When do you notice what isn’t there?
An overview of press and freedom of speech concerns, especially diminishing objectivity and fullness of information on television channels (sent to the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Rapporteur on Ukraine, and many other EU, PACE officials and NGOs)
Over recent months, there have been repeated statements of concern and protests, including from international media organizations, regarding threats to freedom of speech and press freedom in Ukraine. Most such appeals have been ignored by the President and his Administration or elicited only assurances of commitment to freedom of speech and denial of any problem.
The following is written in the light of President Yanukovych’s interview published on the Ukrainian Service of Deutsche Welle on 28 August (http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,5951150,00.html) before his scheduled meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Germany on Monday, and calls, which we fully endorse, from Germany’s Reporter ohne Grenzen for concerns over press freedom and respect for freedom of expression to be raised during their talks.
It is unclear why the President should be so little aware of cases and concerns which have received wide coverage on Internet publications, and some printed media outlets, as well as human rights sites. It is, however, worryingly plain why the substantial part of the population who receive their information largely from the television should be in the dark. It is for this reason that reaction from the international community is vital. More detail is provided below after a list of cases which have been highlighted by Reporters without Borders, the International Press Institute, IFEX and others.
1. The disappearance on 11 August of Vasyl Klymentyev, Chief Editor of the newspaper “Novy Styl” [“New Style”] which had since 2004 been writing about corruption among law enforcement officers and others in the Kharkiv region.
This case has over the last week received attention at central level. At a press conference the Minister of Internal Affairs stated that it was to be investigated by the MIA Central Investigation Department, and that local police might be implicated in the journalist’s murder (see http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1282819682 and the links below).
It should be mentioned that the main piece of evidence thus far, Mr Klymentyev’s mobile telephone, was supposedly found in rather strange circumstances and an article in the authoritative newspaper Dzerkalo tyzhnya (Russia at http://www.zn.ua/1000/1550/70293/) interviews another journalist who suggests that the high profile and location of the mobile found (near the home of one of the people implicated in Klymentyev’s articles) may all have some other motives.
Be that as it may, Vasyl Klymentyev has not been seen since 11 August, the police initiated a murder inquiry almost immediately and high-ranking public officials are stating that the disappearance and likely murder were linked with his journalist activities.
This is probably the only case where the authorities have responded and not denied concerns raised by media / human rights groups
2. Seizure of assets of the main opposition TV channel in the Crimea “Chornomorska”. Volodymyr Prytula, Head of the Committee for the Monitoring of Freedom of Speech in the Crimea, has appealed to the President over this case, and his organization has called on media and human rights groups in Ukraine and abroad to show support. The behaviour of the Security Service [SBU] and tax police over this matter raise serious doubts, especially with elections scheduled for 31 October. See: http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1282253650 and the links below for more details. Chornomorska joined TVi and Channel 5 in a “warning strike” on 14 August http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1281837268
3. TVi and Channel 5 and the court ruling over frequencies (revoking the results of the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council’s tender in January and thus removing broadcasting frequencies of two relatively independent channels which still report criticism of the regime. The appeal against this ruling has just been overturned in Kyiv (khpg.org/index.php?id=1283177247 ). During the hearings journalists from “Stop Censorship” and other groups staged demonstrations which received no coverage on central TV channels.
The civil case was brought by two TV channels within the Inter Media Group owned by Vasyl Khoroshkovsky, Head of the SBU.
It is hard to understand the President’s denial of anything untoward in a situation where the owner (with his wife as Director) of the main media holding in the country is also the Head of the Security Service, and following the President’s Decree in May, member of the High Council of Justice which has direct influence over the appointment and dismissal of judges.
The conflict of interests is by no means theoretical. In April the SBU approached the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council demanding documents about the competition for television frequencies from 27 January and also a letter from the SBU to the regulating body asking that the satellite platform “Poverkhnost Sport TV”, which specifically drew the regulators’ attention to the transmission of TVi (cf. khpg.org/index.php?id=1270822965)
On this subject, it is worth noting that on 12 August the High Administrative Court rejected the law suit brought by TVi asking the court to find the President’s decree appointing Khoroshkovsky to the High Council of Justice unlawful. The court’s explanation, promised “in a few days”, has not yet been made public, and it is therefore unclear what aspect of Mr Khoroshkovsky’s career as a media magnate and public official was deemed by the court to comply with the legal requirement that members of the said Council have “a higher legal education and experience of work in the field of law of no less than ten years”.
