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Ukraine: Parliament Must Combat Political Censorship
(New York, December 3, 2002) The Ukrainian parliament must take steps to end informal censorship of television news broadcasts practiced by the administration of President Leonid Kuchma, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to parliament released today.

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“Freedom of information is essential to the functioning of a democracy. At present, millions of viewers in Ukraine are denied access to information about important political, social and economic developments.”

Elizabeth Andersen
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division

The Ukrainian parliament is scheduled to hold hearings on Wednesday, December 4 on political censorship, in response to growing outrage among journalists and media monitoring groups over violations of freedom of expression.

In the letter to the parliament, Human Rights Watch summarized its research on secret memoranda, known as temniki (from the Russian phrase temi nedeli, [themes of the week]), that the presidential administration distributes to editors of the country’s main television stations. These weekly memoranda provide clear instructions about which topics should be covered and how they should be presented in news broadcasts. Human Rights Watch found that the directives eliminate balanced reporting and manipulate the news, allowing for only one, pro-presidential perspective to dominate television broadcasting, the most widely used news medium in Ukraine.

“The secret memoranda make for subtle but very effective censorship,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “They are a clear violation of freedom of expression and are antithetical to the rule of law.”

Television stations that fail to comply with the presidential administration’s directives may face court challenges, arbitrary tax inspections, and license withdrawals. Journalists face harassment, salary cuts, demotions and dismissal.

In this intimidating atmosphere, the presidential administration’s memoranda prevent television editors from making and implementing a balanced editorial policy, and journalists regularly practice self-censorship and present objective news only at great risk. As a result, Ukrainian news reporting is bland, biased in favor of the president, and uniform across television stations.

“Freedom of information is essential to the functioning of a democracy,” said Andersen. “At present, millions of viewers in Ukraine are denied access to information about important political, social and economic developments.”

“A certain degree of pluralism has emerged in Ukraine’s media since the Soviet era, particularly in print and Internet resources,” Andersen said. “But with only a few exceptions, truly independent media do not exist.” In recent years, major industrial interests formed political parties and purchased media outlets. These patrons use their media holdings as a mouthpiece for personal or group interests and opinions, making objective reporting in any one source rare. Economic instability has forced the majority of media outlets to accept sponsorship from these groups in exchange for protection and financial security. Financial-political groups close to President Kuchma now dominate the six national television stations, and this, combined with the appearance of the temniki, has further eroded editorial and journalistic pluralism.

Informal censorship is the latest in a long series of threats to media freedom in Ukraine in recent years, which received broad domestic and international attention after the “disappearance” and murder of opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze in September 2000. The Gongadze case and similar cases involving the murder of journalists continue to remain unsolved. In October of this year, the Kyiv Court of Appeals brought criminal charges against Kuchma in connection with the Gongadze murder, based on tape recordings of a meeting at which the president allegedly asked security officials to “take care” of the journalist.

To read Human Rights Watch’s letter, please see: