The Ukrainian parliament this week held hearings about widespread allegations that the government censors the press and interferes in the work of journalists.
Prague, 6 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian journalists have long complained that the government censors or tries to manipulate their work.
Last summer, a member of the Ukrainian parliament handed out copies of secret directives -- called "temnyky" -- that he said were issued by the presidential administration. The directives allegedly instruct editors how to treat important news items, while asking them to ignore issues considered antigovernment.
Meanwhile, a former KGB officer and supporter of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was installed as head of the country's second-largest news agency, UNIAN. The move followed criticism that some of its stories were hostile to the government.
Outside political bodies like the European Union and the Council of Europe, as well as foreign diplomats and journalists' organizations, have also accused the Ukrainian government of using censorship and intimidation to control the press.
In October, more than 100 Ukrainian journalists, dismayed by what they said was increasing government interference, formed an independent union led by Andriy Shevchenko, a well-known former television news presenter who said he had quit his job because of increasing government censorship.
At the union's founding meeting, journalists asked for parliamentary hearings to discuss the censorship allegations. Those hearings happened this week (4 December) as parliament listened to the testimony of dozens of speakers, ranging from members of the media and politicians to members of the Kuchma administration itself.
Shevchenko was one of those who gave evidence at the hearings. He testified that the first time he saw one of the confidential "temnyky" instructions, he thought it was a joke. He said he was dismayed, however, when he saw that all of the television channels followed the instructions in their evening news bulletins that day.
In a letter to parliament, Elizabeth Andersen of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the "temnyky" produce what she called an "intimidating atmosphere" so that news bulletins conform to government wishes and are "bland and unbalanced."
The head of the presidential administration's Information Policy Department, Serhiy Vassilyev, denied the existence of government censorship and said such accusations are intended to discredit Ukraine.
But others, like Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun or Viktor Nabrusko, the owner of a radio station and a member of the presidential administration's Committee of Information Policy, admitted that there are problems -- without specifying who is responsible for them. Nabrusko told RFE/RL that censorship is outlawed by the Ukrainian Constitution, but he said the new union is composed of many of Ukraine's finest journalists and that their concerns should be taken seriously.
He said he believes that many of the problems stem from the highly politicized atmosphere in Ukraine, where the stage is being set for presidential elections in 2004. Kuchma cannot run again himself but is widely believed to want to ensure the person who follows him will be sympathetic and will prevent investigations into allegations of corruption and involvement in the murder of an opposition journalist that have been leveled against him. "Today, journalism is politicized as never before, and we forget that we are at the epicenter of the presidential election campaign, and this is an obvious fact. Therefore, it is impossible to close our eyes and say everything is fine and that there are no problems. But one has to define censorship and make use of Clause 171 of the Criminal Code, which clearly states that it is forbidden to persecute a journalist -- something that is punishable by two to five years' imprisonment. It's necessary to create precedents and to endure the constitution is abided by."
Nabrusko said the parliamentary hearings were broadcast live on radio and television and that this, in itself, is a positive sign.
An opinion poll of more than 700 journalists -- conducted on the eve of the hearings by the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Research -- showed more than two-thirds agree there is government interference in their work.
Shevchenko told RFE/RL that it is perfectly clear who is directing the censorship that exists in Ukraine. "What I can say precisely is that I and 1,000 of my colleagues have no doubt where the pressure comes from. It comes from the presidential administration and its regional bodies, the municipal and regional authorities. And such a situation, which is absolutely clear, strikes me, as a citizen, as frightening."
Most media outlets in Ukraine are privately owned. However, many of the owners are believed to owe their wealth to preferential treatment by Kuchma and are afraid of angering him. Shevchenko said the government must respond to the journalists' concerns. "I honestly don't want to get involved in a psychological analysis of those people in charge of the government's policy with regards to the press in this country. What I can see as a citizen is that the government does not deal in a responsible way with regard to the information sector because we clearly see an imbalanced treatment of important political issues, and the government is hiding its head in the sand like an ostrich if it does not take responsibility for resolving the problem. It seeks to blame the problem on relations between the media owners and their journalists. It talks about how society is unprepared to hear all the truth and so forth. I believe that is a weak position for the government to take and that Ukraine deserves a stronger government that would deal in a better way with this matter."
Shevchenko also said he sees hopeful signs as a result of the parliamentary hearings. "I have noticed a change in the government position. Whereas earlier it said that censorship did not exist at all in Ukraine, it now uses different language and says it does not exist 'de jure,' which opens the way for talking about 'de facto' censorship. I see this as a big change, and it is enormously significant that the country is talking honestly about this problem. And I think this gives the government a chance to resolve the issue."
Shevchenko said he hopes the government will build on the hearings to discuss with journalists and others ways to end the censorship and intimidation.