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28 September, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

Ukraine’s Last Independent Magazines Threatened

The World Newspaper Congress in Kyiv was supposed to give the impression that there is freedom of speech in Ukraine. Shortly after, a blitzkrieg was unleashed against the last free Ukrainian media

The government’s previous statements and actions suggest that it is still clinging to the belief that it will be legitimized in the eyes of the West when its October election is declared democratic. With this strategy in mind, it is extremely important for the Yanukovych regime to convince Western politicians that Ukraine’s media market is idyllic. In the previous issue, The Ukrainian Week discussed the government’s attempts to exploit the World Newspaper Congress and the World Editors Forum that took place in Kyiv in early September to mislead the West as to the true state of free speech and democracy in Ukraine. However, their hopes were dashed – partly by The Ukrainian Week. Prior to the congress, we published a special issue dedicated to manipulation on the Ukrainian media market by its biggest players that may allow the Yanukovych regime to easily control the fourth estate, and distributed it to international media participants. Forum participants saw just how remote the statements by top officials about Ukraine’s idyllic media space were from the truth when security guards forcibly removed the editors of a number of Ukrainian media outlets and members of the “Stop Censorship!” movement. The activists unfolded posters stating “2/3 of all attacks on journalists in Ukraine are made by the government”, “Yanukovych is crushing freedom of speech in Ukraine” and the like during Viktor Yanukovych’s speech at the forum. Subsequently, a number of well-known international publications reported that Yanukovych’s statements about the support of free speech in Ukraine are not true, as the government’s efforts to control the media grow more and more visible.

Post-congress developments indicate that the government has decided to destroy the last remaining free media now that its efforts to mislead the West have clearly failed. One possible scenario is that the government is rushing to carry out this plan prior to the election so that it can have complete control over the way Ukraine’s “democratic election” is reported.      

FREEDOM FOR THE CHOSEN

At the Yalta European Strategy conference arranged annually by Viktor Pinchuk in mid-September, Vice Premier Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, a major contributor to the creation of Viktor Yanukovych’s image as a “liberal pro-European politician”, tried to assure Condoleezza Rice that all political forces in Ukraine have equal access to the media. Meanwhile, monitoring of press freedom conducted in August by the Equal Opportunities Commission showed that the Party of Regions dominates the media in all regions but Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. The monitoring surveyed 230 regional media outlets, including TV channels, print and online publications in all oblasts of Ukraine. In Donetsk Oblast, the ruling party receives 100 times the media coverage of the opposition.

Inter, a nationwide TV channel owned by Vice PM Khoroshkovsky, had the most positive coverage of the government’s activities as well as a poor balance of different opinions, the August monitoring showed. His response in defense of the channel’s objectivity is striking: “people watch Inter and see reality. The fact that they don’t express distrust means that we’re reflecting what is happening in the real world.”

The real argument is different though: the Ukrainian media market is monopolized by a small circle of people and business entities linked to the government, whose manipulations prevent the implementation of real market mechanisms. An overwhelming majority of publications in Ukraine operate at a loss because the advertising market is so small, worth just $180mn a year with just over 5,000 newspapers and magazines. According to estimates, one publication could hypothetically earn no more than $36000 in yearly advertising revenue. Yet, most earn even less because the advertising sector is divided between two or three leaders with the greatest audience coverage. This is true for virtually every segment of the media. The so-called leaders that advertisers focus on are determined by TNS Ukraine, a monopolist in media audience research that recently attracted the ire of several media outlets. They claimed that TNS Ukraine’s rates do not reflect the true coverage, and that certain large media holdings use the company to manipulate advertising budgets. The only possible objective indicator for publications is their circulation, yet this is not an effective measure either because there is no certified circulation auditor in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian publications cannot earn enough from subscription and retail sales because proceeds do not even cover the cost of paper or distribution (the high cost of which is a result of a monopoly in that sector). Most Ukrainian publications cannot afford to set prices that would cover their overhead costs without losing part of their audience. Because of their low earnings, most Ukrainians cannot afford to pay EUR 2-3 for a publication. A successful publication in Ukraine (with a population of 46 million) is one with a print run of 10,000 copies, compared to those with at least 100,000 copies in Poland and the Czech Republic, and 300,000 in Germany.

Despite their losses, several media holdings controlled by oligarchs, among others, still have competitive publications in their portfolios. One possible explanation is that in lieu of a proper media market in Ukraine, this is being done to dictate conditions to other market participants, ensure beneficial cooperation with the government and exert the latter’s influence on public opinion. This pushes entire segments, such as Ukrainian-language publications, from the media market, fills publications with paid articles (one method of survival for most Ukrainian media), degrades journalistic integrity, and erodes trust in the media. 

