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Ukraine: Journalists Form Independent Union To Fight Censorship, Coercion

Ukrainian journalists have for years complained of government censorship and interference in their work. This weekend, journalists for the first time took practical steps to oppose that censorship and held a meeting to organize an independent union.

Kyiv, 7 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian journalists, fed up with what they say has been years of censorship and interference by the government, met on 5 October and agreed to form an independent union to combat official coercion.

More than 110 journalists, many of them well-known names from Ukraine's newspapers, television, and radio channels, and representing media from across the political spectrum, met in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to set out the basis for the new organization.

Censorship and official meddling in journalists' work has long been an issue in Ukraine. The journalists attending the meeting say Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his administration have been making increased efforts to exert control over a media already subject to interference.

Last month, an opposition member of parliament handed out copies of what appeared to be a secret memorandum sent regularly to media editors detailing precisely what politically related issues to cover and which ones to drop.

Editors at state-owned media tend to take direct orders from the presidential administration, regardless of such memoranda. Owners of private television, radio, and newspaper companies, meanwhile, are kept in line by the threat of having their licenses revoked or being targeted by the tax police or other state bureaucratic bodies.

Many individual journalists have reported being subject to intimidation or threats. Some five journalists have been murdered since Ukrainian independence -- most of the cases remain unsolved -- and many others have been subjected to beatings.

Officials from the United States, the European Union, and Ukraine's political opposition often voice concern about media freedoms. They have particularly criticized coverage of elections when the authorities use all pressure at their disposal to eliminate positive coverage of political opponents.

This weekend's meeting about forming an independent journalists' union was hosted by Andriy Schevchenko, a television journalist and presenter who resigned two weeks ago in disgust at what he called official meddling and censorship.

Tens of other speakers discussed how official interference in their work is increasing. They said that individual journalists trying to stand up to official pressure were often fired or intimidated into submission and that a union was the best way to protect themselves.

The meeting concluded with an agreement that its participants would first demand talks with the authorities to discuss the attempts at censorship, which they say contravene Ukraine's Constitution. Strikes could follow if the talks lead nowhere.

Schevchenko said that he was pleased with the large attendance at the meeting and said he hoped even more journalists will take part in the new organization's future work. "I know that only the top people have come today because the disaffection in journalists' circles with what's happening is very large. Therefore, I believe that in this hall we can have not just a hundred people, but thousands of journalists who want to change things for the better," Schevchenko said.

Schevchenko believes the government will agree to dialogue. "I think that the government must agree to a dialogue with us because this situation cannot carry on endlessly. The situation is such that the journalistic system is still carrying out to an extent the instructions of the government, but if you look at almost every journalistic workplace, the reserves of trust toward the government have almost been exhausted," Schevchenko said.

The meeting's participants decided that apart from tackling the censorship issue through talks with the government, the new organization will provide legal and financial help to journalists who lose their jobs as a result of resisting official pressure.

Attendees elected a coordinating committee, which will officially register the new union and will plan its work. Members did not decide on a final name for the union. A journalists' union already exists in Ukraine, but is generally dismissed as a holdover from Soviet times, when the media was an integral part of the government propaganda system.

Participants also elected a separate strike committee whose job will be to negotiate issues and to organize strike action if necessary.

One of those elected to the coordinating committee is well-known television journalist Yevhen Khlibovytskyy. He explained why he thinks it is essential that journalists act now. "There's an anecdote about that one time a woman serves her husband a burned breakfast, and he gathers up his things and leaves her. He doesn't leave because she served him a burned breakfast, but because it was the last straw -- there had been plenty that had gone on beforehand. And, in the same way, the recent attempts to exert pressure are not something unique. They've happened before, but they have been so cynical that we simply cannot allow ourselves not to oppose them because we understand that if we do not stand up for our rights now, then tomorrow this deprivation of freedoms will be institutionalized and legitimized, and the opportunities to oppose it will have disappeared. We will simply lose the fight for the mass media and for freedom of speech, and so this is, in practice, the last chance we have," Khlibovytskyy said. "The most important issue is that of journalistic standards. We just want to be able to do our work. In this situation, we do not want to behave as part of the political opposition or of the government or other political structures. We simply want to create a system in which we can, without hindrance, carry out our professional obligations."

Another member of the coordinating committee, television presenter and news journalist Danylo Yanevskyy, said the meeting marks an important watershed in the way journalists are reacting to censorship. He said that there had been previous discussions among journalists about setting up an independent union, but they had never gathered enough support. "This is the first time during the existence of independent Ukraine, the first time in the last 11 years, that journalists who belong to different media -- private, state -- have come together and formulated a common perspective on a whole array of painful issues associated with the mass media in Ukraine," Yanevskyy said.

He said that government pressure on journalists had galvanized them into action. "The government has gone to the limits in its attempts to pressure those mass-media organizations that until recently had the strength to offer different points of view. And the politics of this government are based on trying to exclude those political forces, which represent no less than half of Ukrainian society. Journalists today demanded the right not to be interfered with in reporting on the views of various political groups about political processes that are taking place in Ukraine or in the rest of the world," Yanevskyy said.

The meeting adopted a resolution on objectives they want to pursue initially, including: asking for parliamentary hearings with the participation of the presidential administration to investigate government censorship, demanding that the prosecutor-general begin criminal investigations into government attempts at censorship, and calling for authorities to renew efforts to trace and bring to justice those who have murdered journalists.

Yanevskyy thinks that the government will feel threatened by the journalists' stance and may fear that the union will cooperate with the political opposition in defying the Kuchma government. "I think that this is a part of the threat [the government] feels. They cannot allow the unification of journalists on the side of the political establishment in Ukraine that opposes today's government. [Those in the government] cannot allow a united front [of journalists and opposition politicians], and therefore, they will believe that they will have to compromise with the journalists and introduce some cosmetic steps to diminish the increased tension that today increases between the government on one side and journalists, as a social group, on the other," Yanevskyy said.

This weekend's meeting came after journalists at Ukraine's second-largest news agency threatened to strike last week over censorship. They said stories judged to be critical of President Leonid Kuchma were not allowed to run.

The journalists at the UNIAN news agency said stories about opposition figures were being changed or eliminated by the company's new director, Vasyl Yurychko, the former editor of a pro-Kuchma newspaper, "Prezidentskii vestnik," who was appointed to UNIAN last month.

Yurychko called the dispute a "misunderstanding" and said: "There can be no talk about censorship. UNIAN should be an objective agency and go about its business covering all political forces."

UNIAN's political editor, Albina Trubenkova, said the standoff ended for the time being after Yurychko signed a declaration with journalists on 3 October in which he promised not to apply censorship and to halt threats to fire the scores of staff members involved in the protest.

The official in charge of information policy in Kuchma's presidential administration, Serhiy Vasyliev, also denied there was any censorship at UNIAN and said the conflict was a "theatrical act" instigated by opposition politicians calling for Kuchma's resignation.

The journalists gathered at Saturday's meeting considered including among their demands the dismantling of Vasyliev's department. But the issue for now has been passed to the coordinating committee, which later this week will determine the date for its first meeting.