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Press freedom in Eastern Europe

Serge Halytsky

The recently released corruption rating by Portal on Central, Eastern and Balkan Europe (IECB) puts Ukraine (130) 11 positions behind neighbouring Russia (119). The recently leaked Panama Papers implicated President Petro Poroshenko in hiding his wealth in offshore tax havens. While it may not have been illegal, it doesn’t bode well for a country when the head-of-state refuses to pay their fair share in taxes.

Although Ukraine is generally a more liberal environment than many of its neighbours, the country is grappling with the shift required in respecting a free press. Tom Henheffer of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression says it’s a process that may take time. “The government shouldn’t be designating what journalism is, really it is a culture thing. It is hard to enshrine something like that in law,” he says. “The government needs to have a cultural respect for free expression.”

The other part of the problem in Ukraine is that much of the media landscape is controlled by a few

oligarchs. Roman Holovenko, head of the legal department for the Institute of Mass Information in Kyiv says this is a big part of the problem.

“The owners of the most popular National TV Channels are oligarchs and it is not the main business for them,” he says. “So media executives are usually receiving certain instructions about the editorial content.”

“We call it a concentration of media ownership and technically people are within their rights. If you own a newspaper you can have the newspaper say whatever you like, but in order to have a robust free press and robust free expression rights there has to be a pluralism of media ownership. It can’t be just owned by a few rich people with specific interests,” says Henheffer.

Police don’t view controls on the press as a priority in many circumstances.


“There is a huge problem when too many journalists are prevented from these activities,” says Holovenko.


“The problem is not in the law itself. The main problem is the police’s inability to investigate such cases. It is not a typical case to them like theft, bribery, murder and they don’t know who’s a journalist or what is a journalistic duty.”

POLAND

In Poland democratic reforms have been ongoing since becoming an EU and NATO member in 1999, but there are still problems with free expression. The newly elected Law and Justice Party put in place new laws, allowing itself to appoint or dismiss state owned broadcasters’ media executives. Poles came out in droves to protest the right-wing government’s authoritarian move.

That law also made some EU governing bodies and journalistic organizations anxious.

“The government should not be interfering with journalism whatsoever,” says Henheffer. “In Canada, we have a state run broadcaster and technically people at the top of it are appointed by the government, but it’s all done through an arms-length approach. Of course, there have been problems with political appointments in the past, but generally it is not that severe.”

Henheffer also raised the notion of change, and how long it can take. “Poland was once respected as a free democratic nation with real free expression rights. They slid into the realm of authoritarianism, which is a huge problem. Just like in Ukraine and Russia it’s fair to say, free press doesn’t exist in those countries.”

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