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Latest update : 2010-10-18

Press freedom under threat?

The ten year anniversary of the murder of Ukrainian investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze comes as the country is hit by a climate of growing concern about press freedom.

"Jail Kuchma!" "Jail Litvin!" chanted demonstrators outside the Presidential administration in Kiev on Thursday evening. They were referring to former president Leonid Kuchma and current parliament speaker Volodymyr Litvin. Both are widely believed to have had a hand in Georgiy Gongadze's murder ten years ago.

Yet the prosecutor's office just published a report laying the blame solely on the former interior minister, Yuriy Kravchenko... who died in 2005. A little too convenient, said those who'd gathered to commemorate Gongadze's death.

Fears are running high in Ukraine that the bad old days are returning for media freedom. Those who oppose Viktor Yanukovych are extremely suspicious of his intentions. And the disappearance and presumed murder, in August, of another journalist, Vasyl Klymentyev, has drawn international attention.

In fact, the Klymentyev case is rather different. Whereas Gongadze had founded a major independent news website, Ukrainska Pravda, Klymentyev's Novy Stil was a low-circulation local publication, investigating corruption cases in Kharkiv. There's no suggestion the national authorities are involved. But so far, their failure to successfully investigate the crime is being seen as a bad sign.

Klymentyev's mobile phone was allegedly found at a reservoir near the eastern Ukrainian city, but Novy Stil's deputy editor Petro Matviienko is convinced that's a red herring. "They killed him in Kharkiv, and then brought not even the phone here, just the SIM card, and put it in another phone," he says.

At the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, an NGO, Andriy Kristenko retains some optimism: "It could yet be that the national authorities will decide to use this case to show that they are tough on local authorities' abuses." But the broader picture, he says, is a dark one: "This government does not care about press freedom. Here, we are dealing with more serious human rights abuses - with torture cases. I wouldn't be surprised if, in two years time, I'd face jail for giving this kind of interview."

It's common to hear such dramatic views among opponents of Viktor Yanukovych. International observers have also expressed concern, albeit more moderately: Reporters Without Borders titled its report "Temptation to Control".

Ukraine's print media remain broadly free. But most Ukrainians get their news from television. Since Yanukovych came to power, TV journalists have reported increasing pressure from their management not to criticise the government. Three employees of the state channel UT-1 resigned in early September, citing editorial constraints. The channel's management said they really left due to low pay.

Low pay doesn't seem to be an issue for the channel's deputy director, Walid Harfouche, judging by the artworks and antiques in his plush office. Harfouche famously said that the state channel's role is to report on positive things the government is doing. He gladly repeated as much to France 24, but insisted on the second part of the statment: "and leave the criticism to the private channels".

Yet Ukraine's largest private channels are controlled by four oligarchs close to Yanukovych. "Ukraine is a young country", Harfouche explained by way of an excuse, noting with a broad grin that powerful business-people with political connections control media groups in France and other Western countries, too.

The owner of Ukraine's largest media group, Inter, Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, could hardly fit that description better. He is not only head of the secret services, the SBU, but also sits on the country's High Council of Justice. He flatly denies meddling in his channels' affairs. But Inter's court action against independent channels TVi and Channel 5 rather weakens his claim to support press freedom. Khoroshkovsky's group said the channels had obtained broadcast licenses illegally, and - perhaps helped by its owner's judicial connections - had those frequencies removed.

By Gulliver CRAGG

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