Freedom of press and information still under threat in Ukraine
by Serhiy Naboka
KYIV - Lately, there has been an increasing degradation of freedom of the press and information, and an increased influence over the media on the part of government structures, especially over the editorial policies and the content of materials in the mass media.
In the last year the level of freedom of speech has fallen, ironically, even as a legal basis has developed ensuring wider freedoms of the press.
Many experts and journalists believe that today freedom of the press remains weak, and that even some political censorship is beginning to appear. It is not an obvious, formal type of censorship with formal functioning organs whose job it is to censor in advance of publication; it is a soft, yet persistent, form of ideological control over editorial direction, pressure exerted by the executive branch and its administrative bodies. First and foremost it comes from the president's administration and those structures that are tied to it (officially or unofficially).
Legal safeguards for the press
There exists a relatively solid legal foundation from which to safeguard press and information freedoms, most notably Ukraine's Constitution, which was passed in June 1996.
From 1992 to 1997 the Verkhovna Rada passed a series of laws on the information and press freedom. Yet it is becoming more clear that many of these laws are too vague and were not properly thought through. The Verkhovna Rada on April 10, 1997, discussed this issue at a special hearing titled, "Freedom of the press in Ukraine, its status, problems, perspectives." The conclusion reached by the participants was that "the legal foundation for guaranteeing and realizing the rights of citizens to their freedom of thought, ideas and principles remains vague and contradictory. This includes the rights of the mass media and journalists."
The Ukrainian Independent Center for Political Study (UICPS) has found that "Ukrainian legislation with regard to the mass media resembles a labyrinth with many mine fields." For example, in both parliamentary legislation and decrees of the president with the power of law, it is stated that gathering information on a private individual without prior approval by that person is banned (Law on Information, Statute 23) and that one cannot disseminate information about the life of a private individual without their approval.
Those who control media outlets and who also are members of government, or have close ties to it, are treated more favorably than editors and publishers who are not well connected. The Cabinet of Ministers has the exclusive right to choose whom to support and the resources to do so. This is done through budget outlays or through out-of-budget funds, which they exclusively control.
Also according to the UICPS, "the influence of the government on the mass media in the last years has not only remained but has juridically increased," chiefly through a series of new laws regarding capital and financial budget outlays and the establishment of a new information ministry. "The Cabinet of Ministers ... has monopolistic powers ... 1996 can be called the year that the Ukrainian press came exclusively under the control of the Cabinet of Ministers," states the report.
Another problem [with the status of press freedom] is that the wording in legislative acts is vague and undefined. For example, few restrictions or explanations exist as to the meaning of the broad term "state secrets." There are also no explanations of the limitations of such terms as "security" and "damage to Ukraine's national interest," "social mandate," or even the definition of the term "technical control of program quality," which is used in legislation regarding broadcast media.
Legislative acts also include such ambiguous concepts and terms as "disgracing the honor and worth of the individual," "news that infringes on the rights and legal interests of the citizen and abuses their honor and dignity," "unsubstantiated conjecture that damages another," "intentional abuse of dignity"; "disrespectful form," "false accusation;" "insult" and other terms.
These vague notions, which have been encoded in law and are punishable by law, have allowed for a series of judicial decisions in favor of government leaders, politicians and national deputies, stifling the work of the mass media, journalists in particular.
Lately, an average of 10 such cases have been heard monthly. The vagueness of the terminology, in addition to the bias and lack of independence in the judiciary, has led to verdicts against the mass media.
The financial sums awarded for stories that are shown to have "intentionally abused the dignity" of politicians have reached astronomical figures, financial burdens that can ruin any media business. Plaintiffs demand from several thousand to several million dollars (U.S.) in awards.
Recently the Union of Journalists, the Ukrainian Editors' Guild and the chief editors of Ukraine's 20 largest newspapers submitted an open letter to the Ukrainian Supreme Court to suspend the practice of indiscriminate lawsuits and enumerate the legal norms for such actions.
Not only members of the press, but also politicians are increasingly complaining about the possibility of "judicial persecution." It has led the president to release a decree (July 21, 1997) that identifies "the necessity for developing a special judicial organ to investigate questions (regarding the judiciary) in the matter of media activities."
Censorship is banned by law in Ukraine. However, it must be concluded that political censorship is practiced in Ukraine. In part, this function has come under the de facto control of the National Security and Defense Council, the administration of the President, especially the press service, and of the Ministry of Information.
It is important to understand that attempts to restrict freedom of speech occurred also during the tenure of President Leonid Kravchuk, especially towards the end of his presidency and during the  election campaign. However, the most obvious form of pressure on the press began during Mr. Kuchma's tenure (from July 1994).
Since November 13, 1996, by a decree of President Kuchma, there has existed a Ministry of Information, which Ukrainian journalists, and opposition and centrist political forces, have dubbed either the "Ministry of Truth" (from the Orwellian) or the "Ministry of Propaganda" (from Josef Goebel's Nazi ministry).
By this decree an effort is being made to re-introduce political censorship as an institution and as one of the instruments of executive control. A study done by the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies found that this government structure in particular has the most negative affect on the influence of the mass media (on citizens). It is worth emphasizing that the ministry is fully controlled by the president, which the minister, Zinoviy Kulyk, freely admits.
In the same study, 70 percent of respondents (journalists) said that political censorship exists in Ukraine, about 70.6 percent said they had personally experienced it, and of those, 31.4 percent said they had experienced it often.
The government pays the least attention to radio communications. One reason for this is that, traditionally, radio has been most obedient to the government, and, second, because it is the least influential of the three major media.
Ironically, it is in radio that there still exists the best opportunity for freedom of expression (even given the abbreviated broadcasts of the sessions of the Verkhovna Rada), which is just the opposite in the most popular medium - television.
The situation in television
The most widespread political censorship, essentially in the form of various political controls and pressures, is practiced in the largest mass medium - television. This conclusion is based on ideas expressed by individual television and radio journalists, on the results of sociological surveys and on statements made by political activists, as well as national deputies of the Verkhovna Rada (there are many documented instances of deputies being refused access to television programs by the National Commission of Television and Radio because their viewpoints diverged from those of the president and the government).
At the end of 1995, the popular news program "Pisliamova" disappeared from the airwaves. At the time it was probably the best news magazine on Ukrainian television. Some civic organizations have said this was "the beginning of political censorship, of open pressure on the mass media," according to a January 1996 report in Kievskie Viedomosti.
After a while it became evident that program was halted by direct order of the president. The program was renewed only after certain compromises must have been reached with the executive branch; when it returned the program was less balanced and more sympathetic to the government's official stances.
On June 20, 1996, 70 leading Ukrainian journalists and foreign correspondents signed a petition in which they expressed their concern for the "active attempts to exert political pressure on the mass media."
A few descriptive examples of political censorship by the government were given, and it was concluded that "national television and radio still belongs to the government, and there are no mechanisms in place for citizen's control."
On June 26, the general-secretary of the international organization Reporters without Borders, Robert Maynar, added his name to the list. But nothing fruitful came of this. The opposite actually happened, especially with regard to television.
Serhiy Naboka is first vice president of the Ukrainian Media Club as well as chief editor of the Ukrainian News and Information Agency Respublika - UNIAR.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 31, 1997, No. 35, Vol. LXV
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