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Analysis: Ukrainian Media Not Playing Fair In Presidential Campaign

Oleksandr Zinchenko, head of the presidential election campaign of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, said on 25 August that the authorities have taken a "consistent position" to pressure mass media in Ukraine. "This pressure is increasing and becoming more and more cynical and severe; this is not simply administrative resource [in use], this is a strategy," Zinchenko stressed. According to him, only a change of government may improve the situation with the freedom of expression in Ukraine.

Even if Zinchenko's assessment of the media situation in Ukraine is somewhat exaggerated, the past eight weeks of the ongoing presidential campaign have brought a great deal of evidence to support his point of view. Regular monitoring of the media behavior in the presidential campaign by Ukrainian NGOs and international organizations unambiguously shows that the Ukrainian authorities spare no effort to shape public opinion in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and miss virtually no opportunity to broadcast a negative image of his main presidential rival, Our Ukraine leader Yushchenko.

Two months ago, two Ukrainian NGOs, the Common Space Association and the Equal Possibilities Committee, started an extensive media-monitoring project, "Ukrainian Monitor -- For a Conscious Choice." The two organizations focused their attention on election-related reports in 12 programs on six national television channels and 93 programs on regional television channels, as well as on those in 10 national and 126 regional newspapers. Their findings are being published in regular weekly releases at the website.

The most influential media in Ukraine are television channels, so Ukrainian television -- both state-controlled channels and those owned by oligarchs -- are the focus of attention of most media watchdogs. All but one of Ukraine's television stations are controlled and/or influenced by either the government or oligarchs supporting Yanukovych's presidential bid. Yushchenko's failure to win the support of some of Ukraine's private media moguls for the 2004 presidential campaign is widely seen as his major shortcoming.

Presidential-administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk controls the most-watched state channel, UT-1. Furthermore, in his capacity as leader of the Social Democratic Party-united, Medvedchuk wields influence over two other popular channels -- 1+1 and Inter. Viktor Pinchuk (President Leonid Kuchma's son-in-law) and the Dnipropetrovsk oligarchic clan with which Pinchuk is associated control three television channels -- ICTV, STB, and New Channel. Yushchenko has only one friendly television station, Channel 5, which is owned by Our Ukraine businessman Petro Poroshenko. All of these channels -- plus the Donetsk-based Ukrayina television owned by oligarch Rynat Akhmetov, Yanukovych's closest ally -- are monitored under the "Ukrainian Monitor" project.

Since Yanukovych and Yushchenko lead in the polls and are generally expected to score the best results on 31 October, it is no wonder that the overwhelming majority of airtime on television and space in newspapers is devoted to their presidential bids, at the expense of other 24 candidates. "Ukrainian Monitor" discovered the reporting pattern that has not undergone any essential changes over the past eight weeks -- UT-1 and the oligarchic channels provide either positive or neutral coverage of Yanukovych and predominantly negative coverage of Yushchenko. Additionally, Yanukovych gets far more airtime than Yushchenko. The pattern is basically repeated at the regional television level.

The above-mentioned reporting pattern is somewhat reversed on the pro-Yushchenko Channel 5, whose programs are broadcast over some 40 percent of Ukrainian territory. Channel 5, according to "Ukrainian Monitor," provides mainly negative coverage of Yanukovych and positive or neutral of Yushchenko, even though its reports are more balanced those on other monitored channels. Channel 5 has not gone unpunished for this coverage policy -- it was temporarily taken off the air in several Ukrainian regions by rebroadcasters that usually cited various technical reasons for the move. Channel 5 claimed the reasons were political.

By comparing the content of newscasts on some oligarchic television channels, "Ukrainian Monitor" concluded that they use "temnyks" -- secret instructions supplied to Ukrainian media outlets by the presidential administration to tell journalists on what issues they are to report during a particular week and in what manner. One of the most glaring examples of this kind of state control over media was a temnyk quoted by some Ukrainian print media in early July, in relation to the coverage of a pro-Yushchenko's rally on 4 July: "When covering the event, do not give long shots of the rally and shots of the crowd; show only groups of drunk people with socially inappropriate or deviant behavior." Not surprisingly, perhaps, the rally was attended by unidentified individuals who distributed vodka for free.

A similar, even if less striking bias in favor of Yanukovych can be observed in the coverage of the election campaign by Ukrainian nationwide newspapers. Most major nationwide newspapers are openly partisan in their election preferences: "Fakty i komentari," "Segodnya," Kyivskyy telehraf," "Kievskie vedomosti," and "2000" favor Yanukovych; "Vechirni visti" and "Ukrayina moloda" back Yushchenko; "Silski visti" support Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz's presidential bid.

Several independent or opposition-leaning regional newspapers -- including "Ostrov" in Donetsk and "Luhanchany" and "Na dnyakh" in Luhansk -- have had problems with finding a printing house. Earlier this month, the tax authorities froze the bank accounts of the Mega-Plus publishing house, which printed "Vechirni visti," a newspaper linked to opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko, who supports Yushchenko's presidential bid.

Looking at Ukraine's media behavior from a historical perspective, it should be noted that the first large-scale -- and successful -- attempt at muzzling the media in a biased manner was made in the 1999 presidential election campaign, when the government and media tycoons worked in concert to prevent Moroz from reaching the runoff with Kuchma and vilify Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, Kuchma's rival in the second round, as an agent of "Red revenge."

The 2002 parliamentary elections were also marred by biased and partisan media behavior, even though it did not look so condemnable as that in 1999, because there were many more political parties and options involved. In 2002, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine managed to win the election in a nationwide constituency, in which seats were contested under a party-list proportional system.

However, this year's election -- apparently because of the clear-cut Yanukovych-Yushchenko choice facing Ukrainians -- seems to have driven the authorities to interfere in media election coverage on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Now Yushchenko needs to make a considerable greater campaign effort than in 2002 if he wants to offset his media handicap and persuade Ukrainians that they must choose him, not the pro-government candidate.