Attacks on the Press 2006: Ukraine


Press freedom advances spawned by the Orange Revolution eroded in 2006 as political power struggles yielded the return of repressive tactics and attitudes toward the media. In October, the Kyiv-based Institute for Mass Information (IMI) said the number of beatings and threats against journalists had reached 32, double the number reported in all of 2005. There were no reported journalist murders or imprisonments, but limited progress in prosecuting past killings, and the failure to pursue the masterminds behind the crimes, contributed to an overall climate of impunity.

The March 29 parliamentary election was the first major test of the democratic changes promised by Ukraine’s new leadership. Although international observers largely praised the conduct of the vote as the freest and fairest ever held in Ukraine, CPJ documented seven cases of journalists working for regional media who suffered threats, legal obstruction, or violent assaults in retaliation for their campaign coverage. In several cases, CPJ found, local police and prosecutors were reluctant to pursue those responsible. Police in the western city of Lviv waited 10 days before opening an investigation into a February 17 arson attack that destroyed the offices of the independent online newspaper Vgolos. The paper had recently criticized local politicians, and had also run a story about environmental problems at a regional industrial plant.

Provisions in a 2005 law regulating media coverage of election campaigns led to the temporary closure of local television stations in the Crimean city of Simferopol and the eastern industrial city of Dnepropetrovsk in February and March. The legislation gave courts the authority to suspend broadcast licenses or halt publications for up to four months preceding an election in response to candidate complaints. Media outlets could be muzzled for engaging in vaguely defined “political agitation” or for violating a rigid set of rules governing debates. The law also prohibited outlets from revealing the results of public opinion polls during that four-month period.

The tense political struggle leading up to the election grew fierce in its aftermath. The stakes in the election were high, as it heralded the country’s transition from a presidential to a parliamentary system based on constitutional reforms negotiated in December 2004. Although the president retained key foreign, defense, and security portfolios, parliament was given control of finances and granted the power to dismiss ministers.

The poor third-place showing of President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine coalition revealed popular disillusionment with his unfulfilled pledge to prosecute corrupt members of the prior regime. The results led Yushchenko to engage in prolonged coalition talks with his former Orange allies—Yulia Timoshenko, whose party came in second, and the Socialists, who placed fourth. A new coalition agreement signed in June disintegrated the following month, when Socialist Party chief Aleksandr Moroz defected to a coalition led by former Orange foe Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. On August 3, Yushchenko agreed to nominate Yanukovych as prime minister after the former enemies signed a so-called Declaration of National Unity aimed at creating a grand coalition of their parties and promising to continue along a pro-Western path. Before the ink on their accord was dry, Yanukovych moved to consolidate his power, appointing numerous authoritarian figures from the prior regime and taking steps toward restoring opaque, post-Soviet norms of governance. Among the appointments was Mykola Azarov as first deputy premier. Azarov in turn replaced the chairman and five regional heads of the State Tax Administration, raising fears that the once notorious agency would resume chronic tax audits as a means of harassing opposition media.

The IMI documented 27 overt attempts at journalist censorship and denial of access by public officials, 16 cases of covert pressure and intimidation, and 22 civil defamation lawsuits filed by government officials as of October.

Much of the tension played out at the regional level. Regional councils in Crimea and Donetsk barred journalists from observing their selection of new speakers and other leaders. Ivano-Frankivsk city council deputies voted on May 18 to give the mayor’s press secretary unilateral authority to strip any journalist of his or her credentials. That decision was later overturned, but local journalists continued to complain about official harassment.

Similar tactics soon spread to the capital. On July 12, Oleh Kalashnikov, a deputy from the Party of Regions, and several of his aides grabbed a two-member STB TV crew stationed in front of the parliament building in Kyiv and seized a videotape. The journalists had refused Kalashnikov’s order to hand over footage they had just shot of a rally. Uniformed police nearby failed to respond to the crew’s cries for help. On August 10, a crew from the independent 5 Kanal television station was denied access to a Yanukovych press conference in Kyiv. When the station demanded an explanation, the new premier’s press secretary said that, effective immediately, state-run channel UT-1 held exclusive rights to live feeds of Yanukovych’s news conferences. Journalists who attended said they were required to submit their questions in advance. The next day, the Kyiv mayor’s office informed the media that new restrictions would bar journalists from contacting city hall officials directly for comments or information, limiting their access to the mayor’s press office and official news conferences.

In early September, deputies from the Party of Regions submitted a new bill aimed at making libel a criminal offense. The legislation would penalize journalists for “spreading knowingly false fabrications that defame another individual” with fines, 200 hours of community service, or a year of hard labor. Ukraine eliminated its criminal libel statutes in 2001, when the legislature adopted a new criminal code to meet the standards set for its membership in the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, the 46-member political organization that promotes human rights and the rule of law in Europe.

The pattern of abuse prompted a group of prominent journalists and advocates in Kyiv to launch a new public awareness campaign under the slogan “Hands off my freedom!” On September 15, the eve of the sixth anniversary of the gruesome murder of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze, the group announced a plan to issue a list of “Enemies of the Press” each January to shed light on the top press freedom offenders in the country.

The watershed trial of three police officers accused of carrying out Gongadze’s 2000 abduction and murder began on January 9 in a Kyiv court. Like the investigation that preceded it, the conduct of the trial inspired criticism from family members, colleagues, and press freedom advocates, including CPJ. The appellate panel trying the case, headed by Judge Irina Grigoryeva, closed significant portions of the trial to the press, and witnesses have claimed harassment.

Without describing a motive, Prosecutor General Aleksandr Medvedko claimed Gongadze’s murder was organized by Gen. Aleksei Pukach, who fled the country in 2004, and was committed by the three men now on trial. All four belonged to a secret unit of the Interior Ministry. But critics, including former Justice Minister Serhiy Holovaty, said the prosecutor general’s lengthy investigation shielded the top officials who plotted the journalist’s murder. Holovaty called the trial a farce.

Prosecutors failed to persuade the court to accept as evidence audiotapes—made secretly by a former presidential bodyguard—in which former President Leonid Kuchma was heard instructing Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko to “drive out” Gongadze and “give him to the Chechens.” Kravchenko was found dead on the day he was to be interrogated about the murder in March 2005. His death was swiftly ruled a suicide, though doubts have lingered as to how Kravchenko was able to shoot himself twice in the head. Public pressure amid the release of new evidence forced prosecutors to reopen the Kravchenko investigation in the fall.