IPI condemns pressure on ‘Express’ Newspaper
Ukrainian opposition activists hold the national and EU flags as they take part in a flash mob calling for European integration in Kiev on Dec. 16, 2011. Photo: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
VIENNA, Feb 10, 2012 – The International Press Institute (IPI) has condemned alleged attempts by local officials to gag independent Lviv, Ukraine-based newspaper Express.
The paper – reportedly the nation’s most widely-circulated Ukrainian language publication – accused a local governor of attempting to use commercial courts to close it and of later promising to relax pressure if the publication stopped criticising the government.
Critics say government officials interfered in a Lviv Commercial Court ruling last month, in violation of existing legal precedent, cancelling a document that the publication’s owner, Express Media Group, needs by law to operate.
Express co-owner and Chief Editor Ihor Pochynok told the Kyiv Post that Lviv Oblast Governor Mykhailo Kostiuk – who President Viktor Yanukovych appointed to the post last November – met with him shortly after the ruling and “made it understood that our problems will disappear if we alter our editorial policy.”
The paper, which reportedly has a reputation for investigative journalism that affects regional and national politics, subsequently issued its Jan. 26 edition with a blanked-out front page containing the message “We Demand a Fair Trial”. It also launched a campaign calling on the public to protest the decision to Yanukovych and to senior court officials.
Both the Lviv Oblast Administration and the Lviv branch of Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions have denied being behind the court decision. They similarly denied having attempted to pressure the newspaper.
IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills said: “Allegations that government officials in Ukraine manipulated the courts to silence a critical source of independent journalism are extremely disturbing. IPI and its subsidiary, the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), urge members of Ukraine’s judiciary to exercise their duties impartially and we call on President Yanukovych to ensure that local officials do not abuse their authority in such a manner.”
The Commercial Court decision and alleged offer to reduce pressure on Express represent the latest in what critics say is a string of acts of intimidation against the newspaper in recent years.
In April 2010, police arrested Express Director Andriy Vey for alleged tax evasion. Journalists who later went to police seeking an explanation for Vey’s arrest said they were roughed up and had their cameras broken. Gunshots have been fired at Express’ office and Pochynok has been subjected to a suspected arson attack on his home, a smear campaign and repeated threats of criminal prosecution.
Media freedom in Ukraine reportedly improved somewhat following Viktor Yushchenko’s rise to the presidency in the 2004 “Orange Revolution”, but it has deteriorated since Yanukovych’s 2010 election.
A joint delegation from IPI and SEEMO conducted a fact-finding mission to Ukraine last summer and found apparent government pressure, both direct and indirect, on media. The delegation also determined that journalists reporting on corruption and sensitive topics in Ukraine remained vulnerable to physical attack and harassment; that corruption at all levels of society continues to have a deleterious effect on media; and that media owners’ reported interests in non-media businesses were creating pressures that could lead to negative impacts on critical coverage of government and influential companies.
In October, journalist Oleksandr Vlashenko was shot in the head in the city of Mykolayiv by an unknown assailant. Meanwhile, a court dismissed charges against former President Leonid Kuchma over the 2000 murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze, ruling that clandestine recordings that purported to depict Kuchma ordering the journalist’s murder were made illegally and were therefore inadmissible.
Steven M. Ellis, Press Freedom Adviser for Europe and North America