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Media Matters: November 8, 2004

8 November 2004, Volume 4, Number 21
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Hunger-striking television journalists at Channel 5 in Ukraine ended their weeklong fast last week after authorities unfroze the station's bank account, meeting one of their demands regarding a libel lawsuit launched by an opponent. But officials of the Central Elections Commission leveled fresh charges at the station this week, claiming it had violated campaign rules by broadcasting live a statement by opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko," AP reported on 4 November. TV5's leading anchor Mykola Veresen said he was uncertain whether the public accusations would translate into legal action against the station, and characterized the move as "just another excuse for authorities to maintain their pressure," AP reported.

Channel 5 is the only independent television station in Ukraine consistently providing access for main opposition candidate Victor Yushchenko. The station remains on the air and is being closely watched by international monitors as a key indicator of the fairness and freedom of Ukrainian runoff election on 21 November. Attacks on the station in the last year from various quarters have been characterized as station managers as supported by the campaign of Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych, the administration of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's favored candidate in the presidential election.

In an action perceived by both Channel 5 and international election monitors as politically motivated, Volodymyr Sivkovych, a businessman and parliamentary deputy, sued the station for libel based on a broadcast claiming that he was "collaborating" with the Kuchma government. The broadcast alleged that Sivkovych had fabricated his report about Yushchenko's claim of poisoning, the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Yanukovych denied instigating the lawsuit, Ukrainian news services reported.

Channel 5 is also pushing for an emergency meeting of the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting to confirm that it has won the tender for Channel 48, Ukrainian Radio reported on 22 October. The striking journalists also wanted the council to enforce earlier licensing agreements with regional network to rebroadcast Channel 5 programs, which were stopped under pressure from local officials in some areas.

The independent station is owned by businessman Petro Poroshenko, a parliamentary deputy for the opposition Our Ukraine bloc. Rivals charge the channel with serving as a propaganda outlet for the opposition, but Yushchenko's campaign has complained of saturation coverage for Yanukovych on state-sponsored television and commercial stations close to the government and insufficient access for opposition candidates on their programs.

The two candidates will face a runoff on 21 November after a tight first-round race in which Yushchenko officially finished about one percentage point behind Yanukovych, with neither man gaining the necessary 50 percent to win outright. The exact vote count and feedback from voters in exit polls have now come under intense scrutiny in the run-up to the second round, and television is poised to play a key role in ensuring the victory of the people's choice -- if it can stay on the air and report events freely.

Independent pollsters have found that respondents to surveys who are not required to give their names or those in face-to-face interviews support Yushchenko. One exit poll conducted by secret ballot showed Yushchenko with 45 percent of the vote and Yanukovych with 37 percent, London's "The Times" reported on 31 October. Yushchenko said the count conducted by his supporters showed him with 50 percent to Yanukovych's 28 percent.

Although several exit polls have been commissioned in Ukraine with the support of the United States and other foreign donors, the tradition of approaching people immediately after they have voted has not taken root with the media or the public. Voters are reluctant to speak their minds in what has become an intimidating and, at times, violent campaign atmosphere with the arrests of demonstrators and attacks on journalists. Reporters are also unwilling to face both recalcitrant voters and possible harassment from election officials or police.

A crucial factor for opposition in this government-controlled situation is whether television can reach enough people to embolden them with the belief that they can both freely chose their candidate without reprisals and that their candidate has a chance of winning.

Channel 5's hunger strike was endorsed by other Ukrainian stations and attracted international statements of solidarity. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) applauded their colleagues' "great courage," saying they "stand tall despite life-threatening pressures from management and their political masters," Aidan White, general secretary of the IFJ, said in a statement on, an international exchange for organizations promoting media freedom. The IFJ maintains a monitoring mission in Ukraine.

The nongovernmental organization IFEX gathered other statements from Freedom House, Article 19, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in support of some 200 journalists who petitioned for an end to government pressure on the media. On 29 October, journalists from six channels held a meeting and vowed to picket any television station that dismissed journalists and to "take counteraction" whenever events such as mass demonstrations or police crackdowns were not reported.

The journalists believe that due to their protests, coverage has improved and the government has resorted less to "obvious lies and black propaganda," reported. For the first time on 29 October, the public channel UT-1 broadcast an interview with Yushchenko and also aired an interview with Mykola Tomenko, head of the parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Expression and Information.

The situation around Channel 5 is being compared to those in other countries in the region where hotly contested elections were won or lost depending on the strength of independent television to withstand pressure from political leaders who misused their office to control the airwaves.

