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Open Letter to the Speaker of the Verhkovna Rada of Ukraine Volodymyr Lytvyn and Deputies of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine
Re: Parliamentary Hearings on Political Censorship
December 3, 2002

Dear Mr. Speaker, Respected Deputies:

Human Rights Watch welcomes the Verkhovna Radaís forthcoming hearings on political censorship as an important step towards improving conditions for freedom of expression in Ukraine. We would like to share with you a summary of our recent research findings on informal censorship practiced by the presidential administration in the hopes that it will be of use to you in your discussions.

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World Report 2002: Europe and Central Asia Overview

Human Rights Watch is an international, non-governmental organization that monitors human rights conditions in some seventy countries worldwide. Ours is a non-partisan group that has researched and reported on the human rights situation in the countries of the former Soviet Union since the late 1970ís. We have worked on freedom of expression issues in many countries around the world, including the United States, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Egypt, and China.

In the past decade, the Ukrainian media, particularly print and Internet resources, have come to offer a plurality of views. However, objective reporting from any one source is rare, owing to the diverse pressures on media outlets and journalists that impede freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about evidence that the presidential administration seeks to limit freedom of expression by engaging in informal and subtle censorship of television news programming, which is the primary source of information for the vast majority of people in Ukraine.

Through extensive interviews with journalists and media analysts, Human Rights Watch has confirmed the existence of secret memoranda, known as temniki, issued by the Presidential Administrationís Department for Information Policy. We began to investigate the existence of these memoranda after Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Speech and Information Mykola Tomenko first made these documents public in September 2002 and after journalists became increasingly outspoken about their influence on news reporting. These memoranda, sometimes reinforced through telephone calls from the presidential administration, have served as explicit instructions for editors about which topics should be covered in news broadcasts and how those topics should be presented. Because negative consequences arise should they ignore these directives, editors are unable to freely determine editorial policy and journalists are unable to produce balanced news reporting.

The anonymity of the memoranda allows authorities responsible for their creation and involved in regulation of the media to deny the existence of any informal censorship. Representatives from the presidential administration and the State Committee for Information Policy, Television and Radio Broadcasting claim that the only documents distributed to television stations by the presidentís office are weekly press releases that detail the presidentís activities but have no coercive intent. However, Human Rights Watch interviews with journalists and a growing uniformity of news coverage both serve to confirm the impact the presidential administrationís memoranda have had on freedom of expression and the process of television news making.

In compliance with the presidential administrationís directives, coverage of political developments is now devoid of criticism of the president and those close to him. It distorts or ignores the activities of other political figures and opposition parties. The clearest example of this occurred during coverage of the September 16 public demonstrations, when stations aired reports and footage that were strikingly similar in tone and failed to explain who was demonstrating, what their demands were, and the course the demonstrations took.

In the last year, several television stations perceived as in opposition to the president have faced arbitrary court challenges, tax inspections, and license withdrawals, which in some cases have led to station closures. This atmosphere of intimidation has led editors and journalists to fear repercussions for non-compliance with the memoranda. Human Rights Watch believes that the Verkhovna Rada could make a significant contribution towards diminishing politically motivated acts against television stations by addressing the political dependence and lack of transparency of the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting, the institution responsible for issuing broadcast licenses. The council consists of members appointed by the parliament and president, who also maintain the authority to dismiss members and can exert political influence over membersí decision-making. This powerful body lacks the independence necessary to guarantee a fully equitable and open licensing and regulatory process.

Under pressure to comply with the authoritiesí requests, editors-in-chief of television stations now conduct a very narrow editorial policy based on the presidential administrationís instructions to prioritize a specific political viewpoint and eliminate opposing views. This has led also to significant changes in the overall structure of programming on many stations and a reduction in the amount and types of news and news analysis.

In recent months some journalists have quit their jobs to protest growing censorship while others who face similar censorial pressures have opted to remain in their positions. Since the influence of political censorship reaches to all major television stations, no option for mobility between stations exists and departure from one station means departure from television journalism altogether. Thus many journalists continue to practice their profession under trying circumstances, resorting to self-censorship or reporting balanced news despite constant risks. In a few cases, journalists who refused to abide by the memorandaís guidelines were demoted, received salary cuts, or were threatened with other punitive consequences.

As a result of this intimidating atmosphere, editors and journalists produce news in conformity with the memoranda instructions. The news is bland and unbalanced, and news across all television stations lacks any real diversity. Journalists waste much time and energy anticipating and interpreting the presidential administrationís preferences in political reporting. Consequently, reporting on social and economic issues receives less attention and less space in daily broadcasts. Ultimately, viewers fail to receive thorough and accurate reporting on a variety of topics, a clear infringement on their right to freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression and access to information about political, economic, and social developments is crucial to the process of government accountability on which democracy rests. Censorship Ė whether formal or informal Ė is inimical to democracy and the rule of law. It violates Ukraineís obligations under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which require the government to guarantee the right to freedom of expression. Ukraineís constitution and laws also protect this right. We hope that the Ukrainian government at the highest levels will take steps to respect its commitments and enforce laws designed to ensure freedom of expression. In this vein, we urge the Verkhovna Rada to:

  • Ensure compliance with the obligations related to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
  • Ensure that censorship does not continue by enforcing existing laws that prohibit censorship;
  • Conduct prompt and thorough investigations of government officials and others implicated in censorship or other abuses against members of the media and prosecute those responsible;
  • Consider amending Article 5 of the Law on the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting to ensure transparent appointments and dismissals and the unqualified independence of the council.

We thank you for your attention to our concerns.


Elizabeth Andersen
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division