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Ukraine Outlaws Media Censorship

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has signed a bill he says protects the media. It defines censorship and makes it a criminal offense for officials to deliberately intervene in the professional work of Ukraine's journalists. But some experts are skeptical it will do much to change a years of hostility between journalists and the Ukrainian government.

President Kuchma says the amendments to Ukraine's media law guarantee freedom of speech, and enable journalists and others to criticize government officials and institutions, without fear of retribution.

The Ukrainian president also ordered the Prosecutor-General's office to drop cases opened earlier this month against five regional newspapers that published what the prosecutor calls "offensive and slanderous" material about the president.

Mr. Kuchma announced the changes amid claims by journalists that his administration is meddling in their work, and after an especially critical report last month by Human Rights Watch.

The report claims Ukraine's government blatantly violates press freedom. It also says media outlets in Ukraine that criticize government officials or public figures have faced arbitrary tax inspections, denial and loss of licenses on technicalities, and crippling libel suits.

Human Rights Watch has cautiously welcomed the steps President Kuchma has taken in recent days.

The new legislation says all relations between the state and Ukraine's media should be regulated by the Constitution and laws.

But the President of the Kiev chapter of the newly formed Independent Media Union of Ukrainian Journalists, Danilo Yanevsky, says Ukraine's Constitution is part of the problem.

According to Mr. Yanevsky, Ukraine has neither a responsible government, functioning Constitution, nor an independent court system. And so, he says, no one change or amendment could ever bring about meaningful reform. As it stands now, Mr. Yanevsky says, the courts can do anything to Ukrainian journalists.

Mr. Yanevsky alleges that freedoms for journalists may exist formally in the new amendments. But he says, the amendments will have little practical impact.

He says all Ukrainian journalists practice heavy self-censorship and know which subjects may be covered, and which are strictly off limits. He says those that are ready to follow along with that can expect, "money under the table." But for those not prepared to accept such conditions, Mr. Yanevsky says, they just will not find work, or will lose what work they have.

The head of a private, non-governmental organization that monitors press freedom and other rights in Ukraine expressed guarded optimism about the new law. The Director of the Institute of Statehood and Democracy, Ivan Lozowy, spoke from Kiev. "The laws themselves are quite good, but they are not implemented," he said. "There is a saying in Ukraine that the law is like a large sewing needle, depending on which way you twist is the way the result comes out. And of course, the people doing the twisting are the ones in power with the resources to exert pressure on the press."

And like, Mr. Yanevsky, Mr. Lozowy says one of the most dangerous aspects of Ukraine's current press environment is the widespread self-censorship, which stems from fear of the authorities.

That fear is fueled by the unsolved murder of free press advocate and Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze 2.5 years ago.

President Kuchma has been accused of complicity in the reporter's death, a charge he denies.

Mr. Lozowy says the Gongadze case serves as an instructive and chilling lesson on the state of press freedom in Ukraine. "We have had statements by the former general prosecutor of Ukraine, this is after all the Number One person in the country, independent of any other branch of government, who is obliged to control the execution of the law by all state bodies and all state officials and we had statements by the former general prosecutor and the current general prosecutor, saying that the case is on the verge of being broken," said Mr. Lozowy. "And yet, there is absolutely no movement. It is incredible that more than 2.5 years later, the body of the journalist is not even buried because of this incredible mess that a variety of state agencies inflicted on the process of identifying the body."

Mr. Lozowy says Mr. Gongadze's case is a beacon among Ukrainian reporters. And he says he takes comfort in the fact that there is still a struggle being waged for press freedom in Ukraine, despite all the odds.

The case sparked the first public protests against President Kuchma's rule, scheduled to coincide with the second anniversary of Mr. Gongadze's death last year. It was the biggest anti-government demonstration Ukraine has seen since Independence, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in Kiev and elsewhere to urge President Kuchma to resign and call early elections. The president says he will remain in office, at least until his current term expires next year.