Chernihiv Visit: U.S.-Funded Program To Fight Human Trafficking and Meeting with Energetic Local Journalists

Posted by: U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John F. Tefft

As a veteran of many countries of the former Soviet Union, I am interested in the history of this region, and I had the chance yesterday to visit a really remarkable city, which was one of the key centers of the Kyivan Rus period – Chernihiv.  It’s about a 90 minute drive from Kyiv, and well worth the trip, especially on days like yesterday when the weather was clear and warm.

Ambassador Tefft at opening of a court room equipped for the secure interview of victims and witnesses during trial
Ambassador Tefft at opening of a court room equipped for the secure interview of victims and witnesses during trial

I kicked off my visit by cutting the ribbon on a new remote witness testimony system in the Chernihiv Court of Appeals.  The court was outfitted with a separate witness room to allow victims of trafficking in persons, or other serious crime witnesses, to safely testify through video connection without having to directly face the defendant.  Right now, only one third of trafficking victims in Ukraine cooperate with law enforcement, and the single biggest reason for not cooperating is concern over lack of protection.  The system allows for voice or image distortion, although there is a monitor for the judges, so that they can see the individual clearly.  The head of the Court of Appeals, Judge Sadih Tagiyev (an Open World exchange alumnus!), explained very well how this type of protection will allow his court to better meet international standards for witness support.  And he already has big plans for the system – he’s planning on bringing in students to hold mock trials later this month.   The system was funded through State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, and is one of five such systems installed by the International Organization for Migration.  While it is aimed specifically at victims of Trafficking in Persons, the equipment has been used successfully elsewhere for witnesses of serious crimes, where confidentiality helps prevent them being re-victimized or feeling threatened by defendants. 

Ambassador Tefft at opening of a court room equipped for the secure interview of victims and witnesses during trial

After the court, I met with the Governor of Chernihiv Oblast, Volodymyr Homenko and the Mayor of Chernihiv Oleksandr Sokolov.  The Governor is a student of the history of his region, and voiced a real concern for the preservation of the both the historical sites in his region and the local environment.  As with many in the country, he is concerned with how to position his region economically to move from commodity supplier to a producer of the full cycle for agricultural and meat products.  We had a good conversation, as my home state of Wisconsin has grappled with these same issues in the past.

After a quick detour to capture some great photographs of the historic “Val” (center of town), we sat down with the Chernihiv Press Club – a group of local print, broadcast and Internet journalists – for a frank discussion about freedom of the press in the region.  They were a spirited, passionate group.  The journalists expressed their views on a broad range of topics; some expressed frustration with a lack of access to government officials, while others said the situation resulted from a lack of professionalism among  journalists.  Some press club members said reporters cannot gain sufficient access to government officials and public information. Others said that journalists need better education, either in the form of investigative training, or to improve their own knowledge of Ukrainian laws regarding the press and public information.

In response to their questions, I shared my own perspective on news in the United States, including that Americans benefit from diverse news sources and often heated debate over public issues. Some journalists shared the viewpoint that diversity of news sources has continued to evolve in Ukraine, and that alternative viewpoints are shared in media outlets in the region. We ended our time by discussing the role of Internet news globally and within Ukraine.

I had been to Chernihiv before, as a tourist, and this trip confirmed what I already knew: It is a beautiful city, rich in beauty and history, and well worth a short day trip out of Kyiv!

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