”, but there is no information about the trial directly, petition submitted by representatives of public organizations. In addition, the Court of Appeal also ruled in favor of the activists. Obviously, the selective coverage of the case is due to the fact that this media resource has a direct influence of the city council, which is one of the case parties.
In general, the case of the so-called “whopper” brings out one of the problems of Ukrainian judicial sphere: the failure of the judges to comply with regulatory acts. Thus, according to activist Irina Salnik, from a public organization “Gorodskie Reformy”, the Dzerzhinsky District Court rejected the lawsuit in this case twice. One of the reasons was that the authority found insufficient proof of payment of the court fee only by a receipt and demanded evidence of enrollment of the court fee in the state budget. Although, in accordance with Article 9 of the Law of Ukraine “On court fees”, “the court verifies the entry of a court fee into a special fund of the State Budget of Ukraine” before the opening (beginning) of proceedings in the case, acceptance for consideration of applications (complaints)”. That is, the plaintiff is not obliged to prove that the tax is charged to the budget, this is fully the responsibility of the court.
The trial of the former mayor of the Slovyansk Nelia Shtepa
But the second half of 2017, however, turned out to be even more rich regarding the newsbreaks in the judicial field. In particular, the litigation over the former mayor of the Slovyansk Nelia Shtepa, which lasts from 2014, became widely publicized. The decision of the Leninsky district court of the city of Kharkiv in September, which changed the preventive measure of detention for 24-hour home arrest, became a resonance for Kharkiv residents.
The case of the former Mayor of Slovyansk brings two issues to a broader extent: delaying cases and possible political pressure on the judiciary. As of the beginning of April 2018, the ninth court hearing on the case of Nelia Shtepa was taken away in Kharkiv. Thus, the proceeding runs from July 13, 2014.
In particular, the testimony of Vyacheslav Yevtifiev, who took self-remittment in the case of the former Slovyansk Nelia Shtepa, testified to the pressure on the judge. On December 27, the Zhovtnevy district court of Kharkiv decided to enter information about him in the Uniform Register of Pre-trial Investigations in the absence of a medical certificate in form 133 of the judge, due to which he is illegally in office. Such actions Yevtifiev considers as a pressure on him. It should be noted that interference with the activities of the court is a crime against justice and the responsibility for it is governed by Article 376 of the Criminal Code the Code of Ukraine.
The trial of former deputy Andrei Lesik
In 2017, judicial proceedings against Andriy Lesik, a former member of the Kharkiv City Council, continued. In March, the Kharkiv Administrative Court of Appeal abolished the decision of the session of the Kharkiv City Council, which had previously suspended the powers of the deputy. However, already in December 2017, the Kiev district court of Kharkov has decided to arrest an ex-deputy without the possibility of making a bail. Andriy Lesik was released from custody according to the latest news.
Currently, in the region, the trial of former high-ranking officials Andriy Lesik and Nelia Shtepa continues. Kharkiv media continues to cover the news after each of the court sessions. However, there is a tendency to reduce in media interest towards similar cases that last for years.
Failure to comply with existing legislation by judges or delaying litigation regarding former high officials, as in the case with Shtepa and Lesik, all those factors undermine the already insignificant trust of Ukrainians in the courts.
However, taking into account the same resonant litigation over the past year, one can conclude that they are mainly delayed. This is especially true of high-ranking officials. Such “dragging” allows interested persons to wait for a decrease in the agiotage around the event from the side of the media and the public. It is precisely this reason for not lodging an appeal, by the way, that the lawyer of the accused of Sumska accident in Kharkiv, Julia Kozyr named.
After some time, no matter what decision has been taken, it is not going to become widely publicized in the media. A similar situation takes place in the trial of the former mayor of Slovyansk Nelia Shtepa, who in September 2017 changed the preventive measure of detention on a 24-hour home arrest with wearing an electronic control device. Obviously, such a decision would arise public two years ago, when the case was only gaining its development.
Coverage of judicial reform in the media
With judicial reform as the newsbreak there is another situation considering the Kharkiv media. There is not much information on this topic on the portals, but there is a clear indication of the assessment of media resources of future changes in the legal process. In particular, two media “Status Quo” and “Gorod X” posted on their sites materials with similar titles “Judicial Reform. What will change in Kharkiv and why judges are against” and “Kharkiv court has opposed the unification”, respectively. The contents of the publication are also almost identical.
