Freedom of speech reduced in 2011, though some glimmers of hope emerged


Stop Censorship and a number of Ukrainian media associations have issued a joint statement regarding freedom of speech in 2011.  The statement, made public at a press conference on 22 December, speaks of a reduction in freedom of speech, increase in censorship and the number of cases where journalists have been obstructed in their work. At the same time it points to dialogue initiated with the government and the adoption of new laws which can form the basis for improvements in the situation.

Freedom of Speech in Ukraine in 2011: Joint Statement

2011 saw a reduction in freedom of speech in Ukraine. This was confirmed through information gathered by Ukrainian journalist organizations. There was an increase in the number of attempts to directly obstruct journalists in their work, including physical attacks. The Institute for Mass Information [IMI] and Reporters without Borders [RWB] report 24 cases this year of aggressive behaviour or attacks on journalists while carrying out their work were recorded, with at least 35 journalists affected. This is against 21 such cases in 2010 involving around 26 journalists.

Moreover in July this year there was a case of large-scale brutality against journalists  outside the Pechersky District Court in Kyiv with around 30 journalists injured. From October to December 2011 more than 10 journalists were injured while covering protests in Kyiv. There were also more than 30 cases where journalists were obstructed when carrying out their lawful work, and their access to information was restricted (the number was roughly the same in 2010).

A journalist was also killed this year – journalist-photographer Vitaly Rozvadovsky. The investigators have not ruled out the possibility that the crime was linked with his professional activities.

During 2011 there was an increase in varied forms of censorship in the Ukrainian media. For the first time since Kuchma’s presidency there were signs indicating the existence of censorship from the top down. Cases of censorship are confirmed both in information from the regions (Kherson media outlets have spoken of receiving phone calls with instructions from the Regional State Administration, while in Kharkiv the opposition news channel ATN was removed from air), as well as from the centre (a statement from sources within the newspaper Segodnya regarding phone calls giving instructions on publications from the President’s Administration.

One can also find indirect proof of censorship in the lack of pluralism of views in the Ukrainian media and on television, as well as the fact that most television channels muffle the same important subjects which are inconvenient for those in power. These are in the first instance topics linked with politics, the trial of Tymoshenko; the fall in rating of the Party of the Regions; encroachments of rights and freedoms; threats to freedom of speech; as well as statements from high-ranking officials from Western countries, the EU; the European Court Parliament regarding democracy in Ukraine, etc. At the same time a large number of social and economic problems have appeared which TV channels are also silent about: lowered living standards, increased tariffs, protests etc.

According to TV monitoring carried out by Telekritika, if in July 2010 channels were silent about approximately 56 important subjects per month, in September 2011 this figure already stood at 456. The worst offender is the State-owned First National Channel, or UTV-1. The fact that the media outlets behave in almost identical fashion suggests that external management of the general direction of their information policy which according to many sources is being introduced directly from the President’s Administration and the Cabinet of Ministers, as well as due to self-censorship of the top management of the channels who understand “the general policy of loyalty”.

Despite the fact that the Gongadze case is pivotal for Ukraine and of enormous public interest, the court hearings in the Pukach trial have been held completely behind closed doors. This year criminal proceedings were initiated against former President Leonid Kuchma and were then terminated on the basis of a legislative formality which yet again demonstrated the bias of Ukraine’s judicial system. These facts suggest the lack of real political will to identify those who really order the murder of journalist Gongadze.

Other factors indicating deterioration in freedom of speech include the corrupt allocation of frequencies in digital multiplex, as a result of which regional broadcasters have found themselves struggling for survival. There was no transparency regarding the criteria for allocating frequencies, and most of them were allocated to channels known for their links with the regime. The disconnection of many television channels from digital broadcasting will deal a serious blow to media pluralism in Ukraine. This demonstrated the unacceptable lack of independence the media regulatory bodies.

As far as positive changes were concerned, these were first and foremost the entry into force of the Law on Access to Public Information and amendments to the Law on Information, as well as the wide-scale campaigns for promoting these laws run by journalist and civic organizations.

Another positive element was the consolidation of the journalist community – eight media organizations endorsed a memorandum on the creation of a Ukrainian Media Association, while the Independent Media Trade Union began overcoming its crisis and reviving its regional branches. The driving force for this process has been the Kyiv Independent Media Trade Union. On 23 November all media organizations for the first time united in order to hold a joint protest against impunity for journalist killings.

In 2011 those in power began systematic dialogue with the journalist community. An Inter-departmental Working Group was created under the President to analyze to what extent legislation on freedom of speech and journalists’ rights were being observed

Is the regime ready and capable of achieving serious progress in the area of freedom of speech and working with civil society and the media? That remains to be seen.

There were also training sessions with the President’s Guard, and a working group was created between representatives of the journalist community and the police aimed at drawing up instructions on interaction between the police and the media. The Minister of the MIA, Vitaly Zakharchenko issued an order on foster professional journalist activities.

Thus while 2011 saw a worsening in the situation with freedom of speech, an increase in censorship and the number of cases of obstruction of journalists in their work, the consolidation of the journalist community, the initiating of dialogue with those in power and the adoption of new laws give grounds for improvements.

The statement was also signed by the Institute for Mass Information; the Media Law Institute; Internews Ukraine; the Media Front Trade Union; the Svidomo Journalist Investigation Bureau; Telekritika and the Committee for the Monitoring of Press Freedom in the Crimea. 

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