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IPI addresses open letter to president over press freedom concerns

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, 10 August 2010 - The International Press Institute (IPI), the world's oldest global press freedom organisation with members from the world's leading media outlets, addressed an open letter to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Tuesday respectfully urging him to address a disturbing deterioration in press freedom over the last six months in Ukraine.

President Yanukovych won the election in February 2009 and has since raised fears that he is seeking to turn the clock back on recent press freedom gains in Ukraine.

A rise in attacks on journalists has been reported, along with a climate of impunity.

In the most recent worrying development, a Kiev court decided to cancel the allocation of broadcasting frequencies to two privately-run TV channels - TVi and 5 Kanal.

TVi Chief Executive Mykola Kniazhytskyi told IPI on Tuesday: "After President Yanukovych came to power a number of topics became off-limits. On top of that there have been attempts to take away the licenses of TVi and Channel 5. Bloggers were 'invited' for questioning by the security services and were asked to sign that they would refrain from saying anything negative about the government."

Kniazhytskyi also said that a number of journalists had been allegedly roughed up by the police.

"Yesterday, a journalist from Novi Kanal was reporting on a photography exhibition," he said. "The police attacked him. The cameraman who was with him filmed the incident."

The journalist who was attacked, allegedly by members of the Ukrainian police special forces, can be seen attempting to follow security services personnel through a door on the exhibition premises after they had dragged away a person who was protesting against the exhibition, which reportedly focused on World War II.

"In a separate incident, another journalist, from STB, was attacked by a member of the president's security," said Kniazhytskyi. "This also was filmed, shown on TV, and no one was punished."

Kniazhytskyi asserted: "The courts are refusing to defend the journalists. This is a consequence of a decrease in independence in the judicial branch."

The TVi CEO also told IPI that he was recently followed by a car with false license plates which parked in front of his house and in front of the TV channel. He said he sent a reporter out to film and question the occupants.

The EU, the U.S. Embassy in Kiev and the European security watchdog, the OSCE, have all expressed concern about the current media environment.

"I viewed the 8 June (court) decision as potentially negative for pluralism in Ukrainian broadcasting," said OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic in a recent report, according to the BBC.

The U.S. Embassy said that "like Ms Mijatovic, we are also concerned about recent steps taken in Ukraine that have the potential to threaten media freedom," the BBC reported.

Ukraine's media is dominated by millionaires, and their business competition is reflected in the current developments.

However, one of the country's richest men is also the head of the state security service and owner of a media empire - including the county's most-watched television channel. The BBC reported that Ukrainian media watchdog Telekritika has warned that he also exerts influence over the state body overseeing television and radio.

In an April incident involving media freedom in Ukraine, police allegedly roughed up journalists and an editor working for the Express newspaper who had come to the office of a regional prosecutor to inquire about another Express reporter arrested without charge the previous day.

The journalist was detained in Horodok, in Ukraine's western region of Lviv. The incident, which was filmed, came a day after police had arrested a journalist from the same paper, who had recently written an investigative report exposing corruption in the regional government.

IPI Interim Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said: "We hope President Yanukovych takes note of the serious concerns we have outlined in our letter, and acts to address them. After several years of press freedom progress, Ukraine risks undoing those gains and sliding backwards into a climate of intimidation characterised by the absence of independent news."

Click here to read the full text of the letter to President Yanukovych
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