World Newspaper Congress meets in Kyiv | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 03.09.2012
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World Newspaper Congress meets in Kyiv

In Ukraine, freedom of the press is limited. Yet the country is currently host to the World Newspaper Congress. But who is to benefit more from it: a critical press or the Yanukovych government?

The list of invited speakers for this year's World Newspaper Congress and World Editor's Forum in Kyiv reads like a "Who's Who" of the most influential media around the globe: There's for instance Michael Golden, deputy head of the New York Times Company, or Rainer Esser, CEO of the publishing house Zeitverlag Gerd Bucerius, which owns the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

It's a long list, but those who read on might stumble over one name: Victor Yanukovych.

The Ukrainian president is listed as nothing less than the patron of the event, the same political figure who is increasingly under fire for curbing press freedom in the country.

Pressure on journalists is growing

Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych (picture: EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV)

Yanukovych has been called 'number one enemy of the press'

After assuming office, Yanukovych repeated on a number of occasions that he would value and protect Ukrainian press freedom. But things turned out different: Already back in 2010, the Kyiv-based media union declared Yanukovych to be the "number one enemy of the press." In their explanation they said how presidential bodyguards had obstructed their work on several occasions. In addition, television stations wouldn't broadcast anything that criticized the president.

In 2012, the international human rights organization Reporters without Borders (RSF, Reporters sans frontiers) testified to a significant decline of press freedom in Ukraine. Ahead of the October parliamentary elections, journalists were subject to increasing pressure, said Christian Mihr of RSF in an interview with DW in Berlin.

The current press freedom index that RSF compiles on an annual basis, lists Ukraine 116th out of 179. Even though this is an improvement compared to 2010, it's far worse than in 2009: Under Ukraine's former president Viktor Yushchenko, the country was listed 89th.

Boycott incentives from Kyiv

In the light of this, some raise the question about the sensitivity of having the World Newspaper Congress taking place in Kyiv now. Their reasoning: Wouldn't it make sense to boycott the event, to avoid giving the Ukrainian president a platform?

International newspaper front pages showing Yuilia Tymoshenko on October 12, 2010.

The restriction of civil liberties has been the subject of scrutiny abroad

Back in spring of 2012, Ukraine had to cancel a summit of central European states in Yalta, after several heads of state - among them German President Joachim Gauck - decided to remain absent. A similar case was that of the European soccer championship: out of protest against the degradation of democracy, several leading European politicians chose to not attend the event.

Just a few days before the World Newspaper Congress, Ukrainian television broadcaster TVi spoke of a possible call for a boycott: "It's wrong to pretend that freedom of the press in guaranteed [in Ukraine]. Participation in the event would in a way legitimize the Ukrainian government," TVi managing director Mykola Knyashyzky told DW. His station is one of the very few that report critically on Yanukovych, and for months, TVi has been subject to a lot of pressure from the authorities. Police investigations into a possible tax fraud have just recently been dropped, but Knyashyzky fears that the case could be reopened sooner than later: those in power have an interest in closing the station for good.

Critical issues

But both the organizers of the World Newspaper Congress and participants from Ukraine and abroad were against a boycott. The calls for a boycott seem "a misunderstanding," Larry Kilman, the deputy leader of the WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers) told DW. "We come to Ukraine in solidarity with the local independent press." He argued that the forum would not legitimize the media policy of the Ukrainian government, but rather draw global attention to the problems in Ukraine.

The logo of the 64th World Newspaper Congress in Kyiv.

The logo of the 64th World Newspaper Congress in Kyiv

Some Ukrainian experts agree. "A boycott would have a minimal effect," said Ruslan Kabatschinskyj, from the Kyiv Institute of Mass Media. Valeri Ivanov, head of the Ukrainian Press Academy in Kyiv, says that Ukrainian journalists at the World Newspaper Congress should seek contact with colleagues from abroad. Western media should "see for themselves what is happening in Ukraine," said Ivanov.

Flying the flag in Kyiv

German participants have also spoken out against the boycott. "We see a large democracy deficit in Ukraine," said Christoph Keese, in charge of public affairs at Axel Springer publishing house, which publishes a number of national daily newspapers. However it would be wrong "to close one's eyes to these problems and to avoid Ukraine," said Keese. "We believe that it is better to hold our annual conference in Ukraine, and to use it to emphasise the issue of press freedom in the country," said Keese.

Uwe Ralf Heer, editor of the daily newspaper Heilbronner Stimme, echoed Keese's sentiments. "It is important that the representatives at the World Newspaper Congress in Ukraine hold up the banner of press freedom and speak out in support of it." And that's what he plans to do in Kyiv with his counterparts from some 70 countries.

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