Over the past few years, press freedom conditions in Ukraine have gone from promising to precarious, if not dangerous. Although the number and variety of media outlets has continued to grow, attempts to manipulate their content by the administration of President Leonid Kuchma, his political rivals, local officials, and related business interests have caused a profound erosion of press freedom in the country.

The most serious symptom of the decline has been the rising tide of violence against journalists, most notably the murders of reporters and editors for their professional activity. Beatings of journalists have become routine. Few of these cases are investigated properly by police, and they generally go unsolved and unpunished.

On August 11, the veteran editor of a popular newspaper in Odessa, Borys Derevyanko of Vechernyaya Odessa, was shot and killed on a city street in broad daylight. The regional prosecutor swiftly concluded that Derevyanko was assassinated because of his editorial work. Derevyanko’s murder generated considerable publicity and outrage because of his prominence as a journalist and critic of Odessa Mayor Eduard Gurvits. Police arrested a suspect who confessed to the contract killing of Derevyanko. Reflecting a long-standing rivalry, city and regional officials exchanged accusations, each group attempting to link the other to the murder.

Derevyanko’s murder was typical of many violent incidents against journalists, but atypical in that it produced an arrest. Following Derevyanko’s murder, Ukraine’s acting general prosecutor Oleh Lytvak acknowledged that violent crimes against journalists were on the rise. He said 29 journalists reported they were victims of assault between April 1996 and October 1997, but insisted that most cases were random muggings and reflected the overall spread of crime in Ukraine. Lytvak accused journalists of seeking sensational stories, implying that reporters may provoke such incidents. Journalists groups protested his remarks and contested his statistics, blaming the authorities’ poor record of prosecuting attackers for journalists’ reluctance to report crimes against them.

CPJ investigated the suspicious death of Petro Shevchenko, a correspondent in Luhansk for the popular tabloid, Kievskiye Vedomosti, who was found hanged in an abandoned building outside Kiev in March. Although police said they found a suicide note at the scene, Shevchenko’s colleagues hesitated to accept this explanation, citing the reporter’s recent troubles with local security service officials in Luhansk. Shevchenko had complained of pressure from officers from the local branch of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) who were angered by his articles about their conflict with the mayor of Luhansk. His case, as well as a number of assaults against journalists documented by CPJ last year, revealed a disturbing trend of reporters and editors in the perilous midst of political and commercial rivalries.

Independent and opposition news organizations faced other forms of intimidation as well, and they fear more such harassment in the run-up to parliamentary elections in March 1998. Libel suits filed against publications and journalists by political and business figures have proliferated. Most are civil cases punishable with fines, but the officials and business people often seek huge amounts of damages to bankrupt and silence media outlets. Perhaps the most visible case last year was a libel suit filed by Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko against Kievskiye Vedomosti, which bore the brunt of official harassment for its investigations of corruption and organized crime. The minister is seeking damages worth about US$4.5 million from the newspaper, and about US$1 million each from two reporters, Serhiy Kiselev and Henadiy Kirindyasov, for a series of articles alleging impropriety and corruption. The trial has repeatedly been postponed. The paper lost another civil suit in the spring filed against it by the Kiev city administration, paying about a half million U.S. dollars in damages. The paper’s publisher, Mykhailo Brodsky, a wealthy entrepreneur and critic of President Kuchma, claimed the cases were politically motivated. Many journalists, particularly those working for struggling publications outside major urban areas, have resorted to using pseudonyms to avoid prosecution.

Kievskiye Vedomosti and a host of other opposition and independent newspapers also suffered a series of random tax and fire inspections throughout the year. A number of Brodsky’s bank accounts were frozen in the process.

The struggle for control of Ukraine’s airwaves intensified in the run-up to the national elections. The leftist-dominated Ukrainian parliament voted in November to regain some air time for itself by setting up a public television network under its control. Most of Ukraine’s national airwaves have been split up among pro-Kuchma State Television and private broadcasters viewed as loyal to the president, and little time has been available to the president’s political rivals. Most Ukrainians still rely on television as their chief source of news because they cannot afford subscriptions to periodicals. Private broadcasters loyal to the president, such as Studio 1+1, viewed the parliament’s decision to establish its own Public Broadcasting of Ukraine as an attack on independent broadcasting because it would ultimately take air time away from them. The lawmakers claimed they were in effect breaking a monopoly because top officials in the presidential administration and government held financial stakes in Studio 1+1 and other private broadcasters as well as controlling State TV. But the deputies failed to indicate how they would pay for their public television programs, especially as the cash-strapped government owes months’ worth of back wages to workers in the still-huge public sector.

The privately produced popular weekly news magazine show "Pislyamova" was taken off the air by Studio 1+1 on two occasions last year for segments deemed inappropriate. Private program producers are expected to censor themselves on politically sensitive topics if they want even private broadcasters like Studio 1+1 to air their shows.