With four days to go before the Ukrainian parliamentary elections on 28 October, the outlook for freedom of expression in the country’s media remains decidedly mixed. As the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva today starts the second cycle of its Universal Periodic Review, Reporters Without Borders (who, like WAN-IFRA, have this year compiled a report on the subject) have ‘sounded the alarm’ over conditions surrounding freedom of information which, it states, ‘have worsened to such a degree that the country is at a turning point’. Ukraine has long been a concern for free speech campaigners; background to the ongoing international dialogue can be found in recent posts on this blog here and here, along with the full report from the delegation sent there in July of this year.
It is true that some recent developments on the face of it give occasion for cautious optimism. The rhetoric from the Ukrainian government, particularly from its President Viktor Yanukovych at last month’s World Newspaper Congress and 19th World Editor’s Forum held in Kiev, is full-throated in its apparent support for change – though the equally vocal protests at the latter’s speech plainly illustrates the gap that is yet to be bridged between words and deeds. More tangible, and thus more significant, was what Swedish blogger and former editor Anette Novak called ‘a great day for freedom of expression’: the voting down by Ukrainian parliamentarians on 2 October of a Bill proposing the recriminalization of defamation, a result, some have speculated, partially attributable to the international pressure exerted on the regime.
Real problems remain, however. WAN-IFRA President Jacob Mathew’s undertaking on behalf of the organization in Kiev last month ‘to show our solidarity with the local independent media’ comes in circumstances where such solidarity can ill afford to be confined to rhetorical sentiment. Six journalists have been the victims of serious violence in the past three months; one of them has died. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 25 other journalists have been ‘prevented from working in a more or less violent manner’, with 9 others clearly subject to intimidation. The kidnapping and torture just last week of Konstantin Kovalenko, a reporter for GolosUA’s online edition, recalls the shocking murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000, a politically motivated attack seen by many to encapsulate the simultaneous degradation of media freedoms and the rule of law. It is seen as crucial that other aspects of that symbolic event, aggravated further by the flagrant lack of due legal process since his death, are not similarly mirrored in this case.
It is little consolation that the political class is belatedly recognizing the existence of such issues. ‘There is a problem of inertia’, according to President Yanukovych: ‘law enforcement doesn’t react to some of the press’ complaints and claims about freedom of the press and independence of the media, but I can assure you that we are working diligently to improve this situation’. Such ‘inertia’ is clearly of considerable consequence – especially in the run-up to an election whose conduct and outcome is so significant for the country’s future.
That Ukraine is ranked 116th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index has obvious implications with regard to democratic process; indeed, the explicit purpose to Kovalenko’s maltreatment was to deter him from publishing the results of his investigation into vote-buying in the 63rd electoral district. It is clear that the election has seen a surge in cases of censorship of media and harassment of journalists, in a campaign that many claim has already been catastrophically undermined by the absence of key contenders. Yulia Tymoshenko, until recently the leader of the opposition in Ukraine, was jailed for 7 years in 2011 in what many suspect to be a politically motivated conviction; Yuriy Lutsenko, the interior minister in her cabinet, has also recently been incarcerated.
After the World Newspaper Congress opening ceremony in Kiev, one of the demonstrators who was physically attacked by one of the guards, news editor Katya Gorchinskaya of the Kyiv Post, told Anette Novak that ‘you were spun, the president and the rich oligarchs will use your presence to legitimize their actions. But since you are aware of that – you can spin the spin’. A dispassionate assessment of the evidence suggests not only that the rhetoric from the Ukrainian leadership is misplaced, but that it is to a large extent actively misleading. The introduction to WAN-IFRA’s report in July states that ‘the overarching message from the mission’s interlocutors is that there is a culture of corruption and declining independence of media from political and business influence.’ On the evidence available during this fraught election campaign, such a culture has yet to be even partially disbanded.