Attacks on the Press 2009: Ukraine

Top Developments
• Broadcast media face strong political pressure.
• Ex-Interior Ministry official arrested in Gongadze murder.

Key Statistic
5: Years since the Orange Revolution. Optimism has since dimmed.

A deep recession, tensions with neighboring Russia, and a coming presidential election placed greater stress on the country’s already weak and fractured political leadership. While the media remained freer and more pluralistic than in most post-Soviet countries, journalists struggled to report on widespread government corruption and other abuses. A chaotic and sometimes dangerous environment for journalists increased the prevalence of self-censorship.


Main Index

Regional Analysis:
Why a killing in Chechnya
is an international issue

Country Summaries
Other developments

Long evaporated—and almost forgotten—was the elation that had swept through the capital, Kyiv, and much of the country after the Orange Revolution led to the election of reformist President Viktor Yushchenko. While Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko halted censorship of the national media and tolerated pluralism in news reporting after being propelled to office, internal rivalries created political deadlock and doomed their broader plans for reform. A field of 18 candidates was expected to be on the ballot for the first round of presidential voting in January, with Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych among the contenders.

Despite relatively strong laws to guarantee press freedom, the bitter political squabbling in Kyiv left the country’s justice system dysfunctional and politicized. Police failed to act in several cases of attacks on journalists. Officers in Kyiv ignored the pleas of photojournalist Kirill Stremousov in June when three security guards attacked him, breaking his hand and destroying his camera, according to local press reports. Stremousov had apparently angered the guards by taking photos of a car accident. In September, officers failed to intervene when several assailants attacked a television crew from ATV in front of a courthouse in Odessa, smashing their camera, slashing the hand of cameraman Dmitry Dokunov, and striking reporter Olesya Klintsova on the head with a heavy object, according to local press reports.

Authorities made progress in their investigation into the 2000 murder of Georgy Gongadze, editor of the muckraking news Web site Ukrainska Pravda. Aleksei Pukach, a former Interior Ministry general who was named a suspect in 2003, was finally arrested in the northeastern region of Zhytomyr on July 21, according to press reports. Pukach, head of the Interior Ministry’s surveillance department at the time of Gongadze’s murder, was charged with murder and was jailed pending trial.

Authorities allege that Pukach strangled the journalist, and Interior Ministry subordinates then decapitated the body. The other officers were convicted in 2008 of participating in Gongadze’s abduction and murder; they were sentenced to 12 to 13 years to prison. The head was not found, although news reports said Pukach had provided new information about its location. Authorities were testing fragments found outside Kyiv in late year to determine whether they could be matched to Gongadze.

The arrest of the former high-ranking official, made while U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden was visiting Ukraine, came as the government aggressively courted U.S. and European support as a counterweight against Russia. The Kremlin has sought to reassert influence in the former Soviet state, in part by leveraging oil and gas supplies.

While Gongadze’s family and press freedom advocates praised authorities for arresting Pukach, they criticized prosecutors for not investigating credible allegations that former President Leonid Kuchma had ordered the killing. “Hasty justice will only harm the investigation,” said Myroslava Gongadze, the journalist’s widow, according to Ukraine General Newswire. She urged investigators to continue questioning Pukach and others about the plot.

With much of the country’s influential broadcast media owned by politicians and business people aligned with one of the country’s feuding political clans, journalists faced growing pressure from managers to censor themselves ahead of the presidential election, according to news accounts. In June, the Kyiv-based Novy Kanal television station dismissed Volodymyr Pavlyuk, editor of the news program “Reporter,” after he aired a clip that was politically embarrassing to Tymoshenko, according to local press reports. In the clip, Tymoshenko cried out “All is lost!” when the text of her speech disappeared from a teleprompter. The clip became an online sensation because it was seen as a metaphor for the country’s political crisis. Novy Kanal executives said the editor was dismissed not in response to political pressure, but because the use of Internet video clips violated policy, Ukrainska Pravda reported.

Ownership of the country’s six private, national television channels was often effectively hidden by principals who registered the outlets under companies based abroad, according to research by the International Research and Exchanges Board. Given the bitter arguments between the country’s political factions, such tightly held ownership prevented the public from understanding the motivations behind much of the televised political coverage.

Journalists faced problems covering government agencies, a number of which denied access to public information and official meetings. In many instances, the low level of transparency reflected an effort by politicians to hide conflicts of interest. On February 17, reporters from the local newspaper Rovenkovskiye Vesti and the television station RTV in the northwestern city of Rivne were barred from a city council meeting about the appropriation of local land, even though the council was required to hold meetings that were open to the public, according to local press reports.

The political squabbling in Kyiv and jockeying ahead of the 2010 presidential election left media regulatory agencies unreformed. Media analysts and lawyers reported that the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council’s process for issuing broadcast licenses and inspecting broadcast facilities was politicized and secretive.

Politicians around the country demanded loyalty from the local affiliates of the state-run National Television and Radio Company of Ukraine (NTU), retaliating against them if they tried to report the news in an independent manner. In September, local authorities cut off funding for the Dnepropetrovsk branch of NTU in southeastern Ukraine  in retaliation for a perceived failure to sufficiently praise the work of Gov. Viktor Bondar, according to local press reports.

The years of political gridlock in Kyiv exacerbated the cultural divisions between the pro-European, Ukrainian-speaking population in the northern and western regions, and the pro-Moscow sympathies of the Russian-speaking population in the southern and eastern regions. Political leaders in Moscow exploited the tension by using Russia’s powerful state media to flood eastern Ukraine with propaganda vilifying pro-Western politicians in Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities responded by making stricter checks of Russian journalists entering the country and conducting closer monitoring of Russian-language television rebroadcasting within the country.

Ukraine’s economy, which had been growing rapidly, was hit hard by the global recession. The economic free fall led to a drop in the value of the national currency and layoffs in the country’s steel and chemical industries. A significant drop in advertising raised fears that media pluralism would decline because financial pressures and greater competition would force more of the country’s private media outlets to seek government subsidies or come under the ownership of the country’s dominant political and business clans.