Current state of Freedom of the Press and Media in Ukraine – are changes and improvements required?

Apr 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Freedom of Speech, Gongadze's Murder, In Depth, Ukraine

In the beginning of April 2011 Oxford University held the conference “Ukraine’s Domestic and Foreign Affairs: Quo Vadis?” The Chariman of Kyiv Independent Media Trade Union Yuriy Lukanov was one of keynote speakers. Here is his speech.

Recently the Ukrainian government opened criminal persecution against the former President of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma. He is accused of abuse of authority, which lead to the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze.

Georgiy was killed in September 2000. A few months after his disappearance the opposition accused Leonid Kuchma in Georgiy’s murder. The opposition based their accusation on tapes made by Major Mykola Melnychenko, a former presidential guard, which were supposedly secretly recorded in Kuchma’s office.

Melnychenko`s tapes recorded Kuchma’s clearly voiced irritation with Georgiy, which gave many reasons to believe that he ordered the journalist killed.

Now Viktor Yanukovych finally ordered to find the truth about Georgiy’s murder. But the Ukrainian lawyers unanimously state that the charges against Kuchma’s are impossible to substantiate, mainly because the prosecutors are going to ground their evidence on tapes of Mykola Melnychenko. These recordings were made by illegitimate means. Legislation of Ukraine claims that the evidence collected by illegitimate means can not be considered as evidence in court proceedings. To get Melnychenko’s tapes into the court as legal evidence in the case, they should follow additional formal and legal procedures.

The prosecutors, who in fact belong to Yanukovych’s team, will not do that. So we will most likely see another example of traditional abuse of justice.

The Government team has opened the criminal proceedings in response to accusations from the West, that the government judges prosecute only the opposition. Currently several influential members of the opposition are in jail. Leonid Kuchma was chosen as a token non-opposition victim, because he does not belong to the opposition, but he also is not in the current governmental hierarchy, he is not “theirs”. Therefore, it is possible to persecute him easily.

On the one hand, Yanukovych shows the critics from the West that he prosecutes not opposition only. On the other hand, he does not offend the representatives of ruling political powers.

This case brightly shows a philosophy of the current Ukrainian government. Abuse: This word can be called the essence of the politics by Viktor Yanukovych. That is, he declares one policy and implements a completely different one. He assures the West in his democracy, but in practice he does not behave democratically. This also implies to such fields as freedom of speech.

Let me give you two very typical pieces of evidence. Shortly before being elected President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych advised journalists, who asked him awkward questions at a press conference, not to babble. In his inaugural address to the nation Viktor Yanukovych did not mention freedom of speech.

Later, he repeatedly assured Western critics that he supports freedom of speech and he will safeguard it, that he will support the journalists, and so on. Meanwhile, his words diverge from the deeds. It became the normal practice, that the presidential security guards could arbitrarily throw accredited journalists on the ground.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s security could break the television camera of a TV crew. None of these guards was punished, even though the journalists, that were attacked and harmed, appealed to the Prosecutor General

The government of Ukraine treats the journalists as their servants. The government does not stop only at the brutal treatment of journalists. They apply censorship even at the largest television channels. Of course, you can not accuse the authorities of direct orders to imply the censorship. Officially, there is no such phenomenon as “temnyks”, that were distributed during the times of Leonid Kuchma. The word “temnyk”, which originates from the word “darkness”, meant direct instructions to mass media. “Ttemnyks” included instructions from the presidential administration on how to cover the events in the country. Brutal censorship led to protests by journalists – and the journalists’ revolution preceded the Orange Revolution.

Current monitoring of leading broadcast television shows the existence of censorship. In TV news, which are the main source of information for the majority of Ukrainians, the information about government activities and the governmental point of view on current events dominates. Academy of Ukrainian Press found that in February this year 84% of the interviews published in the media were conducted with representatives of the government, 14% with the opposition and 2% of other parties. Ratio is approximately 4:1 in favor of the government. First National TV Channel, which is owned and controlled by the state, was unique: it broadcasted 100% of interviews with government authorities.

The government established control over the media in a way different from what Kuchma did. The government first established control over Parliament and the judiciary. During this process they clearly violated the Constitution and several other laws and legislations. Yanukovych today controls all branches of power. Naturally, the media owners, who typically are the richest people in Ukraine, are eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the head of state. The President’s attitude to each oligarch directly affects the success and efficiency of the oligarch’s business. This situation has its effect on the media, owned by Ukrainian oligarchs. The owners ensure that their media displays loyalty to the President.

The journalists’ community is protesting against this situation and created the ‘Stop censorship’ movement that regularly issues public statements, when obvious cases of censorship are detected. They also inform the West about it. They are trying to create an atmosphere of public criticism against the illegal actions of the government bodies and media managers. The professional media unions do not remain silent. Here I represent one of them – the Kyiv Independent Media Trade Union.

To be honest I should mention that some TV channels did not cooperate with being pressured. The journalists, who work there, were protesting against censorship and won. An example is the STB channel.

But the fight goes on within the framework of the existing political system and does not reform it. Currently Ukraine’s politics is dominated by the oligarchs and the bureaucracy. They exploit the resources of the country whose economy now functions with the help of Western credits and they do not care about economical development. The Government believes that this system does not need free speech, and that free press is not required.

The situation can be changed only when the political system is changed. The first bell sounded to the government the last fall, when the businesses across the country organized mass protests.

I think this was definitely not the last bell.

Yuriy Lukanov

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.