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HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: FRAGILE FREEDOM OF SPEECH

08.09.2005

«Despite the relations which have changed recently, persecution of journalist continues», comments Rachel Denber, Acting Executive Director of the Human Rights Watch Section for Europe and Central Asia, «the Ukrainian regime has indeed loosened its iron grasp – but not much.»

On 3 December, the Supreme Court, with a situation in the country of mass acts of protest and separatist sentiments, referring to numerous violations, declared the results of the second round of presidential elections between the incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko invalid.

The re-run of the second round is set for 26 December. One of the results of the present political crisis has been, despite all else, some let-up in the strict control of the present regime on the mass media.

This is particularly evident in the nature of television news which has changed and in the decrease in political pressure on newspapers, orientated towards a West Ukrainian or capital city audience.

«There is already more balanced information appearing about the opposition candidate, – Rachel Denber affirms. – However this is connected not so much with the commitment to freedom of press and of expression of ideas, which the government asserted, as with an overestimation by many forms of mass media of the political situation».

Human Rights Watch, which on 25 December is concluding its 10-day mission to assess the situation as regards freedom of press in the regions, notes the retention in a number of regions of the country of control and continuation of persecution from the regime. The years of repression directed at independent journalists and of unofficial censorship have led to a situation today where one can virtually not talk of a culture of independent mass media and about professionalism of journalists.

Human Rights Watch drew attention to the fact that changes in the presentation of the news do to some extent reflect a sharp change in the political situation over the recent period. For example, on 28 October 42 television journalists from several leading pro-regime Kyiv channels publicly announced that they were refusing to follow «directives» and promised to report with maximum objectivity on both candidates. In Kyiv, Lviv, Donetsk and Luhansk, editors and journalists unanimously agreed that there was a feeling of truly greater balance in the presentation of material mass media broadcast nationwide.

In Lviv region stronghold of Viktor Yushchenko in Western Ukraine, Human Rights Watch noted a clear rejection of previous practice. Some changes, however, appeared motivated by opportunism, dictated by the rapid change in political circumstances. Thus, after the mass protests and the official decision to hold a re-vote, the daily newspaper «Za vilnu Ukrainu»(«For a free Ukraine»), which had previously followed the government line, changed the color of its logo to orange, which has become the symbol of the opposition.

Human Rights Watch also comment that regional television channels and mass media in the east of the country have become more independent. In the second half of December, local journalists told our mission that after the second round on 21 November, they observed for the first time a significant increase in the numbers of media outlets which reported on the activity of Viktor Yushchenko.

However our interviews with journalists in Donetsk and Luhansk where the support for Viktor Yanukovych is traditionally strongest, suggest that control over the mass media and persecution of journalists are continuing. The opposition mass media are scarcely noticeable or entirely suppressed by the regime, and the majority of those remaining have turned into speakers for the local administration. The remaining journalists still attempting to express alternative political views meet with an antagonistic attitude from the local authorities.

On 21 November, the deputy editor of the «Ostrova» («Islands»; the only large opposition newspapers in the Donetsk region), Sergiy Formanyuk was assaulted while trying to enter a polling station with a video camera. According to him, at the entrance he was stopped by three unidentified men and by a man who introduced himself as the chairperson of the Territorial Electoral Commission. The latter demanded that Formanyuk present not only his press accreditation, but also additional documents. When the journalist took out his Dictaphone in order to tape the conversation, the person describing himself as the chairperson, grabbed it out of Formanyuk’s hands and told the three unidentified individuals to «deal with» him. The latter dragged Formanyuk out of the building, threw him to the ground and began kicking him. They also attempted to take his video camera away. The police officers nearby must have seen what was happening, but they made no attempt to interfere. Despite every attempt by the journalist to have his assailants brought to justice, the police have refused to open criminal proceedings.

On 24 November the Luhansk regional council at an emergency session prohibited cable communications companies from broadcasting either «Era» or «Channel 5», which were coming out largely on the side of the opposition. This decision was soon annulled, however the regional council turned to the Committee on television and radio with a request to remove the licences from both television channels.

Luhansk journalists also informed Human Rights Watch about an unprecedented positive event: on 21 December, Luhansk regional television (LRT) – the mouthpiece for local administration – for the first time invited a representative of the opposition to a live broadcast.

In all of this, the regained freedom seems, at best, fragile and incomplete. One can still not talk of real commitment of the government to freedom of the mass media.

«The new President has a unique opportunity: to reject in one move the old habits of repression of the mass media» stated Rachel Denber. «A free press is one of the pillars of any democratic state and the prerequisite for development of political pluralism.»

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