Four months ahead of a crucial parliamentary election, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has moved to shut down two independent news organisations, including Lb.ua, a reputable online news website.
Sonia Koshkina, considered one of Ukraine's most talented journalists, told EURACTIV that she and her editorial team have chosen exile, because each of them could face a seven-year prison sentence, the same as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The Ukrainian media announced last week that Yanukovich had asked the prosecutor general to open criminal investigations against Lb.ua (Levyi bereg, or Left Bank), as well as TVi.
On 12 July, tax investigators raided the offices of TVi and its chief, Mykola Knyazhitsky, is accused of tax evasion – a charge he denies. Press freedom groups say the station on its management have faced months of harassment from tax investigators.
Yanukovich blamed Lb and TVi, both known for their independence, for alleged lack of balance in their reporting.
“Pluralism of opinions in the press – this is the guarantee of the democratic expression at the forthcoming election. The authorities must do everything to defend the media and the right of voters,” Yanukovich was quoted as saying by the website Rbc.ua.
Lb.ua now displays on its homepage the photos of four government officials – the head of the presidential administration, Sergei Lavochkin; First Deputy Prosecutor General Renat Kuzmin; First Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy and presidential counsellor Andrey Portnov – with the inscription: “Ask them where is Lb.ua”.
“If you go to our homepage you will see those who, as we believe, are the immediate oppressors of our site,” Koshkina told EURACTIV.
'Too risky for us to go back to Ukraine'
Koshkina (a pen name; her real name is Ksenia Vasilenko) said that the editorial team was now looking for opportunities to re-launch the site from abroad, possibly a European country.
“Four chief members of the editorial team, including me are refugees abroad. It is too risky for us to go back to Ukraine. If we cross the Ukrainian border, it is more than likely that we will be arrested at the airport, our passports taken away and we will be deprived any possibility of leaving the country,” Koshkina told EURACTIV.
“It is noteworthy that we are in danger of being sentenced to seven years of prison, the same term that Yulia Timoshenko has been sentenced to. It is clear for us and our colleagues in Ukraine that accusations against us are artificial and have political rationale. They are taken out of the blue,” she said.
Koshkina said the only explanation for the media crackdown is the upcoming parliamentary election due on 28 October.
“The Ukrainian authorities want to eliminate independent media. Our situation is a worrying precedent of open pressure against the media which remain not under control of the authorities,” she said.
On Friday, a group of MPs protested the crackdown on Lb.eu. The MPs said the website, one of the most popular in Ukraine, was famous for its balance, as it presented both the position of the government and the opposition.
MPs said they turn to the Council of Europe as well as the NGOs Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House and the world community to stand in defence of the free Ukrainian media. Rerporters Without Borders on 19 July condemned the raids on TVi.
The statement was signed by MPs Alexander Abdulin, Elena Kondratyuk, Yuriy Stets and Viktor Ukolov.
Koshkina was in Brussels last year, where she spoke at an event organised by the EU-Ukraine Business Council and attended by Ukrainian diplomats. There, she exposed what she described as the Ukrainian plutocracy.
In response to media reports about the case against LB.ua, First Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Khoroshkovskiy said: “I firmly believe that recent attempts at accusations and insinuating remarks against me that have arisen in the media in connection to the ‘LB’ Internet-portal are signs of unsubstantiated yet orchestrated political provocation. Freedom of speech and media are core elements to democratic values of any European state. That is why I will always remain an ardent proponent of free and independent media in Ukraine. … I insist that the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine takes urgent measures to revise [the] legality and adequacy of criminal action against [the] ‘LB’ Internet-portal. The field prosecution office that initiated the criminal case should refrain from further legal action until such revisal is completed.”
The United opposition in Ukraine stated that with the crackdown on independent media in the country, the authorities had crossed the border line between democracy and totalitarianism.
“The criminal proceedings against journalists in Ukraine is the signal of for all independent media, political experts and activists, who should realise that from now on any person, who considers himself or herself free, who cherishes the principles of democracy and freedom of expression, can be subject to criminal charges, under any kind of far-fetched pretext,” the United opposition stated.
The press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders said in a statement on 19 July: “This latest form harassment of the independent television station TVi is absolutely unacceptable. While we appreciate the importance of tax controls, we deplore the way the tax police raided TVi. We call for an investigation into the legality of this operation and we urge the authorities to respect media independence in the run-up to elections.”
The European Commission is paying very close attention to all issues which are involving media, Peter Stano, Spokesperson to Enlargement and neighbourhood policy Štefan Füle said today (23 July).
“I will not go in the details of the cases, as apparently there is an investigation going on […] But what I can say with relation to the TVi case, because there was a tax raid carried out a few days ago, we consider that such tax inspections need to be pursued with great care in this period, in particular in this pre-electoral period. And in this context we would like to recall the position of the Verhovna Rada (the Parliament) of Ukraine from February this year, which recommended to government bodies, that means also state tax services and the Ukrainian national television and radio broadcasting Council, not to inspect media outlets in the pre-election period.”
Stano also said that the Commission would take into account the views of the relevant journalistic organisations with respect to the case of lb.ua and TVi.
“We don’t rely solely on the official authorities as the only source of information,” he said.
“This situation, particularly in the context of the next parliamentary elections and current problems in Ukraine regarding the judiciary system, rightly worries the international community,” said MEP Pawel Kowal, the Chair of the Delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee.
“The image of Ukraine suffers from it. Because of that, Ukrainian citizens cannot benefit from the Association agreement”, Kowal continued, adding: “I would also like to recall the resolution adopted by the Ukrainian Parliament which guarantees the media freedom during the electoral period from 9 February 2012. This resolution recommends that the public administration, the tax authorities and the radio broadcasting Council do not open inquiries on media in the pre-election period,” the MEP stated.
The European Union said it was "disappointed" with the sentencing of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison over allegations that she abused her office in relation to a gas deal signed with Russia in 2009.
The trial was "politically motivated" and did not respect international standards, the EU has said, adding that it "would reflect" on its policies towards Ukraine.
The December 2011 EU-Ukraine Summit failed to initial the country's Association Agreement with the Union, largely due to the imprisonment of Tymoshenko.
On 30 March, the document was initialled, but full signature depends on changing the system of "selective justice" and the parliamentary elections in Ukraine due on 28 October 2012.
- 28 Oct.: Parliamentary elections to be held under international watch.
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- Reporters Without Borders: Independent station boss facing 'tax evasion' charges [FR]