- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

KIEV In the year since the disappearance of an Internet journalist pushed Ukraine into its worst political crisis in a decade, press freedom, despite some strides forward, still remains largely stagnant, according to journalists and independent analysts here.
"Today, you can say there is freedom of speech in Ukraine," said Yulia Mostova, managing editor of Zerkalo Tyzhnya, one of the country's most influential newspapers.
"But there is no free press."
Several factors are responsible for why an independent media has not flourished in Ukraine since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. The emergence of so-called "oligarchs" wealthy businessmen who have purchased some of the country's most widely distributed newspapers and television stations is one.
Substantial government control over television and print media is another. And then there is the attitude of the press corps itself.
Journalists and Ukrainian observers concede too many reporters have been inadequate in their efforts to establish the media as the Fourth Estate; too many have conformed to the current state of affairs and practiced self-censorship.
"The press here forgets democracy is a process, not a declaration," said Viktor Nebozhenko, a noted political analyst. "The time to defend the press is when it is free."
Mr. Nebozhenko said the media dropped the ball last year after the headless body of Georgy Gongadze, a vocal critic of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma who wrote about purported corruption within the government, was found outside Kiev. The discovery coincided with the appearance of secretly recorded tapes in which Mr. Kuchma is said to have told his assistants to get rid of Mr. Gongadze.
"Freedom of the press became greater after Gongadze's disappearance because the government was in turmoil," said Mr. Nebozhenko. "But the press couldn't think of anything else to write about. They closed the gates on themselves."
Last month, Kroll Associates, an independent investigation firm hired by a political partly aligned with Mr. Kuchma, said they could not find any evidence linking the president to Mr. Gongadze's death. Meanwhile, the Council of Europe has called on the Kuchma administration to create an independent commission to investigate the journalist's death.
In an interview, Mr. Kuchma told The Washington Times he was not opposed to allowing another DNA test to confirm that the corpse found outside Kiev was indeed Mr. Gongadze's.
A previous test in which the U.S. FBI participated identified the body as Mr. Gongadze's, but a German test said it wasn't.
Ukrainian journalists also lack objectivity and professionalism, said Mykola Veresen, a well-known television journalist. Its Soviet past left Ukraine with barely any experience of an independent press. Moreover, sensational stories that could be considered potentially libelous in the West are clearly in evidence.
To help bridge the gap between government officials and the media, and to ensure that journalists follow a code of ethics, Mr. Veresen and several colleagues recently founded Charter 4, a nonprofit group.
Part of the organization's work has involved traveling around the country to cities where conflicts between local officials and media outlets have arisen.
"We'll meet with officials and say, 'If you have a problem, let's figure it out in court.'
"Then we'll go into private meetings with journalists and say, 'OK, guys, you can't write these things. You can say someone violated the constitution, but you can't call him names.'"
Charter 4 has also launched a nationwide campaign in an attempt to ensure that Ukraine's parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 2002, will be transparent and that journalists will do their jobs professionally.
Lack of professionalism has meant that many journalists don't stand up for one another as they might in the West, said Irina Pohorylova, considered by colleagues as one of the country's best journalists.
"People don't get involved," she said. "The feeling is, '[who cares] as long as it isn't me.'"
The influence of the "oligarchs" on the media has also affected press freedom. Journalists privately say they are not able to do their jobs effectively because their owners influence editorial content.
Blacklists of people who cannot appear on the air or in print do exist, they said.
Ukraine's media are being used as a tool to buy political power, said Vadim Rabinowicz, president of Media International Group, who after a struggle lost his stake in the widely distributed television station 1+1, which has pro-Kuchma sympathies.
"The media has been privatized by an elite group of people," he said.
Mr. Rabinowicz said he is now establishing his own newspapers and television stations.
Indeed, the oligarchs' grasp is so prevalent that politicians from opposition parties complain they don't get fair coverage in newspapers or on television.
Speaking to reporters after a recent round-table discussion about Ukraine's political future, former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, who was ousted from office with the help of political forces aligned with the oligarchs, said: "We can talk, but who knows what will happen when you go back to the office?"
Opposition leader Yulia Timoshenko, reputed to be one of Ukraine's wealthiest people, said in an interview that any newspaper or television station she opened would quickly be shut down.
"The authorities would find any way of closing it," she said.
Government control over the media still remains strong. If cities now have access to an array of local and foreign programs via cable and several newspapers, most people in the countryside only receive UT-1, the pro-Kuchma, government-owned television station, as well as papers published by local authorities.
"You don't read opposition in those papers," said Yuriy Yurov, editor of 21st Century, a newspaper in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk. He admitted that he doesn't give government officials a voice in his publication, saying that they already have sufficient media outlets.

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