Just three months ago I wrote this about Ukraine’s new President:
Yanukovychâ€™s young administration is interesting for two things: what heâ€™s done, and what he hasnâ€™t… [S]o far, he hasnâ€™t cracked down on Ukraineâ€™s lively press and media. Nor has he moved aggressively to purge the judiciary and the civil service, bring corruption indictments against political rivals, or change the laws to make himself and his supporters immune to investigation or prosecution… Watch this space, I guess.
At that point Yanukovych’s administration was just a few weeks old. Unfortunately, a lot has happened since then:
Most television networks in Ukraine are now owned by oligarchs friendly to Yanukovych. The most-watched Inter channel belongs to State Security Service chief Valeriy Khoroshkovskyy. The nation’s top spy also serves on the High Council of Justice, which appoints judges…
Khoroshkovskyy has maneuvered to expand his media empire through court actions against his competitors, the independent outlets Channel 5 and TVi. In June they were stripped of their broadcast frequencies. A journalistsâ€™ group, Stop Censorship, demonstrated outside a recent court session that confirmed the decision… their action was not covered on central television stations.
Khoroshkovskyy also sits on the Board of Directors of Ukraine’s Central Bank; he’s been an ally and backer of Yanukovych for years.
Meanwhile, the crusading editor of a local newspaper has disappeared and is presumed dead:
The one fact everyone agrees on is that Klymentyev vanished. His family reported him missing the next day and Kharkiv police opened a murder inquiry. His friends are convinced he is dead, though so far there is no body. On 17 August a boy discovered his mobile phone and keys in a small rubber boat floating in a rural reservoir…
Klymentyev’s friends and colleagues say they have no confidence in the official investigation into his disappearance. The journalist was a savage critic of local prosecutors who have now been given the task of finding his killers.
Meanwhile, in the background, the laws on press freedom are being amended:
A law protecting personal information, signed by President Yanukovych on 26 June and due to take effect in January 2011, will significantly complicate the work of journalists and expose them to the possibility of criminal prosecution. Under this law, journalists will have to ask a personâ€™s permission before publishing virtually any information about them aside from their name and surname… Draft law No. 6603, which has been submitted to the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) following approval by the cabinet on 30 June, would require news agencies to register with the state every year. Disseminating news without being registered (or re-registered) would be punishable… The bill has been criticised by [free speech organisations] as an attempt to bring Internet media under political control by treating them as news agencies.
Reporters Without Borders came out with a report in July, but the media situation has continued to deteriorate rapidly since then.
In retrospect, this is exactly what one would have expected. Yanukovych was always an authoritarian — it was part of his appeal — and many of the people around him are worse. Still, it’s pretty depressing. Relatively high levels of press and media freedom was one of the few clear accomplishments of the Orange Revolution. It’s clear now that those freedoms are going to be rolled back; the only questions are how fast, how far, and how permanently.