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Ukraine: Opposition Reveals Document Allegedly Proving Government Control Of Media

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Many Ukrainians have long suspected the news they receive is censored and manipulated. Now, a purported government document seems to confirm these suspicions. The document, if authentic, indicates that newspaper and television editors receive precise instructions from the government on how to present the news.

Prague, 13 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Ukrainian opposition claims that a recently released document proves the government maintains rigorous control over the news that citizens receive.

The confidential document was made public last week by Mykola Tomenko, a member of parliament and head of its Committee on Freedom of Information. He said it was given to him by a senior Ukrainian television executive who wishes to remain anonymous.

Titled "Additional Commentaries for the Events of Week 36 -- For Official Use," the document appears to be one of a regular series of instructions sent to editors. It spells out how sensitive subjects should be handled and which issues should not be covered.

One of Ukraine's best-known television news personalities, who also wishes to remain anonymous, confirmed to RFE/RL that the government instructions are sent to the country's largest newspapers and all television channels. He said there is an appearance of press freedom in Ukraine, but that major media outlets are tightly controlled by President Leonid Kuchma.

The presidential administration denies it is responsible for the document.

Since Ukrainian independence 11 years ago, successive governments promised that the censorship and media control of the communist era was over. Many observers believe the old habits still persist, however.

During the last six years of rule by Kuchma, journalists have complained of coercion and intimidation by government officials, especially during election campaigns. Investigations by the European Union, Western governments, and international media-watchdog groups support these claims.

More than 10 journalists have been murdered in Ukraine since 1991.

The new document -- seen by RFE/RL -- sets out how the media should cover 32 forthcoming issues. It purportedly shows Kuchma's administration eager to discredit popular opposition leader and former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. It offers instructions for how to portray Yushchenko as inconsistent and untrustworthy.

Another item in the document deals with demonstrations planned for next week to mark the second anniversary of the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Kuchma has been accused of involvement in Gongadze's death, which he denies.

The document suggests the democratic credentials of some groups taking part in the protests should be challenged. It also instructs the media to divert attention from the demonstrations by "reviving" the emotional issue of a monument to Polish soldiers in a cemetery in western Ukraine. The soldiers died in battles with Ukrainians fighting for independence. The Polish president was forced to cancel a visit to inaugurate the monument after Ukrainian nationalists objected to the wording on it.

A Ukrainian court ruled yesterday that the rally cannot be staged in central Kyiv but could be moved to an airfield outside the capital.

The document also contains a list of upcoming events the media is ordered to ignore, including a press conference given by an opposition group and the work of a commission dealing with journalistic ethics.

Tomenko says the document was distributed to members of the media by Serhiy Vasilyev, who heads the government department that deals with information policy. Vasilyev scoffed at that suggestion: "Mykola Tomenko woke up, got hold of some documents and said, 'Oh, I dreamed that these documents were authored by Vasilyev in the presidential administration."

Although Vasilyev said he did not write the document, he refused to directly deny that the government was responsible for the instructions. He jokingly suggested that Tomenko could have faked the document himself: "In the same way that he [Tomenko] said I was responsible for this document, I could equally say it was his. And I could say, 'Hey, Mykola! We wrote this together last night. Have you forgotten?'"

The document has no official markings that could help verify its origins. Tomenko explained why he nevertheless decided to publicize its existence: "So why have I made public this document without it bearing an official stamp showing it to be from the presidential administration and without a witness? Because the person who gave me this document does not want to be a witness in public. But even a superficial analysis of the recommendations made to television and radio companies and newspapers reflect completely what has been published, that is, ignoring press conferences given by the opposition and diverting society's attention from the demonstrations planned against the government."

Tomenko said government press control should be fought through the courts. He said that is the best way to show such documents contravene the Ukrainian constitution, which forbids news censorship. However, Tomenko thinks it unlikely that editors will be courageous enough to do this: "It's difficult to stop this hidden official censorship. The only thing I can do for the moment is to say that it exists and by publicizing these things to draw society's attention to the fact that the degree of censorship in our lives is not decreasing following the president's various declarations about democratization and freedom of speech but, on the contrary, is increasing."

In response to the document, Yushchenko has announced that his party, Our Ukraine, will try to establish a media group of its own to counter government censorship.