Conference to highlight Ukraine's press freedom shortcomings

By bne IntelliNews September 3, 2012

Ben Aris in Moscow -

The World Newspaper Conference arrived in Ukraine on September 2, throwing the spotlight on the country's poor record for press freedom. After the heyday of the Orange Revolution, when liberal values flourished, the media has been on rocky ground under President Viktor Yanukovych - a point that some hope the conference will flag up ahead of parliamentary elections in October.

Yanukovych has stated on a number of occasions that press freedom is something he cares for and protects, but in 2010 he called the Kyiv Independent Media Trade Union the "the number one enemy of the press." Media outlets have come under increasing pressure and many of their owners have sold out to oligarchs connected to the presidential administration.

Other news outlets have imposed self censorship to avoid run-ins with the administration, and the English language Kyiv Post - the bastion of liberal journalism in the country - has come under pressure. One minister that didn't like an interview last year pushed the paper's owner, Mohammad Zahoor, to order the editor to pull the piece, which triggered a strike in protest.

However, liberal traditions in the Ukrainian press are deeply ingrained, and were capped by the death of Georgiy Gongadze, the editor of the outspoken online news site Ukrayinska Pravda, who was allegedly murdered by members of then-president Leonid Kuchma's administration in 2000. Outrage over Gongadze's death was one of the factors that contributed to sparking the Orange Revolution.

International rights organisation Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has reported a dramatic decrease in press freedom in Ukraine. In RWB's latest press freedom ranking, Ukraine came in at 116 out of 179 countries, which is an improvement on the 2010 result, but significantly worse than in 2009. Under former president Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine was in 89the spot on the list.

Boycott call

The black marks against Ukraine's recent track record on press freedom has some suggesting the World Newspaper Congress should not be hosted in Kyiv. German President Joachim Gauck - formerly a well known civil rights campaigner - and other senior public figures have tried to organize a boycott of Ukraine by Western political leaders that has already resulted in the cancellation of a summit of Central European countries in Yalta earlier this year. Likewise, many European politicians refused to attend the Euro 2012 football tournament this summer.

The general director of opposition broadcaster TVi, Mykola Knyaschyzki, told Deutsche Welle that holding the event in Ukraine gives the false appearance that the country has a free press. "The Ukrainian regime is somewhat legitimized by participating in the form," he says, claiming that the station's editorial stance has brought down the wrath of the administration. Several weeks ago, a notorious tax investigation into TVi was suspended, but Knyaschyzki fears the case could be picked up again.

However, Larry Kilman, chief spokesperson for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, insists that calls for a boycott are rooted in "a misunderstanding" of its efforts."We are coming to Ukraine in solidarity with the local independent press," he says, adding that the event itself will highlight the problems in Ukraine and so pressure the government to back off. The point, he claims, is that it will be journalists, not politicians, that will attend the event and it is important for editors to see the problems first hand.

"We see the democracy deficit in Ukraine very clearly," says Christoph Keese, head of public affairs at Axel Springer, which owns German newspapers Bild and Die Welt, but also asserts that confronting the issue is better than turning one's back."We believe the better path is pointing out the meaning of press freedom and holding our yearly conference in Ukraine," he states.

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