- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

KIEV — With six weeks to go before Ukraine’s presidential elections, officials and observers warn that unbalanced media coverage and a crackdown on the independent press are threatening the balloting process.

“The biggest violation is [unequal] access of candidates to national channels,” Nina Karpachova, the national ombudsman, told The Washington Times.

“Information … is skewed, and that’s for all candidates. It’s not objective, and that’s not normal. Society needs objective information so it can make a normal, balanced decision” on Election Day, Oct. 31.

The United States and Europe have warned Kiev that future relations will depend on whether the elections are free and fair. Viktor Yanukovych, currently prime minister and a leading contender for president, has promised his government will ensure transparency. In a July interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Yanukovych also said democratic media need to be expanded and improved.

Several Ukrainian nonprofit organizations monitoring the campaign, however, said the prime minister has received the majority of news coverage on state television and several national stations owned by businessmen sympathetic to him.

His main challenger, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, has been negatively portrayed in newscasts since the campaign began in July.

Miss Karpachova said she is so concerned about the situation that she canceled a recent trip to North America to monitor the situation. Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn has repeatedly called for balanced media coverage.

“Unfortunately, the situation with respect to the media in Ukraine in the run-up to the elections is discouraging,” Rep. Christopher H. Smith, the New Jersey Republican who heads the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said in a statement last week.

“The election — apparently because of the clear-cut choice between current Prime Minister Yanukovych, and leader of the Our Ukraine democratic bloc, Victor Yushchenko — seems to have frightened those who are now in power. It seems the ruling regime has decided to interfere in media election coverage at an unprecedented scale, presumably with the expectation that the interference will ensure their victory at the polls.”

Although state television and radio are broadcasting political statements from all 26 presidential candidates, media access could sway the outcome of the race, according to a poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology and Democratic Initiatives, a nonprofit organization.

If candidates had equal access to television and radio coverage, Mr. Yushchenko would receive 29 percent of the vote, while Mr. Yanukovych would garner 23 per cent, the poll found. If access does not improve, Mr. Yanukovych would win with 31 percent of the vote and Mr. Yushchenko would receive 23 percent, the institute said.

In all, 1,980 persons were polled throughout Ukraine. The margin of error did not exceed 2.3 percent. Other polls have placed Mr. Yushchenko as the favorite by as much as six percentage points, although most people questioned said they believe Mr. Yanukovych will win.

Mr. Yanukovych’s campaign suffered a setback last week when some 40 deputies defected from the pro-government parliamentary majority, which has backed the prime minister. Deputies from the center have complained that their concerns are being ignored.

Independent media, meanwhile, continue to face obstacles. Police recently ruled arson was involved after one of the offices of Postup, an independent newspaper in the western city of Lviv, was set on fire.

Archives from the past seven years and a number of computers were destroyed in the blaze. Damage was estimated at $56,500.

“This is one of the provocations against newspapers,” chief editor Andriy Biloyus said in an interview. He said he believed the attack on his paper was part of a larger campaign to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and to create ethnic hostilities before the elections.

Swastikas have been sprayed on Mr. Yushchenko’s campaign headquarters and other buildings in Lviv in recent weeks. The opposition leader’s father was a survivor of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where he was interned during World War II as a Red Army soldier.

“No one would be surprised if a state of emergency was called” before the elections, said Mr. Biloyus.

Media freedoms appear more constricted in eastern Ukraine, particularly in Donetsk, which has 11 percent of Ukraine’s population and is a stronghold of the prime minister, journalists said.

“The Donetsk media are controlled by the authorities,” said Elena Kolhusheva, who runs the Internet site, Ostrov. “The leaders in Donetsk don’t want to differentiate themselves because they don’t have their own positions.”

Mrs. Kolhusheva’s husband, Yaroslav, said he recently quit his job at the one of region’s largest newspapers after its editor, who also heads a journalists’ union, ordered reporters to toe the Yanukovych line. He now works with his wife running the Internet site.

Channel 5, a Kiev-based station financed by a political supporter of Mr. Yushchenko’s who is also a parliament member, was yanked off the air this summer in many eastern Ukrainian industrial centers and Uzhhorod, a western city on Ukraine’s border with Hungary.

Although cable operators cited technical reasons, Channel 5’s management said its removal was politically motivated. U.S. and European officials have voiced concern about the blackout.

Parliament urged cable operators last week to put Channel 5 back on the air. The Cabinet of Ministers, which Mr. Yanukovych heads, shot back, saying the station’s picture quality is poor and management lacks agreements with cable operators.

Channel 5 insisted that it has the necessary contracts. Several cable operators who carry the station, however, have experienced problems with authorities. Volia Cable, an American-owned Kiev-based operator, has been harassed by the prosecutor-general’s office on what observers say are trumped-up charges over broadcasting pornography, but which reputedly involve the station’s carrying Channel 5 in its offering.

Washington is particularly concerned that Radio Liberty was taken off the FM band this year and is still not being broadcast, despite months of assurances from Ukrainian officials that it would be.

Mr. Smith said he is also worried that despite international protests and queries, Ukrainian authorities still have not solved the killing of Georgiy Gongadze, a journalist who investigated high-level corruption.

The fourth anniversary of the death of Mr. Gongadze, whose decapitated body was found in a forest outside the capital, was observed Thursday with a candlelight vigil in downtown Kiev.

“It is a case of a massive coverup by high-level officials,” Mr. Smith said.

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