Area: 603,700 sq.km.
Head of state: President Leonid Kuchma (Viktor Yushchenko from 23 January 2005)
Physical attacks, censorship, pressure, unfair dismissals, disrupting distribution of news and blocking access to it were all used to prevent balanced coverage of the presidential election in late 2004.
On the eve of the 31 October first round of voting, several hundred journalists signed a petition against censorship and biased campaign coverage in favour of the government candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, and against the opposition’s Viktor Yushchenko.
"Defying professional journalistic standards, the government and TV station owners under pressure from it are trying to ignore important events or are reporting them in a biased way," they said, appealing to journalists to "inform society about all major events, present all important points of view and verify and give the source of all news broadcast."
Seven journalists of the privately-owned TV station 1+1, controlled by the head of the presidential office, Viktor Medvedchuk, resigned on 29 October, saying they refused to "take part in a news war the authorities have declared on their own people." The journalists left the station after vainly trying to stop management censoring news and to persuade them to ignore "temnyks" (presidential office instructions to the media about coverage).
This was the first sign of an unprecedented protest movement, especially against public and privately-owned TV stations controlled by the government, that grew between the two rounds of the election.
When the two presidential candidates met for a televised debate on 15 November, about 30 journalists from the main TV stations demonstrated in front of the studios of the government TV station UT-1 and the privately-owned station 1+1. Some symbolically held hands with paper-chains of temnyks.
After the second round, 237 UT-1 journalists and employees of UT-1 began a strike on 25 November against news censorship. Staff at 1+1 and Inter, also privately-owned, protested against it as well.
The election included numerous physical attacks on journalists throughout the country near polling stations, from which very many journalists were banned. State-owned firms also prevented distribution of some independent and opposition newspapers.
The media revolution began between the two rounds of voting, denouncing the regime and then the fraudulent 21 November second round, and led to a new runoff vote on 26 December.
Winner Yushchenko told Kanal 5 on 29 December that he wanted to quickly sign an agreement with journalists guaranteeing that the government would not interfere with newspaper editorial lines. "Press freedom is key to the country’s development," he said. "Without an impartial media, Ukraine will not be able to take its place among democratic nations." It remains to be seen if these declarations will be followed quickly by action.
Independent and opposition media targeted
Several opposition and independent media were hounded by the authorities during 2004. US-owned Radio Free Europe (RFE), which calls for human rights and democracy in the former Soviet bloc, could not be heard on FM in Ukraine from 17 February. The privately-owned station Dovira, which had relayed RFE broadcasts since 1998, suddenly stopped doing so after a change of management.
Radio Continent, a privately-owned opposition station broadcasting RFE’s Ukrainian service programmes since 28 February, closed down on 3 March. The station, which relayed several other foreign radios, lost its operating licence in April 2001, officially because it owned money to the state. The dispute has been appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which has not yet heard the case.
Sergiy Sholokh, the station’s former director-general and a witness in the Georgiy Gongadze murder case, said on 10 August he had obtained refugee status in the United States after receiving many threats, especially from the Ukrainian security services who had warned him to stop RFE relays. RFE found new ways to broadcast to various regions of Ukraine and, since August, from Kiev via the radio station Nart-Shesna Khvylia.
The bank accounts of the country’s only opposition TV station, Kanal 5, were frozen on 18 October in response to a slander suit by independent member of parliament Volodymyr Sivkovich against one of the station’s owners, opposition MP Petro Poroshenko.
The station had big problems throughout the year broadcasting to regions, especially the Russian-speaking, pro-government east of the country. Chief news editor Andriy Shevchenko said political pressure made several local stations refuse to relay Kanal 5 programmes. The station also lost its licence to broadcast from Kiev on 14 October.
The bank accounts were eventually unfrozen and the licence temporarily restored, but the station’s journalists went on a nine-day hunger-strike and formally complained to the national broadcasting council, seeking permanent restoration of the Kiev licence. They feared the council’s contradictory rulings would be used as a way to pressure the station to change its editorial line.
The council warned six stations in the Donetsk region on 21 December for blocking Kanal 5 broadcasts and said they would be punished after the presidential election.
New developments in Gongadze murder case
As the election approached, new disclosures were made by the media and the state prosecutor’s office about the murder of Georgiy Gongadze, editor of the online paper pravda.com whose headless body was found on 2 November 2000, six weeks after he disappeared.
