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PUTIN CANCELS YELTSIN DECREE ON RFE/RL MOSCOW BUREAU... President Vladimir Putin on 4 October canceled a 27 August 1991 decree by former President Boris Yeltsin that guaranteed the legal and operational status of the Moscow bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Russian and Western news agencies reported. Under Yeltsin's edict, the Russian government provided conditions for RFE/RL's journalistic activities "because of its role in the objective coverage of the march of democratic processes." Putin did not issue any statement in connection with the cancellation, but the Kremlin's information office said Yeltsin's decree was revoked because it had "lost its original significance," RIA-Novosti reported. According to the unidentified spokesperson, Yeltsin's decree was originally intended to demonstrate Russia's commitment to freedom of the press and to enhance Russia's image abroad. However, because of the progress of economic and political reforms in Russia since then, the decree put RFE/RL in "a privileged position compared to other foreign mass-media outlets working in Russia," the Kremlin statement was quoted as saying. Moreover, the statement continued, RFE/RL's editorial policies, "despite the end of the Cold War," have in recent years become "biased," especially those of its "Chechen" and Ukrainian services. Ever since Yeltsin's decree, nationalists, Communists, and other reactionary elements have regularly called for an end to RFE/RL's activities in Russia. The Kremlin conducted campaigns of pressure against RFE/RL in 2000 in connection with the protracted disappearance -- in which Russian security forces were likely involved -- of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitskii and his coverage of the Chechnya conflict and this year in connection with the Congressional mandate to RFE/RL to begin broadcasts in three North Caucasus languages. The Foreign Ministry said that Putin's decree is purely a technical measure designed to give equal status to all foreign media outlets in Russia and does not constitute a reaction to RFE/RL's policies, RIA-Novosti reported on 4 October. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 October)
NEWS AGENCY SETTLES CONFLICT OVER ALLEGED CENSORSHIP. UNIAN, Ukraine's second-largest news agency, published a statement on 3 October saying the agency's leadership and journalists had reached a compromise over the recent conflict in which journalists complained of being subjected to political censorship and pressure. "Both sides declare that political censorship in UNIAN is inadmissible. We are unanimous in the opinion that major changes in materials released by UNIAN may be made only by the journalists who wrote them," the statement reads. The dispute in UNIAN began on 1 October when journalists accused UNIAN's new executive director, Vasyl Yurychko, of censoring their work and of refusing to run reports that could be construed as portraying President Leonid Kuchma unfavorably, AP reported. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 October)
JOURNALISTS MOVE TO CREATE TRADE UNION TO RESIST CENSORSHIP... More than 100 journalists from various Ukrainian media outlets met in Kyiv on 5 October and formed a working group for creating an independent journalists' trade union to combat official coercion, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. "I know that only the top people have come today because the disaffection in journalists' circles with what's happening is very large. Therefore, I believe that in this hall we can have not just 100 people, but thousands of journalists who want to change things for the better," said television journalist Andriy Shevchenko, who resigned his job in September over what he said was official meddling and censorship. The meeting decided that apart from tackling the censorship issue through talks with the government, the new organization will provide legal and financial help to journalists who lose their jobs as a result of official pressure. The meeting demanded that parliament hold hearings on government censorship and that the prosecutor-general begin criminal investigations into government attempts at censorship. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 October)
...AS PRESIDENT DECLARES READINESS TO DISCUSS CENSORSHIP WITH JOURNALISTS. President Kuchma pledged at an 8 October news conference that he is ready to negotiate with representatives of the recently launched independent union of journalists in order to "sort out what they claim to be political censorship" in Ukraine, UNIAN reported. "[I do not rule out that] there is some pressure somewhere. However, according to the constitution, censorship is not permitted. Someone is exaggerating somewhat here," the president said. Kuchma stressed that "antipresidential publications" in Ukraine are distributed freely. He recalled that the State Tax Administration has agreed that the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders can be present at regular audits of Ukrainian media organizations. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 October)
FORMER LAWMAKER WHO DEFENDED GONGADZE GETS U.S. ASYLUM. Former Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Yelyashkevych told Reuters on 9 October that he has obtained political asylum in the United States. Yelyashkevych was a deputy of the previous Verkhovna Rada and participated in the work of a special parliamentary commission investigating the death of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. "I was granted political asylum because of a serious threat to my life that existed and still exists from Kuchma and his entourage," Yelyashkevych told Reuters. In February 2000, Yelyashkevych was attacked by unknown assailants and suffered a concussion. He later maintained that the attack was ordered by President Kuchma. Earlier this year, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website published a transcript of Mykola Melnychenko's secret audio recording on which voices similar to those of Kuchma and then-Security Service chief Leonid Derkach discuss the organization of an attack on Yelyashkevych. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 10 October)
The absence of the freedom of expression is a painful problem in postcommunist Ukraine. In recent years, Ukraine's executive authorities have been regularly mentioned among the top regimes "honored" with the title of "enemy of the press."