In Georgia in 2003, the independent station Rustavi-2 played a key role in providing alternative coverage during the crucial moments of the "Rose Revolution." In previous years, Georgian lawyers and journalists battled through the courts to keep the station on the air when it was closed by the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Rustavi-2 gained enough public support by 2003 that public anger about efforts to silence it, as well as solidarity even from state-sponsored television editors, enabled the station to pursue its mission of covering the news independently.

In Serbia in 1996, the independent coverage of a network of dozens of independent municipal stations was indispensable for getting across the message that the authorities were trying to tamper with votes from a majority in favor of removing President Slobodan Milosevic from office.

By contrast, in Belarus in October, opposition candidates had virtually no access to Belarusian national television, even as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka used the media to maintain a steady stream of attacks on his rivals. While independent candidates attempted to work around this obstacle by getting airtime on neighboring Russian television available to viewers in Belarus, the Belarusian regime retaliated by pressuring and even expelling critical Russian news bureaus and journalists, at times shutting off Russian television completely. In Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, independent television stations that attempted to get started were shut down long before election day so as not to pose a threat to the government's plans to stay in power.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine, and all three major networks in Ukraine provided continuous coverage of his visit, perceived as a boost for Yanukovych and the status quo.

Libel suits are a common tactic of both government officials and the opposition in Ukraine, but the government generally gains the upper hand. It is common practice to seize assets that might be required for a court judgment even before a judge renders a decision. Channel 5 continued to work while its account was frozen, fending off charges from critics that it was merely opening other accounts. Lawyers for the station said that with the station's account frozen, that would be impossible to do.

"If you think we're working just for money, you're mistaken," said one Channel 5 journalist, RFE/RL reported on 22 October. "We are working now because we want to put into practice that which we advocate each evening [i.e., freedom of speech]."

Strategically refraining from making television appearances has become just as much a campaign tactic as ensuring saturation coverage. Yanukovych said on 4 November that he refused to hold television debates with Yushchenko, Interfax-Ukraine reported the same day. He accused Yushchenko of mudslinging throughout the campaign and said he could not sit at the same table with him, reported on 4 November. For its part, the Yushchenko campaign accused Yanukovych of "cowardice" for refusing to face the public in a debate Yushchenko believed he would win, according to Three other channels (Novy, ICTV, and STB) have said they would broadcast the event. ICTV spokesman Stanislav Piltyai said his station was prepared to air the debates because "televised debates will be exceptionally important for Ukrainian society and for a fair and open choice by its citizens," ITAR-TASS reported on 4 November.

[For full coverage of Ukraine's presidential elections, see RFE/RL's Ukraine web page.]

By Jan Maksymiuk

Something quite unexpected happened on 28 October in Ukraine, three days before the crucial presidential ballot. On that day, a group of some 40 television journalists from four private-owned channels signed a statement protesting the pressure exerted on them during the election campaign and expressing their concern about a "threat of distorted coverage of the decisive period of the elections." The signatories simultaneously undertook to honestly cover the election campaign and called on their colleagues to do the same.

The statement asserts that to ensure unbiased coverage, Ukrainian news programs need to report on "all socially important events," present "all important point of views on reported events," and check "all broadcasted information" as well as attribute it to specific sources. Within the next week, the statement was signed by nearly 300 other Ukrainian television reporters from more than two dozens channels, including the most influential, state-owned UT-1 (see

This statement alone gives a fairly good insight into the problems encountered by Ukrainian reporters working for state-owned or private television channels. Most international and domestic studies and surveys of Ukrainian television broadcasting concur that Ukraine's airwaves are dominated by the government's point of view and that television coverage is ridiculously homogenous.

Such a situation is being maintained primarily by temnyky (in Ukrainian journalistic lingo: themes of the week) -- unsigned instructions sent by the presidential administration on a daily basis to major television channels to tell journalists what "socially important events" to cover and what "points of view on reported events" to publicize. Given that all Ukrainian broadcasters must have their licenses renewed every five years, Ukrainian news editors generally follow the prescriptions included in temnyky.

The "Ukrayinska pravda" website (, a fiercely antigovernment online newspaper, reported on 3 November that there has been a noticeable change in coverage by major Ukrainian pro-government channels, including the state-controlled UT-1 as well as the private-owned ICTV, New Channel, and Inter since the 28 October journalistic protest. "The television broadcasting has changed," "Ukrayinska pravda" wrote. "This has been noted by both insiders and ordinary viewers who, since this past Thursday [28 October], have received much fewer overtly dirty interpretations of events and heard again the voices of those whom they were previously advised to ignore."

