For over a decade, post-Soviet Ukraine was ranked as a generally “free” country by Freedom House, the US think tank. Ukraine, which sits on the edge of the European Union, aspires to one day join the democracies of Eastern and Central Europe, and has made strides to reform its legal code and political system.
But when Freedom House downgraded its ranking of Ukraine from “free” to “partly free” in 2011, it did so in large part because of “deteriorating media freedom” under the presidency of President Viktor Yanukovych. What’s happening in Ukrainian media, and what does a “partly free” label actually mean?
Few journalists are better acquainted with the Ukrainian press than Natalia Churikova, a Prague-based broadcaster for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Radio Svoboda, since 1995. Though she’s spent nearly her entire career at Radio Svoboda, growing up in Soviet Ukraine, Churikova hadn’t dreamt of life as a journalist. After studying English and French literature at the University of Kiev, Churikova thought of becoming a teacher or researcher.
Political changes in the former Soviet Union -- and the new opportunities they brought with them -- made Churikova think about a change in career. She moved to Prague and studied economics. After graduation, Churikova reported from Frankfurt, London and Brussels for the “Financial Times.” At the same time, Radio Free Europe was moving from Munich to Prague. Looking to stay involved with the situation in Ukraine, Churikova applied for a job with Radio Svoboda. Now she has been a part of the radio family for 16 years.
In interview with “Off Mic,” Churikova talked about the media in Ukraine and today’s political climate there.
Churikova explains the current, dismal state of Ukrainian media. As the political environment has worsened, the current government has sought to tamp down independent criticism of government officials and government policy. Overt censorship has become increasingly frequent and, in combination with self-censorship and bribery, creates a media environment that is far from free. In extreme cases, outlets that are not loyal to the government are closed.
She adds that, on the national level, TV news channels are the most influential media sources in the country. Since these predominantly belong to Ukrainian oligarchs, they tend to reflect their owner’s interests and opinions. In terms of the media space devoted to politics, Churikova reckons that pro-government voices outnumber opposition ones 4 to 1.
To balance out this state of affairs, Radio Svoboda provides the Ukrainian public with independent, verified and contextual news. The recent political trial of former prime minister (and opposition figure) Yulia Tymoshenko provides an instructive example of Svoboda’s leading role as a voice for original thinking. According to Churikova, Svoboda’s wall-to-wall coverage of the trial -- which included an array of domestic voices and coverage of critical international reactions to the trial -- solidified Radio Svaboda’s reputation in Ukraine. With demand for fresh and direct updates running high, the service’s Ukrainian website recorded six times its usual number of visitors.
Since 1957, when Radio Svoboda started broadcasting to Ukraine, the service has come a long way. While the mission of the radio has remained the same, “to be a public radio in a country which does not have a public service,” the focus has changed over time.
In the past, the radio relied mostly on the writings of the dissidents and on interviews with exiles; RFE/RL had no direct access to people on the ground in Ukraine during the Cold War. Matters were made even more difficult by the Soviet government’s insistent jamming of Radio Svoboda’s signal.
Ukraine’s government no longer jams Svoboda’s signal; instead, Churikova explains, Radio Svoboda is just “something the government has to count with.”
Progress is poignant, though. Churikova points out that the mission of Radio Svoboda, and the mission of RFE/RL as a whole, is a “suicidal” one. The purpose of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service will end one day -- as it did in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania -- when a more robust media environment and democratic development have made Svoboda unnecessary. That doesn’t bother Churikova in the least.
“It is my wish,” she says, “to have Ukraine at the level of the Czech Republic or Poland, so that we could return to Ukraine as normal journalists, in stable political settings.”
-- Kristyna Dzmuranova