Ukraine - Authorities urged to defend media freedom with more energy

Reporters Without Borders completed a three-day fact-finding visit to Ukraine today in response to a marked increase in press freedom violations during the first half of 2010, which had ended the tendency of the past few years for the situation to improve.

During the visit, Reporters Without Borders met with representatives of national and regional news media, press freedom organisations, ruling party and opposition parliamentarians and government officials.

The press freedom organisation’s initial findings support its concerns about the overall climate in which journalist work. It is worried about cases of physical attacks and harassment (such as those involving Serhy Andrushko of STB and Serhy Kutrakov of Novyi Kanal) especially when those responsible are not prosecuted. This impunity could be seen by officials as a signal that they can treat journalists as they see fit.

The editorial independence of the broadcast media appears to be at the heart of media freedom in Ukraine. A lot is at stake as the public gets most of its news from radio and TV. The creation of a significant public broadcasting group that is free of government control is vital for media pluralism. The independence of the media regulatory authorities also appears to be essential for ensuring that the news media continue to be independent.

Several cases of censorship of different kinds have been brought to our attention. In some cases, the source of the censorship was the management of the news media, so it can be regarded as self-censorship. But in several other cases, direct intervention by political authorities was suspected.

The allocation of TV broadcast frequencies and, in particular, the danger that TVi and 5 Kanal could lose the frequencies they were allocated in January, appears in the current context to be a form of political pressure.

Reporters Without Borders would finally like to draw the difficulties of the regional and local press to the attention of the authorities, even if they are not solely to blame. Provincial media and journalists are exposed to a great deal of pressure and are rarely in a position to defy officials who often combine political and economic power (as in the case of Avtor-TV in the eastern city of Dniprodzerzhynsk).

Reporters Without Borders stands ready to meet with the Ukrainian authorities including the president. It would be willing to return to Ukraine at any time to talk to senior government figures and any other officials who are involved in the issue of press freedom.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders would like to make the following initial recommendations to the authorities:
- Deal with flagrant violations of the freedom of the media and journalists with all the necessary rigour and thoroughness. In particular, ensure that those responsible for physical attacks on journalists are prosecuted.
- Make sure that state agents implement all the legal provisions concerning press freedom and, in particular, article 171 of the criminal code.
- Ensure that a public broadcasting group is created that is independent of the government.
- Ensure that the system of allocating broadcast frequencies is transparent and that, in the case of TVi and 5 Kanal, the next hearing is open to the public.
- Guarantee the independence of the broadcast media regulatory authorities, paying particular attention to their composition and the way their members are appointed.
- Ensure free and rapid access to public information, both for journalists and ordinary citizens.
- Guarantee the transparency of the investigation into Georgyi Gongadze’s murder and ensure that the upcoming trial is an open one.

Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world. It has nine national sections (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). It has representatives in Bangkok, New York, Tokyo and Washington. And it has more than 120 correspondents worldwide.