- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

KIEV — The Ukrainian news media is coming under increasing pressure to tone down articles critical of the government of President Leonid Kuchma, with nine months left before presidential elections that are considered crucial for the nation’s young democracy.

For example, the Dovira radio broadcaster last week said it would remove from its FM schedule Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Ukrainian service programming, effective this Tuesday.

“This is a political act against liberal democracy, against free speech and press, against RFE/RL, and shows, once again, that Ukraine’s political leadership is unable to live in an open society and is compelled to ‘control’ the media as if it were ‘the good old days’ of the Soviet Union,” RFE/RL President Thomas A. Dine said in a statement.

The station’s management said the decision had been motivated by a need to change its format.

The U.S.-funded RFE/RL, however, said the Dovira radio station had been under increased pressure from government officials after its intensive coverage of the 2000 disappearance and death of Georgi Gongadze, a journalist who wrote about government corruption.

The Dovira station recently was sold to a media holding company that installed a new management team.

In another incident, a Kiev judge ordered Silski Visti — the country’s largest newspaper, which is also aligned with the opposition Socialist Party — to shut down.

The order was the result of a lawsuit against Silski Visti by the International Antifascist Committee, which accused the paper of inciting ethnic hatred.

Last autumn, the paper published an excerpt from a book that made a number of anti-Semitic claims, including one blaming Jews for the Ukraine famine of 1933.

While opposition leaders questioned Silski Visti’s judgment in running the piece, they also criticized the newspaper’s closure as a chilling example of government interference. The judiciary is often criticized for not being independent.

“Closing the largest-circulation paper in Ukraine is an example of the so-called ‘political reform,’ which has been proclaimed by Leonid Kuchma,” Victor Yushchenko, the opposition leader, said in a statement posted on the Internet.

“The end goal of this transformation is to take away from Ukrainians all their constitutional rights and freedoms: the right to social security, to work, to elect and be elected, freedom of speech, and consciousness,” Mr. Yushchenko wrote.

Silski Visti, which has a circulation of more than 500,000, is the main source of printed news for many rural residents.

Journalists said they expect pressure on the media will intensify as the presidential election, scheduled for October, nears.

Reporters are concerned about pending legislation that would allow Ukraine’s security services to monitor the Internet.

Internet publications have been the most independent of government control in recent years — and the most critical.

Television reporters complain that their work is dictated by “temniki” — guidelines from the Kuchma administration about what should be emphasized in newscasts.

Others fear the government will use inspections by tax authorities to punish newspapers critical of the government.

The editor of a newspaper in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, for instance, was detained in December by tax police.

Journalists speculate the arrest was punishment for articles critical of the region’s tax authority chief, who is the brother of Mr. Kuchma’s chief of staff.

The regional tax official, who has denied the charge, recently was promoted.

Reporters also expect physical attacks to continue on journalists who investigate corruption.

“The system is degraded,” said Oleh Yeltsov, an investigative reporter who recently was attacked and beaten up outside his home for the second time in six months. “This system of government security isn’t able to help.”

Halyna Moiseyeva, an investigative reporter with the Kievskiy Telegraf newspaper, said police often face a Catch-22 after a journalist has been targeted.

Instead of trying to solve the crime, police tend to focus on whether the attack was the result of the journalist’s private, rather than professional, activities.

Ms. Moiseyeva thwarted an attempted abduction by two men outside her home a year ago, when she screamed to a man walking across the street as she was being pulled, handcuffed, into a dark Audi.

Although police investigators were sympathetic, they eventually requested that she ask for the case to be closed because there were few leads.

Ms. Moiseyeva complied, although through her own efforts, she said she eventually found out who was behind the attempted abduction. She declines to discuss publicly who was responsible.

Media freedom in Ukraine has been under increased scrutiny since the September 2000 disappearance of Mr. Gongadze, whose headless body was found later.

Mr. Kuchma was implicated in the crime after he was heard telling aides to get rid of the journalist on tapes secretly recorded by a presidential bodyguard.

The Ukrainian president repeatedly has denied involvement in Mr. Gongadze’s killing. The deaths of several other Ukrainian journalists also remain unsolved.

Mr. Yeltsov, who founded the popular Internet publication Ukraina Kriminalna, which investigates criminal activity, said Mr. Kuchma is under increased pressure every time the news media fall into the spotlight.

Yet, Mr. Yeltsov said, he is unable to change the system because he helped create it: “You can’t demand Kuchma do something that he doesn’t have the capability of doing.”

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