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Ukraine enters era of Kuchma II?
THE ISCIP ANALYST
An Analytical Review
Volume XVI, Number 13, 27 May 2010
Western Regions by Tammy Lynch
Ukraine enters era of Kuchma II?
On 21 May, a group of prominent journalists announced the formation of a new campaign called “Stop Censorship.” In a letter released to the public, these journalists suggested that their new group would protest against increasing “pressure from politicians and authorities” on the media. In particular, the journalists—who represent many of the most respected news outlets in the country—complained of “barefaced interference by the authorities in the news making policy of TV channels,” and “police inactivity regarding violent behavior toward journalists.” (1)
These comments suggest that a potentially systemic level of state-condoned censorship may be resurfacing in the country after five years of a relatively free press.
The loss off a free press—and a return to the oppressive and occasionally violent methods of former President Leonid Kuchma—would, in turn, undermine Ukraine’s other newly-developed freedoms, such as freedom of elections and freedom of assembly. Both of these depend on open access to media for all political candidates and civic activists.
In fact, questions have been raised recently about an attempt by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to order students at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv to stay away from anti-government protests or risk prosecution for “illegal activities.” University Rector Borys Gudziak said he was informed that failure to receive approval to protest in advance constituted an illegal activity. (2)
Perhaps not coincidentally, students from the Catholic University recently protested against Ukraine’s decision to extend the lease for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea.
In conjunction with this SBU action, Ukraine human rights activist Yevhen Zakharov recently suggested that all levels of administrations—from city to federal—have returned to aggressively using puppet courts to ban gatherings that may not suit them. (3)
These concerns came two weeks after journalists at several television stations publicly spoke out against what they said was an accelerating “crackdown on the free press.” (4) Representatives from one of Ukraine’s biggest stations—1+1—were particularly blunt. “Our reports which criticize the current leadership are being pulled off the air. We are at risk of losing our profession, the trust of our citizens and the country in which all of us wants to live,” they wrote. (5)
Although these 1+1 journalists have so far seen no clear retribution for their choice to speak out, another station recently found itself under investigation (briefly) by the SBU, which is fully subordinate to the president. (6) In March, President Viktor Yanukovych appointed longtime ally Valeriy Khoroshkovsky as SBU head. Khoroshkovsky is also the owner of Ukraine’s biggest privately-owned TV network, Inter.
Following Khoroshovsky’s appointment to the SBU, the organization opened an investigation of television channel TVi. (7) The investigation was quickly closed after backlash from the media, but it sent a clear signal. The recent SBU questioning of Kommersant’s Artem Skoropadsky, following his coverage of a rally protesting education policy, also has caused concern. (8) The fact that it is journalists who have exposed these possible threats to media freedom underscores the necessity of maintaining an open, free press.
Ukraine observers also have expressed alarm at the sudden near disappearance of investigative journalists at news outlets and the apparent avoidance of a number of topics on television news programs, including opposition activity and criticism of national and local officials. Following the signing of the agreement to extend the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s lease in Crimea, for example, “There was precious little analysis of the agreement… despite the clear economic and political ramifications,” wrote analyst Halya Coynash. Furthermore, “Of particular concern was the chaos in parliament on April 27 [when eggs and smoke bombs were thrown]. … The coverage by all channels was woefully inadequate.” (9) In fact, several individuals reported to this author that they saw no coverage of the parliamentary scuffles on certain channels.
The problem with a lack of media freedom, of course, is that government decisions cannot be monitored and politicians cannot be questioned. Whereas debate often appeared out of control and unwieldy during the last five years, today it appears to many to be almost entirely lacking. The Black Sea Fleet agreement, gas agreements, and the state budget all have seen very little public discussion.
So far, with the exception of limited political opposition activity—which has been regularly met with masses of troops—and statements condemning media censorship, the general population seems to be taking a “wait and see” attitude toward the administration’s current actions. (The administration, for the record, vigorously denies any press censorship.)
However, the current situation lends itself to potential backroom deals and corruption – like those that helped spark the so-called “orange revolution” of 2004. Of course, it has been clear in Ukraine for some time that no real “revolution” occurred. Now, Ukrainians will determine whether the country can continue to claim even a small “evolution,” or whether it—and they—truly never changed at all.
(1) Statement of Journalists, “Civic Campaign ‘Stop Censorship’ Launched,” Institute of Mass Information, 21 May 10 via www.imi.org.ua.
(2) “University Protests ‘Interference’ By Ukraine Security Service,” RFE/RL, 26 May 10 via www.rferl.org.
(3) “Authorities, courts curbing right to peaceful protests,” Kyiv Post, 20 May 10 via www.kyivpost.com.
(4) “Ukraine Journalists threaten censorship strike,” Financial Times, 6 May 10 via www.ft.com.
(6) “Who’s the Big Bad Wolf of Ukraine’s Media Landscape,” RFE/RL, 24 May 10 via www.rferl.com.
(8) “Journalist for Kommersant daily questioned after his assignment,” Institute of Mass Information, 21 May 10 via www.imi.org.ua.
(9) “Who’s the Big Bad Wolf of Ukraine’s Media Landscape,” RFE/RL, 24 May 10 via www.rferl.com.
By Tammy Lynch (firstname.lastname@example.org