Ukraine's Yanukovych Vows Support For Embattled Media

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych promised this week to sack any public employee responsible for media intimidation - and some reporters wish he would.

President Viktor Yanukovych

Under Yanukovych, who was elected last February, there have been spate of attacks on journalists, one of them believed to be fatal. Police have been implicated in several of these cases.

'Violence against journalists is definitely increasing in Ukraine's provinces,' said Vitaly Sych, managing editor of the popular weekly Korrespondent.

'But the real question is whether it's because the central government is condoning it, or just unable to prevent it.'

It's not as though the media have made it easy for Yanukovych. Opposition reporters have routinely taken him to task, before and since he became president, for his mangling of the Ukrainian language and his use of prison slang in speeches.

They had a field day in 2004 when they publicized his misspelling of the word 'professor' in his CV. Yanukovych earned a Ph.D. while he was governor of the Donetsk region.

But despite the risks they face, the opposition media are still taking shots at Yanukovych.

Channel 5, Ukraine's leading independent TV news station, for much of September repeated a video of Yanukovych trying to lay memorial flowers at Kiev's Baby Yar Holocaust Memorial, only to have a wind- blown evergreen wreath fly backwards and smack him full in the face.

But Yanukovych has steadfastly maintained unqualified support for an unfettered and open media, even though some reporters seem obsessed with his gaffes.

'I know of no one in my administration, or in the government, who has placed pressure on a journalist,' Yanukovych said, during an interview aired by Channel 5. 'You show me such a person (government employee), and you will see my reaction.'

Yanukovych's commitment, nine months into his presidency, has not reached every corner of the former Soviet republic.

Artem Furmaniuk, a Radio Liberty reporter and operator of an independent news website in Donetsk, Yanukovych's home town, speaks from personal experience.

He says he was assaulted on September 18 by uniformed police, who left him with broken ribs and a concussion.

Their attack on him intensified, Furmaniuk claimed, when he identified himself as a journalist and threatened to make the officers' names public.

In another case, on April 12, an unknown assailant ambushed TV reporter Borys Brahinskiy in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, throwing the journalist to the ground and kicking him repeatedly.

He believes the attack was connected to his investigative reports on local government corruption.

The same day as Brahinskiy's assault, plainclothes police in the western town of Horodok arrested and beat up Andriy Vey, an editor and reporter for the newspaper Ekspress.

The daily had published features on police corruption.

Vasyl Klymentiev, the editor of an anti-government website in the eastern city of Kharkiv disappeared on August 11 after leaving a summer cottage.

Relatives later found his mobile telephone and keys in a boat in a nearby lake, but no body has been recovered.

Investigators have said the evidence points to Klymentiev's kidnapping and murder by local police.

Violence is not the only problem reporters face. Journalists and media watchdogs are concerned about what they see as indirect pressure to go easy on Yanukovych.

Reporters at 1+1 television, a leading channel that broadcasts nationally, published an open letter in June complaining that their editors had banned reporting critical of the president. 1+1 executives said their news programming was even-handed.

Meanwhile, three television stations have run into difficulties with Ukraine's National Television and Radio Committee.

The committee, appointed by the president, issues broadcast licenses. It is currently reviewing the licenses of Channel 5 and a provincial station. A third channel is having trouble getting its license renewed.

Channel 5 executives believe their licensing difficulties are due to pressures from a competitor, Inter television, which is a pro-Yanukovych outlet.

'These trends are extremely concerning,' said Anthony Mills, spokesman for the South East Europe division of the International Press Institute. 'Media friendly with the Yanukovych government, are not having the same problems as the opposition media.'

Source: DPA