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In Ukraine, One Newspaper Triumphs. Now What About The Rest?

Members of the activist group FEMEN, dressed in scanty "riot police" outfits, pretend to beat up a reporter during a rally against censorship and repression in the Ukrainian media.

Members of the activist group FEMEN, dressed in scanty "riot police" outfits, pretend to beat up a reporter during a rally against censorship and repression in the Ukrainian media.

On April 20 the "Kyiv Post" reinstated Brian Bonner. That was one small victory for freedom of the press in Ukraine. Many other reporters in the country are still waiting for a break.

Five days earlier Bonner was fired from his job as the newspaper's chief editor after refusing to obey an order by its owner to kill an interview with the minister of agriculture.

"Our reporters had not even returned to the office after the interview before I started getting calls from [management] saying the agriculture minister had complained about the aggressive style of the interview, the questions, raising big concerns about what kind of story is going to come out of this," says Bonner, who added that it was the first time that owner Mohammad Zahoor had interfered in the paper's editorial work since buying it two years ago.

When Bonner insisted on publishing the story, Zahoor, a British citizen and steel tycoon who made his fortune in Ukraine, fired him. Zahoor said that the article didn't meet proper journalistic standards, telling the Russian newspaper "Kommersant" in an interview that the piece was "unprepared and flabby." Then the 30-strong staff at the "Post" walked off the job.

The case triggered a storm of international attention, including articles in the "Financial Times" and "The Wall Street Journal" as well as a U.S. Embassy statement. Visiting U.S. senators expressed "serious concern" that Bonner's firing had undermined freedom of the press in Ukraine. Press-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders also issued a strongly worded note of concern.

The backlash bore fruit. Five days later Bonner went back to work, now as part of a four-member editorial board, and the "Post's" reporters went back on the job.

A Trying Environment

All's well that ends well? Not quite. Bonner is the first to acknowledge that his story stands out in a country where most reporters can't count on comparable attention from the international press.

Over the past year, Ukraine's ranking in several internationally recognized surveys of measures of freedom has dropped markedly. In its 2011 report Freedom House downgraded Ukraine from "free" to "partly free," citing a "deterioration in press freedom." Reporters Without Borders pointed to "the slow and steady deterioration in press freedom since Viktor Yanukovych's election as president in February."

Critics say media-freedom has declined since Viktor Yanukovych became president last year.
The U.S. State Department's 2010 "Human Rights Report" for Ukraine noted that, while the country's constitution proclaims freedom of the press, "in practice government pressure on the media intimidated journalists and media owners in some cases into practicing self-censorship."

Government officials say it's all bunk. Presidential adviser Hanna Herman dismissed the Freedom House ranking as "biased." Ruling Party of Regions lawmaker Vadim Kolesnichenko called the State Department's report "absolutely false."

Bonner disagrees. For most Ukrainian journalists, he says, editorial interference is a fact of life. In his case powerful supporters enabled him to fight back. "I hope other Ukrainian journalists take heart," Bonner says. Yet he concedes that most Ukrainian reporters face an uphill battle. "I'm an American. I have a contract. I put in legal protections. Most Ukrainian journalists don't have this."

"Most of the media in Ukraine is dominated by oligarchs that are close to the administration," says Roman Olearchyk, a "Kyiv Post" editorial board member and "Financial Times" stringer. "Some are not, but journalists often are far too beholden to the interests of their oligarch owners."

Political Pressure

The "Kyiv Post" interview with Agriculture Minister Mykola Prysyazhnyuk allegedly triggered controversy because of questions put to Prysyazhnyuk about his rumored ties to a powerful businessman, Yuriy Ivaniushchenko.

Critics allege that Ivaniushchenko controls a grain-trading company that is said to have locked up the lion's share of grain-export quotas established by the government in the wake of a bad harvest last year. Ivaniushchenko, who hails from the hometown of President Yanukovych and claims to know him well, also happens to hold a seat in parliament for the ruling Party of Regions.

In an interview, Ivaniushchenko denied having interests in the company. Minister Prysyazhnyuk has admitted to knowing the identity of the company's owner and promised to provide registration documents disclosing the information. He has yet to deliver them, despite repeated requests by the "Kyiv Post."

James Marson, a member of the "Kyiv Post" editorial board, says that while Bonner's return to the paper is a victory for independent journalism in Ukraine, the incident has served as a sobering reminder of the realities for Ukrainian journalists. "If Zahoor did get the phone calls that he allegedly got [from the Agriculture Ministry], then it shows what a tough environment there currently is for media owners and journalists."

Ukraine's Window To The West

Marson adds that the "Kyiv Post" plays a unique role in the Ukrainian media market because it is widely read by members of the expatriate community inside Ukraine and many others internationally who use it to follow affairs in the country. "The Ukrainian leadership seems to care what the rest of the world thinks [about Ukraine]. They know that if Ukraine starts to backslide on democracy, the West will give it a harder time."

Yuriy Lukanov, chairman of the Kyiv Independent Media Trade Union, agrees that Western publications carry more influence with government officials. "When it comes to the Western press, [the people in power] are like attentive boys. They react because they care about their reputation in the West. They're not as interested in their domestic reputation."

According to Natalia Lygachova, director of the media-monitoring company Telekritika, "The two main censorship problems in Ukraine today are [so-called] telephone censorship [or warning phone calls from high-placed officials] and self-censorship. Managers and owners know there are certain themes the people in power don't want to see covered."

"The "Kyiv Post" was able to compromise because it "plays a big role with the West and because it separates the two functions of the editorial side and the commercial side." That, she notes, is not a common arrangement in Ukraine.

Standards Kept, For Now

Readers will now be waiting to see if the "Post" is allowed to live up to its high standards. On April 27, the paper's journalists and Zahoor announced that they had found a way to patch things up. A joint statement described Zahoor as "a consistent supporter of editorial independence since he acquired the 'Kyiv Post' two years ago in what is a very testing environment for a media owner."

Zahoor also offered to sell the "Kyiv Post" to editorial staff for $1 if they can arrange financing by September 1 to cover the newspaper's $2.4 million in costs and debts.

Olearchyk of the editorial board comes to the owner's defense. "We think it's undeserving that Zahoor got caught up in this, as by and large he has been the best of owners, investing heavily and not interfering in editorial," he says. "The roots of censorship in Ukraine stem from the nation's dominant oligarchs and politicians, not Zahoor."

"Post" readers can take heart from a statement Bonner issued on the day of his reinstatement: "The message to the community is: The 'Kyiv Post' is back, stronger than ever, committed to the highest standards of journalistic independence and integrity."

That sounds promising. It remains to be seen, of course, what will happen the next time the "Post" faces pressure from the politically well-connected. The experiences of many other journalists in Ukraine do not bode well.

Alexa Chopivsky is a journalist based in Kyiv