The ongoing political crisis, activities of the antipresidential opposition, and the new turn in the "Kuchmagate" scandal associated with Ukraine's alleged sale of radar systems to Iraq have exacerbated the problem of the freedom of expression in the country.
The chronicle of events that triggered the "information crisis" and generated a new wave of public debates on the freedom of expression in Ukraine can be reconstructed as follows.
At the beginning of September, the chairman of the parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Expression and Information, Mykola Tomenko, publicized secret instructions by the presidential administration regarding the news coverage on main national television channels controlled by pro-presidential business clans.
The secret media regulations appear to be a regular practice known to many Ukrainian journalists as the "temnyk," a jargon word that refers to secret orientation of journalists by the authorities as regards the presentation of news topics. In his open letter to the country's leadership, Tomenko directly connected the activation of the "temnyk policy" with the appointment in June of Viktor Medvedchuk as the head of the presidential staff.
On 23 September, on the eve of a major antipresidential rally in Kyiv, opposition leaders occupied the UT-1 television headquarters in a futile attempt to present their position to Ukrainian viewers. Official media outlets subsequently portrayed this desperate effort by the opposition to gain an opportunity to speak freely as "political extremism" and a "criminal action by political outsiders."
On 1 October, journalists of the independent news agency UNIAN accused its new executive director, Vasyl Yurychko, of censoring their work and refusing to run any reports that could be construed as portraying President Leonid Kuchma unfavorably. The conflict was settled when Yurychko and the disobedient journalists signed a declaration in which the supervisor promised not to interfere with their work.
On 3 October, the journalists' growing resistance to the official media policy resulted in composing a "Manifesto of Ukrainian Journalists Against Political Censorship." The manifesto, which is open for signing by any journalist in Ukraine, was prepared by some 60 representatives of various media outlets.
The signatories of the manifesto say they "welcome the tendency that, under circumstances of the growing political censorship in Ukraine, journalists are switching from individual protests to collective actions of solidarity." The manifesto declares the readiness of Ukrainian journalists to organize a countrywide strike and to stand for the rights of those colleagues who were fired from their jobs for political reasons.
The significance of this document can hardly be overestimated. For the first time in Ukraine's modern history, the vicious circle of narrow corporate interests of journalists belonging to different media groups has been broken.
The history of post-Soviet media -- in particular, the example of Russia's NTV television, which many observers claim was suppressed by the authorities last year for political reasons -- shows that the lack of professional solidarity among post-Soviet journalists is a major factor that makes the fight for the freedom of expression in post-Soviet countries a very problematic task.
Another impeding factor is the peculiar post-Soviet way of pursuing businesses that, in order to be successful, have to maintain political loyalty to the authorities (or pretend to do so). That is why, as a rule with rare exceptions, even private post-Soviet media outlets have not yet constituted themselves as really independent information businesses. They have largely become mouthpieces for publicizing the propagandist justification of the political and economic domination of governing clans. And quite often, these clans own or control major media outlets. In such a case, journalists become hostages to the clans' "editorial policy." It is not surprising that in Ukraine this policy is pro-presidential.
Andriy Tychyna, a journalist at the nationwide 1+1 television network (controlled by the Viktor Medvedchuk-Hryhoriy Surkis clan) admits that "the news coverage [in Ukraine] is ceasing to be a reflection of real sociopolitical events but is becoming a generator of some virtual reality," "Zerkalo nedeli" reported on 28 September.
Can the Ukrainian media sphere transform itself from the tool of oligarchic control over public opinion into a social institution that could be sensitive to public interests? The recent protest actions by Ukrainian journalists seem to be making an important contribution to such a transformation.
