Is free press in Ukraine on its way to the grave?
Critics say media-freedom has declined since Viktor Yanukovych became president last year. A climbing phenomenon fought harshly internally and looked over worryingly by the international community.
On the occasion of the International Day of Freedom of the Press on May 3rd “Reporters without Borders” created a list of enemies of freedom of speech in the world. In turn, the Institute of Mass Information and Kyiv Independent Trade Media union published a list of enemies of the Ukrainian press. The president of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych was placed as enemy No.1 to press freedom in the country.
Since the Orange Revolution in 2004, there have been several great improvements related to the situation of the press freedom. Many media outlets ceased to follow government direction and began to display events in a more objective and professional way. The role of commercial outlets increased as well - different claims, articles and TV-shows, reflecting totally different views on politics, economics and other issues, appeared in the country's media. Some Ukrainians claim that «the main achievement of the Orange Revolution was freedom of speech». Taras Berezovets, chief editor of the Ukrainian political website, Polittech.org is one of them.
However, since February 2010 when presidential elections took place in Ukraine and Viktor Yanukovych was elected to the office, the country is being criticized for turning off the democratic path and neglecting the accomplishments of the Orange Revolution more and more often.
The first recent incident regarding freedom of press occurred in August 2010 when two important privately-run Ukrainian television stations, 5 Kanal and TVi, lost some of their broadcast frequencies. The channel TVi lost all of its licenses, but 5 Kanal only lost the new licenses it had been assigned. There are two different versions explaining these incidents. The official version considers that the channels were awarded their licenses in an illegal way. However, the alternative version claims that it was only a pretext to get rid of these channels as they were the only ones providing independent news coverage in Ukraine.
There is a large discrepancy in Ukraine between the official government stance regarding media freedom and its actions. The U.S. State Department’s 2010 “Human Rights Report” for Ukraine notes that while the country’s constitution supports freedom of the press (“The protection of free press and the freedom of speech is an unalterable priority of the state policy implementing of the president. The state leader is interested that any printed or electronic media were published in Ukraine irrespectively of ownership and ideology”), in the reality government puts pressure on the media, daunting journalists and media owners.
The recent case of Brian Bonner, editor-in-chief of the Kyiv Post, the largest English-language newspaper in Ukraine, proves the statement. In the beginning of April 2011, Bonner was dismissed after publicizing an interview with Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Prysyazhnyuk where the sensitive issue of grain export quotas was touched upon. Shortly after the interview Mohammed Zahoor, British owner of Kyiv Post, under pressure from the Ukrainian government, demanded that Bonner drop the interview, because it was «unprepared and flabby» and needed more work to be ready for publication. Bonner treats the explanation as a subjective interpretation of the issue.
He states: «Even before the reporters were back from the interview, we were getting calls to say the minister was very concerned. As the newspaper went to press, Zahoor asked to see a copy of the story and subsequently asked for it to be excised. I refused, and it looks like I really am fired».
When the journalists of Kyiv Post started to express their indignation about the dismissal of their chief editor, they were treated in an aggressive way and were not admitted into the office. The assistant of Kyiv Post, editor Kateryna Gorchynska states: «At first we were cut off from a web site, then we were told that a new editor will appear, who dislikes – “good-bye”, farther we were disconnected from system folders, now we are kept out of an office».
Actually, violation of journalists’ rights and censorship of the media is not a new phenomenon in Ukraine. Serhiy Solodky, the deputy director of the Institute of World Policy and an international affairs journalist recalls the past situation of media treatment in the country. He explains that under the rule of the former president Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004), there were special terms to describe an attitude towards people engaged in media system. The jargon ‘temniki’, from the word ‘tema’ (in English “topic”) was widespread in Ukraine, but was unknown in Western Europe. “Every day, the editors of the main mass media offices received the ‘temniki’ - instructions stipulating which topics could be covered and which ones could not.”
However, the time goes on and people call for the freedom of expression in a more tenacious manner. There have been several round tables, workshops and debates conducted by media experts and NGOs to broaden the space for human expression. One of the most visible protests took place in May 2010 when six journalists from the Ekspress newspaper chained themselves to a Budapest-to-Moscow train in the western Ukrainian city Lviv to protest against restrictions on the independent media.
But the government continues to walk along the path of the previous regime and it is not flexible enough to switch to independent media functioning. Marta Dyczok, a member of Wilson International Center for Scholars explains: «The elite - which came to power after the Orange Revolution - continue to consider media in old terms. They understand censorship is unacceptable, but continue to perceive the media as an instrument of influence. Yushchenko has not kept his election promise to end state ownership of media outlets. And even two of his closest allies, former Premier Yulia Tymoshenko and former Security Council head Petro Poroshenko reportedly were maneuvering behind the scenes to purchase the two most successful private TV stations in the country, INTER and 1+1».
Yanukovych goes further and seems to be willing to kill the transparency of Ukrainian media even to a greater extent than his political predecessors did. In January 2011, Ukrainian media watchdog Telekritika highlighted a worrying tendency. It was told that almost 80% of news coverage on some channels over the past six months portrayed the government in a positive light. It was also admitted that a great number of topics had been deliberately kept off the airwaves, including anti-Tax Code protests and a series of recent rebukes from EU figureheads over Ukraine’s democracy backsliding.
No wonder, according to the international Media Sustainability Index (MSI), which tends to measure the strength and viability of media sector in about 80 countries of the world, Ukraine got the score of 1.96 (countries are measured on a scale between 0 and 4 where 0 means the lowest and 4 the highest). That means that «the country minimally meets objectives, with segments of the legal system and government opposed to a free media system».
How does the future of Ukrainian media system look? Can we believe Ukrainian journalist Yevhen Glebovisky working for Ukraine’s Channel 5 who claims that «the country is still changing and developing and the current processes in media sector are like illnesses little kids have; they have to live through them because it will make their immune system work more effectively». Will the illnesses – the censorship, inadequate legislative framework which does not guarantee press freedom, the ownership structure of national broadcast and print media which remains widely controlled by oligarchs and politicians – be settled effectively? No doubt, they will. But another important question appears - when?