Shaky freedom of speech

“Despite the recent change in atmosphere, persecution of journalists continues,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “The Ukrainian government has loosened its iron grip over mediabut only slightly.”

On December 3, Ukraine’s Supreme Court invalidated the results of the presidential run-off between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, for fraud, amidst mass protests and threats of separatism. New run-off elections are slated for December 26. In the wake of this political crisis, the incumbent government appears to have loosened its iron grip over media outlets slightly. This development is most noticeable in the way broadcast news is presented and in the easing of political pressure on newspapers serving western Ukraine and the capital city of Kiev.

“Balanced information about the opposition candidate is increasingly available,” said Denber. “But this is not a reflection of the government’s commitment to freedom of information and expression so much as a calculation on the part of many media outlets about which way the political winds are blowing.”

Human Rights Watch, which will conclude its ten-day mission in Ukraine researching press freedom in the regions on December 25, said that government control and persecution continues in some parts of the country.

There is little culture of media independence or professionalism, a result of years of government persecution of independent journalists and informal state censorship.

Human Rights Watch said that changes in the news coverage mirror to some extent the recent political turmoil. For example, on October 28, in a public statement, 42 broadcast journalists of several major pro-government TV channels in Kiev rejected practices of informal censorship and pledged to strive to provide objective coverage of both presidential candidates.

Editors and journalists in Kiev, Lviv, Donetsk and Lugansk consistently reported that, over all, national broadcast media now strives to provide more balanced coverage of the presidential elections.

In Lviv Province, a stronghold of the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko in western Ukraine, Human Rights Watch observed dramatic departures from past practices. Some changes, however, appeared opportunistic in the rapidly changing shifting political landscape. For example, following the protests and official decision to re-hold the run-off elections, the daily Za Vilnu Ukraina, a paper that previously followed the government line, changed its logotype to orange, the color of the opposition candidate.

Human Rights Watch also noted that regional television channels and media outlets in the east of the country had begun to act more independently as well. In the second half of December local journalists reported that, since the run-off on November 21, they had been observing a marked

increase in the number of media outlets that covered the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, for the first time.

However, interviews with journalists in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, strongholds of the pro-government candidate Viktor Yanukovich, indicated that media control and persecution of journalists continues. The government has either marginalized or stamped out opposition media, and turned most remaining outlets into mouthpieces of the local administration.  Those few remaining journalists struggling to express alternative political views face hostility from the local authorities.

On November 21, Sergei Formanyuk, the deputy editor for Ostrov, the only major opposition paper in Donetsk Province, was attacked when he attempted to enter a polling station with his video camera. Formanyuk told Human Rights Watch that he was stopped at the entrance to the building by three unidentified men and a fourth man who identified himself as the chairman of the electoral commission in charge of the polling station. The chairman requested Formanyuk to provide documentation in addition to his accreditation. Formanyuk took out his tape recorder to record the ensuing conversation, but the chairman grabbed it and ordered the three men to attack him. The unknown men dragged him out of the building and kicked him while he was lying on the ground. They also tried to take the video camera.  Police standing nearby did nothing to intervene even though they could clearly see what was happening. The police have not opened an investigation, despite Formanyuk’s efforts to file charges against his assailants.

On November 24, the Lugansk regional council convened an emergency session and decided to ban cable providers from broadcasting TV Era and Channel 5, channels providing coverage with a pro-opposition slant. While the council has since reversed the decision, it has also applied to cancel the licenses for Channel 5 and TV Era with the Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting (KTR).

In a positive and unprecedented development, journalists in Lugansk told Human Rights Watch that on December 21, TV channel Lugansk Oblastnoi Televidenie (LOT), a mouthpiece of the local government, for the first time invited a representative of the opposition for a live debate.

Nevertheless, the new liberty appears tenuous and partial at best. Lacking still is a genuine government commitment to respect media freedoms.

“This is a unique opportunity for the new president to break with past practices of persecution of the media,” said Denber. “A free press is one of the cornerstones of every democratic state and a condition for the development of political pluralism.”


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