AN INCONVENIENT WEEK

The Ukrainain Week/Ukrayinskiy Tyzhden focused on these problems in its special issue dedicated to the World Newspaper Congress in Kyiv. Then, access to its audience began to be blocked.

Starting with that issue, the administration of Boryspil airport banned the distribution of Ukrayinskiy Tyzhden on its territory thus depriving us of access to an important audience. We learned this from AT Media, an advertising agency that distributed the publication at the airport. “Boryspil airport employees were forced to remove the publication from the press stands as a result of the publication of articles against the current government. After the magazine was removed for the second time, the airport’s administration banned putting it out. Based on the information mentioned above, we are unfortunately forced to discontinue distribution of your publication there.” (see a copy of the official letter forwarded by email on September 11th).

UMH Group, a media holding presided over by Borys Lozhkin and the biggest player on the Ukrainian market for print publications, has blocked the distribution of Ukrayinskiy Tyzhden as well. Several retail chains linked to UMH Group, including Press Trade in Kyiv and Tvoya Presa (Your Press) in Kharkiv have refused to sell the magazine regardless of effective contracts and without explanation.

The workers at press retailers in Kyiv informed us that people linked to the UMH Group bought out every copy of Ukrayinskiy Tyzhden issue 36/2012 dedicated to the media, the negative impact of press market monopolization in Ukraine, troubles free speech in Ukraine and the failed attempt of the Presidential Administration to use the World Newspaper Congress to whitewash the Yanukovych regime. UMH Group has the potential to monopolize Ukraine’s print media market, and Borys Lozhkin, along with the Presidential Administration, was one of the initiators behind the idea of hosting the World Newspaper Congress in Kyiv. This was the focus of the issue blocked from distribution.

If the trend continues, it may have a serious impact on the publication. Founded by the Austrian ECEM Media GmbH, it is not related to any Ukrainian oligarchs or political entities. With no proper advertising market and a no-paid-article policy, Ukrayinskiy Tyzhden/ The Ukrainain Week’s main source of income is proceeds from sales. It appears that by restricting our access to readers directly and through linked media entities, the government is hoping to force the foreign investor to discontinue the publication.

NO TV

Print publications in Ukraine have a much smaller audience compared to television. According to Iryna Bekeshkina, Director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, television is an absolute leader in the communication sphere. 46% of citizens receive pre-election news from TV while only 23% do so from print media, 8% from the Internet and 4% from social networks.

Although TV channels mention the Party of Regions over nine times more often than other participants of the election campaign, as research by the Equal Opportunities Commission and Democratic Initiatives Foundation shows, the government seems to be pushing for a complete monopolization of television coverage. Two out of three TV channels with the biggest audience on a nationwide scale that are often the only ones available in much of rural Ukraine have long been under the government’s control. The administration of the First National channel has openly stated that its task is to promote the interests of the ruling party rather than those of the nation. Inter TV is owned by the current Vice Premier and is allegedly closely linked to a highly influential group in the current government that includes the President’s Chief of Staff Serhiy Liovochkin and oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Controlled by other oligarchs, the rest of the TV channels have been forced to implement self-censorship – more or less visible, yet growing – in issues that the Yanukovych regime finds sensitive.

After Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko joined the government, it became obvious that his Channel 5 would no longer act as an alternative source of information during the election as it did in the 2004 Orange Revolution. Moreover, the government has taken every effort over the past few years to prevent TVi, the last nationwide independent TV channel, from taking over the mission that had once been Channel 5’s. First, TVi lost its license for some frequencies to Khoroshkovsky’s Inter. After the election campaign kicked off, cable operators began to turn off TVi in their regions without any sound explanations. On September 5th, the last day of the World Newspaper Congress, the biggest Ukrainian cable operator Volia removed the channel from the basic package of channels it offered, causing the loss of up to 2/3 of TVi’s audience according to estimates by the channel’s administration. On top of it all, there was an attempt to ban TVi’s foreign economic transactions without a special license from the Ministry of Economy. As a result, transnational payments for satellite transmission – an alternative way to communicate information to audiences – could have ended up completely under government control. The mechanism has not been imposed yet, but there is still some time before the election. In addition to that, TVi’s administration faced criminal charges for tax evasion. It had to pay over UAH 4mn (collected by Ukrainian citizens in support of their favourite channel) in tax debt and fines, although it never admitted to owing any debt to the Tax Administration and considers the debt illegal (TVi previously won a similar case in court).

