Attacks on the Press 1999: Ukraine

Over the past several years, Ukrainian press freedom has deteriorated to such an extent that Ukraine, unlike even neighboring Belarus, now lacks any genuinely independent major news media. From a barrage of violent assaults in 1996Ð97 to relentless bureaucratic pressures and lawsuits aimed at bankrupting them, media outlets have been forced into the arms of political patrons in order to survive. In contrast to Russia’s powerful media tycoons, however, nearly all Ukraine’s media magnates lack the power and will to resist President Leonid Kuchma’s heavy hand.

Former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko was one notable, albeit flawed, exception. President Kuchma’s successful struggle to eliminate Lazarenko, his only potent progressive rival, laid to rest chances for any serious liberal challenge to Kuchma’s increasingly autocratic rule in the presidential election on October 31. By the beginning of 1999, four media outlets controlled by Lazarenko’s supporters had either been shut down or taken over by the president’s allies. And in February 1999, the president’s politically motivated probe into Lazarenko’s apparent self-enrichment during his term as premier in 1996Ð97 drove Lazarenko to request political asylum in the United States.

Although few in Ukraine believe that Lazarenko is completely innocent, Kuchma’s selective use of the legal code to crush his only serious opponent set a precedent for his approach to weaker rivals, as well as news media that endorsed them. In the end, the only real threat to Kuchma came from hard-core leftist candidates, who were supported mainly by pensioners nostalgic for the Soviet past. But as with former Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996, nearly all Ukrainian media rallied behind the incumbent Kuchma when his opponent in the November 14 runoff turned out to be Petro Symonenko, the leader of the Soviet-style Communist Party of Ukraine.

Well before the election, the government blocked all television coverage of the Parliament, which served as an electoral platform for 13 rival presidential candidates. When the independent STB TV, the first satellite network in Ukraine, signed a contract with the legislature to air a special program focused on its activities, state officials nearly put the station out of business in retaliation. With its large viewership (about 80 percent of Ukraine’s TV audience), STB had been the only nationwide channel to offer balanced coverage of opposition candidates. In a series of measures documented by CPJ, government agencies repeatedly harassed STB with hostile tax audits, along with fire and other technical inspections. In August, authorities froze STB’s bank accounts for alleged tax violations. In October, the government finally took control of STB by forcing director Volodymyr Sivkovich to resign after threatening to shut down the network altogether.

President Kuchma also delayed his appointments to the National Broadcasting Council, the country’s top broadcast agency, after the previously appointed council’s term expired in December 1998. In order to ensure politically balanced decisions on licensing and regulation, Parliament and the president each appoint four candidates to the eight-member body. The legislature’s choices included the few top media executives known to oppose the Kuchma administration. But Kuchma refused to name anyone to the National Broadcasting Council, causing a year of regulatory anarchy. With the president’s blessing, the previous council continued to dole out licenses, whose legitimacy Parliament refused to acknowledge.

Kuchma also forced officials at every level of government to harass opposition media. Random hostile tax audits and other costly tactics were used to frighten sponsors, advertisers, and printing facilities, encouraging them to withdraw their business from targeted media outlets. CPJ protested several such cases, although many more cases went unreported by news organizations afraid of further reprisals.

The pressures on journalists to engage in self-censorship continued even after President’s Kuchma’s reelection. The administration has allowed only “favored” journalists to attend presidential news conferences. Most recently, it has required journalists who do secure credentials to submit questions in advance and has even provided lists of approved questions for them to ask. The credentials come with an implicit warning that journalists may be excluded from press conferences if they ask questions that “upset” the president.

By year’s end, all major broadcast media either displayed a strong pro-Kuchma bias or were controlled by his supporters. The two large-circulation opposition publications, Holos Ukrainy and Silski Visti, were controlled by leftist parties or the leftist-dominated parliamentary leadership. Several relatively professional opposition periodicals (Den, Zerkalo Nedeli) continued to publish, but high subscription prices limited their influence to a segment of the elite. While the Ukrainian press remained diverse, subscriptions for all periodicals totaled only 9.2 million, or around one-fifth of the total population. Meanwhile, over 90 percent of Ukrainian households watched Kuchma-dominated television.

CPJ included President Kuchma in its 1999 list of the world’s 10 worst enemies of the press. Kuchma threatened to sue CPJ for defamation, but no such suit had been filed by year’s end.

July 26
Chornomorska TV CENSORED

On July 26, the Frequency Inspection Agency ordered the state-run Crimean Radio and Television Broadcasting Center (CRTBC) to halt transmissions by Chornomorska TV, the largest private broadcaster in the region. The order also applied to three other Crimean TV stations in the towns of Simferopol, Dzhankoy, and Kerch.

The agency claimed that the stations were operating without proper licenses because CRTBC had allocated frequencies within Crimea without approval from Kyiv authorities. Yet while these four private stations were shut down, state-run regional and local stations continued to broadcast with similar licenses. The timing of the inspection agency’s order was also suspect, given that Chornomorska TV had been broadcasting daily news and feature programs under its current license for eight years.

In an August 6 letter to President Leonid Kuchma, CPJ protested the move as a politically motivated effort to stifle independent broadcast media during the run-up to the October 31 presidential election. Previous attempts by Crimean officials to cut off the station’s broadcasts before national parliamentary elections in March 1998 failed only after public and international groups protested.

