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Ukraine: Media Freedom Comes Under Scrutiny

  • Lily Hyde

Both at home and abroad, Ukraine's media has come under close scrutiny since the disappearance five months ago of an investigative journalist. An international parliamentary hearing on freedom of speech and information held in Kyiv last week concluded that freedom of the press in Ukraine practically does not exist. Lily Hyde reports from Ukraine's capital for RFE/RL.

Kyiv, 22 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the Kyiv office of the non-governmental Institute for Mass Information, the telephone rings. It is a Ukrainian citizen calling looking for a journalist to investigate what he says was a contract killing arranged with the cooperation of law-enforcement bodies.

The caller says that all of Ukraine's major television channels and newspapers have already turned him down.

Yulia Sabry, the institute's director and Ukraine representative for the French-based Reporters without Borders, explains why:

"As soon as they [that is, Ukraine's major media] heard that the militia and local prosecutor were involved, they refused. They said they couldn't write about it because they were afraid. Unfortunately, given the present situation with the independent press, it's extremely hard for someone to conduct a journalistic investigation, not just because of economic reasons but because there is simply fear."

In the 10 years since Ukraine became independent, several journalists have been killed and numerous media outlets shut down through administrative means such as libel damages or tax inspections. But it took the disappearance and probable murder of journalist Heorhyi Gongadze last year to focus world attention on Ukraine's media. This week (Thursday), the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly is due to debate the situation in Ukraine's media. The debate was scheduled after assembly members visited Kyiv and reported that the Gongadze case was a test of press freedom and parliamentary democracy in Ukraine.

At Ukraine's first international parliamentary hearing on freedom of speech last week (16 January) in Kyiv, a member of the council Parliamentary Assembly committee dealing with the media delivered an address highly critical of the Ukrainian authorities.

Gongadze vanished five months ago (September). In November, a decapitated body believed to be his was found. Official DNA tests on the corpse show a 99.6 percent match to Gongadze.

Audio tapes released in November by a parliamentary deputy appear to implicate Ukrainian President Kuchma in Gongadze's removal, backing up some journalists' belief that he was silenced because of his critical articles on Ukraine's elite. The president's office has repeatedly denied Kuchma was involved in Gongadze's disappearance.

Both the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and French-based Reporters without Borders have recognized Gongadze as one of the journalists around the world killed because of their work in 2000.

A report prepared for the Kyiv hearing by the Ukrainian Center of Economic and Political Research concludes that inadequate legislation and a poor economy has left the country's mass media with no solid commercial base, and therefore ripe for abuse. It says that there are no mechanisms to control media exploitation by the president or other Ukrainian high officials. Journalists, it adds, are not only under economic pressure to censor their material. Sometimes, they are directly threatened by physical intimidation.

The Independent Association of Broadcasters, which represents Ukrainian regional TV and radio companies, also spoke out at the hearing. Association head Serhiy Sholokh told RFE/RL that the failure to implement a tangle of contradictory laws and re-licensing procedures allows Ukraine's media oligarchs to control the airwaves -- and therefore the information available to Ukrainians.

"If [a company owner] doesn't play by their [that is, the authorities'] rules and toe the line, he won't get a new license. It proves that they can do anything, and we can do nothing. If you try [to] use your own words, speak the truth, [you] will be left out of the process without a license. Who will dare risk that? There are a few kamikazes [that is, those willing to risk suicide] these days -- like Gongadze. But mostly you see self-censorship, because everyone has a family, no one wants to be in [Gongadze's] place."

Ukrainian authorities continue to deny charges of media harassment. Last month (9 December), Kuchma signed a decree detailing new measures to protect the independent media. But two days later, 10 regional newspaper editors complained that printing houses had been pressured into refusing to print their newspapers. Three days after that (12 December), a fire inspection of the independent Crimean TV and radio broadcaster Marion ordered the company shut down -- even though Kuchma's decree says such orders can only be given by a court.

Still, Taras Kuzmov of the U.S.-funded Internews, which provides training and support for regional TV and radio in Ukraine, believes the state does not have complete control of the media.

"If you talk about there being different opinions, then I think there has definitely been an improvement. Are there problems on the larger scale? Yes, of course there are. Are there problems with the existing media environment, in the way it is regulated and the way it is licensed? Yes. But [do] we [have] a situation where there is only one monopolized voice with absolutely no alternative? No. And I think in many ways the Gongadze case illustrated that point: You do get different points of view on that, and you do hear them on television or radio, or you read them."

Marion has been able to continue to broadcast from the Crimea because Sholokh's association successfully lobbied against the fire inspection order. And, unusually, the regional newspaper editors' complaints were aired on some national news channels. So perhaps last week's Kyiv hearing -- together with the furore over the Gongadze case -- may be the beginning of some change for the better.