Attacks on the Press 2004: Ukraine


Throughout 2004, Ukraine’s authoritarian President Leonid Kuchma carefully groomed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to succeed him when his second term expired at the end of the year. Relying on pro-government television stations, an obedient Central Elections Commission (CEC), and support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kuchma attempted to orchestrate a transfer of power that would have allowed him to remain politically active and avoid accountability for abuses in office.

But Kuchma’s quiet transition turned instead into a loud and peaceful revolution, with hundreds of thousands of supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko flooding the streets of the capital, Kyiv, to protest a fraudulent November 21 runoff that Yanukovych claimed to have won. Termed the “Orange Revolution,” after Yushchenko’s campaign color, the movement broke Kuchma’s hold on power and offered hope that press freedom might truly take root.

Hundreds of journalists for state-controlled media went on strike to protest the manipulated vote and the biased coverage the government sought to force-feed its citizens. The Supreme Court invalidated the election results and scheduled a new runoff. The government was also forced to investigate shocking revelations that Yushchenko was poisoned during the fall campaign.

Yushchenko, his body weakened and his face disfigured by the dioxin poisoning he blamed on his adversaries in the government, triumphed in a second runoff held on December 26.

During the often tense standoff between the first and second votes, media and human rights organizations reported dozens of cases in which authorities harassed and attacked journalists covering opposition protests. Some of the attacks occurred amid the demonstrations in Kyiv, while most others were reported in eastern Ukraine—the industrialized region where Yanukovych enjoyed the greatest support.

Yevgeny Savchenko, a correspondent for the newspaper Luganchane in the city of Lugansk, was beaten by a group of unidentified men at a local pro-Yushchenko rally when he tried to prevent them from taking another journalist’s video camera. Unidentified men also beat reporter Anna Nizkodubova while she tried to telephone her editors at the Ukrainian News Agency to file a story from the rally, according to local press reports.

From the initial campaigning for the first round of voting in October through the November runoff, the country’s influential TV stations supported Yanukovych and gave negative coverage to Yushchenko, according to local and international monitors. Television is the primary source of news for Ukraine’s 48 million citizens—and Kuchma and his supporters effectively controlled the state channel UT-1 and large private TV stations such as 1+1, Novy Kanal, STB, and Inter.

Only 5 Kanal, owned by pro-Yushchenko oligarch Petro Poroshenko, broke from the pattern to provide more balanced coverage—even though authorities regularly harassed its journalists and blocked its transmissions.

However, as reports of widespread vote-rigging emerged, the government began losing its media stranglehold. Soon after the November 21 poll, a UT-1 sign-language interpreter refused to sign the official news bulletin declaring Yanukovych the victor. Instead, 47-year-old Natalya Dmitruk signed: “I am addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine. Don’t believe what they [authorities] say. They are lying.” Dmitruk joined more than 200 of her UT-1 colleagues in a strike against state control over news coverage. Local authorities in the eastern cities of Lugansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv had only limited success in preventing local media from rebroadcasting the Kyiv protests in late November.

That moment of courage and defiance signaled the disintegration of Kuchma’s dictatorial media strategy. From the beginning of 2004, Ukrainian authorities had muzzled independent and opposition media and had effectively neutralized critical voices ahead of the election.

In January, a Kyiv district court closed the largest opposition daily, Silski Visti (Village News), for allegedly spreading ethnic hatred by carrying paid advertisements for a book widely considered anti-Semitic. The newspaper appealed the decision and accused the presidential administration of punishing Silski Visti for criticizing government policies. In late November, a Kyiv appeals court voided the January court ruling and returned it to the district court for review, according to local press reports. At year’s end, Silski Visti continued to publish with a circulation of 700,000.

In mid-February, the private Kyiv radio station Dovira announced that it would discontinue rebroadcasting the Ukraine Service news bulletins of the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The decision came a month after a presidential ally was appointed as the station’s general producer. According to local journalists, RFE/RL was one of the few sources of independent news in Ukraine. The station had carried RFE/RL programming for five years.

The clampdown on RFE/RL carriers intensified two weeks later, when police raided the independent radio station Kontinent and took it off the air. The station had begun airing RFE/RL’s Ukraine Service just five days before. A government media regulatory agency ordered the raid and closure, allegedly because of an expired broadcasting license. But many local reports noted that Kontinent’s license had expired in 2001, raising questions as to why authorities waited three years to close the station. Days before the raid and closure, the station’s director, Sergey Sholokh, fled the country in fear of his safety.

Sholokh, who later received refugee status in the United States, is also a key witness in the investigation into the murder of independent journalist Georgy Gongadze. He told CPJ that authorities were preparing to sue him for running a business without a license.

Against this backdrop, the March death of Heorhiy Chechyk, director of the private radio and TV company Yuta, in an automobile collision raised suspicions. At the time of the accident, Chechyk was driving to a meeting with executives from the Ukrainian Service of RFE/RL to discuss rebroadcasting its news bulletins on the broadband frequencies of the Yuta-owned Radio Poltava Plus, based in the eastern Ukrainian city of Poltava. Many media organizations, noting the context in which the collision occurred, called for further investigation into Chechyk’s death. At year’s end, investigators had announced no such plans.

Prior to Chechyk’s death, the Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information (IMI), a Kyiv-based media watchdog, reported in February that unidentified assailants had raided Yuta’s offices and damaged office equipment, including telephones and computers. Following the attack, Chechyk made a public statement that city authorities were pressuring his company. The local government said Chechyk’s accusations were groundless and called for an investigation into Yuta’s registration and usage of broadband frequencies, IMI said.

Impunity for those who attack journalists remains a widespread problem. IMI reported that there were 41 attacks or threats against journalists in 2004, and 42 such incidents in 2003, none of which have been resolved.

The most blatant example of this culture of impunity is the government’s ongoing obstruction of the investigation into the September 2000 abduction and beheading of Gongadze, editor of Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), an online publication that often reports on government corruption.

Soon after the murder, an opposition leader released audiotapes that a former bodyguard of President Kuchma had recorded implicating top government officials, including Kuchma himself, in ordering Gongadze’s murder. Kuchma has adamantly denied the allegations. Despite the fact that independent experts in several Western countries had previously examined the tapes and pronounced them authentic, the Ukrainian Justice Ministry declared them doctored in September and ruled them unacceptable as court evidence.

Yushchenko’s electoral victory gave hope at year’s end that he might break this
culture of impunity. On December 8, shortly after Ukraine’s Supreme Court declared the November election invalid, Yushchenko pledged to prosecute political crimes if elected and emphasized Gongadze’s case. He vowed to build a country where freedom of speech and the rule of law are respected, and where “a journalist’s head is not cut off because his position is different from the authorities,” The Washington Post reported.