New Media Freedom Battle Grips Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Media freedom was widely seen as one of the significant gains of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, but critics say it is now under threat.

Ukrainian activists have held rallies to defend freedom of speech.

The EU, the US embassy in Kiev and the European security watchdog, the OSCE, are among those who have voiced concern about media policy under President Viktor Yanukovych, who took office in February.

The OSCE and another watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, deplored a Kiev court's decision to cancel the allocation of broadcasting frequencies to two privately-run TV channels, TVi and 5 Kanal.

"I viewed the 8 June [court] decision as potentially negative for pluralism in Ukrainian broadcasting," said OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic in a report published on Thursday.

Earlier the US embassy said that "like Ms Mijatovic, we are also concerned about recent steps taken in Ukraine that have the potential to threaten media freedom".

Yanukovych pledge

Meanwhile, Germany has patched up a quarrel with Ukraine over a political analyst from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kiev, Nico Lange. In June he was detained for several hours at Kiev airport after having written a report critical of Mr Yanukovych.

Ukrainian political analysts, opposition politicians and journalists have voiced fears that Mr Yanukovych may be trying to jump back to the era before the revolution.

They point to a recent attempt to change the constitution in a way that would boost Mr Yanukovych's powers. Opposition MPs rejected the proposed changes, which if passed would create a Russian-style presidential system.

Mr Yanukovych has stated publicly on numerous occasions that he will defend the freedom of the press and do all he can "to prevent pressure on the media".

Members of his circle also explain the recent attempted changes to the constitution as necessary to make the government more efficient, especially after the in-fighting that characterised the rule of Mr Yanukovych's pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko.

Campaign against censorship

Journalists speak of a change in atmosphere, where reporters and editors soften their coverage of the government.

Some journalists have joined forces in a "Stop Censorship!" movement, launched to counter what they say are official attempts to intimidate them. Dozens of them wore T-shirts emblazoned with the group's emblem at a recent presidential press conference.

"You don't have much news now," says Savik Shuster, whose no-holds-barred Friday night talk show is a must-see for the country's political establishment. "All the news programmes are more or less the same."

"You don't get a picture of what is happening - I feel it myself," he adds.

Mr Shuster also emphasises that the situation is "not black and white" - Ukraine's media is dominated by various millionaires, and much of the struggle at the moment seems fuelled by their business competition.

But he also underlines the fact that Valery Khoroshkovsky, one of the country's richest men, is simultaneously the head of the state security service and owner of a media empire - including the county's most-watched television channel.

According to the Ukrainian media watchdog Telekritika, Mr Khoroshkovsky also exerts influence over the state body overseeing television and radio.

"We will have an attempt to create Putin's Russia," says Mr Shuster, referring to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose model of strong executive authority has many admirers in former Soviet republics.

"Whether they succeed or not will depend on many factors. But there will be an attempt."

Gongadze scandal

Media issues have a long history of being at the centre of Ukraine's democracy movement.

It was the murder in September 2000 of Georgi Gongadze, an investigative journalist and editor of the Ukrainian Pravda daily newspaper, that sparked the first major challenge to the authoritarian government of then-President Leonid Kuchma.

A member of Mr Kuchma's security detail produced recordings in which the president allegedly instructed underlings to deal with the young campaigning journalist. The Gongadze protests culminated four years later in the Orange Revolution.

Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who lost to Mr Yanukovych in the most recent presidential election, accuses him of trying to install a "neo-Soviet" authoritarian regime.

"I want to wake up [people in] the West a bit," she told the BBC in a recent interview. "I want them to look at Ukraine without rose-tinted glasses."

Ms Tymoshenko says Western politicians are turning a blind eye to Mr Yanukovych's authoritarian tendencies in part because they want better relations with Moscow, which has been supporting him for years.

"I don't want to allow even the thought that the Western democratic world would place its new geopolitical arrangements and its interests in our region higher than democracy and universal human values," she said.

Source: BBC News