Ukrainian press freedom in the spotlight
Ukrainian journalists protest in Kiev in June 2010
Freedom of the press is restricted in Ukraine. But the World Newspaper Conference begins there next weekend. Can Ukrainian media gain more rights through the event?
From Michael Golden, vice chairman of the New York Times Company, to Rainer Esser, managing director of German newspaper "Die Zeit, " the list of speakers at this year’s World Newspaper Congress and World Editor’s Forum in Kiev, Ukraine is a who’s who of global media players. But one name on the list, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, has come under growing criticism for his government’s restrictions on the media.
Growing pressure on journalists
Since taking office, Yanukovych has stated on a number of occasions that press freedom is something he cares for and protects. But the reality looks somewhat different. In 2010, Yanukovych declared Kiev’s media union itself "the number one enemy of the press." ON these grounds, the president’s bodyguards repeatedly hindered journalists’ work. Further, television reports critcial of the president were prevented from being aired.
International rights organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has reported a dramatic decrease in press freedom in Ukraine. RWB’s executive director Christian Mihr said pressure on journalists has been mounting in the lead up to October general elections in the country. In RWB’s latest press freedom ranking, Ukraine came in at spot 116 out of 179 countries. That was much better than their 2010 spot, but significantly worse than 2009. Under former President Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine was in spot 89 on the list.
Impetus to boycott Kiev
Against this backdrop, the question arises whether the World Newspaper Congress should even be hosted in a country like Ukraine. Wouldn’t it make more sense to boycott the event? In spring 2012, a boycott by leaders including German President Joachim Gauck forced Ukrainian leaders to cancel a summit of central European countries in Yalta. The Euro 2012 soccer tournament in Ukraine in June also saw top European politicians refusing to attend in protest of Ukraine’s dismantling of democracy.
Several days before the World Newspaper Congress, the general director of Ukrainian broadcaster TVi discussed a possible boycott. Mykola Knyaschyzki said holding the event in Ukraine gave the false appearance that the country has a free press.
"The Ukrainian regime is somewhat legitimized by participating in the form, " he told DW.
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TVi is one of the few stations in the Ukraine that airs reports critical of Yanukovych. For several months, it has come under significant pressure from the authorities. Several weeks ago, an investigation into alleged tax dodging by TVi was halted. But Knyaschyzki fears the case could be picked up again. He suspects those in power in Ukraine want to silence the station.
Critical issues to address
However, organizers of the World Newspaper Congress as well as Ukrainian and international participants are against a boycott. Larry Kilman, chief spokesperson for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers said calls for a boycott seem rooted in "a misunderstanding." "We are coming to Ukraine in solidarity with the local independent press, ” he told DW. He insisted the forum would not legitimize the Ukrainian government’s treatment of its media. Rather, Kilman said, the presence of publishers and editors from around the world will draw attention to Ukraine’s problems.
Ukrainian experts share a similar point of view. Ruslan Kabatschinskyj, an expert the Kiev Institute of Mass Media said "a boycott would have minimal effect." He added that not politicians, but journalists are planning to come, and that it’s important for them to see things first hand.
Valery Ivanov, head of the Ukrainian Press Academy, said local journalists should try to make contacts with colleagues from abroad at the World Newspaper Congress. He added that western media representatives should "see for themselves what is happening with Ukrainian media, and report about it instead of learning about it third-hand."
Ukraine in the spotlight
German participants have also spoken out against a boycott. "We see the democracy deficit in Ukraine very clearly, " said Christoph Keese, head of public affairs at the Axel Springer media outlet, which owns German newspapers "Bild" and "Die Welt." Springer added it would be wrong to "turn a blind eye to these problems and avoid Ukraine." "We believe the better path is pointing out the meaning of press freedom and holding our yearly conference in Ukraine, " he concluded.
Uwe Ralf Heer, editor-in-chief of the daily "Heilbronner Stimme" had a similar point of view. "It’s important for representatives at the World Newspaper Congress in Ukraine to show their true colors and stand up for press freedom, " he said. That’s exactly what he intends to do with counterparts from about 70 countries who have already arrived in Kiev.