Jaroslav Koshiw   Kyiv Post   20-May-1999   Freeing the Ukrainian press
A newspaper owner told me (fear for his newspaper causes me not to mention his name) how the government is pressuring him to stop his journalists from writing articles critical of the president.  In the last six months, he received 16 unannounced tax inspections.
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President Kuchma could be
the world's best friend of the press, if ...

By Jaroslav Koshiw
Deputy Editor

20 May 1999

On May 3, the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists charged President Leonid Kuchma with being the world's sixth-worst enemy of the press in 1998.  The poll was surprising in that Kuchma who the democratic powers look to as their "strategic" partner in Eastern Europe was judged to be worse on press freedom than some of the world's most nefarious dictators.

The NYC committee explained that Kuchma rated so poorly because he presided over a serious decline of press freedom in 1998, not because he was so much worse than other presidents.

But if Ukraine was included because press freedom seriously declined in 1998, then what about the Congo and Ethiopia where, because of bloody civil wars, freedom of speech was not even on the agenda in 1998?  Ukraine, by comparison, successfully held a free parliamentary election in which leftist opponents of the president increased their numbers.

A damning report drawn up in February and recently made public by the U.S. State Department serves as some explanation as to why Kuchma ended up on that list.  Entitled "Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998," the report includes examples of press suppression among various other cases of human-rights abuse in Ukraine last year.  It was written for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who earlier this year was charged with deciding whether to recommend that the U.S. Congress release a $195 million aid package to Ukraine.

Albright eventually decided to recommend that Congress release the aid package to Ukraine.  It's a wonder she did considering the contents of the 23-page document.

"There were more reports of human-rights violations than in the previous year, primarily due to infringements on freedom of the press and reports of government interference in the March parliamentary elections," the report said.

As critical as the report was, it did not even mention one of the most egregious cases of press suppression over the last year the case of Oleksandr Horobets, the editor of Pravda Ukrainy.

Horobets was imprisoned on Sept. 30, 1998, after being accused of raping his secretary.  This charge was met with universal disbelief in a society where most people do not differentiate between rape and consensual sex.  Horobets as well as most Ukrainian journalists believe it is a trumped-up charge and punishment for being an editor for the disgraced member of parliament, oligarch and former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko.

Though the U.S. State Department report does not mention the Horobets' plight, it does make some trenchant comments on sex in the workplace.  The report states that "there have been no known cases of prosecution for sexual harassment in the workplace."  If that's true, then Horobets might be the first.

Now, the question arises as to what Ukraine should do to avoid another Horobets debacle and to improve its human-rights record in general.

Clearly one thing it needs is laws that better protect people from abuse and an adequate mechanism of enforcing those laws.  Anyone can be arrested even foreigners, as the April 8 Kyiv Post illustrated in the case of the Korean restaurateur Cong In Che and can be held without charges for up to 18 months.  That makes it easy for the authorities to run roughshod over due process of law and lock people like Horobets up on trumped-up charges.

Ukraine must have a law on freedom of speech and freedom of the press as envisaged in the Constitution.  The judiciary must be independent of the president.  Ukraine must amend its law on state secrets, which makes it unlawful to report on the number of executions, prisoners and pre-trial detainees, as well as the number of alcoholics who are forcibly treated.  Finally, the barbaric prison conditions should be improved.

Ukraine should receive an international award for having one of the worst criminal laws and prison systems in the world.

The main problem with the president and the press is that the government uses the tax authorities and the secret service the SBU to rein in critical newspapers and journalists.  As the U.S. State Department reported:

"The government, both central and local, regularly targeted opposition newspapers with unannounced tax inspections or fire and building-code inspections.  Three opposition newspapers were forced to cease operations because their accounts were frozen at various points during the year (1998) by the Tax Inspectorate: Pravdy Ukrainy, Polityka and Vseukrainskye Vedomosti ...  At year's end Kievskye Vedomosti still had no permanent offices (evicted by Kyiv city authorities), its accounts remained frozen (court order), and it was unable to pay its staff or distributors."

