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Public Broadcasting Facing Unexpected Challenges in Ukraine

(Washington, DC -- May 6, 2005) Newly-elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko inherited a Soviet style broadcasting system that is dependent on the state, Tatiana Lebedeva, a member of the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Council of Ukraine, told a recent RFE/RL audience. Yushchenko has declared his support for the changeover to a public broadcasting model for Ukrainian state television. However, the group charged with creating the model for Ukrainian public service broadcasting is facing some unexpected challenges, Lebedeva said.

Currently, Ukraine does not have a public service broadcaster. The national television station, UT-1, reaches about 99 percent of the population of Ukraine, but provides its viewers news coverage that is vulnerable to political pressure and government control. UT-1 and the national radio stations, UR-1, UR-2, and UR-3, comprise a comprehensive network of media "all financed by the national budget, run by government appointment managers, and staffed by journalists who consider themselves to be civil servants reliant on the government for job security," said Lebedeva. "The media has one point of view -- the government's point of view," she said, "it is very much censored externally by the government, and internally because the staff is accustomed to the tradition of working under oppression."

In order to create a successful new system of public broadcasting, Lebedeva said, the new government needs "political will," consistent and joint action by members of civil society, diligent work by media specialists and lawyers, constant monitoring, and support from the international community. Lebedeva also thinks that the existing laws on media are insufficient and will need reform. She noted that a public relations campaign will be needed to explain the importance of an independent media to the public, because "the tax payers are scared of a transition that would leave them paying for changes that they are unsure of."

NGO's such as her own Independent Association of TV and Radio Broadcasters, Internews-Ukraine, Telekritika, the Ukrainian Press Academy, the Ukrainian Journalists' Trade Union, and several others, have formed a Public Service Broadcasting Coalition to develop proposals for both public education and legislation. This coalition is united by their desire for independent media, which Lebedeva called "a proven indicator of a truly democratic society." To attain this goal, they advocate non-state budget funding, transparency and public control, responsible editorial policy, and programming that serves the public.

Lebedeva noted, however, that support for public service broadcasting is not universal in Ukraine. She pointed to three primary groups that are standing in the way of a transition.One

has coalesced around government officials who believe that cosmetic changes to the current radio and television stations are sufficient and that no radical changes are necessary. A second group consists of close allies of President Yushchenko, who have recently asserted that "the new State needs new state-owned media" and have called for the current state system to be expanded. Lastly, a number of lobbyist groups advocate the creation of a commercial television broadcaster on the basis of UT-1, similar to what was done in Russia.

"The idea of state-owned and public-owned media co-existing seems absurd. I feel badly for those who don't see that the old system of broadcasting is actually hurting the government," Lebedeva said. Her hope is that Ukrainians will create an environment where commercial broadcasters and public service broadcasters can both thrive, thereby assuring "a truly democratic society, which is a requirement for Ukraine's European integration."

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