Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

UKRAINE: ‘Free’ Media Turning Into PR Agencies

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Jul 9 2008 (IPS) - Freedom of media has improved in Ukraine but media owners are using favourable coverage as a source of income, while journalists continue to face serious threats.

“Mass media give information on politicians in exchange for money, and naturally this information is firstly as politicians want it to be. Nowadays one can practically buy every media space or broadcasting time one would like,” Victoria Sumar, executive director of the Institute of Mass Information, a non-governmental organisation based in Kiev, told IPS.

“There is actually too much information on the political life of the country, especially before the all too frequent elections,” Sumar added.

Unethical practices in the media have no colour. Earlier, politicians struggled to purchase mass media, but the current owners of media are often unknown, and tend to behave like paid PR agencies for leading politicians.

Ukraine’s richest men are realising that control over TV helps not only their political ambitions, but also brings huge profit.

The competition to buy up Ukrainian TV channels, even the small specialised ones, has increased immensely over the last years as a result of soaring revenues from advertisement.

The result is that media holdings are accumulating in the hands of business groups, with oligarchs controlling almost 80 percent of the viewing audience.

This is a marked change from the days of former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma (1994-2005) when intimidation of journalists reached a peak. During his authoritarian tenure, Kuchma’s administration regularly sent media outlets unofficial instructions, known as ‘temnyki’, on how to cover political events.

The end of the Kuchma administration came with the ‘Orange Revolution’, a popular revolt which projected pro-Western forces to power amid promises to bring transparency and democracy.

But it is still not a good idea to mess with high-level political figures in Ukraine.

Well-known presenter of 5 Kanal television channel Ihor Slisarenko was dismissed under accusations of bias and incorrect quoting last September after airing a story on President Viktor Yushchenko’s daughter’s tuition fees.

Supporters of the pro-Western forces of Yushchenko considered his channel the only honest source of news, especially during the times of the ‘Orange Revolution’.

The channel had previously fired Karyna Samokhvalova, editor of a show that aired a story on the relationship between Yushchenko’s daughter and a famous Georgian singer.

Yushchenko is now trying to gain control of all main national news coverage ahead of the 2010 presidential election.

Last year Ambeyi Ligabo, an independent United Nations expert on freedom of expression who reports to the UN Human Rights Council, said during his visit to Ukraine that democracy and freedom of expression had improved in the country over the past few years.

But Ligabo noted that extreme political polarisation was impinging on freedom of opinion and lowering the quality of the media. He said journalists are still subject to intimidation by people allegedly linked to authorities.

Local politicians and city mayors from all main political forces are increasingly taking the role of enemies of the press, according to a report published in May by the Institute of Mass Information and the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine.

Local authorities have been accused of intimidating and harassing journalists or of attempting to frame them.

“Investigative and honest journalism remains dangerous, especially in the regions of Ukraine, where it’s risky for journalists to be in disagreement with authorities,” Sumar told IPS.

The joint report says that while the last year saw no journalists killed or arrested, there were 22 reported cases of economic, political and indirect pressure on journalists, seven more than in 2006.

Both the Council of Europe, an institution active in promoting legal rights and standards, and the UN have been critical of Ukraine’s slow progress in investigations of violence against journalists.

Those responsible have rarely been brought to justice. The most blatant case was that of Heorhiy Gongadze, who was killed under Kuchma’s administration after becoming the former president’s main critic in the media.

Three former police and government officers have been sentenced to an average of 12 years imprisonment in the case, but it is still unknown who ordered the killing.

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