Study Detects Decline In Ukraine’s Press Freedom

KIEV, Ukraine -- A recent study conducted by an international NGO indicates that press freedom in Ukraine has gotten worse over the last year, calling into question yet another of the reforms promised by President Viktor Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution, which swept him to power in late 2004.

France-based Reporters without Borders, which conducts an annual international study on press freedom, reviewed 98 countries this year.

The results of the study point to political instability due to continuing tension between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych as the main factor negatively affecting the country’s independent journalism.

Yushchenko defeated Yanukovych’s fraud-marred presidential bid in 2004 with promises to promote European liberties, only to support his political nemesis’ return to power last summer as a stronger-than-ever head of government.

“We would have expected that since Yushchenko came to power … the situation and the climate towards the press would have been easier, but unfortunately … [he] has encountered political difficulties he is not responsible for, which have resulted in … a reduction in press freedom in Ukraine,” said Elsa Vidal, head of the European and Post-Soviet Bureau at Reporters without Borders.

The study said that the greater press freedom achieved by the Orange government in 2005 was offset last year by physical attacks against journalists and the court system’s inability to complete the murder trial of investigative reporter Georgiy Gongadze.

Gongadze’s decapitated body was found in a wood outside Kyiv in late 2000, setting off weeks of high-profile street protests that called for the dismissal of top officials, including then President Leonid Kuchma.

As a presidential candidate and hero of the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko had promised to bring the people who ordered Gongadze’s murder and other corrupt former officials to justice.

But so far, only those who actually carried out the murder have been brought to justice.

“Violence and pressure are the most worrying events we witnessed last year,” Vidal said.

Victoria Sjumar, director of the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), a Ukraine-based NGO that supports mass media and monitors press freedom in the country, also noted a decline in Ukraine’s press freedom due to violence against journalists.

“Press freedom … has unfortunately gotten worse, although, of course it is better than it was under Kuchma,” she said.

Sjumar cited a rise in journalist beatings and attacks throughout last year. According to IMI, there were 28 such attacks compared to only 16 in 2005.

“There has also been a rise in censorship, political and economic pressure and lawsuits against journalists,” she added.

Sjumar said, “there hasn’t been any kind of institutional changes … It practically depends on the authorities in each region.”

The recent Reporters without Borders study details several instances of violence and threats against journalists throughout Ukraine in 2006.

On March 1, the home of the editor of Simferopol newspaper Pervaya Krimskaya, Lilia Bujurova, was set aflame; and on April 8, the editor of Stolichnye Novosti, Vladimir Katsman, was beaten.

The study also mentioned questionable lawsuits brought against journalists as a result of their work.

Margarita Zakora, the editor of Dzerzhynets, a weekly publication in Dniprodzerzhynsk, Dnipropetrovsk Region, faced 19 nearly-identical lawsuits filed by regional officials after publishing articles about local official corruption.

Shots were fired at her apartment, and pornographic leaflets about her and her 20-year-old daughter were distributed after she published two articles critical of a local businessman.

Journalist Vladimir Lutiev was detained in June 2005 on charges of attempting to murder a Crimean MP, only to be convicted a year later for a different crime. Lutiev had accused the MP of corruption and election fraud in one of his articles.

“Criminals understand that in this country, attacks on journalists pass without acknowledgement,” Sjumar said.

Although Reporters without Borders’ 2007 study cites a decline in media freedom in Ukraine, a 2006 index compiled by the same organization showed Ukraine improving its press freedom rating in relation to other countries listed.

Vidal said the discrepancy is due to a decrease in world press freedom in general, rather than to an improvement in Ukraine.

In the 2006 index, which rated 168 countries, Ukraine rose seven slots to position 105 from its ranking in 2005 at 112th, tying with India.

According to the index, countries of the former Soviet Union are the worst offenders of press freedom in Europe.

While Moldova (85) and Georgia (89) scored markedly higher than Ukraine, Russia (138) and Belarus (151) neared the bottom of the index.

Central Asian countries in the CIS scored less than Ukraine, with Uzbekistan (158) and Turkmenistan (167) nearing the very bottom.

Reporters without Borders also noted a “steady erosion of press freedom” in several democratic countries, including France (35), Japan (51), and the U.S. (53), whose situations it characterized as “extremely alarming.”

According to the 2007 study, at least 110 journalists were killed worldwide in 2006, the most recorded work-related deaths in journalism since 1994.

Source: Kyiv Post