Freedom of expression suffered considerably in Ukraine during the recent rounds of presidential elections on 31 October and 21 November. Control of the main media outlets by the government-backed candidate and his supporters prevented candidates from fully accessing the mainstream media, and resulted in media biases and the harassment of journalists and media outlets.
Candidates’ Access to the Media and Media Bias
State television UT-1 and State-owned Radio 1, as well as those nationwide private channels with the largest audiences (1+1, Inter and ICTV), provided a disproportionately higher access to President Leonid Kuchma’s favoured candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, than to his opponent, opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko. In the first two weeks of September live coverage of Yanukovich in news items on UT-1 exceeded by nearly 10 times the coverage of other major candidates and exceeded by 818 times live coverage of Yuschenko. As Prime Minister, Yanukovich had many opportunities for extra (and positive) exposure, contravening Article 11(2)(6) of the Law on Presidential Elections which states that “the election process shall be realised on the ground of … equal opportunities for candidates … to access to the media”.
Favourable reporting of Yanukovich focused on his alleged achievements as Prime Minister, including a flourishing economy, the improvement of social security and successful foreign policy. Yuschenko, in contrast, was frequently vilified in the mainstream media, and had limited chances to respond to criticism. Vladimir Putin’s visit to the country only a few days prior to the election was widely believed to have been intended to boost Yanukovich’s popularity. Putin has made no secret of his support for Yanukovich.
Yuschenko’s main critics were television channels close to the Head of the Presidential Administration Viktor Medvedchuk (UT1, Inter and 1+1), whilst those owned by Viktor Pinchuk (ICTV and Noviy Kanal) showed greater balance. This demonstrated how the journalistic community was split along political lines; it also reflected the high level of media manipulation. Of concern also was the increased use of temnyky (instructions to the media by the Presidential Administration). News items were virtually identical on all main television channels during the pre-election period. It was reported that a temnyky issued on Yushchenko’s first election rally on 4 July instructed journalists: “[W]hen covering the event, do not give long shots of the rally and shots of the crowd; show only groups of drunk people with socially inappropriate deviant behaviour”.
During the only debate, broadcast live on UT-1 on 15 November, the two candidates exchanged accusations of corruption and incompetence.
Harassment of the Media
Cases of harassment of the media ranged from difficulties in finding printing facilities (newspapers Ostriv, Luhanchany and Na Dnyakh), to freezing of bank accounts (Mist Plus Publishing House and Channel 5), to obstacles in the distribution of newspapers (MIG and Panorama), to arson (Mist Television and Radio company). Serious problems were experienced by television stations broadcasting alternative voices, such as Channel 5, including jamming and discontinuation of broadcasting by cable companies (in Kirovograd, Donetsk, Dipropetrovsk, Uzhhorod and some parts of Kyiv). Other stations affected included Era and Tonis TV in Kharkiv. On 9 November, a presenter of the news bulletin Visti was dismissed for refusing to read what he considered biased news.
Journalists responded with protests. A statement of protest against censorship and a commitment to fair coverage of the elections was signed by 329 journalists from 34 television companies on 5 November. Following protests, instances of greater balance were recorded.
The raison d’être of several political advertisements was to discredit Yuschenko, rather than to promote a particular candidate. This came particularly from presidential candidates such as Roman Kozak and Oleksandr Yakovenko, self-declared independent candidates who were believed to be in the Yanukovich camp. Stratagems to discredit Yuschenko included juxtaposing his ads with negative ads about him, and broadcasting excerpts from his speeches out of context.
From 1-15 September, one third of political advertising on ICTV and almost half on UT-1 were directed against Yuschenko. This phenomenon increased towards the end of September, as negative reports about Yuschenko made up 36% of all political ads on Inter, 48% on 1+1 and 54% on UT-1. Approximately one quarter of all candidates’ direct access materials on UT-1 and Radio 1 were also directed against him.
The issue of ‘extremism’ played an important role in the election campaign discourse, as the media disseminated information on Yuschenko alleging that some of his supporters displayed extremist behaviour. For example, countrywide television channels and pro-presidential newspapers vigorously circulated information on rallies of demonstrators carrying symbols of Nazi Germany, suggesting that these were organized by the opposition. Following an incident in which Yanukovich was hit by an object in late September — claimed by some to be a metal object, and by others to be an egg — Yanukovich’s team accused the opposition of being behind the attack, which was also linked to extreme nationalistic behaviour. In some cases, Yuschenko’s team also accused Yanukovich of extremism, particularly after Yuschenko was taken ill on 6 September, allegedly due to poisoning.
Central Election Commission
It is thought that the Central Election Commission did not operate in an independent manner and cases of partisanship (favouring Yanukovich) were recorded. This is hardly surprising, given that, under the law, the Central Election Commission members are put forth solely by the president.
See Institute for Mass Information for further details (Ukrainian)
Kharkiv Group for Human Rights Protection