4. Attacks on journalists by members of the law enforcement agencies. In his interview to German journalists, Mr Yanukovych said that he often meets journalists, and challenges them to give him specific examples. The problem is that this is precisely what journalists and media organizations do, and they are ignored. This is even in cases where the Deputy Head of the President’s Administration has acknowledged that the behaviour in question was reprehensible, as with the attack on journalist Serhiy Andrushko from TV STB by a Presidential guard. .
In a letter to the President, the International Press Institute expressed various concerns, including over this and other acts of violence against journalists (http://www.freemedia.at/singleview/5093/ ) concern including over specific attacks on journalists, including that by a member of the President’s Guard. The President’s site on that same day produced an “answer” which stated that: “The facts contained in the International Press Institute’s letter were examined in detail and serious conclusions were made”
Please see http://www.kyivpost.com/news/opinion/op_ed/detail/78657/ for information about what these serious conclusions must be when, despite recordings of the assaults, in each case the authorities have effectively justified the obstruction or violence against journalists.
The Role of the SBU
As well as the above-mentioned issues, the SBU has received notoriety over recent months due to forms of vigilance which have an extremely Soviet flavour to them. These include:
- the visit to the Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University on 18 May (http://ucu.edu.ua/eng/news/549/ )
- the attempt to stop Nico Lange, Director of the Kyiv Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation from returning to Kyiv on 26 June
It should be stressed that following outcry over these two incidents, the authorities have given conflicting stories depending who they are talking to.
Mr Khoroshkovsky’s justification of such “visits” to Rectors can be found at http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1277927174 This is in marked contrast to statements coming from the President’s Administration when speaking to a foreign audience.
The same lack of clarity is seen with the case of Nico Lange, where Ukrainians are told that he was correctly stopped as posing a risk (unspecified) to national security (http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1279891181 ), while German and other audiences hear that it was all a misunderstanding.
- The SBU have taken a written undertaking from blogger Oleh Shynkarenko to not criticize the authorities “in strong form” on his Live Journal blog. More information about this case and the supposed response from President Yanukovych can be found here http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1281449338 The clear message that the SBU are watching what people write, even on blogs, was clearly deliberate since the young man in question in no way gave the impression of seriously planning any dangerous action. Such “prophylactic” measures were standard in Soviet times. They have no place in a democracy.
- The same applies to the investigation initiated by the Kharkiv SBU against members of the Kharkiv regional branch of the Union of Ukrainian Youth [SUM] who wrote a letter to President Obama. (http://www.glavnoe.ua/indexg.php?article_id=3678 in Ukrainian; the letter can be read here in English
- According to correspondent from the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Konrad Schuller, Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] is questioning people who contact foreign journalists. Information in English about his allegations, and his question to the President can be found at: http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1283036913 and http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1282916678
The vital role of the media in a democratic society
Virtually none of the information given above has received coverage on the national TV channel UTV-1 or most other television channels. The two channels presently under threat of losing terrestrial broadcasting channels, TVi and Channel 5, as well as Chornomorska in the Crimea, have been vital in presenting more than just the government’s view of things.
It should be stressed that one of the main offenders is UTV-1, financed by the taxpayer, who has every right to receive full and objective information. Monitoring of television news carried out by Telekritika and the Institute for Mass Information shows that there is a clear trend towards more and more concealment of information of public importance (an account of the July monitoring is available here in English: http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1282678029 ). It is interesting that the trend seems to have been stemmed on “1 + 1” whose journalists were the first, in May, to come out publicly with a protest against censorship and pressure on them.
The results for UTV-1 are, as mentioned, disturbing.
While politicians in any democratic country may fantasize from time to time about news broadcasts which say either nice things about them, or nothing at all, they would certainly not endeavour to impose such a situation. This is what has effectively happened in Ukraine. More detail can be found at Discredited by Silence http://telekritika.kiev.ua/pereklad_cenzura/2010-08-25/55233 but in brief, the new management of UTV-1, appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers, is under Yehor Benkendorf, who recently produced a eulogistic film about Yanukovych, and his Deputy V. Arfusz who has openly stated that the National Television channel is there to provide positive information about those in power.
Some of the reports on UTV-1 have all the hallmarks of propaganda.
