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Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Ukraine

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2005
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2004 - Ukraine, February 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566f9c.html [accessed 17 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Throughout 2004, Ukraine's authoritarian President Leonid Kuchma carefully groomed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to succeed him when his second term expired at the end of the year. Relying on pro-government television stations, an obedient Central Elections Commission (CEC), and support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kuchma attempted to orchestrate a transfer of power that would have allowed him to remain politically active and avoid accountability for abuses in office.

But Kuchma's quiet transition turned instead into a loud and peaceful revolution, with hundreds of thousands of supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko flooding the streets of the capital, Kyiv, to protest a fraudulent November 21 runoff that Yanukovych claimed to have won. Termed the "Orange Revolution," after Yushchenko's campaign color, the movement broke Kuchma's hold on power and offered hope that press freedom might truly take root.

Hundreds of journalists for state-controlled media went on strike to protest the manipulated vote and the biased coverage the government sought to force-feed its citizens. The Supreme Court invalidated the election results and scheduled a new runoff. The government was also forced to investigate shocking revelations that Yushchenko was poisoned during the fall campaign.

Yushchenko, his body weakened and his face disfigured by the dioxin poisoning he blamed on his adversaries in the government, triumphed in a second runoff held on December 26.

During the often tense standoff between the first and second votes, media and human rights organizations reported dozens of cases in which authorities harassed and attacked journalists covering opposition protests. Some of the attacks occurred amid the demonstrations in Kyiv, while most others were reported in eastern Ukraine – the industrialized region where Yanukovych enjoyed the greatest support.

Yevgeny Savchenko, a correspondent for the newspaper Luganchane in the city of Lugansk, was beaten by a group of unidentified men at a local pro-Yushchenko rally when he tried to prevent them from taking another journalist's video camera. Unidentified men also beat reporter Anna Nizkodubova while she tried to telephone her editors at the Ukrainian News Agency to file a story from the rally, according to local press reports.

From the initial campaigning for the first round of voting in October through the November runoff, the country's influential TV stations supported Yanukovych and gave negative coverage to Yushchenko, according to local and international monitors. Television is the primary source of news for Ukraine's 48 million citizens – and Kuchma and his supporters effectively controlled the state channel UT-1 and large private TV stations such as 1+1, Novy Kanal, STB, and Inter.

Only 5 Kanal, owned by pro-Yushchenko oligarch Petro Poroshenko, broke from the pattern to provide more balanced coverage – even though authorities regularly harassed its journalists and blocked its transmissions.

However, as reports of widespread vote-rigging emerged, the government began losing its media stranglehold. Soon after the November 21 poll, a UT-1 sign-language interpreter refused to sign the official news bulletin declaring Yanukovych the victor. Instead, 47-year-old Natalya Dmitruk signed: "I am addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine. Don't believe what they [authorities] say. They are lying." Dmitruk joined more than 200 of her UT-1 colleagues in a strike against state control over news coverage. Local authorities in the eastern cities of Lugansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv had only limited success in preventing local media from rebroadcasting the Kyiv protests in late November.

That moment of courage and defiance signaled the disintegration of Kuchma's dictatorial media strategy. From the beginning of 2004, Ukrainian authorities had muzzled independent and opposition media and had effectively neutralized critical voices ahead of the election.

In January, a Kyiv district court closed the largest opposition daily, Silski Visti (Village News), for allegedly spreading ethnic hatred by carrying paid advertisements for a book widely considered anti-Semitic. The newspaper appealed the decision and accused the presidential administration of punishing Silski Visti for criticizing government policies. In late November, a Kyiv appeals court voided the January court ruling and returned it to the district court for review, according to local press reports. At year's end, Silski Visti continued to publish with a circulation of 700,000.

In mid-February, the private Kyiv radio station Dovira announced that it would discontinue rebroadcasting the Ukraine Service news bulletins of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The decision came a month after a presidential ally was appointed as the station's general producer. According to local journalists, RFE/RL was one of the few sources of independent news in Ukraine. The station had carried RFE/RL programming for five years.

The clampdown on RFE/RL carriers intensified two weeks later, when police raided the independent radio station Kontinent and took it off the air. The station had begun airing RFE/RL's Ukraine Service just five days before. A government media regulatory agency ordered the raid and closure, allegedly because of an expired broadcasting license. But many local reports noted that Kontinent's license had expired in 2001, raising questions as to why authorities waited three years to close the station. Days before the raid and closure, the station's director, Sergey Sholokh, fled the country in fear of his safety.

Sholokh, who later received refugee status in the United States, is also a key witness in the investigation into the murder of independent journalist Georgy Gongadze. He told CPJ that authorities were preparing to sue him for running a business without a license.

Against this backdrop, the March death of Heorhiy Chechyk, director of the private radio and TV company Yuta, in an automobile collision raised suspicions. At the time of the accident, Chechyk was driving to a meeting with executives from the Ukrainian Service of RFE/RL to discuss rebroadcasting its news bulletins on the broadband frequencies of the Yuta-owned Radio Poltava Plus, based in the eastern Ukrainian city of Poltava. Many media organizations, noting the context in which the collision occurred, called for further investigation into Chechyk's death. At year's end, investigators had announced no such plans.

