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Ukraine: Media Repression Serious Issue In Presidential Campaign

  • Lily Hyde

According to opinion polls, Ukrainians traditionally place a high level of trust in the media. But many analysts and foreign observers are saying that in the runup to this month's presidential election, that trust is misplaced. RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde reports from Kyiv that the Ukrainian media are presenting a biased and partial account of the election campaign.

Kyiv, 12 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the date of Ukraine's presidential election, October 31, grows closer, incumbent President Leonid Kuchma is ever more dominant in the government-owned media.

The National Council for TV and Radio Broadcasting recently issued a report on September's television coverage of the campaign. The council found that even on the privately owned channels, the president received more coverage than any of his challengers. On the state-owned channel, Kuchma got more air time than all his rivals put together. And he received only one negative mention over the entire 25 days that were monitored.

In the printed media, most Ukrainian newspapers are obvious in their support of one particular candidate. That's because most newspapers are heavily subsidized by political or business figures.

For example, Ukraine's leading newspaper, Fakty, was just one of many competing dailies a year ago. Now that it is backed by Viktor Pinchuk, a millionaire parliamentary deputy who is one of Kuchma's closest supporters, Fakty has a circulation of one million. The head of the Kyiv Union of journalists, Ihor Zaseda, says that independent media have been hit hard by last year's economic crisis. Zaseda says they just can't compete.

"Most publications that tried to be independent had to rely on advertising for this [presidential] campaign, but the money just didn't materialize. Each candidate for the president has his or her own newspaper...And all papers published in the regions, with circulations of 3,000 to 5,000, have local administration or councils as founders, and they are all directed to support Kuchma."

Oleksandr Yaremenko is the director of the Ukrainian Institute for Social Research. He told RFE/RL he thinks this very open ownership of different media outlets by presidential candidates or their supporters does not necessarily constitute a problem for a free press.

"The talk that we have restriction of the mass media is not entirely true...The mass media is sufficiently clearly structured to show who supports whom...It's wholly evident from every page, one publication sympathizes with one (candidate), another sympathizes with another, that's normal."

A graver concern than the partisan nature of the press is government repression. Many newspaper publishers say they have been silenced through endless government inspections and the threat of libel suits.

Over the last 18 months, newspapers that have folded under pressure from the authorities include Vseukrainskie Vedomosti, Pravda Ukrainy, Kievskie Vedomosti, and Polytyka. These publications, loosely described as opposition newspapers, suffered an endless campaign of harassment over everything from leasing agreements to lawsuits until they had to close.

The latest media organization to complain of government harassment is the television station STB, which had its bank accounts frozen for alleged non-compliance with tax regulations. STB staff have also complained of physical intimidation.

International watchdogs are taking the threat of media repression seriously. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has extended its monitoring program in Ukraine to cover the election campaign period as well as the actual polling day. And last week, the Council of Europe sent rapporteurs to Ukraine in response to a letter from four of the presidential candidates expressing concern at media intimidation and manipulation.

The rapporteurs, Hanne Severinson and Tunne Kelam, said they felt the situation has deteriorated since elections last year. They said journalists are working in an "atmosphere of fear." And the OSCE rapporteurs put responsibility for ensuring a free and fair media campaign on Kuchma. Kelam told journalists last week that the OSCE is urging the president to guarantee that independent media will not suffer state harassment in the remaining weeks of the campaign:

"We strongly advise the acting president and government to do their utmost to guarantee, for the rest of the election period, freedom and a balanced way of media. For this purpose, we advise a freezing of all government-sponsored measures against independent media, like accusations of tax fraud or any other accusations, to freeze all of them for the period of elections so that all independent media could continue their publications or their broadcasts, and to ensure maximum of variety and independence of media. I think such a gesture by the president could be a good will and a guarantee that the election could really be fair and impartial."

But the rapporteurs said they were not able to meet either Kuchma or the head of the presidential administration during their visit. Their recommendation received no answer.