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7 February, 2012  ▪  Alina Pastukhova

Constrained Freedom: the Government is Cleansing the Information Space Prior to the Election

The closer the 2012 parliamentary election is, the more actively the government is curbing freedom of expression

Before adjourning for the holidays, the Verkhovna Rada dismissed BYuT MP Andriy Shevchenko as chair of the parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Expression and Information. The initiator of the vote was deputy chair of the committee, Party of Regions MP Olena Bondarenko. She accused Shevchenko of, among other things, submitting for consideration by the committee only those bills that he favored and presenting his decisions as those taken by the entire committee. According to the version publicized by the opposition, the main causes for the misunderstanding are Bondarenko’s ambitions and her ardent desire to chair the committee in order to put it under the control of the Party of Regions prior to the parliamentary election. Opposition members say that the Party of Regions will do its utmost to prevent a new chair from being elected (this office belongs to the opposition’s quota), so that as deputy chair, Bondarenko will perform the chair’s duties until the term of the current parliament expires.

Regardless of the relationship between the two rivals or how imperfect Shevchenko’s job in this office was, he is indeed an uncomfortable figure for the Party of Regions. Its MPs even say as much. For example, Bondarenko told The Ukrainian Week that Shevchenko had blocked, for nearly a year, consideration of her bill about cutting Ukrainian music quotas for radio stations.

Recent events on the mass media market also suggest that the government has launched active informational activities in preparation for the election. For example, the victims of reforms and restructuring inside Igor Kolomoysky’s media empire happen to be the mass media that have criticized the incumbent government. In the past two years, the oligarch shut down the newspapers Nova and Gazeta po-kyevski and the magazines Glavred and Telekrytyka which were not loyal to the government. His holding recently announced plans to restructure and reformat the City TV channel which has been popular in Kyiv and quite critical of the decisions and actions of the authorities, particularly the Kyiv City Administration. More than half of the channel’s staff were laid off and the news service was discontinued. The laid-off employees surmise that the reform may be linked to the approaching election. They do not rule out that, prior to the mayoral election in Kyiv, the new team will be tasked with constructing a positive image for the current Head of the Kyiv City Administration Oleksandr Popov.

In late December 2011, a conflict with elements of censorship erupted at another channel owned by Kolomoysky. An item about corruption in the Khmelnytsky Regional State Administration, which was prepared by Oleh Deineka, the host of the investigative journalism program Money (1+1 channel), was denied airtime. The journalist was temporarily suspended as the host of the program which had quite often addressed the financial interests of ranking officials. Several days later, the channel’s administration announced its final decision to reprimand Deineka for a breach of labor discipline and allow him to continue to work but without being in charge of individual items.

Censorship has been revealed even in the newspaper Segodnya which is controlled by Rinat Akhmetov. The recently fired ex-editor in chief Ihor Huzhva says that his bosses forced him on a number of occasions to withdraw photos or articles from publication and write about certain individuals exclusively in positive terms. In fact, this was behind a scandal over  censorship in the newspaper.

With the parliamentary election approaching, you can expect increased “self-censorship” on the part of owners of media outlets who would rather avoid conflicts with the authorities, as well as efforts by the authorities to drive those owners who are not doing a good job of censoring their own content out of the market. The question is how journalists and the public will react to attempts to curb freedom of expression. The experience of Russia shows that when key mass media are successfully monopolized, an authoritarian regime's power increases dramatically.

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