Sergii Leshchenko is the National Endowment for Democracy’s Reagan-Fascell Fellow and deputy editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda.
In 2013, there were more than 100 acts of violence against journalists in Ukraine, and nearly half of these occurred in December as riot police unleashed a wave of violence during the ongoing “Euromaidan” protests. Last week, well-respected Ukrainian journalist Tetyana Chernovil was brutally beaten on her way home. Opposition leaders suspect that act was orchestrated by the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. The image of Chernovil’s bruised face has since been adopted by Euromaidan protesters as a symbol of state-sanctioned repression against Ukraine’s independent media .
Direct acts of physical violence are not the only means of repression that pro-government forces are using. Yanukovych’s political allies also are using media takeovers and hacking, and their actions have the potential to influence elections.
Fourteen journalists from the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine resigned simultaneously in November to protest censorship. Forbes Ukraine was recently acquired by 28-year-old businessman Sergey Kurchenko, who is believed to be backed by Oleksandr Yanukovych, the son of the president. As Forbes Ukraine revealed before the censorship scandal, the younger Yanukovych tripled his fortune during the past half-year amid suspicions that his wealth resulted from high-placed political support.
Korrespondent, a flagship of independent journalism for 10 years, was also acquired by Kurchenko, leading to new restrictions on freedoms at the publication.
Former deputy prime minister Valeriy Khoroshkovskyy was forced to sell his Inter television empire and go into exile. Confidants of Viktor Yanukovych took over.
There have also been direct hacking attacks on independent journalists and civil society activists. E-mail is regularly reviewed and phone conversations intercepted. Watchdog groups have been defamed by anonymous sites that duplicate the design of independent publications and spread false information. The Web site for which I work, pravda.com.ua, has been a target.
Ukrainian democracy has experienced pronounced backsliding during Yanukovych’s rule. Ukraine ranks 126th out of 179 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. In 2009, before Yanukovych became president , it ranked 89th.
Now that the Ukrainian government has secured control of television broadcasts, it is focusing on the Internet, an increasingly popular source of information. Police have started to interview activists about their Facebook posts and even took over the offices of an online newspaper, censor.net.ua. The president’s party drafted a law last year criminalizing defamation that was widely perceived as an attack on independent online media. The law was suspended only after mass protests by journalists.
Citizen access to unbiased information can affect political outcomes. Members of Yanukovych’s team have experience in seeking to fix elections; their attempt to steal the 2004 presidential contest paved the way for the Orange Revolution. Now, online media fear a rise in attacks ahead of the 2015 presidential election.
U.S. publishers that have partnerships with Ukrainian publishers should uphold the principles of independent media and free speech, as these principles are essential for building and sustaining a true democracy. Forbes, for instance, should not allow its name to burnish the reputation of the Yanukovych family. One possibility would be for Forbes to withdraw its license from its Ukrainian partners.
For its part, the U.S. government might consider issuing sanctions against officials responsible for attacks on independent journalists in Ukraine, while various U.S. agencies and institutions could support the development of new independent media outlets. Additionally, international watchdog groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists could collectively focus their attention on the plight of unbiased media in Ukraine.
Western observers sometimes have been fixated on the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister jailed by Yanukovych a few years ago, at the expense of the journalists who reported her case of selective justice. Ukraine’s independent journalists are equally deserving of Western attention and support.
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