Freedom of expression in Ukraine: a disappearing commodity?

Subsidised articles and broadcasts spin the official line and the erosion of media freedom is gathering speed in Ukraine. President Yanukovych may ‘order his ministers to look into’ the situation, but they’re all hand in glove, laments Iryna Kolodiychyk
Iryna Kolodiychyk
17 November 2010

In the recent World Press Freedom Index for 2010, Ukraine has slipped to 131st  place. In 2008 it was ranked 87th and in 2009 90th.  In their accompanying report the publishers, Reporters without Borders, attribute the slippage to the gradual erosion of press freedom in Ukraine since Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in February 2010.

This encroachment on media transparency and press freedom is also recognised by Ukrainian independent NGOs, media experts and journalists. “Editorial policy has changed greatly since Viktor Yanukovych came to power” says Otar Dovzhenko, media commentator and website editor of the monthly ‘Telekritika’ magazine for media professionals. He says that every month there are more ‘subsidised’ broadcasts and articles, full of biased value judgements and tendentious facts, particularly on television.  A few ‘islands of freedom’ can be found in the internet. The radio in Ukraine can never be considered representative: there is just one station one station broadcasting news and comment and it is owned by a member of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions.

Dovzhenko cites U-Media, the TV monitoring carried out by his magazine in conjunction with Internews Network and other organisations. The figures show that the number of slanted broadcasts has increased most on the TV channel ‘Inter’. This is one of the top 3 channels in Ukraine and is owned by head of the Ukraine Security Service, Valeriy Khoroshkovskyi. In July there were 96 such broadcasts, in August 103 and in September 151.

The role of the state security services, and especially its Head, Mr Khoroshkovsky, is not only controversial in relation to the media but is also of concern in other respects.

The functioning of democratic institutions in Ukraine, PACE report, 20.09.2010

Another new leader in the biased broadcasting field is the state-run First National Channel, whose chairman is nominated by the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council, a public regulatory body, answerable to the Ukrainian Parliament, Verkhovna Rada. Some months ago Yehor Bekendorf, formerly an ‘Inter’ producer, was appointed director of First National, whose broadcasts are now nearly as slanted as his previous channel’s. Valid Arfush, appointed assistant director at the same time, described the channel as a government tool: “First Channel will always protect the government and put a positive spin on its actions. Government officials should know that we encourage them. Criticism can be broadcast on another channels”. Most unfortunately, Valid Arfush also chairs the Coordination Council of Euronews Ukraine. Will their news broadcasts be guided by the same principles?

Government agencies are also mendacious. Members of the dominant Party of the Regions or their parliamentary coalition partners allege that people who talk about freedom of speech are in the pay of the opposition or working for Western secret services.  Olena Bondarenko, a member of the Party of the Regions, said that “if our journalism faculties, courses and journalist programmes continue to be financed by Soros-type outfits, then we will continue to lose the information wars”. Her fellow party member and Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, answered a simple question from a journalist about corruption in the Ministry of Health by saying that all journalists are corrupt. So the journalists accuse the government of squeezing freedom of speech, to which the government retorts that journalists are paid to manufacture texts and articles.

The intellectual community is disillusioned by the gradual erosion of democratic values, an ongoing process since Yanukovych and his cronies came to power and took all the government positions. In May of this year would-be defenders of freedom of speech set up a movement called ‘Stop Censorship’. Its membership now includes 570 media professionals and 139 NGOs; its coordinating council is made up of 27 well known journalists. 

The movement was launched at a big press conference on the 100th day of Yanukovych’s presidency. Journalists wearing t-shirts with the slogan “Stop Censorship!” marched to the Parliament building and held a meeting to demand improved freedom of speech. The President’s response was “The fact that you have the opportunity to make these representations to me now is proof that there is no problem”. Yanukovych made a show of supporting the movement: he signed the movement’s declaration and ordered his ministers to clear up the problem. Paradoxically, one of the said ministers is Valeriy Khoroshkovskyi, owner of ‘Inter’ TV, the most biased news broadcaster. A vicious circle.

In a worrisome development, attacks on journalists have been on the rise in recent months, culminating in the disappearance, on 11 August 2010, of Ukrainian journalist Vasyl Klymentyev, who had been reporting on corruption cases in Kharkiv. On 19 August 2010, Interior Minister Anatoly Mogylyov admitted that Klymentyev’s disappearance could be related to his reporting. 

The functioning of democratic institutions in Ukraine, PACE report, 20.09.2010

TV channels are afraid of government pressure, so they withhold information and ignore events. The disappearance of journalist Vasyl Klementyev is a case in point. He was the editor of a small Kharkiv newspaper New Style specialising in investigative journalism.  Four days after his disappearance his colleagues claimed that he had gone to take photographs of the luxury villa belonging to Stanislav Denysyuk, Kharkiv Region Head of Tax Administration. Some months previously, according to deputy editor Petro Matviyenko, Klementyev had published compromising information about the Kharkiv Region Assistant Prosecutor, Serhiy Khachatryan. The names of these two officials had often appeared in New Style articles. A criminal case was opened and the investigation of the disappearance continues. One of the explanations is that it is linked to his journalistic activity.

It was in connection with this case that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) published a critical report on human rights and freedom of speech in Ukraine. At the conference ‘Guaranteeing media freedom in Ukraine’ in Kyiv Dunia Miyatovych, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, spoke about pressure on the media.  Her position was somewhat ambiguous, as she had been invited by President Yanukovych, but no deputies from his Party of the Region were present, so the official diplomatic statement was as far as it went.

‘Stop Censorship’ continues to fight for media freedom and demand new legislation:  earlier this year they made representations that deputies should pass the draft law ‘On access to public information’, which was registered in summer 2008. This would simplify the process of getting information from government bodies and institutions, define public interest information, establish penalties for refusal to divulge information and expand the list of bodies which must make information accessible. The new law covers the responsibilities of the government responsibilities to give information to journalists. The author of the draft law is Andriy Shevchenko, a deputy from the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.  He is also head of the parliamentary committee dealing with questions of freedom of speech and information.

The coalition of the Party of the Regions, the Socialists and the Communists did not move fast to adopt the new media law. Indeed, they tried to block it. The draft law was on a provisional agenda and was taken off it at a meeting in the parliament on 2 November.  That very day 3 Party of the Regions deputies (the same Olena Bondarenko, Volodymyr Landik and Jurii Stets) hastily registered a new draft law. This law is very similar to the law ‘On Information’, which is still in force and has not been amended since it came into law in 1992.

‘Stop Censorship’ has made attempts to get Andriy Shevchenko’s new media law on to the statutes, but so far without success. On 4 November they started collecting signatures for an appeal to the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy. The appeal highlights the Ukrainian Parliament’s commitment to Ukrainian society, PACE and other international organisations and asks van Rompuy to insist that new legislation be passed into law before the Ukraine-EU Summit on 22 November in Brussels. It is possible that PACE could use their influence to push for the adoption of the new media law in Ukraine and improved freedom of speech.

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