Prior to Chechyk's death, the Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information (IMI), a Kyiv-based media watchdog, reported in February that unidentified assailants had raided Yuta's offices and damaged office equipment, including telephones and computers. Following the attack, Chechyk made a public statement that city authorities were pressuring his company. The local government said Chechyk's accusations were groundless and called for an investigation into Yuta's registration and usage of broadband frequencies, IMI said.

Impunity for those who attack journalists remains a widespread problem. IMI reported that there were 41 attacks or threats against journalists in 2004, and 42 such incidents in 2003, none of which have been resolved.

The most blatant example of this culture of impunity is the government's ongoing obstruction of the investigation into the September 2000 abduction and beheading of Gongadze, editor of Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), an online publication that often reports on government corruption.

Soon after the murder, an opposition leader released audiotapes that a former bodyguard of President Kuchma had recorded implicating top government officials, including Kuchma himself, in ordering Gongadze's murder. Kuchma has adamantly denied the allegations. Despite the fact that independent experts in several Western countries had previously examined the tapes and pronounced them authentic, the Ukrainian Justice Ministry declared them doctored in September and ruled them unacceptable as court evidence.

Yushchenko's electoral victory gave hope at year's end that he might break this culture of impunity. On December 8, shortly after Ukraine's Supreme Court declared the November election invalid, Yushchenko pledged to prosecute political crimes if elected and emphasized Gongadze's case. He vowed to build a country where freedom of speech and the rule of law are respected, and where "a journalist's head is not cut off because his position is different from the authorities," The Washington Post reported.


2004 Documented Cases – Ukraine

JANUARY 28, 2004
Posted: April 21, 2004

Silski Visti
CENSORED

Tthe Shevchenkivskyy District Court in the Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, ordered the closure of the popular opposition daily Silski Visti for publishing excerpts from a book, which was widely considered anti-Semitic, in the form of paid advertisements in a September 2003 issue.

Local and international reports, however, suggest that the issue of anti-Semitism was used as pretext to close Silski Visti, which was critical of the government and supportive of the opposition Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU) in an election year.

While some Ukrainians found the advertisements offensive, they said that closing the paper was unjust. Yevhen Chervonenko, vice president of the Eurasian Jewish Congress – which represents Jewish communities in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine – and a member of the Ukraine's Parliament, called the closure a "calculated provocation by the presidential administration against the media."

Chervonenko said that while Silski Visti should apologize for the advertisements, the ads were not sufficient reasons for closing the publication. He cited other instances of publishing ethnically sensitive materials in Ukrainian media that went unnoticed by authorities and called Silski Visti "a victim of double standards," the Kyiv based Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reported.

MARCH 3, 2004
Posted: April 21, 2004

Radio Kontinent
CENSORED

Independent station Radio Kontinent was raided by police and taken off the air. The police confiscated the station's radio transmitter and broadcasting equipment and sealed the offices.

The move came after five days after Kontinent began rebroadcasting the Ukrainian Service programming of the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on its 100.9 FM frequency.

According to local and international reports, the raid was ordered by the Ukrainian State Center of Radio Frequencies and Supervision for Telecommunication (Ukrchastotnaglyad), the regulatory body responsible for assigning radio frequencies, allegedly because of Kontinent's expired broadcasting license. However, as many local reports noted, Kontinent's broadcasting license had expired in 2001, raising questions as to why the station was closed three years later, and leading others to speculate that the raid was designed to squelch critical reports during the run-up to the October presidential elections.

AUGUST 17, 2004
Posted: August 20, 2004

Dmitry Shkuropat, Iskra
ATTACKED, THREATENED

Shkuropat, a correspondent for the independent weekly Iskra (Spark), was beaten in the middle of the day on a main street in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporozhye. Taped interviews for an article about government corruption were taken.

An unknown assailant intercepted Dmitry about 1:30 p.m and began beating him without explanation, according to Shkuropat and local press reports. Shkuropat, who was on his way to Iskra's newsroom, fell to the ground and lost consciousness.

In a telephone interview, Shkuropat said the assailant took a bag containing two tape recorders with interviews for his pending story. Shkuropat was with a colleague from the news agency UNIAN, but she was not harmed and nothing was taken from her.

Press reports said local police have opened an investigation. Attempts by CPJ to reach police for comment were unsuccessful.

Iskra's director, Viktor Ilichyov, told CPJ that the newspaper often receives intimidating phone calls from local business and political authorities after publishing critical articles. He refused to identify the callers, saying he feared retaliation.

Ilichyov said he believes Shkuropat was targeted for his work. "Given the topics that Dmitry investigates," he said, "this attack cannot be a random robbery." For the past two years, Shkuropat has reported on regional crime and government corruption.

Two months ago, Shkuropat said, several unknown men threatened his girlfriend. The assailants told her that she would be harmed unless Shkuropat stopped his investigative reporting, he said.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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