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Media crackdown under way?

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April 23, 2010, 12:37 a.m. | Politics — by Peter Byrne

Journalists from Lviv’s Expres daily protested alleged pressure from the tax police on April 13 by blocking the Kyiv-Chop highway, one of the country’s main roads. Protesters continuously crossed the road at a designated crossing point.
© (PHL)

President Viktor Yanukovych defends press, but some ignore message. President Viktor Yanukovych is saying all the right things about protecting media freedoms, which are essential to any democratic society. But somehow the message is not getting through down the line.

“I will always defend media freedom, the journalists and do everything possible to ensure transparency of power and the openness of its actions to the press and society,” Yanukovych said in a statement posted April 20 on the presidential website.

About a decade has passed since the still-unsolved murders of investigative journalists Georgiy Gongadze, who was beheaded near Kyiv on Sept. 16, 2000, and Ihor Alexandrov, who was clubbed to death in Donetsk on July 7, 2001. It has also been more than five years since the democratic Orange Revolution ushered in a new, and supposedly irreversible, era of free speech.



Guards push journalist Serhiy Kutrakov out of Ukraine House in the center of Kyiv, where he was covering an exhibition opening on April 8 for the Novy Kanal TV station. (UNIAN)


But still, two months into the Yanukovych administration, the harsh reality is that journalists are all too often treated as servants or enemies in Ukraine – simply for doing their jobs.

Just ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, many – from Yanukovych to human rights activists – are talking about the health of Ukraine’s “Fourth Estate,” the moniker given to the news media for their vital role in society – akin to the three formal branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial.

Some attacks on media have even disturbed Yanukovych, who talked to journalists in Kyiv about press freedoms on April 22.

“I am extremely concerned about those signals I get about particular incidents in Kyiv and Lviv, where local officials treated journalists who performed their professional tasks improperly and sometimes irresponsibly,” Yanukovych said on the presidential website.

Yanukovych did not mention free speech violations during his meeting with regional journalists in Kyiv on April 22.

The best known recent case involves the Lviv-based Expres publishing group, which last week said it was being persecuted by the State Tax Administration after tax police dragged the newspaper’s general director from his apartment for interrogation downtown.

Ihor Pochinok, a journalist and Expres publishing group director, said the tax agents showed up on 35-year-old Andriy Vey’s doorstep shortly after 8 a.m. on April 12, when he was at home with his two kids, an infant and a 6-year-old. Asked why Vey left his children, Pochinok said: “He didn’t have a choice. They took him by force.”

Vey’s colleagues, including Pochinok, rushed to round up a babysitter and took a camera with them to Lviv’s State Tax Administration. Video footage of the ensuing altercation posted on YouTube () became an instant hit.

More than two hundred supporters employed by the publishing group blocked traffic on the Kyiv-Chop highway the next day to draw attention to the incident. The protest ended only after Lviv Oblast’s police chief, Mykhailo Tsymbaliuk, promised to investigate.

Hanna Herman, deputy head of the presidential administration in charge of free speech and human rights, said Yanukovych would meet with Expres journalists during his trip to Lviv, which has been resceduled to May.

In Kyiv, two journalists -- Ihor Myroshnychenko of the Poverkhnost satellite TV provider and Andriy Mokhnyk of the right-wing radical newspaper Svoboda -- were arrested on April 9 while covering an exhibition, opening in Ukraine House about the massacres of Poles and Jews during World War II by nationalist organizations in the Volyn region.

Myroshnychenko said he was escorted from the room immediately after asking a question, and was forced into a car by men with shaved heads and held until late in the evening. He and Mokhnyk denied allegations that they had gone to the conference to create a disturbance, and were acquitted when taken before a magistrate.

According to the global media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Ukraine has seen an “alarming” deterioration in press freedom in the last three months. The Paris-based group on April 15 voiced support for an open letter, which 17 journalists working for the privately-owned television station TVi sent to Yanukovych on April 8, urging him to put a stop to alleged interference in the media by the State Security Service of Ukraine, known by the Ukrainian SBU acronym.

The journalists complained of harassment by the SBU and accused it of defending the personal and business interests of the State Security Service’s director, Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy, who co-owns Inter TV – the nation’s most powerful channel with national reach. Koroshkovskiy denies the charges.

In a paid advertisement in the Washington Post, timed for Yanukovych’s first trip to America as president from April 11-14, the journalists wrote: “We have grave and deep concerns that the Security Service of Ukraine has been hijacked by the private interests of the agency’s chief, Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy, and members of his family."

The journalists said they had learned of the existence of documents revealing that top SBU officers demanded documents on the competitors for television broadcasting licenses.