On 26 August, for example, we have a feature entitled: “President Viktor Yanukovych criticizes the entire system of Ukrainian education and proposes quality reform of the field” http://1tv.com.ua/uk/news/2010/08/26/1302 We hear what the President had to say, then his own words, and then the Deputy Head of the President’s Administration who says that the Humanitarian Council should take this under its control but “you, Mr President, must help us, since nobody else will do this”. There are also assurances from D. Tabachnyk , Minister of Education, that his ministry has set about reforms.
Very nice, only the Minister in question has aroused protest from educationalists, parents and concerned individuals both in Ukraine and abroad, not only because of his questionable views on history, Western Ukraine in general and its inhabitants, and other issues. One of the few quality reforms initiated by his predecessors was to bring in a system of external independent assessment [ZNO] aimed at ensuring equal access to higher education and fighting notorious corruption in the education system. This system has already been partially dismantled.
Serious doubts had been expressed over the new government’s version of the Law on the Judicial System and Status of Justice and not only from analytical and human rights groups in Ukraine.. Doubts were expressed even by members of the Venice Commission and the Co-Rapporteurs on Ukraine from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. There were warnings that it would seriously jeopardize judges’ independence and access to all levels of judicial proceedings. Information about the campaign and appeal calling on the President to veto the law and his insistence on signing it can be found here: None of this reached the television channels despite the clear importance of judicial reform and strange situation where, after officially asking for a Venice Commission opinion, neither parliament nor the President saw fit to wait until it had been received. We do however have one report involving a meeting between President Yanukovych and the Head of the Supreme Court, Vasyl Onopenko. Given the latter’s total opposition to the new changes which severely curtail the Supreme Court’s powers, one might have expected coverage of pro- and counter-arguments. Not for a second. On 13 August UTV-1 began its report of the meeting with the phrase: “Yanukovych: Ukraine needs reform of the entire system of justice” and basically contains in that mode right up to this gem of manipulative reporting:
“Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine: People need to feel now that the judicial system has begun working much more effectively and has become much closer to people and to society.
Vasyl Onopenko, Head of the Supreme Court: We will present proposals to the President in order to improve it, after all there are no limits to improvement”. (http://1tv.com.ua/uk/news/2010/08/13/1128 )
With news reports on at least three of the main TV channels: Khoroshkovsky’s Inter, ICTM and – supposedly the taxpayers’ – UTV-1 aimed at presenting a positive image of the President and government, the number of topics avoided is large, and ever increasing.
It is excellent that media organizations have come to the defence of their Ukrainian colleagues. However the obvious dangers this situation presents to Ukraine’s development as a democratic county surely warrant response from other Euro-Atlantic structures.
The following are just two recent events / developments which indicate the danger of continued silence over encroachments on fundamental rights and freedoms. Silence, in this case, not only from the Ukrainian regime, but by those who could and should clearly demonstrate that there can be no tolerance for the dismantling of democracy.
Traffic Police used to restrict freedom of assembly and movement
Around 28 July, a very large number of believers of the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate were prevented from or seriously impeded in reaching Kyiv for events around the Orthodox Festival of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus (more details at: http://risu.org.ua/en/index/monitoring/society_digest/36954/
There had been similar reports, also from all over the country, of pressure on transport companies and other methods used by the traffic police to prevent activists from the opposition reaching Kyiv for a demonstration on 11 May (see http://maidanua.org/static/mai/1274956602.html) .
In both cases only one TV channel covered the story (in August “1 + 1!, in May STB despite the very clear danger of such behaviour, especially as elections approach, and the obvious need for official (decisive) reaction.
There has been none.
The crushing of peaceful protest over unlawful tree felling in Kharkiv’s Gorky Park
The scenes during the last two weeks of June were harrowing, with strong men sent in by the city authorities, abetted by police, in using violence to remove protesters, including journalists. Despite widespread protest, with Amnesty International finding two of the imprisoned protesters prisoners of conscience (for the first time in 5 years – cf. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR50/008/2010/en) and official confirmation that the actions of the Kharkiv authorities regarding the construction work and, obviously their methods, were illegal, no wrongdoings by any aw enforcement officers have been found. (cf. The Minister’s Strange Concept of Lawful Behaviour http://www.kyivpost.com/news/opinion/op_ed/detail/69934/ and the URL link at the bottom.
An appeal (http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1275908780 ) signed by a large number of individuals and organizations to the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner and UEFA was sent at the end of June.
The clear dangers if such behaviour is allowed to continue with no unequivocal response from European and other democratic countries surely do not need to be spelled out.