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Ukraine: World Press Freedom Day Sparks Discussions on the State of the Media

May 3 has been declared World Press Freedom Day by the United Nations, in order to raise awareness of the importance of media freedom around the globe.

As in many other countries, in Ukraine on this day journalists traditionally announce the results of an anti-rating “Enemies of the Free Press.” This year, the Institute for Mass Information and the Ukrainian Independent Media Trade Union have included the Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov at the top of the “black list.” Among the incidents [uk] that prompted the inclusion of President Yanukovych on the list were the disappearance of criticism of the regime from the “1+1” TV channel's story on his 100 days in office, a ban on photographing the presidential motorcade by journalists of Vechirni Visti newspaper, and reporters not being allowed to ask questions during his joint press conference with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

World Press Freedom Day has also provoked many online discussions about the state of the media in Ukraine and the possible reasons behind the shrinking of press freedom in the country.

On his blog on Ukrayinska Pravda, journalist Serhiy Leshchenko wrote [uk] about the difference between Ukraine’s official Journalist Day and World Press Freedom Day:

An [artificial] holiday – Journalist Day – exists in Ukraine, and is celebrated on June 6. This holiday has been initiated by state officials and declared by the Presidential decree. […] It is especially cynical, how ahead of the official June 6 Journalist Day different MPs and state officials attempt to greet editorial offices with their “professional holiday.” A culmination of such absurdity is a picture of the government awarding various honors to loyal media representatives for their “merit.”

It can be compared to, let’s say, a butcher greeting a cow on a Beef Day.

The real Journalist Day around the normal world is May 3 – World Press Freedom Day. It is a day when journalists do not celebrate anything, but remember their murdered colleagues, politicians who interfere with their work, and governments that institute censorship.

Zoryana Byndas, the executive editor of an Internet newspaper Pohlyad, shared [uk] her experience with skeptical attitudes toward press freedom that prevail in the Ukrainian media industry:

I have recently attended a meeting with a potential advertiser. We discussed his services and how they could be best presented to our readers, clarifying details. At the end of the meeting, this man asked me about the owner of the Internet newspaper Pohlyad. I responded that everything was stated on our website. Potential advertiser smirked and said, “Well, alright, you are in charge there, but whose property is it, who funds you, what political party.” I explained again. The man started getting nervous and told me how this newspaper was funded by this guy, who also owned a TV channel. And how that newspaper kept covering activities of a certain party, which meant it owned the outlet. The man was convinced that a small group of enthusiasts, like my friends and I, would not run an Internet newspaper, since such outlets were only created to [elevate some and discredit others in the public eyes].

“Well,” I thought to myself, “the man is right.” Independent press today is [unprecedented]. Even if it still exists somewhere, one is tempted to ask, What’s the catch?

On the Ukrainian political social network Politiko.ua, user Serhiy Trehubenko criticized [uk] the Ukrainian media, stating that press freedom itself was not enough for Ukraine:

Ukrainian press carries on the functions of the Soviet press – on paper, it supports development, but the outcomes demonstrate that it is worse than the communist plague.

In civilized countries some things are granted, but in post-Soviet states they have to be discussed. Freedom of the press is not enough for us, we also need to create an intelligent and responsible press that would be able to explain things as they are and suggest ways for improvement.

On Vikna.if.ua, blogger Viktoriya Yadoshchuk wrote [uk] about why World Press Freedom Day cannot be dismissed as a simple formality in Ukraine:

Of course, since the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian society has democratized because of the press. But it is not enough because the full freedom of expression in Ukraine [has not been achieved]. Moreover, since [President] Yanukovych came to power, according to the watchdog Freedom House, freedom of expression has actually declined. […]

As we can see, the situation is critical: Ukrainians are once again afraid to speak the truth, because of fear for the lives. I think the society itself must address this problem. If the nation unites in speaking the truth, it would shake up the government and prompt them to [reconsider their actions]. Let’s put fear and doubts aside, let’s stay honest and not allow those in power to destroy the biggest value – freedom, freedom of choice, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression!

Ahead of the World Press Freedom Day, Freedom House released a report highlighting [ru] the continuous decline of press freedom in Ukraine – a piece of news that has been shared extensively by Ukrainian bloggers and Twitterers. Earlier this year, the organization also lowered [en] Ukraine’s freedom rating from “free” to “partly free.”

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