In addition, the report found that criminal and civil libel laws are freely used.  "At least 11 newspapers, two regional television stations and numerous individual journalists were fined heavily during the year for libel or injury to personal honor and dignity," the U.S. State Department reported.

A newspaper owner told me (fear for his newspaper causes me not to mention his name) how the government is pressuring him to stop his journalists from writing articles critical of the president.  In the last six months, he received 16 unannounced tax inspections.  As his accounts were in order, he took the visits in his stride.

His newspaper continued to publish articles about the president that in Western countries would be considered to be normal if not mild.  To clearly explain what the unannounced tax inspections were about, an SBU officer visited him to ask him not to publish any more anti-Kuchma articles.  As the owner does not want to have his business shut down, he asked the editors to take a "more responsible" line on criticizing the head of the state and to support the him for another term in office.

In response to the NYC committee's charge that he is one of the world's 10 worst enemies of the press, the president should not have threatened to sue the committee, as his press secretary has stated.

Instead, President Kuchma should make a clear, unambiguous public statement that he stands for freedom of the press and that the law will be used against SBU officers and tax inspectors who threaten newspapers or journalists.

If he can do that, it stands that he should be rated one of the world's top friends of the press next year.  But without such a statement, the president deserves the criticism the world is giving him.

Jaroslav Koshiw is deputy editor of the Kyiv Post.

A Comment on the Threatened Kuchma Law Suit
Against the CPJ

Does Leonid Kuchma suffer from delusions of grandeur?

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma threatening to sue the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) demonstrates that he has no appreciation of the illegitimacy of his position, nor of the impossibility of his threatened suit succeeding.  Through most of Kuchma's life, mainly as a communist bureaucrat and more recently as godfather of Ukraine, bullying has succeeded, and when confronted with the unflattering evaluation of him published by the CPJ, Kuchma bullies out of life-long habit, reflexively, forgetful that now he is no longer shaking his fist at an underling in his rocket factory in Dnipropetrovske, but rather has been transformed into a flea shaking his fist at an elephant.  Perhaps the explanation of Kuchma's threat of the CPJ is that his repeated success in intimidating journalists within Ukraine has gone to his head and has left him with the sense that he is able to intimidate journalists the world over.  Perhaps Kuchma is unable to distinguish suing a Ukrainian journalist in a Ukrainian kangaroo court under Ukrainian law from suing Walter Cronkite together with Peter Arnett together with Tom Brokaw together with Dan Rather together with Bernard Shaw together with many others in an American court under American law.  One wonders if Kuchma realizes who he would be up against, or if he would be able to recognize even a single name on the CPJ Board of Directors below.  Perhaps instead of embarking on an ill-fated campaign to extend his control of journalism to American journalism, Kuchma would do better to begin planning his defense against charges that he violated campaign laws to win his presidency in 1994, that he took the lead in plundering Ukraine, that he viewed the deployment of mafia violence to be a prerogative of his office, and that he calculated that the destruction of Ukraine's nascent free press would be good for the country.

Board of Directors
Committee to Protect Journalists

Honorary Chair
  Walter Cronkite, CBS News
Chair  Gene Roberts
Vice Chair  Terry Anderson

Executive Director  Ann K. Cooper


Franz Allina
Peter Arnett, CNN
Tom Brokaw, NBC News
Josh Friedman, Newsday
James C. Goodale, Debevoise & Plimpton
Cheryl Gould, NBC News
Katharine Graham, The Washington Post Company
Karen Elliot House, Dow Jones & Co.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, National Public Radio
Alberto Ibargüen, The Miami Herald
Walter Isaacson, Time Magazine
Bill Kovach, The Nieman Foundation
Jane Kramer, The New Yorker
David Laventhal, Times Mirror
Anthony Lewis, The New York Times
John R. MacArthur, Harper's Magazine
David Marash, ABC News
Kati Marton
Michael Massing
Judith Moses, The Mosaic Group
Victor Navasky, The Nation
Frank del Olmo, The Los Angeles Times
Erwin Potts, McClatchy Newspapers
Dan Rather, CBS News
John Seigenthaler, The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center
Bernard Shaw, CNN
Thomas Winship, International Center for Journalists