Son’s Car Lands Yushchenko in Media Hot Water

KIEV, Ukraine -- Six months ago Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko was a media darling, hailed as a democratic reformer. Today he faces a hail of criticism amid warnings of creeping censorship.

What happened?

His son took a ride in a flashy car.

The car – a sleek BMW that reportedly has a price tag of well over 100,000 euros ($120,000) – peaked the interest of a muckraking Internet newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko's son, Andriy

After poking around, it published a critical story that asked how Yushchenko’s oldest son Andriy, a 19-year-old university student, could afford luxuries like the posh BMW, a cell phone said to cost some 4,000 euros, and restaurant bills in the hundreds of dollars.

The story sparked a furious reaction from the president.

“Act like a polite journalist and not a hired killer,” Yushchenko told a Ukrainska Pravda reporter when the latter asked him to comment on the topic at a press conference late on Monday.

Then in a long-winded, somewhat rambling discourse, Yushchenko said that his son was a moral, well-brought up person who rented the luxury vehicle with earnings from a part-time job.

He also said that the reporter who wrote the story was paid to do so by his political opponents.

Yushchenko’s comments – directed at a reporter from a publication that staunchly supported him during last year’s “orange revolution” – shocked the journalism community, which openly cheered the election of the Ukrainian leader.

By late yesterday, more than 300 reporters had signed a letter that demanded Yushchenko publicly apologise for his remarks.

“You had sworn ... to uphold the freedom of speech,” it said.

“Today you disregard freedom of the press, which includes free access to information, including that of public figures. You have to realise that you and your family are objects of public attention. Society has the full right to know about the revenues, spending and lifestyle of your family.

“We are forced to talk about the country sliding into censorship, self-censorship and the lack of freedom of speech.”

Yushchenko has sought to soothe tensions

“It is right for the president’s family to live under the press spotlight,” Yushchenko said in a letter to Ukrainska Pravda late on Tuesday. “But it’s not a reason to deny my family the right to a personal life.”

But journalists say the conflict is the latest in a worrying trend by Yushchenko’s administration, which ran on pledges of transparency and a free press but has since sought to tighten control over Internet publications and often dismisses criticism as a result of a political order.

“Apparently the current Ukrainian president thinks that freedom of the press is when he reads flattering articles,” one journalist wrote in the Den daily yesterday.
Observers say the conflict is a test of whether Yushchenko’s administration will fulfil its campaign pledges now that it is in power.

“We’re not talking about invasion of privacy of the president or his son,” said Yevgen Bystritskiy, executive director of the non-governmental organisation Renaissance Fund, which monitors the Ukrainian media.

“This is a question of principle of how transparent are relations between the government and oligarchs,” he said.

Ukrainska Pravda said spending habits of Ukraine’s first family are fair game for reporters, since business interests under the previous regime often influenced policymakers by lavishing gifts on them and their families.

“This government differs little from the previous one in that it doesn’t like and it doesn’t handle criticism well,” Yelena Pritula, chief editor, told AFP.

“They haven’t found a way to react to it,” she said. “Yushchenko’s reaction differed little ... to what (previous president Leonid) Kuchma would have said in a similar situation.”

“Instead of dealing with the situation, the president decided to insult the journalist,” she said.

Source: AFP