WORLD AFFAIRSIt’s official: freedom of the press has been rolled back in Ukraine.

The 2010 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders on October 20, notes that Ukraine “fell sharply” as a result of “the slow and steady deterioration in press freedom since Viktor Yanukovich’s election as president in February.” Ukraine is ranked 131st out of 178 countries, a tad worse than Iraq and a tad better than “Israel (extra-territorial),” i.e. the West Bank and Gaza. In the 2009 Index, Ukraine was tied for 89th place, with Senegal, after Albania and before Mongolia.

The findings will come as no surprise to Ukrainians, who’ve long since noticed that their once-freewheeling media have begun to toe the line, eschewing open criticism of the Yanukovich regime and reducing air time for the opposition. A just-released report by Telekritika, a Ukrainian media monitor, actually quantifies the number of television news items that have the “characteristics of being ordered (or censored).” A typical example: Ukraine’s most popular station, Inter, had 96 such items in July, 103 in August, and 151 in September. Of that number, 91 were neutral or positive toward the government in July, 99 in August, and 137 in September. The figures for the other most-watched stations, Channel One, ICTV, and 1+1, are similar.

When confronted with claims of declining media freedom, Yanukovich and his cronies insist that all is well. Look, they invariably say, the popular TV talk show hosted by Yevgeny Kiselyov and Savik Shuster (both refugees from Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian Russia) are as open as ever. And where’s the proof that the government is actually pressuring the media?

Of course, everyone knows that media celebrities Kiselyov and Shuster are the exceptions to the rule, precisely because they are exceptional celebrities. And even if, as is likely, the earlier practice of issuing written instructions to the media has not been revived — the Yanukovich people know better than to leave a paper trail — it’s a good bet that they convey their desires in the time-honored manner of all Soviet apparatchiks: by telephone. And there’s no fear of being bugged, as the telegenic head of the secret police, Valery Khoroshkovsky, is also Ukraine’s largest media tycoon.

Targeted strikes can also get the point across. A few months ago, a troublesome young blogger was questioned by the secret police. In early August, the Kharkiv-based editor, Vasyl Klimentyev, disappeared — or was disappeared. On October 15, the police searched the home of his deputy, Petro Matviyenko. That same day, they also searched the home of human rights blogger Dmytro Groysman, in the city of Vinnytsia, west of Kiev.

Most important, Yanukovich himself continually signals to the media just how he expects them to behave. In an October 14 interview with BBC, for example, he told the correspondent: “I would like journalists to tell the truth. I would very much like this. And that will then be freedom of speech.” Since he made this comment while being visibly annoyed by a question about possible misappropriation of state funds, it’s clear that the truth Yanukovich desires must be flattering to him and his regime. Seen in this light, Yanukovich’s championing of public television looks downright sinister. It would doubtless be perfectly free to praise him.

The big question now is: Will the crackdown on press freedom work? Pessimists point to deeply embedded Soviet-era traditions of media slavishness. Optimists argue that the five years of freedom after the Orange Revolution created a vibrant media and civil society that will not bow to regime dictates.

Back in 2003, former President Leonid Kuchma, who, like Yanukovych, is no lover of press freedom, wrote a book called Ukraine Is Not Russia. The joke in Kiev is that he’s now working on a sequel: I Was Wrong.

Only the Yanukovich people are laughing.

Alexander J Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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