The articles refer to the inappropriateness of the district courts of the city of Kharkiv uniting. Comments from Kharkiv judges against the reorganization are presented, in particular, because: “According to the rating studies in the Kyivsky region, 281.8 crimes per 10,000 citizens occur each month, while in the industrial district of the city only 153.4 … Such an association (Dzerzhinsky and Kyivsky courts) not only will not optimize, but will destroy the system, since in one court there can be only one system of registration of cases and materials”.
The materials on the reform raise another problem of the court activity in Kharkiv region: the unsatisfactory level of staffing of the judiciary corps. The number of judges staff in the Kyivsky district court is 20, while the actual number is 16 (80% of the working judges). The Dzerzhinsky district court has a staff of 22 judges, and the actual one is 11 (50% of the state). It is also worth noting that according to the data 26 courts are required to be filled in region as of April 2, 2018.
With a positive coloring, news about the judicial reform are presented in MediaPort. Here it appears under the heading “The High Council of Justice approved the reorganization of the Ukrainian courts”. The following is a factual material on which particular courts of Kharkiv region are to be merged. In the end, it is also mentioned with reference to another media resource of the appeal of judges of the Kyivsky district court of the city of Kharkiv with the request “to take into account a number of factors that significantly affect the judges’ load”.
The general results of the express analysis of the judicial system’ functioning coverage in the media of Kharkiv region are presented in the following infographics.
Thus, on the example of the most resonant cases, there are at least 5 problems of the courts of Kharkiv region: the judges violation of the current legislation of Ukraine, delaying the consideration of cases in court, possible political pressure on the judicial branch of power, the need for completing the majority of regional courts and unprofessional behavior of lawyers during court hearings. In addition, according to the monitoring, it turned out that only one media resource – Status Quo – covers not only resonant litigation, but also changes in the current compound of courts (dismissal, appointment of judges in the courts of the region).
Summarizing the results of the express analysis of the judicial system of the Kharkiv region on the basis of media monitoring, we can distinguish the following trends:
- The overwhelming majority of news related to the judicial activity in the media concerns court proceedings in the regional center. The percentage of publications on “Kharkiv cases” accounts for about 95% of all material in the media in the field of legal proceedings.
- The public of Kharkiv region often becomes a protagonist of the most resonant affairs. Activists are trying to solve urgent issues by means of either conventional methods (direct involvement of civil society organizations and their representatives in litigation), or more spontaneous forms of participation (actions under the windows of the court). The experience of the proceedings against the monument at Freedom Square proves that such methods are quite successful in attaining the goals of the public.
- There is a tendency to “delay” court cases. This feature is characterized by most loud processes involving high officials or business represantatives. This allows lawyers to wait for a reduction in the rush of these stories, and without any public monitoring, any decision taken after some time minimizes the harmful consequences for lawyers as well as for their clients.
- The negative information background on the judicial system of Kharkiv region is obviously created not due to the media coverage the judiciary in a “bad light”, but to the actual situation in this area. This conclusion arises, first of all, because the overwhelming majority of publications of the main events of the judicial activity of the region are presented to readers as a factual material without an assessment by journalists.
- There is a problem of non-compliance by judges with regulatory acts. So in the case of the so-called “whopper” judge dismissed the claim because he acknowledged the lack of a receipt for payment of court fees as confirmation of the transaction. Although, according to Article 9 of the law “On court fees”, the court independently checks the entry of a court fee into a special fund of the State Budget of Ukraine.
- There is also evidence of political pressure on the judicial branch of government. Such comments, in particular, were provided by a judge Vyacheslav Yevtifiev, who took the rejection of the case of Nelia Shtepa.
- The problem of the judicial system of Kharkiv region, in particular, is that most of the courts require a staff completing. The poor level of staffing of the judiciary, in the opinion of judges, will create new problems during the judicial reorganization, initiated by the judicial reform.
Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”
The paper was prepared with the support of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views of the EED and is the sole responsibility of Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”