The British daily The Independent said on 19 June 2004 it had obtained documents showing that ex-interior minister Yuri Kravchenko had ordered former interior ministry intelligence chief Olexi Pukach to follow Gongadze. Pukach, who is suspected of destroying important evidence, was arrested in October 2003 but freed a month later.
The paper also said a key witness, former police detective Igor Goncharov, had died in prison in August 2003 from an overdose of barbiturates and not from "bodily injuries" inflicted by guards as the public prosecutor’s office had said. Goncharov said in a letter published after his death that Gongadze and others had been murdered on the orders of Kravchenko and his successor, Yuri Smirnov.
The prosecutor-general’s office said on 21 June that a "Mr K," in prison for decapitating several people, had confessed to killing Gongadze and had described the murder in detail. No other information about the suspect was given.
Olexandr Krut, the justice ministry’s chief forensic officer, told a press conference on 10 September that tape recordings implicating top government officials and apparently recorded in President Leonid Kuchma’s office by former secret policeman Mykola Melnichenko, were a poor-quality concoction in which the president’s voice could not be recognised.
A Kiev court restored Sviatoslav Piskun to his job as prosecutor-general on 9 December; He had been abruptly dismissed by Kuchma on 29 October 2003 after announcing he had new evidence in the Gongadze case and replaced by Gennady Vassiliev. Piskun said on 7 January 2005 he would soon meet Gongadze’s widow and mother in Kiev and would revive the team of investigators he had put together before he was sacked.
20 journalists were arrested
32 physically attacked
and 30 media outlets censured
"I don’t want to tell lies any more"
Natalia Dmytruk, who provides sign language for the deaf on the government TV station UT-1, denounced on the air on 25 November 2004, in sign language, the fiddling of presidential election results by the central elections commission which declared prime minister Viktor Yanukovich had won.
Was it a spontaneous decision to do that?
No, I thought about it for a long time. There was such a lot at stake. I knew I was risking instant dismissal. But I had to do it because deaf people only have the news on UT-1. I needed to apologise for lying to them by giving the false official results making Yanukovich the new president.
So I said it in sign language: "The Commission’s results are bogus. Don’t believe them. Our new president is Yushchenko. I don’t want to tell lies any more, so this is probably my last day in the job."
I really thought I’d be punished but to my great surprise, nobody criticised me after the news programme. My colleagues, who didn’t know beforehand what I was going to do, were amazed. They gathered in the news room to talk about it and gave me full support. Then they asked management for more editorial freedom and I wasn’t sacked.
The UT-1 news programme presenter himself told viewers the next day: "We’re not going to lie to you any more." Did you expect such a media revolution?
It was really something, like a huge personal and professional rebirth after years of being stifled. No, I didn’t expect it’d be so big.
Do you think censorship will disappear under Yushchenko?
I’m very hopeful, though press freedom will obviously take time to establish itself. We have to take one step at a time. But I’m confident and I admire Yushchenko. I don’t think you can turn the clock back now.
"Make way for the new Ukrainian journalism!"
Andriy Shevchenko is chief news editor of the TV station Kanal 5, which was a spearhead of the "Orange Revolution." He is hoping for genuine diversity of news in Ukraine.
We had a real media revolution between the two rounds of the presidential election. It was wonderful. I think Yushchenko coming to power will end censorship for good. It won’t be possible to bring it back. And even if "temnyks" [government instructions to the media] do return, no journalist will obey them since they’re only effective when the government controls all the key media, which it doesn’t any more.
Some colleagues think I’m too optimistic about the future of press freedom in the country. They point to how very enthusiastic people were when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, only to end up very disappointed. I think we have to do some house-cleaning and get rid of all the journalists who’ve disgraced the profession in recent years and make way for what you might call "the new journalism" in Ukraine.
I’m not so optimistic, though, about the media’s independence from the authorities. It’s still editorially very close to them, just as it was before, and also for simple financial reasons (taxes and subsidies). Most media owners are still very cautious about speaking out because they fear the government will keep heavy pressure on them and push them to financial ruin. This is the risk all the media faces.
Kanal 5 is the only station that’s put out really impartial news since the first round of the elections, thanks to a unique agreement between its owners and the station’s bosses that protects the news from any interference.
I hope there’ll be genuine news diversity in Ukraine now. We must set up a truly public TV station, not a government-controlled one like UT-1.