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Analysis: Ukrainian Government Sends Mixed Signals Over Media

Yushchenko wants to improve the media, but doesn't say how he will do that (file photo) President Viktor Yushchenko told a Council of Europe conference on media policies held in Kyiv last week that his government wants to make the media sector in Ukraine "open, transparent, and competitive."

He did not explain specifically how the government intends to achieve this goal. However, he made an intriguing and cryptic comparison between the media sector under the current government and that under his predecessor, President Leonid Kuchma. The comment itself may serve as a clue to these intentions once the government makes some specific steps toward the media.

According to Yushchenko, in the Kuchma era Ukraine's "information day" was started by a "group" led by former presidential-administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, which "gave instructions what should be said and how." Yushchenko apparently referred to the infamous practice of "temnyky" -- unsigned prompts sent on a daily basis by the presidential administration to media outlets, primarily state-run and private television and radio stations, to tell journalists what events to cover and what points of view on reported events to publicize.
Yushchenko appears to have very quickly forgotten his solemn declaration during the Orange Revolution that he and the media are "on the same side in the battle for freedom."

As regards the present day, Yushchenko said the country's media sector is essentially "divided between three families." "We see and understand this problem, and we are ready to find ways to resolve it," he noted. "Time will pass and you'll see that Ukraine's information space will become open and transparent." He did not elaborate.

A similar message about the media sector in Ukraine was sent by Yushchenko somewhat earlier, during a congress in Kyiv on 5 March to set up the Our Ukraine People's Union, a pro-government political party. "[In Ukraine], 288 broadcasting licenses belong to one man, and we know the first and last letters of his name," Yushchenko said. He did not solve this rebus but Ukrainian commentators figured out that he meant Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk.

"The entire meter [wavelength] band was given to another clan!" Yushchenko said, proposing another riddle, to which Ukrainian journalists gave the answer "Medvedchuk." "In the east, 188 media licenses were given to one company!" Yushchenko continued, and journalists identified this company as Rynat Akhmetov, Eduard Prutnyk, and Hennadiy Vasylyev -- the so-called "Donetsk clan" of Ukrainian oligarchs. "I do not want my kids to be taught by the media formed in this way," Yushchenko added, and this time everybody was at a loss as to what to think or conjecture.

"We had the National Council [for Television and Radio, NRPTR], which distributed licenses, we had the Prosecutor-General's Office. This means we had more than only one structure to watch that the information sphere was competitive and diverse," Yushchenko concluded his references to the media at the congress. Is he not suggesting that he wants a wide-scale redistribution of media licenses by the NRPTR and/or prosecutors? Media licenses in Ukraine are usually granted by the NRPTR for five-year periods. Of course, if prosecutors find out that some of them were granted unlawfully, they may expire somewhat sooner. What exactly is Yushchenko up to?

That the Yushchenko government is not happy with the current Ukrainian media has been confirmed by a different source. By the end of February, Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, Deputy Prime Ministers Roman Bezsmertnyy and Mykola Tomenko, Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz signed an open letter to compatriots, politicians, and journalists, asking them to stop waging "information wars" and "discrediting" the current authorities. The letter was reportedly originated by Moroz, Yushchenko's ally in the ruling coalition.

"The Ukrainian reality is now characterized by not only anticipated transformations but also information wars," the letter reads. "Some politicians, perhaps considering themselves to be the main authors of [Yushchenko's] victory in the presidential race, are again trying to introduce intrigues, '[media] raids,' and media killers in political life."

Some Ukrainian commentators have deemed the letter unnecessary and silly, but some have made more upsetting conclusions, arguing that Yushchenko's government, like that of Kuchma, does not like media criticism and wants to get rid of it, for now by way of public persuasion and appeal. If this is actually so, then Yushchenko appears to have very quickly forgotten his solemn declaration during the Orange Revolution that he and the media are "on the same side in the battle for freedom."

Deputy Prime Minister Tomenko on 13 March seemed to make an attempt at diluting the unfavorable reaction of Ukrainian journalists to the letter when he called for "professional criticism" of the government in the media.

"When you present commentaries by experts, we want professional criticism," Tomenko said. "Because [you now present] people from the Ukraine's Regions, Communist Party, Social Democratic Party-united parliamentary groups, who voted for a [bad] 2005 budget, but now they tell stories how they have fought for [higher] social standards and how we [allegedly] are not fighting [for those standards]. This is not fair," he said.

"I watch commentaries on national channels by a politician who enjoys just 0.7 percent public trust and who teaches [us] how to live," Tomenko complained in what seemed to be a reference to Medvedchuk. "So I have a question: Perhaps you should also show a different point of view, shouldn't you?"

Taken at face value, Tomenko's admonition is hardly anything more than an appeal for objective journalism. But combined with the above-mentioned, more or less irate official pronouncements regarding the media sector in Ukraine, it can also serve as an indication that the government and the media may now be not exactly on the same side, and perhaps not even in the same battle.

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