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Ukraine: Media Fail Fairness Test

By Tiffany Carlsen

Kyiv, 2 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's media failed to present fair and unbiased coverage of the parliamentary elections, according to a preliminary report by the independent media research group, European Institute for the Media (EMI). EMI representatives presented their findings this week, as votes were still being counted. The EMI survey involved two months of monitoring Ukraine's television stations and newspapers on their coverage of elections to parliament in seven cities throughout Ukraine.

The report said that the "integrity of news and editorial programs was comprised to such an extent that in many news items the distinction between political advertising and news coverage was blurred, as was the distinction between news and editorial comment."

Gillian McCormack, EMI monitor and media expert on the former Soviet Union said, "editors and directors didn't think it was necessary to give instructions about fair and impartial coverage."

EMI's research showed that, while there were far more non-state media outlets for candidates to reach the electorate in this year's election compared to 1994, there were other obstacles that prevented voters from getting information about the candidates and issues. EMI specifically cited the high cost of political advertising, saying that it prevented poorer parties from taking part in media campaigning. "It shows that the media was guided by commercial interests, rather than civic consideration," said McCormack.

Newspaper editors, TV company directors and journalists -- running as parliamentary candidates -- also affected independent, unbiased coverage said McCormack.

Television was found to be the most influential means of communication during the campaign. According to EMI officials, most of the national television companies, which had an obligation to remain neutral in their coverage, focused their attention on "centrist parties, which were not opposed to the 'party of power'" They had an overall positive promotion of the pro-government People's Democratic Party (PDP) of Ukraine, while having an overall negative bias towards the Hromada party of opposition leader and former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko. A negative bias was also noted against the Communist Party and the Socialist and Peasant Bloc.

The report indicated that private television stations also showed partiality to particular political parties.

Ukraine's newspapers had particular biases as well, mainly due to their financial ties to certain political parties. EMI's research suggests that, in some cases, a great deal more coverage was given to some parties -- and, that this coverage was overwhelmingly negative.

The EMI report said, "Most papers are unable to fund themselves through advertising, and require outside financial support, which political parties were too happy to provide. In these circumstances, independence usually remains a fuzzy ideal rather than a practical objective," says the report.

However, the report indicated that financial backing by political parties was not the most direct threat to the Ukrainian press, but, rather, pressure from the presidential administration and the government, or in regions, the local authorities.

Several papers linked to opposition candidates were closed down by the government.

In Lviv, western Ukraine, where nationalist sentiment is strongest, the EMI report says many local papers were discouraged for covering the Communist Party, while editorials on the elections favored the Rukh party (which Western news agencies describe as moderately nationalist) and the pro-government People's Democratic Party. The report also criticized Ukraine's media and the Central Elections Committee (CEC) for failing to inform voters about the new voting procedures, or the various kinds of ballots they would have to fill out. EMI said elections authorities "had neither the financial resources, nor the expertise, nor the power to deal adequately with the enforcement of the election law."

However, EMI found that the level of professionalism of both the political parties and the media increased from four years ago. "Political parties have become better at the business of campaigning," said Dr. Margot Light, EMI monitor and professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

Just last week, in its annual report on journalists and the media, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that, over the past few years, press freedom conditions in Ukraine have gone from promising to precarious, if not dangerous. The CPJ report said that although the number and variety of media outlets has continued to grow, attempts to manipulate their content by the administration of President Leonid Kuchma, his political rivals, local officials, and related business interests have caused "a profound erosion of press freedom in the country." The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists is a private, non-profit group dedicated to promoting freedom of the press worldwide and protecting journalists.