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Ukraine: Media Policies Reveal Divergent Values

By Marta Dyczok (RFE/RL) May 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A look at Ukraine’s mass media provides interesting insight into the ongoing political standoff in Ukraine. Because the country finally has a relatively free media, the behavior of the various political actors is reasonably visible. Their actions toward media, in turn, reveal the divergence in political values that are at the heart of the crisis.

The current situation is very much a continuation of the political struggle from 2004. One of the slogans of the Orange Revolution was "No More Lies!" (Ni Brekhni!), and since coming to power Yushchenko has started to deliver on this promise.

However, after the Party of Regions of Yushchenko's rival, Viktor Yanukovych, won at the parliamentary polls in spring of 2006, they and their coalition partners have been enacting a creeping coup, slowly moving back into positions of power and reintroducing the old way of doing things. Nowhere is this more visible than in the media.

Divergent Political Values

So the real question is: what kind of relationship does the government have with the media? Yushchenko and Yanukovych appear to have very different ideas about the relationship between media and the state.

Since becoming president, Yushchenko has adopted a liberal approach to media policy, with minimal state intervention beyond general regulatory measures and overseeing a slow process of removing the state from media ownership. He has allowed media to write, print, broadcast, and post whatever they wish, and this has allowed freedom of speech to flourish for the first time in the country’s recent history.

Despite facing constant criticism from the media, Yushchenko has not taken any steps to reintroduce state-sponsored censorship, and this is the behavior of a democratic leader. Where Yushchenko falls short, as with so many other issues, is in doing little to introduce or facilitate structural changes which would help consolidate these gains.

Prime Minister Yanukovych and his coalition partners are taking advantage of this and gradually moving to reestablish control -- the creeping coup. Their behavior toward media suggests that their political culture remains stuck in pre-2004 semi-authoritarianism.

A telling incident occurred shortly after the Party of Regions began their political comeback. On July 12, 2006, only a few months after the elections, Party of Regions lawmaker Oleh Kalashnikov attacked two journalists just outside parliament.

Oleksandr Moroz has sued one website six times (epa)

The journalists, Marharyta Sytnyk and Volodymyr Novosad from STB television, had the audacity to film him near the Verkhovna Rada. Despite a major outcry from journalists, Kalashnikov faced no consequences -- he continues to sit in parliament and make statements about the importance of constitutional government and the rule of law.

Since the Kalashnikov incident, attacks on the media, some physical, have increased. A recent example took place on March 30, 2007, when Crimean journalists Olena Mekhanyk and Oleksandr Khomenko from the Chornomorka TV station were attacked as they filmed coalition supporters boarding trains headed for Kyiv.

Kuchma-era tactics such as legal actions, harassment, and other forms of intimidation have been on the rise. The pioneering "Ukrayinska pravda” website has been sued six times over the last six months by Parliamentary Speaker Oleksandr Moroz.

Renat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and an influential member of the Party of Regions, recently launched legal action against the popular website "Obozrevatel," after its reporter Tetyana Chornovil found some old neighbors from his home town of Oktyabrskoye and published a series of stories about his youth.

The newspaper "2000" ran what turned out to be a fabricated story, which falsely quoted Renate Wohlwend, rapporteur with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as saying Yushchenko's April 2 decree dissolving parliament was unconstitutional and he should resign.

Equally troubling was a remark to the press by Vadym Dolhanov, the husband of Constitutional Court judge Syuzanna Stanik, who was dismissed from her post by Yushchenko as the court was considering the legality of the president's April 2 decree. Responding to a question from a female journalist about the couple's property holdings, Dolhanov responded by asking the journalist what kind of underwear she was wearing.

The Yanukovych team has also slowly been trying to reestablish a structural control over the media. After the 2006 parliamentary elections, the majority coalition (the Communists, Socialists, and Party of Regions) appointed their own loyalists, Eduard Prutnyk and Ihor Chaban, to head the State Committee for TV and Radio Broadcasting.

On 20 March 2007, the state-controlled Ukrainian National Television Channel 1 canceled its only political debate program, "Toloka." This came one day after Yulia Tymoshenko and Our Ukraine leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko were guests on the show and had positive comments from 80 percent of callers.

There was also a coup attempt in the parliamentary freedom of speech committee, which is led by Tymoshenko ally and lawmaker Andriy Shevchenko. Part of the committee met without him and elected Party of Regions lawmaker Olena Bondarenko acting head on April 26.

Journalists -- Still A Mixed Picture

What has been the reaction of journalists to all of this? At best, their behavior can be described as mixed. Although a truly independent media does not exist anywhere, Ukraine’s media has longer than some to go toward this ideal. Despite the improvement in working conditions with the end of state-sponsored censorship, overall the professionalism of many journalists remains woefully low.

The basic elements of professionalism, autonomy, distinct professional norms and a public service orientation are largely missing. Only one media outlet,, bothered to check the source of the Strasbourg disinformation story -- most simply reprinted what was fed to them.

Many journalists still lack a clear understanding of the role media plays in a democratic society, and despite improvements, the media is still not achieving its main purpose of providing clear, balanced and in-depth information and analysis of major events. Those who work for coalition-controlled media outlets continue to print and broadcast what they are told. Ukraina TV's unflinching adherence to the Party of Regions party line is one demonstration of the extent of this problem.

A new tendency -- noted by Olha Herasymyuk, a former TV personality and current Our Ukraine lawmaker -- is that journalists are increasingly avoiding difficult topics relating to the coalition.

“I am noticing that journalists are refraining from critical tones when reporting on the coalition or government activities,” she said during a recent interview. “It's clear that they are becoming increasingly frightened.” Given the renewed pressures they are facing, this return to self-censorship is hardly surprising.

There is, nonetheless, some good news and reason for optimism. Great strides have been made in developing investigative journalism, a genre practically nonexistent in the era of former President Leonid Kuchma. Channel 5, the website "Obozrevatel" and STB TV all conducted independent investigations into allegations of corruption among Constitutional Court judges when this latest crisis broke.

Analytical programs have also improved, with two shows really standing out: "Ya Tak Dumayu" (This is What I Think) hosted by Anna Bezulyk on Studio 1+1 and "Five Kopeks" (best translated as Your Two Cents) with Roman Chayka on Channel 5.

To some degree, innovation is also on the rise. On April 13, a group of national and regional TV stations staged a so-called “Day Without Politicians on TV," where they deliberately avoided inviting the usual talking heads and provided their viewers with an alternative perspective on the news. It seems that the political culture and professionalism of journalists is changing, but to a large degree continues to reflect the major political divisions in society.

Western Reflections

Two final points concern the international dimension. Yanukovych and his coalition partners are appealing to Western public opinion, despite renewing pressures on media at home. Socialist leader and presidential opponent Oleksandr Moroz published his thoughts on the crisis on the pages of the "International Herald Tribune," not "Izvestiya" -- a huge change from 2004, when their focus was on Moscow.

The tone of Western reporting on Yanukovych and the coalition has changed, too. On April 22, a "Daily Telegraph" article described the Ukrainian prime minister as “a former weight lifter and onetime racing driver,” who speaks "in the soft baritone that accompanies his deceptively mild manner” when he explains that "'the Ukrainian people have an old democratic tradition.'” No mention was made of his criminal record, the well-reported falsification of the 2004 election, or the creeping coup d’etat which precipitated the current crisis.

The struggle between these two political blocs, and their very different political cultures, is likely to be ongoing. The degree and nature of state intervention into the work of the media will remain an important indicator of just how far democratic consolidation has progressed in Ukraine.

(Marta Dyczok is an associate professor in history and political science at the University of Western Ontario. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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