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Ukraine: Observers Look At Media After Presidential Vote

International media and human rights organizations widely denounced the performance of Ukraine's media during recent presidential elections. RFE/RL Kyiv correspondent Lily Hyde looks at what the future holds for the country's media, perceived internationally as simply a mouthpiece for powerful interests.

Kyiv, 2 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian presidential elections held in two rounds in late October and mid November focused world attention on the country's media. International watchdogs from the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Institute for Media all concluded that Ukraine's television, radio and print media were overwhelmingly biased in favor of one or another candidate. They therefore argued that Ukrainians were denied access to objective information.

Observers noted and condemned government intimidation of the media in the form of tax and fire inspections and law suits, and lamented the domination of oligarchs who own much of the media and use it to further their political ends.

Now that the furor is over, Ukrainian journalists and long-term analysts have been left to pick up the pieces. And while some welcome the recent international attention, others think the several reports produced by human rights and freedom of speech watchdogs were exaggerated.

The latter view is held by Taras Kuzmov from Internews, an internationally-funded training project for television and radio journalists. Kuzmov says all the reports focused overwhelmingly on Kyiv-based media and ignored Ukraine's extensive regional media outlets. He tells RFE/RL that most regional television and radio stations were not approached either by government officials or by presidential candidates, and offered a wider range of views.

"I think the reports made by foreign observers highlighting pressure on Ukrainian mass media are not correct in some aspects. They don't analyze the extensive mass media in the regions which would present the situation differently, if not the candidates, then society. Without question there were some precedents of pressure on TV companies, but there were many stations that didn't experience any such pressure."

Vadym Denysenko, chief editor of the national TV channel STB, said the reports also did not provide sufficient explanations for their monitoring results, which recorded the air time accorded to each candidate and whether the coverage was positive or negative.

"Basically, channel X says 99 percent positive about [incumbent president Leonid] Kuchma and 70 percent negative about [the challenger, Petro] Symonenko. I don't see the mechanism, they didn't explain how they calculated these numbers. It's like I'd say this woman is beautiful and this woman is not beautiful -- it's my personal subjective view, nothing more, until I explain my conclusions. And from this point of view I can't absolutely trust all these reports."

Nevertheless, few would deny that the state of the Ukrainian media leaves much to be desired. But many say that to blame only government interference is an over simplification. According to Denysenko, the single biggest problem facing STB is the country's economic decline.

That's a change of tune from prior to the elections, when STB complained loudly of what it called government repression when its bank accounts were frozen by tax inspectors. STB's cause was taken up by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and became an example of state coercion for the Council of Europe and the OSCE.

After a management reshuffle at STB, and the unfreezing of bank accounts, the complaints have disappeared. Denysenko is now keen to downplay any problems with the government. He told RFE/RL that all difficulties had now been solved, and that STB had been able to continue objective coverage of news in the month up to the election and since.

But others see STB's new tone as a form of self-censorship. Kuzmov of Internews says that it is a tactic that allows Kyiv-based media like STB to remain in business. He says these media outlets are overwhelmingly dependent on big business, and the interests controlling them usually back the ruling power. He says if journalists tried to be completely objective in their coverage, the outlet would simply go out of business, so Ukrainian journalists choose pragmatism over idealism.

"I think the Ukrainian mass media doesn't know what direct political censorship is. Instead, self-censorship exists. One journalist got to the heart of it when he said Ukrainian journalists have freedom of speech, but they have the wisdom not to use it."

IREX ProMedia is a sister organization to Internews, also promoting free media in Ukraine. IREX ProMedia's Tim O'Connor advocates ownership by foreign media companies as one possible way of improving standards because a foreign company is more interested in profit than politics and can bring international experience. He says two newspapers in regions of Ukraine have already been bought by a Norwegian company and are doing well.

O'Connor says that the poor pay given most journalists is another problem. He says Ukrainian journalists are so poorly paid that some take extra money to write articles in favor of political candidates. But O'Connor says the professionalism of many journalists in Ukraine is also undermined by the Soviet traditions they grew up in, which allotted a different role to the press.

"[Journalists] very often see their role as someone who is responsible for sifting through information and then telling their readers or viewers what to think about it. They don't actually give them the information and let them make up their own minds, they see themselves as the analysts...which is very much a continuation of the old traditions."

O'Connor says Ukrainian journalists "absolutely did not try to be independent" during the elections. But he adds the Ukrainian public needs to become more discerning too, and make greater demands on its media.

Kuzmov of Internews says the Ukrainian media has a lot of talented young people working in it, but says the level of professionalism is still low. He says it is a question of 'critical mass.'

Kuzmov predicts that in time, young journalists with new ideas will be so prevalent in Ukraine's media that they will be able to change the whole system.