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World Press Freedom Review
President Viktor Yushenko’s dissolution of the Ukrainian parliament following a protracted power struggle between the two was one of the events punctuating a year characterised by political upheaval in the Ukraine. The dissolution, considered unconstitutional by many, was ordered in April and left a political vacuum to be filled until fresh elections were finally agreed upon and scheduled for the end of September. The resulting coalition between Yulia Tymoshenko’s Bloc and Our Ukraine-Peoples Self Defence (OU-PSD) meant that Tymoshenko could be elected to the post of prime minister for the second time, although she achieved this by the narrowest of possible margins.
Political turmoil can often strengthen political determination to increase influence and control over the media. This was evident this year in the Ukraine, marking a reversal in the progress made in recent times. Attacks on journalists continued too, as did a seeming reluctance on behalf of the authorities to deal with such matters, creating an atmosphere of impunity. And in at least two cases, newspapers appeared to suffer for exercising their right to critical reporting.
Andriy Shynkarenko, head of the news desk at the television station 9th Channel, was publicly assaulted in February. His attackers told him to stop covering a conflict between the new acting-director of broadcaster Channel 51 and that broadcasters’ union. It appears that the husband of channel 52 director Viktoria Shylova was among the assailants. The press officer of 9th Channel has since criticised the authorities handling of the matter, calling them "inactive" and accusing them of attempting to paint the whole thing as a "common scuffle."
Reluctance by the authorities to thoroughly investigate attacks was evident again later in the year when, continuing the pattern of arson seen in 2006, the editor-in-chief of the critical online newspaper Ostriv joined the growing list of victims. His car was set ablaze in September, and yet despite his belief that the incident was linked to articles critical of Kiev’s mayor, the police wrote the incident off as a simple act of hooliganism.
Vlad Issaev, a journalist with the newspaper Rivne Vetchirne, received death threats linked to his reporting in February. Issaev had been investigating the business dealings of former Ukrainian and current US passport holder Anatoly Pekhotin for some time. Present during a dispute between Pekhotin and the owners of a private parking lot in the city of Rivne, Issaev began to take pictures. Pekhotin rushed over to Issaev, produced a gun, put it to Issaev’s neck, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t stop writing about him. Pekhotin was taken into police custody, but released the same day. Issaev lodged a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, but the local prosecutor dismissed the case on 15 March, citing a lack of evidence. This was despite the fact that several witnesses were present at the incident, and despite the photographic evidence that Issaev had himself taken.
Journalist Margarita Zakora, who, as reported in our 2006 edition, was shot at for her critical reporting, continued to be victimised in 2007. The independent weekly Dzerzhinets of the central Ukrainian city of Dneprodzerzhynsk, of which she was editor-in-chief, was closed down in January following convictions of defamation and incitement of religious and national hatred, according to CPJ. Zakora claimed that the conviction was linked to articles the paper had run which were critical of local businessmen and officials and revealed corruption in the city.
The circumstances surrounding the judicial process concerning the closure of Dzerzhinets were highly irregular. Zakora didn’t receive notification of the appeal date until three days after the actual date set for the appeal itself. The same court also awarded damages to the city chief-of-police and ordered seizure of the newspaper’s property in the absence of Zakora, who only found about the court’s decision when she discovered court notices stuck to her front door informing her. An appeal was denied on the grounds that the application arrived too late. To make matters worse for Zakora, pornographic cartoons depicting her were pasted to the walls of her office and to public buildings in July.
Other journalists assaulted this year include Artem Skoropadskiy, of the Commercant newspaper, who was punched in the face on his porch one evening in August by two unidentified assailants, and Maksim Birovash, who was also assaulted by two unknown men. Both men suspect that the attacks were linked with their professions.
Political pressure on the media, whether direct or indirect, made itself noticeable at certain points during the year. In January, UkrPoshta, the national postal service of the Ukraine, broke its contract with the Litsa Dniepropetrovsk newspaper without explanation. This followed the removal of an edition of the Litsa newspaper from newsstands belonging to UkrPoshta towards the end of 2006. The edition in question ran an article reporting on a criminal investigation against Ivan Kulichenko, the mayor of Dniepropetrovsk. The editor-in-chief of the Litsa requested an explanation as to why the contract had been broken, but to no avail.
Popular public affairs programme "Toloka" was cancelled on state-run television in March. The programme’s producer, Viktor Pavlyuk, suspected that reason behind the sudden cancellation lay in the broadcast of speeches by Tymoshenko and OU-PSD party member Vyacheslav Kyrilenko.
The daily newspaper Sevodnya was victim of repeated bomb hoaxes in August, and one of its photographers, Alexandre Lesik, was attacked while covering a meeting held by the Party of Regions – led by the former Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych – in Odessa. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Igor Guzhva, linked the threats to a lawsuit brought by the newspaper against Olexandre Turchinov, a member of the party.
Some supporters of the Party of Regions were also not on their best behaviour earlier in the year, when they physically attacked Chernomorskaya TV journalist Olena Mekhanik. The journalist and colleagues had been filming the supporters in question as they loaded groceries into a specially chartered train destined for Kiev, when Mekhanik attempted to interview them. He was first obstructed by the train conductor, when a man, who appeared to be the leader of the group of supporters, pushed the journalist off the train and attempted to take his camera. Similar treatment was apparently handed out to film crews of the broadcaster Novyy Kanal TV.
In October, Vitaliy Portikov resigned from his post as editor-in-chief of the daily Gazeta 24, stating in an open letter that his leaving the job was a result of political censorship at the periodical. "When Gazeta 24 was first created, the first thing we agreed upon was to create a model, high-quality independent national daily. This model was to be free of any political pressure on staff," said Portikov in the letter. Unfortunately, the policy at the newspaper had changed, and the investor Volodymyr Kosterniy’s insistence that editorial monitoring would be henceforth necessary and that the newspaper be placed under political control of the Party of Greens of Ukraine (PZU) convinced Portikov that it was time to leave.
In an open letter to Mr. Portikov, IPI congratulated him on his work at the Gazeta 24 and supported his decision to stand his ground, while pointing out that editorial stance does ultimately "lie with the owner of any given newspaper." However, IPI Director, Mr. Johann P. Fritz, also emphasised the issue of credibility, stating that this is the "most valuable commodity any newspaper can possess," something which is ultimately lost when a newspaper aligns itself too closely with a political party, and that therefore the current owners may "condemn themselves to failure" through their decision.
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