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Ukraine: Verdict Against Newspaper Threatens Press Freedom

By Tiffany Carlsen and Katya Gorchinskaya

Kyiv, 9 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A Kyiv court last week ordered the opposition daily Kievskie Vedomosti to pay punishing libel damages (5 million hryvna or more than $2 million) to an ally of President Leonid Kuchma. If unable to pay, the paper will have to close down.

But there has been almost no reaction from the journalistic community. Only scattered voices have been heard about the case, which in the eyes of many represents yet another assault on press freedom by the government.

"There has been no reaction from any sort of journalistic union and that is very surprising," said Volodymyr Mostovy, editor of the weekly Zerkalo Nedeli. "This is precisely the moment that solidarity between journalists should be manifested through a statement that speaks out against such actions."

Mostovy said that the Starokyivsky District Court's ruling was a "purely political action directed at closing the paper" by forcing it into "an unsustainable economic condition."

That echoed the comments made last week by Yevhen Yakhunov, editor of the Kievskie Vedomosti, who also said that the court decision was "a political action."

But these were isolated comments. Last weekend (June 6) several journalists were given awards by Kuchma in a ceremony at Mariyinsky Palace marking Press Day. "Freedom of speech helps the development of democracy," the president said, adding that journalism is a "serious weapon" in politics but should be used with "objectivity and independence."

Kievskie Vedomosti is standing by its series of reports in which it alleged that Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko had bought a luxury $115,000 Mercedes with money from a fund for the families of slain policemen. Kravchenko filed suit last year after the paper had first printed the allegation. The paper plans to appeal the ruling.

Four months ago (February) another Kyiv opposition daily, Vseukrainskie Vedomosti, was forced to shut down after a court ordered it to pay Hr 3.5 million ($1.8 million) in damages to a pro-Kuchma businessman and politician. At that time, however, many journalists openly argued that the government was trying to gag opposition in the run-up to the March parliamentary elections.

Now, Yakhunov is saying, newspapers have not rushed to the defense of Kievskie Vedomosti for purely commercial reasons. "Mass media is separated into different camps," he said. "Even those on friendly terms with us might not support us because we are competitors. However, I want to warn them that the repression has started, and it won't stop unite in common support."

Kievskie Vedomosti attorney Viktor Nikazakov sees apathy as the main reason for silence. "Those papers that might want to scream about the decision don't do it because they know it won't accomplish anything," he said "and more and more newspapers are working for the president anyway."

Foreign observers of Ukrainian media say that the case represents a troubling pattern of opposition newspapers falling afoul of the law.

In two recent cases, the newspaper Polityka had its bank accounts frozen by a local tax administrator for failure to submit documents in time and the newspaper Pravda Ukrainy faced similar close scrutiny from government inspectors.

"Cases like this [Kievskie Vedomosti] are worrisome because they show how one-sided the libel and defamation laws are in Ukraine," said Tim O'Connor, Kyiv resident advisor of ProMedia, a U.S.-financed non-governmental organization supporting international press reform. He said holes in Ukrainian press law were partly to blame for the decision, with plaintiffs currently not required to prove any actual damage in court. He also said there is no legal distinction between press scrutiny of a private citizen and public official. "Certainly public officials should be scrutinized closely, no matter what country you're in," O'Connor said.

Irina Polykova, regional office director for the European Institute for the Media, said that Ukraine lacks both courts and lawyers experienced in handling press freedom issues. And she criticized the fact that legislation places no limit on the amount of damages a plaintiff can seek from a media outlet.

Kievskie Vedomosti attorney Nikazakov said more public pressure should be put on lawmakers. "The media should press Parliament to change laws so that they defend themselves against high-ranking officials," he said. "Parliament probably would pass this kind of law just to spite the president."