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Ukraine: Publisher Accuses Kuchma Government Of Censorship, Harassment

Concerns about freedom of speech are on the rise in Ukraine amid accusations that the government of President Leonid Kuchma is out to muzzle the opposition. A case that is causing disquiet is that of publishing company Taki Spravy, which accuses Ukrainian authorities of trying to close it down after it published a book about a prominent opposition figure.

Prague, 6 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian journalists, civic activists, and politicians complain that the government of President Leonid Kuchma is trying to curb freedom of speech and control the media in the country. Western governments, the Council of Europe, and various human rights organizations who have investigated the allegations largely support the accusations.

In the past, most of the complaints have dealt with newspapers, television, and radio. Now, however, the owner of a publishing company called Taki Spravy says that his case shows that books are not exempt from the Ukrainian government's desire to control freedom of speech.

Serhiy Danylov says that more than 30 raids by Ukrainian tax police have occurred since Taki Spravy published a biography of one of Kuchma's fiercest critics, former deputy prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, last February.

Some 900,000 copies of the book, "Unfulfilled Orders," have been sold, making it one of the most successful books printed since Ukrainian independence. Danylov said he has no doubt that the tax raids are a direct result of the book's publication. "The commissioning of the publishing of the book that is called 'Unfulfilled Orders' -- nothing else interested [the tax police]. That's the only thing that interested them. Who had the audacity to publish such a book?"

Danylov started Taki Spravy in 1988 and later registered it in Lithuania with a Lithuanian partner, believing the move would give his company -- one of Ukraine' top three publishing firms -- greater protection from government interference.

Danylov said the tax police accuse him of being involved in money laundering and have tried to take court action that would force the sale of his business at auction. He said that despite handing over audits and documents demanded by the tax police, they continue to carry out military-style raids intended to intimidate him and his employees. He describes one such raid: "On 6 March, there was a search. Fifteen men suddenly appeared at our business premises with two men at the doors of each office that interested them and two inside without warrants, without anything. There were armed men at the entrance and a busload of men armed with machine guns outside. The search was illegal, and they were immediately told that. They replied that if they were not immediately allowed in to search, then in five minutes every employee of the business would be lying on the ground."

Observers say investigations by the tax police have become a routine method to harass media seen as unfriendly to the government. Ukraine's complex and muddled tax and business regulations mean that almost any business can be accused of not following regulations. Danylov denies any wrongdoing. "I've got all the documents to prove that I am a publisher and printer and not somebody involved in money laundering. And they have no proof, and they can't have any proof because I have never taken part in such activities."

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun denies that the investigation against Taki Spravy is politically motivated and said that none of the investigating authorities has infringed the law.

Ivan Lozowy is the director of an independent think tank based in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Lozowy said the Taki Spravy case has attracted widespread interest. He says Ukrainian politicians have condemned the authorities' actions against Taki Spravy and that the European Union recently informed the Ukrainian government of its interest in the case.

Lozowy said most observers have no doubt the case is politically motivated and is an example of a "nayizd" -- the popular term for government pressure against a company or group that has displeased it. "It's pretty apparent that the authorities are lying through their teeth when they say that the case has nothing to do with politics or Tymoshenko's book."

Lozowy said that former Justice Minister Serhiy Holovatiy and another former deputy prime minister, Viktor Penzenyk, are among those who have championed Taki Spravy's case in the Ukrainian parliament, and that the parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Speech plans to investigate the matter. "Members of the parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Speech are sufficiently interested in such a well-known case in Ukraine that a special parliamentary committee will be set up to investigate it. Particularly in the light that this case has been dragging on and on with no end or resolution in sight because the tax authorities are simply interested -- in the view of most observers, including prominent lawyers -- in basically bringing the enterprise, the company, to its knees -- [that is] destroying it. And that's the whole political nature of this 'nayizd' or roll over or pressure brought to bear on the publishing house Taki Spravy. It's inconvenient as an independent, a truly independent, publishing house in Ukraine, and the task has been set to destroy it."

Danylov this week gave evidence at a Ukrainian parliamentary hearing on the press and censorship in the country.

Danylov said that because of the authorities' actions, his business has suffered and may be ruined. He has, therefore, begun his own court action against the tax police and is suing them for 15 million euros in compensation.

He said he is not confident of success in Ukraine so has started proceedings before a U.S. court in Washington, D.C., which arbitrates on international business disputes and can enforce payment of monetary awards against a government by impounding its assets, such as ships or aircraft. "But the court that we can directly turn to, in accordance with an agreement between Lithuania and Ukraine, is the court in Washington created by the Washington Convention of 1965 called the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes. And if Ukraine does not comply with the decision of this court, it will regret not doing so for a long, long time."

Danylov said his life may be in danger because of his actions and that he is taking precautions for his safety. He said his best protection -- and the best hope for saving his company -- is publicity from the international media about his case.