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Press freedom situation deteriorating under new president, says ARTICLE 19

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 3 June 2010 - ARTICLE 19 and International Media Support (IMS) are calling on President Viktor Yanukovych and his administration to ensure that Ukraine upholds its commitments to freedom of expression and in particular press freedom under the European Convention of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Since the end of February 2010, the press freedom situation in the country has deteriorated markedly.

Press censorship has re-emerged in various ways, including through the banning of critical reports about the government, curtailing of editorial control and the issuing of specific instructions to include or remove certain political issues.

To mark the 100 days in office of President Yanukovych, IMS and ARTICLE 19 are calling on the government to revise its approach towards the media. Both organisations are reiterating their offer of full support and expertise in the development of freedom of speech and freedom of media in Ukraine, as stated in the open letter to President Yanukovych, dated 25 February 2010.

In an interview with ARTICLE 19, Natalia Ligacheva, editor-in-chief of local media watchdog Telekritika, said: "Television news has become practically sterile: it mentions the authorities in a positive light or not at all. TV news is silent not only when it comes to opinions that are uncomfortable for the authorities, but also about facts."

Joined by their colleagues at the STB television channel, 15 journalists from Ukraine's second largest television channel, 1+1, have threatened to go on strike if the censorship does not stop. In response, on 21 May, Ukrainian journalists announced the launch of a civil movement called "Stop Censorship!"

Concerns expressed by TV journalist, Myroslav Otkovych, about this trend were reportedly responded to by the Presidential Administration as 'political, dilettante and amateurish'. In reaction TV reporters from 1+1 wrote an open letter to fellow journalists on 6 May stating:"We do not want to be serfs and propagandists. Freedom of speech is not a mere word for us but the foundation of our profession. That is why we announce our protest against the oppression of freedom of speech."

Physical attacks and the harassment of journalists have increased in the last three months, whereas the reaction of government officials has been inadequate, not holding those responsible to account. For example, on 23 March, Vasyl Demyaniv, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Kolomyisky Visnyk, was attacked and severely beaten by unknown persons. It is believed the assault is connected to Demyaniv's professional activity. The police are investigating the attack as a mere case of "hooliganism" instead of instituting criminal proceedings for the impediment to exercise journalistic activity. Also troubling in this respect is an increase in the harassment of media representatives by government officials. On 4 April, an official from the Kyiv city administration reacted aggressively to a reporter's question and threw away the reporter's microphone.

On the occasion of the Presidential inauguration on 25 February 2010, ARTICLE 19 and IMS had urged the President to respond immediately to serious shortcomings within the legislative and policy framework related to freedom of expression and press freedom in Ukraine. Rather than taking decisive action in this direction, on 2 April, President Yanukovych dissolved the National Commission on (the Reinforcement) of Freedom of Speech and Information Development. This Commission consisted of Ukrainian media experts tasked with advising the President, overseeing compliance with European and international media standards, and facilitating the launch of public service broadcasting in Ukraine.

"Although the commission continues to exist as an independent organisation, the fact that it was abolished by President Yanukovych is a blow to civil society and their ability to engage effectively with his administration on urgent media concerns," said Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. "Removing this commission at a crucial time like this, when censorship and physical attacks on media are on the rise, implies that the President does not regard a censorship-free media as a priority," continued Callamard.

Another concern is the growing pressure and administrative harassment of independently owned media outlets, specifically TV stations. In April, allegedly a mistake in the spelling of the name of a TVi channel led the National Security Service to conduct an investigation aimed at cancelling frequencies recently issued to this channel.

"In Ukraine, where over 80% of the population receives its main news through television, the Ukrainian government has an obligation to ensure diversity of opinions and political views via television programming," said Jesper Højberg, Executive Director of IMS. "This can't be done without ensuring transparency of media ownership, freedom of information and public service broadcasting, areas which require urgent legal reform in Ukraine," continued Højberg.

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