Attacks on the Press 2007: Ukraine


Intense political rivalries among a trio of powerful leaders created a chaotic and highly politicized environment in which journalists were vulnerable to a variety of abuses. Parliamentary elections in September and negotiations to form a new government in the succeeding months intensified pressure on journalists to take sides. In November, Ukraine’s two pro-Western parties formed a fragile coalition that returned Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko to the prime minister’s post she once held. Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian politician who was prime minister for more than a year, found himself the odd man out, but it was uncertain how long Tymoshenko’s alliance with President Viktor Yushchenko could last.

The growing domestic economy created a surge in media advertising revenue (about 20 percent since 2005), an expanded readership for news Web sites, and a greater demand for business-oriented media, according to international press reports. But these gains were offset by widespread corruption and a dysfunctional criminal justice system that regularly failed to protect journalists from threats, harassment, and violent crimes.

The Ukrainian press continued to adapt to a period of political tumult that began four years earlier. The public’s frustration with the corrupt, authoritarian rule of President Leonid Kuchma erupted in late 2003, when widespread voter fraud and media restrictions sparked the massive Kyiv protests that came to be known as the Orange Revolution. Elections for Kuchma’s successor were eventually won by the reformist Yushchenko, who ended the Kuchma administration’s practice of sending editorial instructions, called temnyki, to news media and who committed his government to solving the 2000 murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze. But the electoral success of the Orange Revolution was undermined by Yushchenko’s intense rivalry with Tymoshenko, the popular prime minister in the first post-revolution government, who pushed for more radical political and economic reform. Yushchenko effectively fired Tymoshenko, creating an opening for Yanukovych and his conservative Party of Regions (PRU) in the March 2006 parliamentary elections.

Yanukovych’s ruling coalition of conservative, pro-Russia parties did what it could to curtail the influence of the news media. In an effort to take greater advantage of state media, the Yanukovych government appointed political loyalist Eduard Prutnyk to head the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting. In March 2007, state-run Channel 1 of Ukrainian National Television canceled its only current affairs debate program, “Toloka,” a day after Tymoshenko appeared on the program and drew high approval ratings during a call-in segment. In April, the PRU tried unsuccessfully to oust the chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Speech and Information, Andriy Shevchenko, a widely respected media rights lawyer and Tymoshenko ally. Shevchenko had urged state media reform and had criticized attempts to restrict independent journalists.

Some members of the PRU were overtly hostile toward the media. In April, PRU activists tossed television crews from NTN and Novy Kanal off a train after the journalists tried to film the leader of the party’s Crimean branch as he traveled to Kyiv for pro-Yanukovych rallies, the Moscow-based human rights news agency Prima reported. In Kyiv, prosecutors decided in July not to file charges against Oleg Kalashnikov, a PRU loyalist and member of parliament, in a 2006 case in which he allegedly attacked two STB TV journalists who had filmed him without permission. The prosecution cited a lack of evidence.

A weak and politicized criminal justice system left journalists throughout the country vulnerable to harassment from politicians, businessmen, and organized-crime groups. Abuses remained so widespread that one-third of the journalists attending a media conference in the southeastern city of Donetsk in April reported having received threats, while half said they had experienced other kinds of pressure in response to their work, the local news Web site Obkom reported.

The political deadlock in Kyiv stalled efforts to transform the government’s network of television and radio stations into an independent public broadcasting system, leaving these media outlets in the hands of officials allied with either Yanukovych or Yushchenko. In effect, the two political camps divided control of the state media apparatus. Most government agencies remained secretive, regularly denying requests for basic public information and sometimes obstructing journalists—for example, by creating cumbersome rules for accreditation.

The media operated in a complex environment that reflected the nation’s cultural divisions: predominantly pro-European, Ukrainian-language regions in the west and north; predominantly pro-Russian, Russian-language regions in the south and east. Reporters, editors, and media owners periodically faced pressure to align their editorial policies with one of the dominant political forces in the country—Yanukovych, Tymoshenko, Yushchenko, or regional politicians. These powerful figures and their allies provided some protection for the press but demanded that journalists report the news in ways that would advance their interests.

Despite Yushchenko’s stated commitment in 2004 to solve the Gongadze case, the government’s investigation focused on low-level suspects and made limited progress. The trial of three senior Internal Affairs Ministry officials accused of murdering Gongadze opened in January 2006 but was adjourned in July 2007 for court-mandated medical examinations of the suspects. A fourth ministry official wanted for the murder, Gen. Aleksei Pukach, fled Ukraine in 2000 and remained on Interpol’s list of wanted fugitives.

Gongadze’s family and press freedom advocates continued to criticize prosecutors for not pursuing those who ordered the murder and for ignoring credible evidence—most notably, secretly recorded audiotapes in which Kuchma is heard instructing Internal Affairs Minister Yuri Kravchenko to “drive out” Gongadze and “give him to the Chechens.” Gongadze, a pioneer among Ukrainian journalists because he published his articles on the Internet, wrote highly critical reports detailing corruption in Kuchma’s administration. “There are people who are trying to cover up for their colleagues,” Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava Gongadze, told reporters on the seventh anniversary of the murder in September.