Meanwhile, the government has turned a blind eye to protests in support of TVi and free speech from abroad and in Ukraine. These took place in most Ukrainian cities even after some courts banned the rallies using weak excuses. Kharkiv’s District Court, for instance, banned the protest based on a request from the city council because it “prevents people from moving around the city freely.”  

THE CONGRESS IS OVER, LET THE REPRESSION BEGIN!

After the World Newspaper Congress in Kyiv, the attack on freedom of speech has mounted. The impression is that the Presidential Administration intentionally waited for the congress to end in order to avoid more accusations of limited press freedom. The government’s latest initiatives signal that it is purging the media space to prevent the publication of whatever damaging information the few remaining media outlets can muster.

On September 12th, the government issued an instruction “On Raising Awareness for the Prevention of Terrorism” to the State Television and Radio Committee and law enforcement agencies. They are ordered to reveal and stop any materials calling on terrorist activity “in any form”, violent overthrow of the constitutional order, “actions that threaten civil order” or the overthrow of the government. Despite a heightened protest culture, the threat of terrorism is very low in Ukraine. According to sociological surveys, only 3% of Ukrainians consider terrorist attacks to be a real threat. Independent experts assume that the last two provisions of the instruction may be used primarily to coerce, intimidate and persecute representatives of independent media.

On September 18th, the Verkhovna Rada passed a bill “On Amending the Criminal Code and the Code of Proceedings of Ukraine to Increase Liability for Attacks on the Dignity and Business Reputation of Individuals”. Officially sponsored by the Party of Regions’ Vitaliy Zhuravsky, the draft law was actually designed at the Presidential Administration as proven by an electronic file posted on the parliament’s website. The list of crimes in the new draft law includes slander, punishable with prison terms of one to two years or two to five years. Slander that accuses someone of a serious crime may carry up to a three-year jail sentence. Top officials are not hiding the purpose of the draft law. In its response to a question by the online publication Economic Truth regarding corrupt property foreclosures based on court decisions, the Ministry of Justice wrote that it was “dishonest activity” similar to that of the publication that “brought forth the legislative initiative to implement liability for slander”. The question about corruption was left unanswered.  

If passed, the law on slander will destroy the remnants of independent journalism in Ukraine. In lieu of a fair judiciary, any journalist who criticizes an official or publishes an investigation on potential corruption will automatically become an object of criminal persecution with the outcome known in advance. This is essentially an attempt to apply the tools used against jailed opposition members to attack legitimate free media outlets using obsolete soviet provisions of the Criminal Code. Despite promises from government representatives to soften the draft law following sharp reactions by the Western and Ukrainian public and politicians, the law, if passed, will signal the end of free speech and journalism in Ukraine. After that, journalism in the country may degrade completely.The government seems to have taken a step back under pressure from the public. When this publication was being prepared, the Party of Regions’ Vitaliy Zhuravsky stated that he would recall his draft law on slander. However, he also said that he was going to submit a finalized version to the parliament after the election. According to The Ukrainian Week’s source in the Party of Regions, legislative changes on criminal liability for slander will “definitely” be passed after the parliamentary election.  

This is nothing new. If the tactics employed by the government on a massive scale succeed to win them a constitutional majority in the new parliament (300 out of 450 seats)—even if supported by no more than 25% of the population—the Yanukovych regime will be able to completely ignore the international community. In doing so, he may point to having “absolute popular support” and a constitutional majority in the parliament as signs thereof. “All questions about Ukraine will be answered after the election,” said Yanukovych at the Yalta European Strategy conference. In this light, this phrase may gain an entirely new meaning.

EXPERT COMMENT

Mikael Pentikäinen, Senior Editor-in-Chief at Helsingin Sanomat and participant of the World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum in Kyiv

I was not surprised to find out that Ukraine has problems with freedom of speech. We have had discussions on the board of WAN-Ifra regarding the situation with the Ukrainian press. Therefore, I was expecting something to happen at the ceremony. As far as I know there are many different problems in Ukraine with the legislation, the media, newsroom culture, corruption, and connections between the authorities and media. I wrote a column about this for my paper Helsingin Sanomat a few weeks ago.

I think that it is crucial for Ukrainian journalists to take care of the editorial culture

of every free media. The trust of readers is the most valuable asset we have. The international media community is carefully monitoring the development of Ukrainian media and supporting it with all the tools we have. We have to fight together for the freedom of the press, everywhere in the world.


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