According to "Ukrayinska pravda," the presidential administration considered two possible reactions to this journalistic "rebellion" -- either discipline the disobedient journalists with cautionary sackings or allow them to "let off steam" for the time being and tighten the screws at some later date. Since no conspicuous dismissals have taken place, "Ukrayinska pravda" concluded that the latter option has prevailed for now.

It remains to be seen whether the current journalistic defiance will continue beyond the three weeks separating the 31 October presidential ballot from the runoff on 21 November. A similar outburst of journalistic disobedience came in late 2002, when the Verkhovna Rada organized a debate on the situation in the Ukrainian media and the word "temnyky" became a phrase of the day in Ukraine. "Television news coverage in Ukraine is made by remote control," journalist Andriy Shevchenko told the Verkhovna Rada in December 2002. "Someone else, not journalists, edits news programs, shoots and disseminates videos, writes texts, and selects comments by governors, which are subsequently sent to all channels. Let us admit honestly: instead of news coverage, Ukraine gets lies."

Shevchenko subsequently became involved in setting up an independent trade union of journalists, but that initiative has withered without achieving any tangible results. At that time, his colleagues apparently preferred relatively well-paid jobs and "remote control" in the state-owned and oligarchic media to the fight for freedom of expression in a trade union with uncertain prospects of success. There are reasons to believe that if Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych wins the presidential race, this new journalistic protest will be nipped in the bud as well.

Television in Ukraine, as perhaps in a majority of countries around the world, is among the most efficient tools of political propaganda and control. All but one of Ukraine's television channels are controlled and/or heavily influenced by either the government or oligarchs supporting the government's policies. It is thus little wonder that Ukrainian television channels have appeared to lend massive support to Viktor Yanukovych's presidential bid and to work in concert against opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

The OSCE Election Monitoring Mission for the 31 October presidential ballot, apart from observing the voting itself, organized a monitoring of the behavior of major Ukrainian media outlets in the presidential campaign from 3-24 September. The mission selected six national television channels, two regional television stations, and nine daily newspapers for its qualitative and quantitative study of election coverage in prime time news (see The findings of the media monitoring were alarmingly homogeneous. On the government channel (UT-1) and pro-Kuchma oligarchic channels -- Inter, 1+1, ICTV, STB, New Channel, TRC Ukraine -- the coverage of Yanukovych was rated essentially as either positive or neutral, while that of Yushchenko was either negative or neutral. In addition, Yanukovych got three to four times more airtime than Yushchenko.

This reporting pattern was visibly reversed on the pro-Yushchenko Channel 5, which devoted approximately the same amount of airtime to Yanukovych and Yushchenko during the monitored period. The coverage of Channel 5 was also deemed more balanced -- the amount of negative material about Yanukovych exceeded the positive by 50 percent. Curiously enough, Channel 5 also provided negative coverage of Yushchenko, which constituted nearly 20 percent of all the airtime devoted to him. This, however, did not prevent Channel 5 from getting into trouble during the election campaign. Its bank accounts were frozen by a court, and the channel faced a threat of closure by the authorities (see item above).

"We are not soldiers, as our managers wanted us for a long time to be," "Ukrayinska pravda" wrote on 3 November, expressing sympathy with and encouragement for the current journalist remonstration against the pressure and "remote control" in information policy. "We are professionals who have the irrefutable right and duty to determine what should be broadcast to people. We are journalists, not they."

"They" seem to be on the defensive at the moment in Ukraine. Will "they" counterattack?

Ukrainian authorities have been slow to understand the power of the Internet, while the political opposition has not, according to Taras Kuzio, a visiting professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and author of countless works on Ukraine.

Student groups, in particular, have been able to use websites as an alternative media, providing a partial corrective to the distorted picture presented by national television. When Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, who weighs about 250 pounds, was felled by an egg hurled at him during a visit to a campus Western Ukraine, the reaction from the websites in the .ua domain was immediate in the form of ridicule. At the same time, violations of election law and irregularities at campaign polling stations have also been posted on websites of monitoring groups just as rapidly.

However, the Internet's reach remains small, particularly compared to that of television. By the end of 2002, just 2.5 million Ukrainians, or 5 percent of the population, were estimated to be Internet users.

