The Committee to Protect Journalists is heartened by your stated commitment to improve the poor press freedom climate in Ukraine. There is much to be remedied–and many benefits to be gained–as your administration ushers in what is widely hoped to be a new democratic era.
Former President Leonid Kuchma’s decade of corrupt and authoritarian rule was marked by government harassment, intimidation, and suppression of the independent news media. Most alarming were the unsolved murders of several journalists, which together created a culture of lawlessness and self-censorship.
Further, the previous government’s assault on the independent press limited pluralism and squelched public debate of presidential policies. These developments jeopardized Ukraine’s stability and prosperity; without a free press to promote accountability, the country’s weak judiciary, corrupt bureaucracy, and unaccountable police and security forces resisted necessary democratic reform.
We urge you to consider three vital steps as your government, along with Parliament, formulates reforms to enhance democracy and begin Ukraine’s integration with pan-European institutions. The emergence of a fully independent press is central to this process.
Eradicate the culture of impunity and the misuse of the criminal justice system: Police, prosecutors, and courts have failed to properly investigate and prosecute the work-related murders of at least five independent journalists between 1995 and 2004. They include the slayings of Vladimir Ivanov of Slava Sevastopolya, in Sevastopol in April 1995; freelance journalist Igor Hrushetsky in Cherkassy in May 1996; Boris Derevyanko of Vechernyaya Odessa, in Odessa in August 1997; and Igor Aleksandrov of Tor TV, in Slavyansk in July 2001.
The most egregious was the September 2000 abduction and murder of Georgy Gongadze, editor of Ukrainska Pravda, an online publication that reported on government corruption.
No single crime during Kuchma’s tenure did more to sow fear and self-censorship among journalists than Gongadze’s killing and its aftermath. The government blatantly obstructed the police investigation by intimidating witnesses, tampering with evidence, and suppressing credible allegations that Kuchma may have ordered the killing. This culture of impunity sent a shocking message to the world of Kuchma’s indifference to press freedom and the rule of law. CPJ continues to investigate the murders of a number of other journalists.
Further, the criminal justice system was regularly misused to suppress independent news reporting. Judges routinely ruled against journalists and media outlets in politicized court cases initiated by government officials in reprisal for critical news reports. In October, for example, courts in Kyiv froze the bank accounts and revoked the broadcasting license of the independent television station 5 Kanal after a pro-government member of Parliament filed a defamation complaint against the station’s owner.
Police and prosecutors also consistently failed to investigate and prosecute individuals who threatened, intimidated, and attacked journalists reporting on sensitive issues. Unidentified men beat Yevgeny Savchenko, a correspondent for the newspaper Luganchane in the city of Lugansk, when he tried to prevent them from taking another journalist’s video camera at a local campaign rally on November 29, 2004. Assailants also beat reporter Anna Nizkodubova while she tried to telephone her editors at the Ukrainian News Agency to file a story from the same rally, according to local press reports.
Politicians and government officials are at the center of public debate in a democratic society and, therefore, must tolerate public scrutiny and criticism. A criminal justice system indifferent to violent attacks on the media undermines the free and open expression that is essential to democracy.
We call on you to do everything in your power to ensure that the Gongadze case and the other cases of murdered journalists are aggressively and impartially investigated and prosecuted. We further urge you to remove those officials responsible for the politicized use of the justice system, and to institute systemic reforms to promote justice for all citizens, including journalists.
Reform the politicized regulation of the media: State regulation of the private media was highly politicized during Kuchma’s tenure. Private broadcast media, the primary source of news for most Ukrainians, was tightly controlled with nearly all influential television and radio stations in the hands of the oligarchs who supported Kuchma. The government harassed and often closed broadcast media that criticized government policies, provided news coverage of the political opposition, or broadcast news from foreign outlets such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
One influential agency, the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting, issued private broadcast licenses and monitored regulatory compliance in a secretive, politicized manner. State-owned broadcast media such as the national television station UT-1 operated as political party media outlets, serving the interests of influential politicians rather than the country’s citizens. Government agencies used politicized tax, fire, and safety inspections to punish media outlets in retaliation for critical print and broadcast reporting.
We call on you to ensure that these agencies are reformed, and that they halt the harassment and obstruction of the independent media. We further urge you to remove the officials who obstructed the work of the media.
End all forms of state censorship: Government officials in Kuchma’s presidential administration began distributing secret editorial instructions called temnyky (short for “weekly themes”) by fax and e-mail to influential television stations and newspapers in the months ahead of Ukraine’s March 2002 parliamentary elections. The documents instructed media executives and managers to provide positive coverage of Kuchma and the ruling Social Democratic Party, to discredit critics, and to deny coverage to opposition politicians. Despite having been exposed by a member of Ukraine’s parliament in September 2002, the administration continued distributing temnyky throughout most of 2004.
We call on your new government to halt the use of temnyky and all other forms of direct and indirect control over the editorial policies of independent media outlets. We also urge you to remove the officials involved in the production and distribution of temnyky under Kuchma’s tenure.
While Kuchma’s government used numerous harsh and repressive methods to control the independent media and suppress critical voices, we are hopeful that your election has signaled a clean break with the past.
Your government’s media policies will have great impact on the future of Ukraine. In the short term, these policies could enrich news coverage and elevate political debate. In the long term, these policies could greatly enhance your government’s ability to implement promised reforms and to qualify for membership in NATO and the European Union. By moving decisively to rectify past injustice toward the media, Your Excellency will contribute immeasurably to a new and truly democratic Ukrainian society.
In your January 25 address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, you stated that “the Ukrainian government will work to ensure … real freedom of speech and improvement of the situation with the media,” the independent Kyiv television station 5 Kanal reported. You further said: “I also believe it is my moral duty to provide maximum assistance to the investigation of the Gongadze case and other high-profile investigations of violence against journalists and to bring the culprits to justice.”
We are encouraged by your stated commitment to improving the press freedom climate in Ukraine, and we welcome a constructive dialogue with your government about media reforms. Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We await your response.