Press in Ukraine still suffering one year after attacks on journalists

A year ago today, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported on the first mass assaults on press freedom in Ukraine, after police were ordered to disperse protesters in the capital, Kiev, and other cities. At least 51 journalists–including local and international reporters–were attacked by police and protesters while covering the early days of the standoff that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych three months later.

Press freedom in Ukraine has suffered a lot since then CPJ research shows. Police carried out at least two more mass-scale assaults against the press and authorities under Yanukovych tried to gag the media through censorship laws. His ousting brought temporary relief, but conditions for the media in Ukraine have plummeted with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula and the conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the east.

That conflict is far from over, but despite the risks journalists covering it face, they continue to file news from the front line and rebel-controlled areas. One would expect that their work would be endorsed as a sign of a free society by Ukraine’s new leaders, who were elected after pledging allegiance to democratic ideals.

Unfortunately this is not the case. The reaction to this week’s news from Kiev about military escorts for the press and proposals to create an information ministry is reminiscent of protests by journalists against censorship under Yanukovych.

On Monday, the press service for the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), a group of Ukrainian military and security agencies involved in the conflict, announced on its website that conflict reporters would be allowed in the war zone only with a military convoy. Local press reports said that authorities required journalists to form groups before seeking a military escort, and that the press would need to be accompanied at all times.

After a backlash from journalists who saw it as nothing more than a ban on conflict reporting, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine issued an update on Twitter that read: “New media rules of access to ATO zone, are temporary, aimed to avoid possible delays at the checkpoints.” There was no clarification on the duration of the regulation or possible consequences for those who failed to follow it.

Another government initiative–discussed in parliament today–was the creation of an Information Ministry to counter anti-Ukraine propaganda. The proposal was not welcomed by local reporters, who protested inside and outside the parliament building with signs saying “Stop Ministry of Truth.” According to the local press, Ukrainian lawmakers ignored the protests and selected an information minister during a vote today.

Oksana Romanyuk, director of the Institute of Mass Information, the Kiev-based press freedom group, told CPJ the press was shocked that authorities had not publicly discussed the idea to create another public agency, which would be an added burden to the already decrepit state budget, or sought advice on how to deal with propaganda.

Romanyuk’s view–shared by many of her colleagues who joined the Stop Censorship campaign and signed a petition to the government–is that authorities should focus on introducing reforms such as countering corruption, development of the media market, and the creation of a public broadcaster.

As for countering propaganda, Romanyuk said that Ukraine already has institutions to deal with it, from national courts and security services to journalists who want to do their work without obstruction.

We fully support her view and urge the authorities to support journalists. They could start with bringing to justice those who ordered and executed assaults against the press corps in Ukraine a year ago.