Before and After Maidan: A Spotlight on Press Freedom in Ukraine

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WAN-IFRA’s Larry Kilman second from right during the press freedom mission to Ukraine.

WAN-IFRA has a global mandate to respond to media freedom violations and as a result deploys a range of advocacy measures for lasting change by working with members, media freedom organisations, and strategic local, national and international partners. Working closely with its member associations in Ukraine, WAN-IFRA implemented a long-term strategy to help support the country’s independent media and used the leverage of its global reputation to open dialogue with the government on issues of immediate concern.

After months of working with independent media and patiently urging Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to remove restrictions to greater freedoms, WAN-IFRA was present the moment he fled from power.

Just blocks from Independence Square, WAN-IFRA was participating in a fact-finding and solidarity mission under the International Partnership Mission on Safety and Protection of Journalists. Asked to visit by WAN-IFRA’s two local associations – the Ukrainian Association of Press Publishers and the Independent Regional Press Publishers of Ukraine – the mission was examining the perilous situation for the press as coverage of the security forces’ response to pro- and anti-government protests put the lives of journalists at serious risk.

In November 2013, President Yanukovych had abandoned a trade and political pact with the European Union that prompted thousands to occupy the capital’s central Maidan Square in protest over the country’s policy swing back to Russia.

After three months, tensions had risen and deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police ultimately forced parliament to move to oust Yanukovych on 22 February 2014.

Over the course of two days, WAN-IFRA heard countless testimonies and witness accounts that portrayed a volatile working environment for journalists, characterised by targeted attacks, impunity and economic pressures as well as other indirect methods aimed at discouraging critical reporting.

“More than 167 journalists have been injured since the beginning of the political crisis in Ukraine in late November 2013,” said a statement from the mission delegation. “Many of these journalists were deliberately targeted and none of their cases have been properly investigated. This state of impunity is unacceptable and fuels more violence.”

This was not the first visit to Ukraine for WAN-IFRA, and indeed, the final events capped two years of dialogue with a president who ultimately failed to honour his promise to improve media freedoms in the country.

Ahead of its 64rd World Newspaper Congress and 19th World Editor’s Forum, announced for Kiev in September 2012, WAN-IFRA identified serious press freedom challenges that would be impossible to ignore if theukraine web site photo event was to go ahead.

In the months before the world’s media prepared to descend on Kiev, WAN-IFRA and its Ukrainian members associations established a working group to highlight the major issues and prepare a roadmap ahead of the Congress to encourage the Ukrainian government to act.

The World Newspaper Congress is the global meeting point for the world’s press and in its long history has often been held in contentious locations precisely to draw attention to the state of press freedom. With the world’s media attention focused – even for a few short days – on the issues of burning concern, WAN-IFRA has used the prestige of the event to send clear messages to heads of state to address calls for greater freedoms. Kiev was to be no exception.

In particular, one name stuck out as anathema to press freedom for Ukrainian members – President Viktor Yanukovych.

While the president had touted his purported support for press freedom, the realities on the ground for independent publishers presented a very different image. From his first days in office in February 2010, press censorship in various forms resurfaced – including taking opposition television channels off air  – and there had been an uptick in physical attacks on journalists for simply doing their jobs. His contempt for the media was well documented and in 2010 he had declared Kiev’s media union to be “the number one enemy of the press.”

As a result, in partnership with its local associations and international press freedom groups, WAN-IFRA organised in April 2012 a mission to assess the immediate challenges and establish action points for engagement with the government.

Once the agenda was set, WAN-IFRA and its Ukrainian partners were able to bring serious press freedom discussions directly to the attention of President Yanukovych. Having appointed an internal working group to facilitate the organisation of the World Newspaper Congress, the government was keen to establish regular contact with WAN-IFRA. Capitalising on the opportunity, WAN-IFRA made addressing the press freedom question its top priority in the on-going negotiations for the event.

As international pressure mounted ahead of the June 2012 European Football Championships, and in the context of calls for political boycotts of Ukraine over its handling of former prime minister and co-leader of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, WAN-IFRA faced a growing number of questions about its perceived tacit approval for the government by holding the Congress in Kiev. To clear up any doubts, WAN-IFRA clarified its strategy.

“We are going to Kiev to stand in solidarity with the local independent press, which struggles daily under great pressure, often in isolation,” said then WAN-IFRA president Jacob Matthew. “By holding our events in Kiev, we will provide them with an opportunity to share their experiences with the international newspaper community… and offer moral support.”

In the lead up to Congress, WAN-IFRA used every opportunity to raise the press freedom issue to leave Ukraine’s leaders in no doubt as to the action required to better protect the media in the country. At the event’s opening ceremony, President Yanukovych was directly challenged on Ukraine’s record in an address by WAN-IFRA President Jacob Mathew. In response, Yanukovych’s keynote speech was interrupted by protesters in the conference hall calling for greater freedoms for the country’s journalists. Directly confronted by his own people, and in the full glare of the world’s media, the president was unable to avoid the issue.

WAN-IFRA further expressed its deep concerns over the lack of conditions that would promote a strong, independent media in the country at a meeting with the president and his advisors at which he gave assurances that his government would indeed act on recommendations to liberate the media environment.

In the aftermath of the Congress, WAN-IFRA did not lose sight of the promises Yanukovych had made to create a modern media. Just days after the event came to a close, a protest letter was sent to parliamentarians urging them to not push forward with the reintroduction of criminal libel laws that had been abolished 11 years earlier. Over the proceeding months, pressure for the Ukrainian authorities to make progress on the key issues – notably addressing corruption, creating a viable media market, and improving the record on transparency and impunity – was maintained by WAN-IFRA, its members and partners globally.

“WAN-IFRA’s involvement is always helpful for us when we need to highlight the importance of the topic in order to persuade the government that the issue is not local and that our position is supported worldwide,” commented Alexei Pogorelov, the general director of the Ukrainian Association of Press Publishers. “It is also important to show that we are not alone.”

Events since February 2014 have somewhat derailed wider reforms for the media sector, with the immediate issue of journalists’ safety once again dominating press freedom concerns. With President Yanukovych deposed and his government dissolved, what was already a dangerous climate for journalists has increased as coverage of the ensuing power struggle in the east of the country continues to claim lives and maintain the threat of war.

Despite this, WAN-IFRA is confident that its advocacy efforts, begun under a climate openly hostile to a free press, will eventually flourish. The government of new President Petro Poroshenko has shown early signs of proactive engagement with media freedom issues, while the appointment Boris Lozhkin – a former WAN-IFRA board member and key strategic advisor during preparations for Congress – as Head of the Presidential Administration has ensured, at the very least, that the president’s ear is never far away.

-Alexandra Waldhorn

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