Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 1

By Oleg Varfolomeyev

Ukrainian media are losing the fight for freedom of expression as self-censorship, government intrusion into editorial policy, and intimidation of dissenting media and individual journalists reach a scale the country has not experienced since Gorbachev’s perestroika.

The case of journalist Georgy Gongadze, a harsh critic of the Ukrainian government whose headless body was found near Kyiv in November 2000, remains unsolved. “Because of this,” Deputy Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin said on December 12, referring to the murder, “the foreign media have been slinging mud at Ukraine ever since. Thank God, our own media are not like that.” Clearly the authorities’ patronizing attitude to the media has not changed.

The powers that be are all too aware that Ukrainian journalists are not as free in reporting and expressing opinions as their foreign colleagues. Official censorship is forbidden, of course, but self-censorship is widely practiced. Opposition politicians have no outlet through the central media, and coverage of their activities by television–the main source of information for the majority of Ukrainians–is invariably negative. Unofficial instructions by state officials to editors on which events to cover and how, and what should not be reported at all, have been adhered to by media editors for fear of reprisal.

Ukrainian journalists say that since about mid-summer 2002, when Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of a Kyiv-based oligarchic clan, was appointed as President Leonid Kuchma’s head of administration, such instructions–called temniki [theme lists]–have become especially thorough and regular.

Speaking at the hearings on freedom of speech in parliament on December 4, the head of a journalist union and former TV correspondent, Andry Shevchenko, said that the presidential office was dispatching not only written instructions to television stations, but even videos, peremptorily advising to broadcast them. “Let us admit honestly: Ukraine receives lies instead of news,” he said.

The television news programs, most of which are controlled by people who owe their current positions to Kuchma, clearly obey the instructions. Coverage of this autumn’s opposition protests by mainstream TV channels was strikingly uniform, expressed the official position and showed opposition leaders in a negative light. The snubbing of Kuchma by Western leaders at the November NATO summit in Prague was either not reported or mentioned only in passing. At the same time, Kuchma’s meeting with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi–the only Western leader with whom Kuchma had a conversation at the summit–was reported in every possible detail and sold to TV viewers as the West’s appreciation of Kuchma’s significance. A refusal of CIS leaders, despite Putin’s support for Kuchma, to elect Kuchma to chair the CIS council at the recent CIS summit in Moldova was simply not reported in Ukraine.

There are no written laws obliging Ukrainian journalists to obey orders from above, but the consequences of disobedience may be very serious. Gongadze’s murder is only the most well-known case of a mysterious death of a journalist, but not the first nor the last. Maryana Chorna, a senior TV editor, was found dead in June 1999 at the height of a government-sponsored campaign to muzzle her opposition-leaning employer, Kyiv-based STB. Ihor Oleksandrov, an investigative journalist, was beaten to death on the stairs of his office in Donetsk Region in July 2001. And Mykhaylo Kolomiets, editor-in-chief of Ukrainski Novyny news agency, disappeared this past October, and was later found hanging from a tree in neighboring Belarus.

Journalist deaths are just the tip of the iceberg. Exorbitant court fines, tax inspections, license withdrawals, freezing of bank accounts and banal physical assaults on journalists have been widely used in Ukraine against media refusing to follow the official line. Regional media are in a more difficult situation in this respect compared to those based in Kyiv, because in the regions power is usually concentrated within one local “clan” that is able to informally control the local executive branch, courts, prosecution, and police simultaneously. A recent example is the imprisonment of Vladimir Lutyev, a newspaper editor in Crimea. Lutyev, a muckraking journalist, is accused of planning to kill a local deputy who was the main target of a Lutyev’s series on corruption. Ukrainian ombudsman Nina Karpachova described Lutyev’s case as a new method of fighting freedom of speech through an article in the Criminal Code providing for life imprisonment.

A more surreptitious and often very efficient tool is change of ownership. Sometimes owners and editors have to cede to open threats. Information about such cases, understandably, very often remains outside the public domain. There have been also cases of “correction” of the editorial line through the imposition of outside managers or editors linked to the presidential administration or Kuchma-linked oligarchs.

