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Ukraine14 November 2005

Reporters Without Borders in Kiev : « The time for promises is over ! »

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On the eve of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s visit to France, the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders went to Kiev to discuss the state of press freedom in the country with Ukrainian leaders.

Ukraine made a spectacular improvement in Reporters Without Borders’ 2005 press freedom index, going up from 138th position in 2004 to 112th this year mainly because of the abolition of censorship since the “orange revolution”. Elsewhere the arrest of the perpetrators of the murder of journalist Géorgiy Gongadze - the case which marked the beginning of the end of the Leonid Kuchma regime - took Ukraine off the list of “predators of press freedom” drawn up each year by Reporters Without Borders.

Unfortunately, this good news was marred by several cases that tarnished the image of the new regime on the international scene. One example was the assault on journalist Natalia Vlassova of Kanal 34 television on 4 October in Dnipropetrovsk in the east of the country after she exposed corruption within local political parties. The editor and owner of the independent weekly Oberih was also attacked. He had received a death threat on 14 May 2005 for exposing embezzlement of funds within the municipal finance department in Pereyaslav-Khmelnytski, south of Kiev.

Another example of this deteriorating situation was the groundless arrest of Volodymyr Lutiev, editor of the weekly Yevpatoriskaya Nedelia, in Sebastopol on 30 June this year, for criticising a controversial election. He hungered for 47 days, protesting against his arrest, and he is still in jail. Two journalists on the weekly Vhoru, photographer Maxim Soloviev and reporter Natalia Kozarenko, were attacked and their equipment seized while they were reporting on a racketeering case in Kherson in the country’s south.

To this already too long list of harassment and assault, we now have to add what has become known as the “The case of the escapades of Andriy Yushchenko”. While Paparazzi was about to splash on its front pages a photo of the president’s son accompanied by a young woman in a compromising position, a car belonging to the bi-weekly’s editor Walid Harfouch, was partly destroyed with a Molotov cocktail and he received a number of threats. He now has permanent protection from the police who evidently take the threats very seriously.

All these episodes point to a deteriorating climate, despite the fact that the “orange revolution” gave rise to great hopes for the country. Should we have to remind President Viktor Yushchenko that he promised to make press freedom of “priority of his mandate”.

Legislative elections next March will be a decisive step in the consolidation of Ukraine’s democracy. The media must be allowed to work freely and the authorities must take responsibility for ensuring this. Unfortunately, a ban slapped on journalists preventing them from commenting on the various candidates’ election programmes does not auger well for media coverage of this crucial event.

Journalists must feel free and able to work in complete safety. After several euphoric months, the climate in Ukraine is darkening. It is for the European authorities and for French leaders who are about to receive President Viktor Yushchenko to remind him of all his promises. As the European Court of Human Rights has just condemned Ukraine for “failing to protect the life of the husband of Mrs Gongadze” and of “failing to investigate the case in a coherent and effective manner”, it is essential that those who instigated this sordid killing should be found and brought to justice. It will be a real test of the effective willingness of the Kiev authorities to finally turn the page on impunity.

The time for promises is over. What we need now is action, commitments, and legal action against those who threaten the press and journalists. Ukraine’s future in Europe depends on it.

  In this country
2 June - Ukraine
Potential witness’s death deals severe blow to probe into journalist’s murder
15 March - Ukraine
Three former policemen convicted of Gongadze murder but instigators have yet to identified
12 February - Ukraine
Gongadze murder trial resumes in Kiev
14 September - Ukraine
Political will lacking to solve Gongadze murder seven years after his death
27 August - Ukraine
Bomb hoax against Russian-language daily, photographer attacked

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