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Ukraine: Repressive Media Environment Threatens Free Elections
A year before crucial national elections in Ukraine, the country's news media is under increasing assault, threatening the chances for a fair and balanced electoral contest, said a Freedom House report issued today.
In a special report, "Under Assault: Ukraine's News Media and the 2004 Presidential Elections," Ukraine's news media was found to be suffering under an elaborate system of censorship that keeps opposition political groups and other organizations critical of the government off the airwaves and out of the newspapers.
The report highlights how President Leonid Kuchma's Administration directly distorts news and skews coverage of political affairs. In addition to state influence and interference, the report outlines other obstacles facing news media in Ukraine, including economic vulnerabilities, poor ethical standards, and inadequate journalist training.
The report is available online.
"Official interference in the operations of Ukraine's news media makes it unlikely that an open contest of ideas and opinions will take place when voters go the polls next year," said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. "The harassment and intimidation described in this report need to be remedied if Ukraine is to have a transparent and fairly contested election. This report should be regarded as an early warning to Ukrainian society and the international community," she said.
Ukraine's pivotal presidential election, scheduled for October 2004, holds significant political, social and economic importance, offering a new beginning for Ukraine, a country mired in official corruption.
But, as the Freedom House report notes, a pattern of news media co-optation in past Ukrainian elections does not bode well for the future. The report warns that despite the inability of President Kuchma to seek a third term, he and his backers will attempt to determine the electoral victory of a chosen successor.
Several independent Ukrainian journalists have been mysteriously murdered in recent years, including Heorhiy Gongadze, a journalist who investigated high-level government corruption. Secret tape recordings made in President Kuchma's office shortly before Mr. Gongadze's disappearance in September 2000, appear to implicate the president in the journalist's abduction.
Unless the international community and Ukraine's media owners, editors, journalists and civic organizations exert substantial pressure, uniformity and bias in mass media coverage of Ukraine's political life will only intensify in the run-up to the elections, the Freedom House report said.
Among several recommendations, the report urges the Ukrainian government to:
- Place the necessary financial support for state-subsidized media under the control of a multi-party committee that includes the major political parties;
- Rigorously investigate murders, attacks and threats -- physical and financial -- against journalists, including the case of Heorhiy Gongadze.
The report also urges the international community to:
- Ensure adequate domestic monitoring and that international election monitoring begins six months before the vote, with extensive and systematic monitoring of news media bias and equal access;
- Negotiate through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe with the Ukrainian government a series of appearances by OSCE monitors on state-subsidized media during the six months leading to election day to engage in a meaningful debate on the election process.
The report was prepared for Freedom House by Jeremy Druker and Dean Cox, Prague-based analysts at Transitions Online (www.tol.cz), in cooperation with the Freedom House Research team.
In its latest annual global survey of press freedom, Freedom of the Press 2003, Freedom House downgraded Ukraine from Partly Freet to Not Free, because of state censorship of television broadcasts, continued harassment and disruption of independent media, and the failure of the authorities to adequately investigate attacks against journalists.
Freedom House background reports on Ukraine can be found online:
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.