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CPJ: no independent media left in Ukraine

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March 30, 2000, 1 a.m. |
'Ukrainian press freedom has deteriorated to such an extent that Ukraine, unlike even neighboring Belarus, now lacks any genuinely independent major news media.' CPJ's report on Ukraine report Attacks on the Press in 1999, which was released on March 22. The CPJ is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1981 to monitor abuses against the press and promote press freedom around the world. Over the past several years, Ukrainian press freedom has deteriorated to such an extent that Ukraine, unlike even neighboring Belarus, now lacks any genuinely independent major news media. From a barrage of violent assaults in 1996-97 to relentless bureaucratic pressures and lawsuits aimed at bankrupting them, media outlets have been forced into the arms of political patrons in order to survive. In contrast to Russia's powerful media tycoons, however, nearly all Ukraine's media magnates lack the power and will to resist President Leonid Kuchma's heavy hand. Former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko was one notable, albeit flawed, exception. Kuchma's successful struggle to eliminate Lazarenko, his only potent progressive rival, laid to rest chances for any serious liberal challenge to his increasingly autocratic rule in the presidential election on Oct. 31. By the beginning of 1999, four media outlets controlled by Lazarenko's supporters had either been shut down or taken over by the president's allies. And in February 1999, the president's politically motivated probe into Lazarenko's apparent self-enrichment during his term as premier in 1996-97 drove Lazarenko to request political asylum in the United States. Although few in Ukraine believe that Lazarenko is completely innocent, Kuchma's selective use of the legal code to crush his only serious opponent set a precedent for his approach to weaker rivals, as well as news media that endorsed them. In the end, the only real threat to Kuchma came from hard-core leftist candidates, who were supported mainly by pensioners nostalgic for the Soviet past. But as with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's reelection in 1996, nearly all Ukrainian media rallied behind the incumbent Kuchma when his opponent in the Nov. 14 runoff turned out to be Petro Symonenko, the leader of the Soviet-style Communist Party of Ukraine. Well before the election, the government blocked all television coverage of parliament, which served as an electoral platform for 13 rival presidential candidates. When the independent STB television channel, the first satellite network in Ukraine, signed a contract with the legislature to air a special program focused on its activities, state officials nearly put the station out of business in retaliation. With its large viewership (about 80 percent of Ukraine's TV audience), STB had been the only nationwide channel to offer balanced coverage of opposition candidates. In a series of measures documented by CPJ, government agencies repeatedly harassed STB with hostile tax audits, along with fire and other technical inspections. In August, authorities froze STB's bank accounts for alleged tax violations. In October, the government finally took control of STB by forcing director Volodymyr Sivkovich to resign after threatening to shut down the network altogether. Kuchma also delayed his appointments to the National Broadcasting Council, the country's top broadcast agency, after the previously appointed council's term expired in December 1998. In order to ensure politically balanced decisions on licensing and regulation, parliament and the president each appoint four candidates to the eight-member body. The legislature's choices included the few top media executives known to oppose the Kuchma administration. But Kuchma refused to name anyone to the National Broadcasting Council, causing a year of regulatory anarchy. With the president's blessing, the previous council continued to dole out licenses, whose legitimacy parliament refused to acknowledge. Kuchma also forced officials at every level of government to harass opposition media. Random hostile tax audits and other costly tactics were used to frighten sponsors, advertisers, and printing facilities, encouraging them to withdraw their business from targeted media outlets. CPJ protested several such cases, although many more cases went unreported by news organizations afraid of further reprisals. The pressures on journalists to engage in self-censorship continued even after Kuchma's reelection. The administration has allowed only 'favored' journalists to attend presidential news conferences. Most recently, it has required journalists who do secure credentials to submit questions in advance and has even provided lists of approved questions for them to ask. The credentials come with an implicit warning that journalists may be excluded from press conferences if they ask questions that 'upset' the president. By year's end, all major broadcast media either displayed a strong pro-Kuchma bias or were controlled by his supporters. The two large-circulation opposition publications, Holos Ukrainy and Silski Visti, were controlled by leftist parties or the leftist-dominated parliamentary leadership. Several relatively professional opposition periodicals (Den, Zerkalo Nedeli) continued to publish, but high subscription prices limited their influence to a segment of the elite. While the Ukrainian press remained diverse, subscriptions for all periodicals totaled only 9.2 million, or around one-fifth of the total population. Meanwhile, over 90 percent of Ukrainian households watched Kuchma-dominated television. CPJ included President Kuchma in its 1999 list of the world's 10 worst enemies of the press. Kuchma threatened to sue CPJ for defamation, but no such suit had been filed by year's end.
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