Amid the partisan fanfare at the party conventions and quickening pace of the U.S. presidential race, it’s easy to forget that America isn’t the only nation embroiled in a feverish political campaign leading to a much-anticipated autumn election. But in Ukraine, where voters will elect a new president on Oct. 31, a crucial element is missing: free, fair and comprehensive media coverage. President Leonid Kuchma and his followers are doing everything they can to prevent open discussion of the country’s future.
Mr. Kuchma, in power since 1994, is barred from running for a third five-year term. Not that he’d stand a chance: His approval rating has slipped below 5 percent, and his legacy is likely to be the pervasive corruption, cronyism and cynicism that permeate government and business in Ukraine. To be fair, Mr. Kuchma deserves some credit for strengthening post-Soviet sovereignty in Ukraine, a nation of 50 million in the heart of Eastern Europe; for improving the economy; contributing military troops and other support to the U.S.-led war against terrorism; and allowing enough democracy to at least let this election take place.
But even dictators hold elections. Free nations hold free elections, which entail unfettered scrutiny by an independent ? and yes, often unruly — media. Throughout Mr. Kuchma’s tenure and now in the campaign, Ukrainian authorities have systematically intimidated, stymied and stifled freedom of speech. In July, Freedom House reported that “Ukraine’s news media suffers under an elaborate system of control that keeps opposition political groups and other critics off the airwaves and out of print. The situation has only worsened as election day approaches.”
Ukraine’s three top television networks are slavishly promoting Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the preferred presidential candidate of the Kuchma camp, and either ignoring or attacking Viktor Yushchenko, an economist and former prime minister who has polished democratic credentials, and, according to polls, would win if the election were held today. Meanwhile, cable networks that feature Kanal 5, a station that leans toward the opposition but whose coverage has been more balanced, are being taken off the air through goonish tactics ranging from harassment by tax authorities to late-night vandalism of equipment.
Among Mr. Kuchma’s media targets are the popular Ukrainian-language programs of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). In February, with scant warning, RFE/RL’s programs were yanked from the commercial Dovira FM radio network in Ukraine. Within days, Dovira — whose new owner is a supporter of Mr. Kuchma — was rewarded with licenses for four additional FM stations. When another Kiev radio station, Radio Kontinent, began to carry RFE/RL’s programs, authorities found a pretense to shut it down and confiscate its equipment just three days later. Serhiy Sholokh, Radio Kontinent’s owner, fled the country and took refuge in the United States.
As a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. federal agency that oversees all U.S. non-military international broadcasting (including RFE/RL), I traveled to Ukraine in April and again in June to urge Ukrainian officials to put RFE/RL back on the air. I emphasized that RFE/RL’s brand of accurate and objective news and analysis information is particularly important during the election campaign. I received firm assurances from top officials that a “signal” would be given to radio executives that it was acceptable to carry RFE/RL programs.KievMayor Oleksandr Omelchenko indicated that RFE/RL programs would be on a city-owned FM station by July 1.
Weeks later and well into the presidential campaign, RFE/RL cannot be heard in Kiev, the capital, and other major cities except on shortwave frequencies — an inadequate means of distribution. Managers of local stations say that they fear retaliation against their stations if they air RFE/RL programs, as happened to Radio Kontinent, or worse, given the history of violence against Ukrainian journalists who don’t toe Mr. Kuchma’s line.
Mr. Kuchma’s latest assault on free media does a disservice to his country’s goals of joining NATO and the European Union. And the world is watching. In July, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging the Ukrainian government not to interfere with the right of the people to choose their leaders. “The October elections,” states the resolution, “will be vital in determining Ukraine’s course for years to come.”
The Ukrainian people should select their new president based on a fair airing of the issues that face their country. In the United States, we accept the notion that information is the sine qua non of democracy. Mr. Kuchma’s Ukraine does not.
D. Jeffrey Hirschberg is a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and a partner in Kalorama Partners, a Washington consulting firm.