‘A Big Step Back’: In Ukraine, Concerns Mount Over Narrowing Press Freedoms - The World News

‘A Big Step Back’: In Ukraine, Concerns Mount Over Narrowing Press Freedoms

A Ukrainian reporter who revealed that a state news agency tried to bar interviews with opposition politicians said he received a draft notification the next day.

Ukraine’s domestic spy agency spied on staff members of an investigative news outlet through peepholes in their hotel rooms.

The public broadcaster has decried what it says is political pressure on its reporting.

Journalists and groups monitoring press freedoms are raising alarms over what they say are increasing restrictions and pressures on the media in Ukraine under the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky that go well beyond the country’s wartime needs.

“It’s really disturbing,” said Oksana Romanyuk, director of the Institute of Mass Information, a nonprofit that monitors media freedoms. That is particularly true, she said, in a war where Ukraine is “fighting for democracy against the values of dictatorship embodied by Russia.”

Before the Russian invasion of February 2022, and since its independence in 1991, Ukraine had a long track record of tolerating a pluralistic media environment, with multiple television channels aligned with opposition and pro-government parties, and independent news outlets. Maintaining that culture has been one challenge of the war.

Ukrainian journalists largely accepted wartime rules banning publication of troop movements or positions, locations of Russian missile strikes and accounts of military casualties, considering the measures necessary for national security.

They have also acknowledged some self-censorship, holding back on critical coverage of the government to avoid undermining morale or to prevent reports of corruption from dissuading foreign partners from approving aid.

“Self-censorship in Ukraine is a feature of wartime,” said Serhii Sydorenko, editor at European Truth, an independent online news outlet. The situation was “not a problem” and unavoidable during the war, he added, noting that he expected a return to normal when the fighting eventually stops.

Mr. Zelensky has not publicly called for pressure on journalists, and condemned the instance in which the journalists were spied on at the hotel.

Journalists and media groups say that a string of recent cases have pointed to an increasingly restrictive reporting environment. Ambassadors from the Group of 7, which comprises many of Kyiv’s key military allies, issued a joint statement in January supporting press freedom in Ukraine.

“Media freedom is a fundamental pillar of a successful democracy,” the statement said.

Analysts say the government’s efforts to control the media appear to be aimed at crimping positive coverage of the opposition and suppressing negative coverage of the government and the military.

Reporters for the state news agency, Ukrinform, which is supposed to be nonpartisan, received a list from their management late last year of opposition figures and local elected officials labeled “undesirable” for quoting in articles.

The New York Times reviewed the instructions to Ukrinform reporters, which blacklisted elected officials and civil society activists, including some military veterans.

The acting minister of culture, Rostyslav Karadeev, who oversees the state news agency, told Ukrainian news media this month that he had no knowledge of any such list. Mr. Zelensky’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Ukrainian authorities have also had sometimes tense relationships with Western news organizations, including The Times. They have revoked military press passes for journalists from several outlets after critical reporting, and amid disputes over rules for covering military operations, though the credentials were later restored.

In Ukraine, behind-the-scenes political interference has a dark history because of abuse under previous governments.

One recent example of what journalists see as interference occurred in the Chernihiv region, north of Kyiv, where the elected city council was in a dispute over municipal spending with a governor appointed by Mr. Zelensky. The state news agency guidance said that quoting one council member, who was the acting mayor, about the budget would be “undesirable.”

“The desirable speaker was appointed by Zelensky, the undesirable speaker was elected,” Yuriy Stryhun, the Ukrinform reporter in Chernihiv, pointed out.

There is no indication that the reporters followed the guidance, and some have said openly that they disregarded it.

“If we name desirable and undesirable speakers, it is a big step back for democracy,” Mr. Stryhun said, adding that he had cited the official in his articles.

In the city of Odesa, reporters were instructed to cite only presidential appointees in some cases. In Lviv, reporters were told to avoid quoting the elected mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, a prominent politician seen as a possible future candidate for the presidency.

A day after Mr. Stryhun, who is 57, appeared on the public broadcaster, Suspilne, to talk about the reporting instructions on May 30, he received a notice to renew his draft registration, he said. He had no proof, he said, that the notice was linked to his appearance but found the timing “suspicious.”

Maryna Synhaivska, a former deputy director of Ukrinform, resigned this year over the political meddling, citing the guidance on interviewing opposition members distributed to reporters.

“It is not democratic to dictate to media what to publish and whom to talk to,” she said.

Serhiy Cherevaty, a former military spokesman appointed to lead Ukrinform, declined to comment on the guidance, which was distributed under a predecessor. He said he intended to manage the agency “according to the law and principles of free speech.”

Ukraine’s raucous and competitive television news landscape before the war was consolidated by Mr. Zelensky’s government into a single, state-controlled broadcast after Russia’s invasion. The government presented the arrangement, known as the Telemarathon, as necessary for airing reliable news during the war.

But it excluded opposition channels and ran such consistently upbeat reports even as fighting bogged down that a majority of Ukrainians now say they do not trust it.

Detector Media, a Ukrainian media watchdog, said in a recent analysis that from January to April this year, none of the channels producing the program — except Suspilne, which is no longer participating — had invited members of the opposition European Solidarity party on air. The party is led by Petro O. Poroshenko, former president of Ukraine and a political nemesis of Mr. Zelensky.

A U.S. State Department report said the program had “enabled an unprecedented level of control over prime-time television news” in Ukraine.

Svitlana Ostapa, head of the public supervisory board of Suspilne, and Mykola Chernotytskyi, the broadcaster’s chief executive, said in interviews that the decision to exit Telemarathon had been motivated partly by concerns about pressure from the authorities.

Detector Media calculated that from January to April, members of Mr. Zelensky’s Servant of the People political party made up about 70 percent of Telemarathon’s political guests, while they hold just over half the seats in Parliament. Without Suspilne, that proportion would have risen to more than 80 percent, the group said.

In January, it emerged that Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, the S.B.U., had secretly filmed reporters attending the holiday party of an investigative news site, Bihus, by drilling peepholes into coat racks in the hotel rooms where they were staying.

The S.B.U.’s director, Gen. Vasyl Malyuk, acknowledged and condemned the surveillance. And Mr. Zelensky fired an official at the agency who had overseen the monitoring of domestic and foreign media organizations.

Despite the pressure, Ukrainian journalists have scored scoops, including reports on issues such as corruption, that have led to resignations and arrests.

The efforts the government has taken to quash critical reporting, said Sevhil Musaieva, editor in chief of Ukrainska Pravda, a national news outlet, is one measure of the influence and vitality of Ukrainian media during the war.

“The only way people can change things for the better is through journalism,” she said. “That’s why some people in the government try their best to control it.”

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