Natalia Ligacheva, the editor of Telekritika, an Internet site devoted to media issues, said it is common for Ukrainian media, especially broadcast media, to feel pressure as supporters and opponents of a new president take stock of their media holdings and plan their political futures.

“The nation’s most watched national television channels and largest regional television networks are today all owned and controlled by pro-presidential oligarchs,” Ligacheva said.

Moreover, Ligacheva noted, legal authority for resolving conflicts arising between market players rests with the eight members of the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting. They are appointed by the president and parliament, controlled by Yanukovych and the Party of Regions.

As for Inter TV, the station managed by Khoroshkovskiy's wife, Olena, Ligacheva pointed out that there still is a big difference between formal ownership of television stations and operational control.

Ligacheva said companies are often listed as stakeholders to disguise the true identity of owners. This means that the discussion of who actually owns individual media outlets often has to be a matter of educated speculation. “A key indicator here is who pays the salaries at the channel,” she said. “Another is how journalists cover political events.”

Khorshkovskiy’s spokewoman denied reports that he controls Inter TV. “Khoroshkovskiy turned over the legal rights to manage Inter TV to third parties in December 2006 and has nothing to with the day-to-day management of the channel since,” SBU spokeswoman Marina Ostapenko said on April 21.

Kyiv’s International Media Institute in March documented 17 cases of officials interfering with the work of journalists. The list chronicles alleged beatings of local newspaper editors, the detainment of photographers, the illegal search and seizure of journalists’ property by law-enforcement officials, slander charges and alleged tax violations.

Such spats are common, according to media expert Otar Dovzhenko, who on April 20 published an article on Telekritika, titled “Smack the flak,” in which he called on journalists and officials to distinguish clearly between legal disputes between media owners and state agencies, such as the State Tax Administration, on the one hand, and premeditated intimidation of journalists, on the other.

“There is a paradoxical situation in Ukraine presently because the unimpeded work of the media is constantly doing damage, misinforming society and manipulating public opinion in the interests of someone’s political or commercial interests,” said Dovzhenko, adding that public indifference to the abuse of free speech remains.

“The process of self-discreditation by the media, evidenced by the servile attitude of some leading journalists to the authorities, ignoring professional standards, and the decreasing quality of news reporting has led society to reject mass media en masse as something harmful and alien. The fact that not all journalists, but only the most popular ones, are responsible for y edia is a very important detail, but one that doesn’t change anything,” Dovzhenko said.

In a recent example, major TV news stations did not report ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s call on April 21 for Yanukovych to be impeached for securing a deal that gives Ukraine a 30 percent price discount on imported Russian gas in exchange for a 25-year extension – to 2042 – on the agreement keeping the Russian Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol, Ukraine.

Valeriy Ivanov, who has monitored political bias in Ukrainian news coverage for more than a decade, said it is too early to tell how independent media will develop under the new presidential administration. “The latest shenanigans are nothing out of the ordinary,” Ivanov said. “But what’s important is whether journalists, their owners and the new authorities can find a way to settle their differences amicably. If that happens, then we’re making progress.”


Kyiv Post staff writer Peter Byrne can be reached at byrne@kyivpost.com



A rundown of recent allegations of intimidation of journalists or attempts to impede their work:


Borys Brahinskiy
, a journalist who works for Channel 9 TV Dnipropetrovsk, was accosted by an unidentified youth near the TV station’s building on April 12. Brahinskiy was hit in the face, thrown to the ground and kicked repeatedly. He sustained multiple bruises.

Vyacheslav Radchenko, editor of the Kyiv daily newspaper Ekonomicheskie Izvestiya was last seen on 10:30 on March 31 when he left for work. Journalists at the newspaper say police investigators have interviewed staff about the disappearance, but said there has been no headway in the probe. Relatives have filed a missing report claim with Kyiv’s Svyatoshenskiy district police. Radchenko’s co-workers at the newspaper asked anyone with information about their colleague to call (067)5099123 or email: m.kuhar@eizvestia.com.

Vasyl Demyaniv, the editor of the local weekly Kolomyiski Visnyk, was assaulted as he returned home on March 23 in the western city of Kolomyia. Demyaniv was hospitalized with severe head injuries and a broken leg following the attack, in which unidentified assailants repeatedly kicked him and beat him. Doctors described his condition as serious.

When reporter Serhiy Andrushko of television station STB tried to pose a question to Volodymyr Storozhenko, the head of the city of Kyiv’s main housing department on April 8, Storozhenko grabbed his microphone and threw it in a garbage can.
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