RFE/RL spoke with Kuzio between the first and second rounds of the Ukrainian presidential election about the role of the Internet in Ukraine. (Julie A. Corwin)

RFE/RL: What role has the Internet played in this election? How have the candidates used this medium during the campaign?

Kuzio: Since 2002, when Viktor Medvedchuk became head of the presidential administration and started issuing temnyky [Ukrainian journalistic slang for the "themes of the week"-style recommendations issued by officials] and opposition newspapers were being shut down, the Internet became in effect one of the last areas where there was still freedom of expression. The authorities are still unclear about how to deal with it. During these particular elections, the Internet has played a vital role especially among election monitoring groups and youth-activist groups.

[These] groups understood the importance of the Internet far earlier than the authorities. The Ukrainian government, cabinet of ministers, and other state organs in Kyiv only really started setting up their own websites in 2002. I remember even a year ago when the head of the tax administration in Lviv, Serhyi Medvedchuk, commented that he had seen an article criticizing him on the Internet. His response was, "I'll take the Internet to court." So there was ignorance about it. [The authorities] very much had a Soviet mindset -- i.e., that the media is controlled within borders. They didn't understand that you could shut an Internet site down in one country and it could spring up again elsewhere.

RFE/RL: How have the youth groups and observer groups used the Internet on an operational level?

Kuzio: They use it for posting information and as a free forum, where they can speak their minds. They use it to compete with other groups and other websites. They post information and recruit people to do things, such as attend rallies or volunteer for election day. So it is very similar to what we have in the West.

RFE/RL: What websites have been particularly popular during this election?

Kuzio: The websites that are popular tend to be opposition-oriented, reflecting the values of [Ukrainian Internet] users. Publications such as "Ukrayinska pravda" have always been very popular and have always been among of the top five Internet sites. (See "On the Web," below.)

As for youth-oriented election-monitoring groups, it's difficult to say which of these websites will last. They receive some money for the elections, and it's not clear if they will obtain funds to keep going until the 2006 parliamentary elections or whether they will just shut down.

The youth groups are probably going to continue. There's a whole range of them, some more radical than others. PORA, Chysta Ukrayina, and other student organizations. I suspect if [opposition presidential candidate Viktor] Yushchenko wins the elections, then their agitation will diminish because they will have done their job. But if [Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Viktor] Yanukovych wins -- and/or there are very strong violations of election laws during the race -- then some of the websites will very quickly become radicalized. And even more of the media will go to the Internet as well.

RFE/RL: What about the candidates, Yanukovych and Yushchenko? How have their campaigns used the Internet?

Kuzio: Yanukovych has used the Internet much less. His website is hardly ever cited, and is not something that many people go to. He has run a very traditional campaign. He hasn't acted as a presidential candidate when he has traveled around Ukraine. One reason being that acting as a prime minister then he gets more publicity on television, and another reason is that he's not very good at giving campaign speeches.

But the opposition has used the Internet. Yushchenko and Our Ukraine already had a website which was very much around in 2002, called And Yushchenko himself has his own website, which is called So both of those have been good sources of information. And their stuff is reprinted on other Internet outlets as well.

RFE/RL: Are the website used by their supporters in the regions for information?

Kuzio: Yes, it's used as a way of circumventing the censorship on television. It's also a very quick way of getting information out to the provinces.

It's especially when it's important to get things like the vote count in as such. Its use kind of parallels the massive use of cell phones. Everybody seems to have one. So, it is a combination of those two media, which has meant that the opposition can act in a far quicker manner, which is something that has stunned the authorities. They are able to preempt the authorities all the time.

RFE/RL: I've heard that after the incident in September in which Yanukovych was felled by an egg, websites sprang up mocking him?

Kuzio: There have been an incredible number of jokes because of the stupid egg attack and because of billboards. There has been an overkill of billboards of Yanukovych. It's really irritated people.

There's one particular website that is hilarious, called And there they have this kind of jokes and also make fun of these billboards. That website has a whole section making fun of these billboards under the rubric "tomu shchto."

About two or three weeks ago, an eggs billboard appeared on the web but people couldn't access it because one of the local ISPs blocked [it]. However, if people used a different provider, they could access the material.

Yanukovych has been very sensitive to the fact that he is being laughed at online. A guy who has tried to portray himself as being like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin -- a tough guy -- who will bring order to the country, falls over after being hit with an egg.

General Presidential Election Information:,,

Opposition Media:

Student and Youth Groups:,,,,

Election Monitoring:,