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MEDIA IN UKRAINE: An Overview of current obstacles to media freedom and independence

MEDIA IN UKRAINE: An Overview of current obstacles to media freedom and independence - April 6 2010

by Arthur Rudzitsky, President of the AEJ Ukrainian Section and President of the Ukrainian Association of Publishers and Press Distributors (UAPPD)

I. Freedom of Expression or Owners' Orders?
The Western world thinks that media in Ukraine are relatively free, and that Ukraine is the most democratic country in the CIS space in the information and media sphere. But in reality there is a big difference between the way democratic rules and standards are applied in the media sphere in the West, and the situation in Ukraine. Freedom of speech and freedom of expression do exist to some degree in the Ukrainian information field, but there are too many ways in which those freedoms are systematically limited or undermined:-

A – The daily coverage of State owned media is unbalanced. They habitually concentrate their news output narrowly on information about state institutions and their activities -- especially the President, the parliament, and the national government, as well as local authorities. Both domestic news and foreign news coverage are viewed almost exclusively from the perspective of Ukraine's concerns and preoccupations, giving a distorted picture of the realities of international affairs. A general lack of adequate funds is one important cause of this deficiency.

B – Ukraine has no public media of the kind that are familiar to the populations of western countries. Pledges and intentions “to create public TV and radio” or “to change local media into an important part of the public TV system” etc are routinely made by each new presidential team, and every new Cabinet of Ministers responsible for broadcasting in Ukraine. But in reality the great majority of Ukrainian politicians, including the President, Speaker, Prime Minister etc. are afraid to create the public media – like the BBC in the United Kingdom – in Ukraine. Ukrainian politicians and governors are unwilling to face open criticism of the kind that is normal and expected in countries that enjoy really independent public media, especially broadcasting. Thus, public service broadcasting is seen by many top politicians in Ukraine as their potential adversary. Crucially, one important reason for this hostility is that the creation of a successful public broadcasting system would be a strong competitor to private owned media, which currently owe their allegiance to various businesses controlled or owned by those same top persons in politics and businesses in Ukraine. As a result, the politicians' commitments to establishing public media have so far been shown to be empty words.

C – Privately owned media are in principle free in their editorial policy. However the freedom of action of journalists and employees is all too easily stopped by owners at any time when they choose to intervene. Yes, top journalists in the private media have relatively good salaries, and modern technologies to make products of high quality, which is generally interesting and useful for their audiences or readers. But every staff member in the private media understands that everything is subject to political or business influences of various kinds in Ukraine. There are two media trade unions, both of which purport to support journalists' working rights and to uphold journalistic ethics, but the results of their activities are disappointing. Journalists are not united and solidarity is weak in the face of the pressures I have mentioned.

D – Legislation in the media sphere allows state owners or private media owners a virtually free hand to do what they want with their media organisations. In January 2010, the National Commission On Morals and Ethics prepared a new law on moral and ethical issues in the media, named the “Journalists Code”. However, lawyers -- including those working for the parliament of Ukraine and for leading media NGOs -- say that the law fails to protect the rights of journalists in basic respects. One of those legal experts even condemned the new law as dangerous, because it makes a mockery of the concept of freedom of expression, and instead creates a legal framework for censorship to be practised in the Ukrainian media (the criticism of Y. Zakharov, Head of the Group of Human Rights Protection in Kharkiv).

E – For media owners, media have regularly been used during campaigns and elections as a tool to promote their own interests, whether party political, personal or business. State owned media often give prime time exposure to powerful figures and candidates during campaigns, in clear breach of Ukrainian laws. But few people care enough to speak up against these abuses. NGO activists, journalists and lawyers are powerless to prevent them, and many have grown inured and accustomed to the lack of genuinely independent media scrutiny of political campaigns.

II. What should be done? Many things, and urgently!

A – To change the relevant laws in Ukraine to protect and support independence of the media, and to translate the many Ukrainian and international commitments and texts about upholding free media into reality.

B – To create genuinely independent public service media based on the "best practice" in Western Europe.

C – To give Ukrainian journalists more opportunities to experience and understand the workings of independent European media at first hand. Such experience could help Ukrainian journalists to fight for their professional rights, to apply European principles of impartiality and independence in local media – and to teach their bosses how to do a better job of following agreed rules and standards in journalism.

D – Training for news editors, reporters and others in being independent and objective in covering various kinds of news events and issues in Ukrainian and international affairs.

C – An ambitious programme of training for journalists working in local media. Media in small cities are poor both in terms of financing and technical support. Most of those journalists now have little or no chance to observe or study the professional working practices of more experienced colleagues. It’s VERY important to invite journalists from the East, as well as from the South of Ukraine and Crimea, to take part in training sessions/ master classes with European journalists and editors. In reality, some very untransparent and undesirable practices from Soviet times are still prevalent in a number of Ukraine's regions.

D – I also welcome the chance to develop a Ukrainian internet media community through the AEJ website. It will be a useful means for Ukrainian journalists to get information on AEJ activities, on the activities and concerns of Western media, and the principles on which they aspire to work, from news production to the principles of media research etc. Bohdana Kostiuk, a member of the Ukrainian section of the AEJ and a freelance Journalist for Radio Liberty, will be contributing a Russian or Ukrainian language page on the site, for the benefit of our Section members.