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Ukraine24 November 2004

Presidential elections marked by press freedom violations

Reporters Without Borders condemned a raft of press freedom violations during Ukraine’s presidential elections that it said were "incompatible with free elections and democratic debate".

"Censorship, physical assault, harassment, unfair dismissals, blocking of distribution or access to news were among the methods deployed in a bid to stifle proper election coverage", said the worldwide press freedom organisation.

Attacks on press freedom had been constantly stepped up during the campaign, which had produced totally biased coverage. Obstacles to press coverage continued on polling day, while journalists, particularly in the broadcast sector, were still under pressure since the contested announcement of victory for current prime minister Victor Yanukovych.

Censorship reared its head before the first round

On the eve of the first round on 31 October, several hundred journalists signed a petition protesting against censorship and biased coverage in favour of the government candidate Viktor Yanukovich.

It read: "Overriding the norms of professional journalism, the government, and under pressure the TV channel owners, are attempting to gag journalists or ensure that events are covered in a biased fashion."

The 28 October petition circulated by journalists working for national TV: Novy Kanal, ICTV, Inter, TNT and 1+1, called on reporters to "provide news on every important event, to present all important points of view and to check and give the source of news that is broadcast".

Seven journalists on the private 1+1, run by the head of the president’s office, Viktor Medvedchuk, resigned on 29 October. "We refuse to take part in a news war that the government has declared on its own people," they said.

The journalists said they had left the channel after failing to persuade the management to stop censoring news and to ignore the "temnyks", instructions from the president’s office to editorial offices on how certain subjects should be handled.

Upsurge in harassment of the media between the two rounds

Journalists came under even greater pressure ahead of the second round run-off and many condemned the systematic use of "temnyks" by the authorities.

Around 30 journalists working for the leading TV channels demonstrated outside the studios of public UT-1 and private 1+1 television on the evening of a televised debate on 15 November between the candidates in protest at government obstacles to the media’s work.

Some of the demonstrators tied their hands together with paper chains made out of "temnyks".

Television news presenter Volodymyr Holosnyak of UT-1 TV was sacked on 9 November for refusing to read a "temnyk" ahead of a televised debate in which Victor Yanukovych was taking part. The journalist insisted that he should also read a statement on the conditions sought by opposition candidate Victor Yushchenko to take part in the debate.

Opposition supporters and journalists came under frequent assault. On the eve of the first round of the elections on 31 October, a journalist on the main opposition television channel Kanal 5, Serghiy Skorobohatko, was beaten up at a polling station by assailants who also snatched his camera.

On 3 November, Enver Musayev, of the weekly Holos Kryma was physically assaulted and threatened at Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea.

Alexander Danutsa, head of news and presenter on TV-Stymul was brutally attacked on 18 November in Kirovgrad, central Ukraine. His assailants told him to stop reporting on the election campaign. He was taken to hospital with concussion and severe bruising.

Finally, state-owned businesses made a point of preventing distribution of certain independent or opposition newspapers. The 17 November issue of opposition daily Silski Visti that carried an interview with Victor Yushchenko, could not be sent to its subscribers because the copies were stuck at the depot owned by the distributor, Pressa Ukrayiny, a subsidiary of the public post office.

In another example on 12 November, the public post office at Donetsk, in the east of the country, refused to send the independent weekly Svoboda to several thousand subscribers in the Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, Luhansk, Kharkov and Crimea areas.

Polling and contested result marked by fresh obstructions

The second round run-off on 21 November saw frequent obstructions to press coverage countrywide. Several journalists were assaulted or arrested and many were kept out of polling stations.

Around 15 youths assaulted Tatiana Ratushnyak, of the weekly Trybuna, and Andrei Zelenko, of the weekly Stary Zamok, in Mukachevo in the west of the country. Zelenko, who was attacked in the village of Klyachanovo. also had his camera snatched. The same assailants snatched a press card from Ratushnyak at No 12 polling station in the same constituency, ripping it into pieces in front of a number of witnesses. Security forces did not intervene in either case. Both journalists made official complaints.

Anatoliy Sokorynski, Viktor Yushchenko’s representative in Dniepropetrovsk in the east of the country, said that three thugs beat up Volodymyr Piddubny, a freelance journalist for the daily Vechernie Visti, when he arrived to film voting irregularities in the village of Dmytriyevka. They also tried to snatch his camera but were stopped by the intervention of a police officer.

Taisia Hladchenko, of the weekly Tochka Zoru, was beaten and her camera destroyed as she took photos of an incident in front of No 67 polling station in the 42nd constituency in the Donetsk region. Dmytro Vorobiov, of the same newspaper was also assaulted in Romny, Sumy region in the north-east.

Nine journalists were arrested at No 72 polling station in the 40th constituency in Borysovka, Dniepropetrovsk region, the press agency Ukrainian News reported. They were first of all refused entry to the polling station then taken to a police post at Nikopolskiy from where they were released after having their accreditation seized.

Outright censorship was also much in evidence, especially on the TV. Several journalists working for 1+1 television refused to present news bulletins on 21 and 22 November, because of the use of "temnyks". On polling day, Oles Tereshchenko and Andrei Tychyna refused to present the news for this reason. Alla Masur and Ludmila Dobrovolska did the same on 22 November.

Sports journalists Maria Padalko and Serhiy Polkhovskiy refused to present their programmes in solidarity with their news colleagues.

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