The CRTBC eventually caved in to international pressure and allowed the stations to resume transmission. Kerch TV started broadcasting again on September 10, while ITV in Simferopol and Ekran TV in Dzhankoy went back on the air on October 14.

Chornomorska TV was not allowed to broadcast until November 11, after the first round of the presidential election. At year’s end the station was suing the CRTBC, with the next hearing set for January.

August 26

Tax officials froze the bank accounts of STB TV, an independent station that reaches 80 percent of the television-watching population of Ukraine, claiming the station had failed to submit tax documents on time.

The move was the latest in a series of official attacks on STB in 1999, aimed at stifling its coverage of state corruption and of President Leonid Kuchma’s rivals in the October 31 presidential election. On June 8, for example, the government cited alleged “technical violations” to justify ordering STB to halt satellite broadcasts to its affiliates around the country. The real motive was apparently retaliation for STB’s investigative series about high-level corruption. STB defied the order and continued broadcasting after its protests received broad domestic and international support.

STB’s lawyers said that many of the documents demanded by tax inspectors had already been requisitioned by the state Radio and Television Broadcasting Committee, which was also investigating STB. It was thus physically impossible for STB to comply with the tax inspectors’ demands.

With its bank accounts frozen, STB was forced to suspend production of a new program about the Ukrainian Parliament, a platform for several of Kuchma’s rivals. With no access to operating capital, the station would have been forced to lay off some or all of its 3,000 employees. And if STB had failed to pay for transmission services in September, the station could have been forced off the air altogether.

STB filed suit against the State Tax Administration and the State Frequency Commission, charging that these two agencies were engaged in coordinated harassment designed to put the station out of business.

CPJ protested the harassment of STB in a September 23 letter to President Kuchma. In mid-October, the Kuchma administration forced STB director Volodymyr Sivkovych to resign from his post and sell his holdings in the network to other shareholders. Under pressure, STB’s owners replaced Sivkovych with Kuchma adviser Serhii Kutsy.

In exchange, the authorities ended their campaign against STB, which subsequently dropped its lawsuit. Several STB journalists resigned in protest, claiming Kutsy had begun censoring the station’s programming.

October 2
Kryvoi Rog Vecherny HARASSED
Inna Chyrchenko, Kryvoi Rog Vecherny HARASSED

Ukrainian tax officials subjected the opposition weekly paper Kryvoi Rog Vecherny to a series of hostile audits, in apparent retaliation against its endorsement of Oleksander Moroz, a political rival of President Leonid Kuchma.

The harassment of Kryvoi Rog Vecherny began after authorities accused Moroz aide Serhiy Ivanchenko of orchestrating a grenade attack on rival presidential candidate Natalia Vitrenko in a nearby town. Authorities used this attack as an excuse to clamp down on the paper for its alleged “ties” with Ivanchenko.

On the night following the grenade attack, police ransacked the offices of Kryvoi Rog Vecherny and detained one of its editors, Inna Chyrchenko. Chyrchenko was released after 17 hours of interrogation about the paper’s relationship with Moroz and Ivanchenko.

October 13
Kryvoi Rog Vecherny HARASSED, CENSORED

In four apparently separate incidents on October 13Ð15, local printing houses refused to print four Ukrainian newspapers that had endorsed President Leonid Kuchma’s rival candidates in the run-up to the October 31 presidential election.

In one case, a printing company in Luhansk refused to print the October 15 edition of the popular newspaper XXI Vek after its editor, Yuri Yurov, declined to pull a front-page photo of candidate Yevhen Marchuk and several articles critical of President Kuchma’s administration. XXI Vek was forced to delay its print run for a day on one other occasion, when the same printing house claimed technical problems with the press. After the election, the paper returned to its normal publication schedule.

Two other Luhansk newspapers, Rakurs and Nashe Zavtra, were also unable to publish that week. Nashe Zavtra was a temporary newspaper, brought out during the campaign season by supporters of Oleksander Moroz. As planned, Nashe Zavtra was discontinued after the election. Rakurs also endorsed Moroz.

The Donetsk company that normally prints Rakurs claimed it was experiencing technical problems. Mykola Severin, the paper’s editor, tried to hire the printer who publishes Nashe Zavtra. But he found that tax inspectors had recently shut down the printing house, blocking the publication of both papers.

Rakurs managed to print its next edition the following week, whereupon a single, unidentified individual bought up all the newsstand copies. Since the election, the weekly has been publishing regularly.

On October 15, employees at the city-owned printing house in Kryviy Rih told the editors of Kryvoi Rog Vecherny that they were breaking their contract to print the paper. (Kryvoi Rog Vecherny also endorsed Moroz in the presidential race.) The employees claimed to have acted at the request of the Askon Company, which owns the paper. Kryvoi Rog Vecherny‘s editors believe that their publisher was pressured to submit this request after tax officials conducted a series of hostile audits on the paper, while police ransacked its offices and questioned one of its editors for several hours.

The printing house agreed to resume printing Kryvoi Rog Vecherny in early December, several weeks after the presidential runoff on November 14. However, random tax audits and fire inspections frightened most of the weekly’s advertisers and sponsors into withdrawing their support. At year’s end, the paper had not resumed publication and was seeking new financial backing.