Freedom of speech is an important indicator of democratic societies. It is claimed (mostly inside the country) that Ukraine changed a lot after the revolution in 2013, especially regarding both freedom and democracy. However, it is important to analyze the situation that existed before and after these events.
I tackle this question from the prism of media censorship, during the presidencies flanking the revolution: that of the ousted Viktor Yanukovych (2010-13) and Petro Poroshenko (2014-16). This means indirect or direct government attempts to impede, resist or prevent publicizing information in media outlets through legal (mainly laws, courts or economic pressure) or illegal actions (violence, deterrence or threatening journalists or media outlets).
Although the US-funded Freedom House, for instance, has been giving the country incrementally higher “freedom of the press” scores since 2013, figures are not enough to estimate correctly how things are going in Ukraine. In looking at distinctive features of each of the two administrations to arrive at a more nuanced picture, I focus mainly on TV media, because they are (still) more influential than print and Internet in the former Soviet country.
So what was the situation like under Yanukovych?
Censorship worsened after Yanukovych came to power. His administration adjusted the legal system to increase control over media outlets and stave off criticism. High pressure and fear of punishment have led to journalists’ self-censorship.
Yanukovych’s regime enacted a law to protect state officials from compromising information being published about them. Further laws he signed in 2011 made it possible to seek large monetary damages in defamation cases, and strengthened penalties for both civilians and officials divulging “misleading” state information.
That same year, the Ukrainian parliament approved a new election code that allowed the closing, at election time, of media outlets found to have committed violations. It was reported that Prime Minister Azarov even prohibited the broadcast of jokes about politicians.
Journalists from two television channels – STB and 1+1 – issued letters about restrictions systematically taking place in Ukraine. These have included forbidding reports about political meetings where corrupt transactions happened and about high officials’ mansions and privatization related deals.
Corruption still is one of the main problems in Ukraine, which has existed in all spheres of society, without exception. Many oligarch owners of TV channels (including STB) supported Yanukovych in the elections, using their capabilities to influence Ukrainians’ preferences.
The Kyiv district court stripped new broadcasting frequencies from two rivals of Inter, Channel 5 and TVi, which had not adopted editorial policies favorable to Yanukovych. Later Channel 5 was allowed to use the frequencies, but the situation revealed ties between the owner of Inter channel and the Yanukovych regime, which had appointed him to head the country’s National Security Service (SBU) and serve in the Higher Council of Justice.
Attacks on the TVi channel continued. Tax police and prosecutors raided their offices and froze their bank accounts in July 2012. A Kyiv court threatened the station with insolvency by ordering it to pay 4 million UAH ($500,000) in alleged back taxes.
The next year, the revolution broke out. The Euromaidan represented the peak of violence against journalists and freedom of speech. But we should keep in mind that problems with freedom of speech in Ukraine are rather systemic, and despite their spike, did not just appear around the time of Euromaidan.
According to the Kyiv-based Institute for Mass Information (IMI), 136 journalists were beaten, attacked and threatened for doing their jobs in Ukraine in 2013, as opposed to 40 in 2012 and 15 in 2008. Also, it found the rate of restrictions to accessing and publishing information in the country to have increased more than tenfold between 2008 and the end of Yanukovych’s presidency.
Has the scenario improved under Poroshenko?
It would actually get much worse in 2014, when about 800 media freedom violations were reported in Ukraine, according to IMI. Among those, 7 journalists were killed or vanished, 103 were arrested and 384 were attacked or threatened.
Most violations (436) happened in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea (territories of instability) during the dramatic events of that year, amid which Yanukovych was overthrown.
The Euromaidan did lead to significant changes in Ukraine. Those changes should be considered when comparing media freedom before and after the revolution: Things became much complicated with the annexation of Crimea, war in eastern Ukraine, and the country’s economic and political crisis.
A few interesting cases stand out as censorship indicators in post-Euromaidan Ukraine:
(1) In September 2015, the live broadcast of political talk show “Shuster live” was suspended 2 minutes before its start on the channel 1+1. Reportedly, the host and some of the program’s guests claimed that this happened due to agreements between the channel’s administration and the Poroshenko regime. The leader of the Radical Party, Oleg Lyashko, said that it happened because of him, as he was going to talk about the government’s pressure on his party.
(2) In September 2016, the owner of the 112 channel asked for political asylum in Belgium because of pressure and attempts by the Poroshenko government to create its own media holding by buying out channels. He claimed that his channel had become an object of political games violating freedom of speech and journalistic standards.
(3) Two documentaries from the Western world represent alternative opinions about events during the revolution: Ukraine on fire (Oliver Stone, Igor Lopatonok, 2016) and Ukraine: Les Masques De La Revolution (Paul Moreira, 2016). Neither film was shown on Ukrainian TV channels. Both films reveal facts that are not so popular in the Ukrainian government discourse. Also, Poroshenko’s interview for the DW show “Conflict zone” with Tim Sebastian in 2015 was neither shown nor widely discussed in Ukraine’s media outlets.
Although Poroshenko did take some steps to improve freedom of speech in the legislative sphere of Ukraine, nowadays critical materials on government activity are rather an exception. If we go through interviews with Poroshenko for Ukraine media, we will not hear sharp questions posed to him on, for example, the ownership of Channel 5 and business in Russia.
It is obvious that self-censorship still exists, and censorship rates are still high, though they decreased compared to 2013-14 and the rate of violent crimes against media workers significantly dipped. IMI reports that more than 200 journalists in both 2015 and 2016 were attacked, harassed or censored in Ukraine.
As a final point, the two presidencies discussed cannot be separated from the context of Ukraine’s social system, where most media outlets are privately owned, the political and business spheres are closely intertwined, and conflict (and the ensuing information wars) exacerbated censorship.
A situation where media exist as an instrument to shape the political environment for private needs leads to a selectivity of content, censorship or self-censorship, violation of media outlets’ rights or even violence and deterrence of journalists.
Statistics show that censorship did not appear in 2010 when Yanukovych became president, nor disappear when Poroshenko came to power in 2014. Despite these challenges to media freedom, Ukrainian law is still one of the most progressive among former Soviet countries regarding freedom of speech in general.
Censorship is rather a side effect of a corrupt, archaic and opaque system. It can be said that the situation is improving, but without crucial systemic changes at the systemic level (fair courts, eliminating corruption, strengthening the rule of law) the process cannot be completed.
By Yevhen Hershov
Yevhen is a second year MA student at the University of Wroclaw. He has a background in studying International Relations (IR) in Ukraine, Poland and Germany. He has a special interest in the role of information in relations between states and within society in the context of power and influence. Life in the European Union has pushed him to reflect on the present situation in his own country – Ukraine. The mix of experiences living and studying in different countries has led to a broader understanding of the field of IR.
Editor’s note: This article on Ukraine is the second in a series LeipGlo is running on the matter of repression of the media in different countries. The author first submitted a version of this article as an essay to his Master’s course entitled “Media Systems in the EU, US and PR China in a Comparative Perspective,” taught by Maria Faust at Uni Leipzig last semester. He received top marks.