The STB news broadcasts abandoned their critical line towards the government in 1999, when its owner sold his stake in the company. A group of leading journalists left Novy Kanal TV this past October in protest against “political censorship.” At about the same time, Novy Kanal, previously known for unbiased and detailed reporting of political developments, visibly cut back on political news coverage. After these surrenders, dissenters from the official line are nowhere to be seen. Control over central TV channels is spread among three well-connected figures: Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk, Medvedchuk and businessmen linked to him, and Andry Derkach (the son of a former security service chief).

The death of Mykhaylo Kolomiets coincided with reported methodical attempts by the presidential administration to take control over the news agencies, which are second in importance only to television. Several months ago Kolomiets’ agency, Ukrainski Novyny, which had specialized in economic news reporting, also launched balanced reporting of political news. Another major Kyiv-based private news agency, UNIAN, is living through hard times. Several months ago, its top manager was replaced and the editorial policy changed. UNIAN used to freely report the points of view of both the government and the opposition. It no longer does so. Those journalists who disagree with the official line face dismissal, UNIAN editor-in-chief Oleksandr Kharchenko complained at the hearings on freedom of speech on December 4.

The Council of Europe, the EU, the United States, international media watchdogs and even NATO have repeatedly warned Ukraine against media censorship. But Kyiv maintains that there is none. Officials point to the constitution, which explicitly forbids it. Furthermore, they explain, the government has no levers to directly control news reporting, as more than 97 percent of media in Ukraine are privately owned. As to unofficial levers, such as the infamous temniki, there is no documented evidence that they exist, and if the presidential administration dispatches anything to media editors, these are not instructions, but just press releases.

President Leonid Kuchma admits that there is a problem with freedom of speech in Ukraine, but maintains that the problem is not political, but instead cultural and economic. The owners, who often happen to be politicians, tend to regard the journalists as servants and the media as private mouthpieces. The media cannot survive on revenues from subscription and advertisements because Ukrainians are poor, and the market is underdeveloped. Officials therefore argue that media outlets often have no choice but to serve political interests of the nouveau riche. “A media project is often set up as a business project… but with time it becomes a political project and the emphasis is shifted,” Ivan Chyzh, the chair of the state committee for information policy, said in an interview with the daily Den on December 3. “It is very difficult to draw the line between editing, program policy and censorship.”

In the same interview, asked whether he believes that editorial policy and censorship are the same thing, Chyzh responded in the affirmative. This is another argument of the Ukrainian authorities. While dissenting journalists and Western observers argue that free media and their editors are experiencing pressure by the authorities and well-connected business clans, media officials say that the main conflict is rather between owners or editors and those journalists who do not understand certain universally accepted rules of media behavior. They cite the examples of media behavior in the United States, which almost unanimously followed the official line during military campaigns in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Editing is often mistaken for censorship, they say. “Regrettably, journalists often forget that, as a phenomenon, censorship in the form of constraints and self-restraints exists in every civilized country,” Deputy Premier Dmytro Tabachnyk said in parliament on December 4.

Serhy Vasylyev, Kuchma’s aide for media policy, professes a rather bizarre view on the problem. He believes that the problem of censorship has been invented by those Ukrainian journalists who receive foreign grants. “There is a group of journalists earning their living this way,” Vasylyev told Den. “We should, perhaps, request the leaders of the countries financing this to immediately stop censorship,” he said. As to the temniki, which Vasylyev is widely suspected of being behind, he believes that there is nothing illegal about them. “The directorate of which I am in charge will remain to be the regulator of all the massive amount of information about the authorities’ activities,” he pledged in the same interview.

Meanwhile, journalists continue to disappear. Oleksandr Panych of the Donetskie Novosti newspaper was reported missing in Donetsk in early December. He had just sold his apartment, so robbery was very likely, police said. But one should remember what Ukrainian police had to say about other missing journalists: Gongadze was seen alive by someone in western Ukraine; Oleksandrov was killed by a drunk vagabond who mistook him for someone else; Kolomiets simply fled from debt.

Oleg Varfolomeyev is a freelance journalist based in Kyiv.