Dr. Viktor Stepanenko is a Ukrainian sociologist.
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT BEGINS VISIT TO ARMENIA. Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his visiting Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma pledged during talks in Yerevan on 10 October to strengthen bilateral political, military, and economic relations and trade, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Trade turnover doubled last year to reach $38.5 million and is expected to expand a further 30 percent this year, according to Kocharian. The two sides signed four bilateral agreements, including one between their respective defense ministries that provides for the training of Armenian personnel at Ukrainian military academies. Kuchma also met with the leaders of Armenian parliamentary factions. LF
BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT PLEDGES EXTRA FUNDS FOR HISTORICAL MOVIE. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 10 October promised to allocate an additional 400 million Belarusian rubles ($214,000) early next year for the shooting of a historical epic movie called "Anastasiya of Slutsk," Belapan reported, quoting the presidential press service. Lukashenka made this pledge during his visit to the film set in response to director Yury Yelkhau's request for more funding. The movie's original budget was equal to 1.4 billion Belarusian rubles. According to scanty historical accounts, Anastasiya of Slutsk was a duchess who played a major role in defending the town of Slutsk (south of Minsk) from an invasion of Crimean Tatars in the 16th century. Lukashenka reportedly said the picture should be "a genuine Belarusian film" showing the true history, culture, and mentality of the ancestors of present-day Belarusians. Slutsk in the 16th century was in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a vast multiethnic state comprising the whole area of today's Belarus as well as large chunks of Ukraine and Lithuania. The official written language of the duchy was Ruthenian, a Slavic language closely related to modern Belarusian and Ukrainian. JM
OPPOSITION LEADER CLAIMS UKRAINE HAS IMPORTED KOLCHUGA FROM BELARUS TO FOOL INSPECTORS. Yuliya Tymoshenko, the leader of the eponymous opposition bloc, told journalists on 11 October that "opposition representatives have been informed by six sources, including customs officers and employees of a military unit, that a Kolchuga radar system was shipped from Belarus through the customs checkpoint at Slavutych to a military unit in the town of Lyubych (Chernihiv Oblast)," UNIAN reported. According to Tymoshenko, the radar unit was shipped in three railroad cars and repainted in Ukraine. Tymoshenko predicted that Kyiv will now inform Washington that no Kolchuga radar is missing in Ukraine, thus countering the U.S. allegations that Ukraine might have sold a Kolchuga unit to Iraq. Tymoshenko pledged to provide "in the near future" more information about the alleged shipment of the radar unit from Belarus to Ukraine. The Defense Ministry press service said later the same day that Tymoshenko's allegations are absolutely untrue. According to earlier media reports, a group of U.S. and British experts is to arrive in Ukraine on 13 October to conduct on-the-spot investigations into the alleged Kolchuga sale. JM
UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION TO RALLY IN KYIV ON 12 OCTOBER FOR 'TRIBUNAL' OVER KUCHMA. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko told journalists at the UNIAN headquarters on 11 October that the opposition will form three columns of demonstrators that will converge on Kyiv's European Square at 2 p.m. local time on 12 October, UNIAN reported. Symonenko said the rally on European Square is planned as an "all-Ukrainian people's tribunal" to judge President Leonid Kuchma. According to Symonenko, similar "tribunals" will be organized in all Ukrainian regions on that day. JM
VERKHOVNA RADA STILL HAGGLES OVER PRO-GOVERNMENT MAJORITY. The parliamentary caucuses of Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party have announced that they will continue boycotting parliamentary debates during the upcoming session week, 15-18 October, UNIAN reported on 10 October. This announcement followed a futile meeting of parliamentary-caucus leaders devoted to discussing the impasse in the Verkhovna Rada, where a nominal, fragile majority is unable to vote effectively and pass laws (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 October 2002). In a move aimed at persuading some deputies to join the pro-government majority, its leaders threatened to reappoint parliamentary committee heads to the detriment of the three opposition caucuses and Our Ukraine. Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, against whom this threat appears to be primarily directed, said on 11 October that his bloc is not interested in "trade" over parliamentary committees and is not going to "lose its political forces" for opposing a possible redistribution of the posts of committee heads. JM