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Sunday, March 9, 2014
- Just hours after Ukrainian investigative journalist Tetyana Chornovil was beaten and left for dead last month at the side of the road by men she claims were acting on the orders of the country’s president, pictures of her battered and bruised face quickly made their way around the world.
News of the attack was used by critics of the country’s authoritarian regime as an example of the dangers faced by journalists who fall foul of the Ukrainian ruling elite.
But while what happened to her drew global media attention and was seized upon by opponents as an example of the government’s sanctioning of the brutal repression of a free press, it was just the latest episode in an ongoing crackdown on the independence of the country’s media.
As well as physical intimidation of individuals, the government has been tightening its grip on the media through buy-outs of publishing houses and other media outlets.
And press watchdogs are warning that by 2015, the year of the next presidential elections, there could be virtually no independent media left.
Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Bureau at Reporters Without Borders, told IPS: “For a long time we have seen a trend of independent media disappearing in Ukraine, and it is perfectly possible that in just a few years there will be no independent media in the country.”
Ukraine’s media freedom has been steadily eroded in recent years, according to international media watchdogs. Ukraine languishes in 126th place out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders’s 2013 press freedom index. Just four years ago it was ranked 89th.
The most ostensibly visible threat to media freedom has been the increasing problem of violence against journalists. According to the Ukrainian NGO the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), 101 journalists were victims of physical attacks during their work in 2013. Of those, 64 were injured in assaults by police officers. The figure in 2012 was just eight.
Half of the attacks came during the recent Euromaidan protests, as the protests against the government are called. Riot police clashed with protestors, but other incidents have included the beating of reporters from a TV station covering a demonstration in the capital earlier this month who clearly identified themselves as journalists.
A high-profile case was that of Oleg Bogdanov, a journalist with the Internet-based newspaper Dorozhnyi Kontrol (Road Control) that reports on alleged corruption among traffic police. He was beaten and left with serious injuries after an attack near his home in July last year.
The level of violence against journalists in the country is shocking, even for organisations used to monitoring such abuses.
Bihr told IPS: “The recent beatings are just the tip of the iceberg. This is something which has been getting worse for years. Ukraine is not a dictatorship and the current situation there cannot be compared to, say, somewhere like Uzbekistan, or some war-torn African country.
“But having said that, the fact that it is at peace, not war, and that it is not a dictatorship makes it very unusual that there is so much violence against journalists.”
Within Europe, only Turkey reported more beatings of journalists than Ukraine last year, according to Reporters Without Borders.
When contacted by IPS, many local journalists either declined or were reticent to speak openly about the threat of violence faced by people working in their profession.
However, Yulia Sidorova, a journalist working for a newspaper in Donetsk, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, told IPS of the concern and growing paranoia among some of her colleagues about the threat of violence.
“Of course, there is pressure and repression over here… but [regarding violence against journalists] even if a journalist has an accident, many of their colleagues believe it was not an accident but because of the work they are doing,” she said.
“And conversely, those that are really victims of an attack because of their work may think that they have just had an accident. The problem is that it is so difficult to know what the truth is.”
But violence against journalists is far from the only threat to Ukraine’s media freedom. The last few years has seen media houses and broadcasting organisations bought up by people seen as close to members of the ruling elite – with consequences for editorial freedom in newspapers, other publications and broadcast media.
In one recent example, 14 journalists resigned from the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine in November over claims of censorship. The publication had recently been bought by Sergey Kurchenko, a businessman seen as having close ties to the family of President Viktor Yanukovych.
The country’s growing Internet media is also suffering, with numerous online news sites and websites of print publications regularly reporting cyber attacks. Some have involved sites being completely taken over and replaced with duplicates spreading false information.
Others have also been taken offline at specific times. During the recent anti-government Euromaidan protests the offices of three independent media outlets were raided by police. At the same time, the servers of some major national newspapers were shut down due to apparent cyber attacks, meaning there was a delay before news of the raids could be reported.
“Cyber attacks are a worrying practice that is on the rise,” Bihr told IPS. “Of course, because of their nature it is always hard to prove exactly who is behind them, but the attacks have always been on journalists supporting the opposition or who are independent.”
However, as bleak as the outlook may appear, there is some hope that independence in Ukraine’s media will not disappear completely.
Sidorova told IPS that despite the problems journalists face doing their jobs, criticism of the government in the media will continue.
She said: “Articles that are sharply critical of the government are published in media without any consequences and the journalists writing those articles have been doing so for many years. Therefore, they cannot see the risks to their health or their livelihoods as so great that it would keep them from publishing these articles.”