Hunger-striking television journalists at Channel 5 in Ukraine ended their week-long fast last week after authorities unfroze the station's bank account, meeting one of the strikers' demands in regards to a libel suit launched by an opponent.
But officials of the Central Election Commission leveled fresh charges at the station this week, claiming it had violated campaign rules by broadcasting a live statement by opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, AP reported on 4 November. TV5's leading anchor, Mykola Veresen, said he was uncertain whether the public accusations would translate into legal action against the station, and characterized the move as "just another excuse for authorities to maintain their pressure," AP reported.
"We are working now because we want to put into practice that which we advocate each evening [i.e. freedom of speech]."
Channel 5 is the only independent TV station in Ukraine consistently providing access for main opposition presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko. The station remains on the air and is being closely watched by international monitors as a key indicator of the fairness and freedom of Ukrainian runoff elections on 21 November. Attacks on the station in the last year from various quarters have been characterized by station managers as being supported by the campaign of Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych, the government of President Leonid Kuchma's favored candidate in the presidential elections.
In an action perceived by both Channel 5 as well as international election monitors as politically motivated, Volodymyr Sivkovych, a businessman and parliamentary deputy, sued the station for libel, based on a broadcast claiming that he was "collaborating" with the Kuchma government. The broadcast alleged that Sivkovych had fabricated his report about Yushchenko's claim of poisoning, the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Yanukovych denied instigating the lawsuit, Ukrainian news services reported.
Channel 5 is also pushing for an emergency meeting of the National Council for TV and Radio Broadcasting to confirm that it has won the tender for Channel 48, Ukrainian Radio reported on 22 October. The striking journalists also wanted the council to enforce earlier licensing agreements with regional network to rebroadcast Channel 5 programs, which were stopped under pressure from local officials in some areas.
The independent station is owned by businessman Petro Poroshenko, a parliamentary deputy for the opposition bloc Our Ukraine. Rivals charge the channel with serving as a propaganda outlet for the opposition, but Yushchenko's campaign has complained about saturation coverage for Yanukovych on state-sponsored television and commercial stations close to the government, and insufficient access for opposition candidates on their programs.
The two candidates will face a runoff on 21 November after a tight first-round race in which Yushchenko officially finished about a percentage point behind Yanukovych, with neither man gaining the necessary 50 percent to win the first round. The exact vote counting and the feedback from voters in exit polls has now come under intense scrutiny in the run-up to the second round and television is poised to play a key role in ensuring the victory of the people's choice -- if it can stay on the air and report events freely.
Independent pollsters have found that respondents to surveys who are not required to give their names or those in face-to-face interviews support Yushchenko. One exit poll conducted by secret ballot showed Yushchenko with 45 percent of the vote and Yanukovych with 37 percent, London's "The Times" reported on 31 October. Yushchenko said the vote count conducted by his supporters showed him with 50 percent to Yanukovych's 28 percent.
Although several exit polls have been commissioned in Ukraine with the support of the United States and other foreign donors, the tradition of approaching people immediately after they have voted has not taken root with the media or the public. Voters are reluctant to speak their minds in what has become an intimidating and, at times, violent campaign atmosphere with the arrests of demonstrators and attacks on journalists. Reporters are also unwilling to face both recalcitrant voters and possible harassment from election officials or police.
A crucial factor for opposition in this government-controlled situation is whether television can reach enough people to embolden them with the belief that they can both freely chose their candidate without reprisals and that their candidate has a chance of winning.
Channel 5's hunger strike was endorsed by other Ukrainian stations and attracted international statements of solidarity as well. The International Federation of Journalists applauded their colleagues' "great courage," saying they "stand tall despite life-threatening pressures from management and their political masters," Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), said in a statement on ifex.org, an international exchange for organizations promoting media freedom. The IFJ maintains a monitoring mission in Ukraine.
The nongovernmental organization IFEX gathered other statements from Freedom House, Article 19, and Reporters Without Borders in support of some 200 journalists who petitioned for an end to government pressure on the media. On 29 October, journalists from six channels held a meeting and vowed to picket any TV station that dismissed journalists and to "take counteraction" whenever events such as mass demonstrations or police crackdown were not reported.
The journalists believe that due to their protests, coverage has improved and the government has resorted less to "obvious lies and black propaganda," ifex.org reported. For the first time on 29 October, the public channel UT-1 broadcast an interview with Yushchenko and also aired an interview with Mykola Tomenko, head of the parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Expression and Information.
The situation around Channel 5 is being compared to other countries in the region where hotly contested elections were won or lost depending on the strength of independent television to withstand pressure from leaders in power who misused their office to control the airwaves.
In Georgia in 2003, the independent station Rustavi-2 played a key role in providing alternative coverage for the public during the crucial moments of the "Rose Revolution." In previous years, Georgian lawyers and journalists battled through the courts to keep the station on the air when it was closed by the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Rustavi-2 gained enough public support by 2003 that public anger about efforts to silence it, as well as solidarity even from state-sponsored TV editors, enabled the station to pursue its mission of covering the news independently.
In Serbia in 1996, the independent coverage of a network of dozens of independent municipal stations was indispensable for getting across the message that the authorities were trying to tamper with votes from a majority in favor of removing President Slobodan Milosevic from office.
By contrast, in Belarus this October, opposition candidates had virtually no access to Belarusian national television, even as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka used the media to keep a steady stream of attacks on his rivals. While independent candidates attempted to work around this obstacle by getting air time on neighboring Russian television available to viewers in Belarus, the Belarusian regime retaliated by pressuring and even expelling critical Russian news bureaus and journalists, at times shutting off Russian TV completely. In Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, independent television stations that attempted to get started were shut down long before election day so as not to pose a threat to the government's plans to stay in power.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine, and all three major networks in Ukraine provided continuous coverage of his visit, perceived as a boost for Yanukovych in favor of the status quo.
Libel suits are a common tactic of both government officials and the opposition in Ukraine, but the government generally gains the upper hand. It is common practice to seize assets that may be required for a court judgement even before a judge renders a decision. Channel 5 continued to work while its account was frozen, fending off charges from critics that it was merely opening other accounts. Lawyers for the station said that with the station's account frozen, that would be impossible to do.
"If you think we're working just for money, you're mistaken," said one Channel 5 journalist. "We are working now because we want to put into practice that which we advocate each evening [i.e. freedom of speech]," RFE/RL reported on 22 October.
Strategically refraining from making TV appearances has become just as much a campaign tactic as ensuring saturation coverage. Yanukovych said on 4 November that he refused to hold television debates with Yushchenko, Interfax-Ukraine reported the same day. He accused Yushchenko of mudslinging throughout the campaign, and said he could not sit at the same table with him, korrespondent.net reported on 4 November. For its part, the Yushchenko campaign accused Yanukovych of "cowardice" for refusing to face the public in a debate Yushchenko believed he would win, korrespondent.net reported on 4 November. Three other channels (Novy, ICTV, and STB) have said they would broadcast the event. ICTV spokesman Stanislav Piltyai said his station was prepared to air the debates because "televised debates will be exceptionally important for Ukrainian society and for a fair and open choice by its citizens," ITAR-TASS reported on 4 November.[For full coverage of Ukraine's presidential elections, see RFE/RL's Ukraine web page.]