Ukraine Media Test Liberty, Irk President

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian media are testing the boundaries of their newly won freedoms with hard-hitting exposes on the allegedly extravagant lifestyle of President Viktor Yushchenko's son, sparking a feud with the president over what is fair game in this former Soviet republic.

Yushchenko says the press went too far in attacking his teenage son, while journalists are now questioning the president's commitment to freedom of the press.

"This is a test of what kind of relationship we are going to have in Ukraine between the government and the press, and it is difficult to say how it is going to develop," said Dmytro Krikun, development director at Internews, a non-profit group that aids the formation of a free press.

The muckraking Web site Ukrainskaya Pravda last week ran stories alleging Yushchenko's 19-year-old son, Andriy, drives a $160,000 BMW and frequently slaps down rolls of $100 bills at trendy restaurants.

Amid the controversy, the Interior Ministry said Thursday that police have ordered Yushchenko's son to pay a $3.36 fine for illegally driving the BMW, which is registered to another person. The fine was levied by Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko in a television broadcast late Wednesday.

The reports about Andriy's lavish spending were picked up by newspapers and have riveted readers in the impoverished nation, where the average monthly salary is $152.

Asked about them at a news conference this week, Yushchenko lashed out at the Web site's reporter, calling him a "hitman" and saying that he had advised his son to "find that restaurant check . . . shove this check under that journalist's snout and then sue."

Some 200 journalists responded by signing an open letter, reminding Yushchenko that he had vowed not only to end the intimidation and pressure that had plagued them during the previous decade under Leonid Kuchma but also that he--and his family--would be accountable for their actions. They accused him of "showing disdain for free speech."

"The president's words show that the president himself misunderstands free speech in general," said Ihor Kulia, an independent media expert. "The president has no right to offend a journalist and point out to the journalist what to write about and what not to write about."

Yushchenko sent a letter to the Web site, insisting that he highly values free speech.

"It is very good that we live in a country where there are no taboo themes and persons," wrote Yushchenko, who won a court-ordered presidential repeat vote last year after protests over fraud dubbed the Orange Revolution. He took office in January on a reformist, pro-Western platform.

"It is correct that the president's family lives under big media attention, but that isn't cause to remove his natural right to a private life," he said.

He also said at the news conference that his son, a university student, works at an unspecified consulting firm and earns enough to be able to rent such a costly car.

Andriy, who could not be reached for comment by The Associated Press, told a Ukrainian newspaper, Ukraina Moloda, that his father gave him a "tough talking to . . . probably the most difficult conversation of my life." He added that he felt responsible for his father's outburst at the news conference.

"To be honest, if I'd known that such attention would be focused on me, I would have given less occasion for discussion . . . behaved myself differently," he said.

Ukrainskaya Pravda, where the report on Yushchenko's son first appeared, once was run by Heorhiy Gongadze. He was abducted in 2000 and killed, reportedly in connection with his investigations into high-level corruption. A Kuchma bodyguard later released secretly made tape recordings in which the former president appeared to be ordering action against Gongadze.

Kuchma has not been charged in Gongadze's death and has denied involvement.

Source: Chicago Tribune