Ukraine media feel the squeeze ahead of election

* Journalists complain of harassment, pressure from above

* Independent TV station raided by tax police

* Free press fears new libel law

By Richard Balmforth

KIEV, Oct 9 (Reuters) - For Natalia Sokolenko, anaward-winning Ukrainian TV reporter, the last straw was when shewas taken off covering the national political scene and demotedto reporting road accidents for the commercial news stationwhere she had worked for 10 years.

Her career, she said, had been on a slide since she lobbed aprovocative question at President Viktor Yanukovich and foughtattempts by politicians and businessmen to buy screen time ather STB channel on the sly.

With a parliamentary election due on Oct. 28, journalistscomplain of increased pressure on independent newspapers and keyTV news outlets from the authorities and their allies.

If Yanukovich's Regions Party and its partners hold on totheir majority as expected, they fear the screws will onlytighten in a country due to preside over the regional security,development and democracy promotion body, OSCE, from January.

Cases like Sokolenko's highlight the weak state of the mediain Ukraine half way through Yanukovich's five years as presidentand 20 years after the former Soviet republic won independence.

After six months covering the traffic and highways 'beat'37-year-old Sokolenko quit. "I thought of everything I hadachieved. I thought of my youth and my talent. Here I wascovering road accidents. So I left," she said.

Several weeks on she is still without a job in mainstreamjournalism, and has stepped up her campaign for media rights.

TVi, one the few stations which criticises the government,says the government is putting pressure on cable companyproviders which distribute it.

Proposed legislation to make libel a jailable offence hascaused alarm in media circles. A draft law has been droppedafter an outcry, though opposition leaders warn it could returnin another form after the election.

And there is also an enemy within: journalists who censortheir own news items under pressure from politicians or makegratuitous mention of politicians in them in return for payment.

Politicians and big business groups, media watchdogs say,are going to ever greater lengths to persuade media executivesto publish paid-for "news" or screen time to massage theircandidates' image as election day approaches.

Many commentators forsee even greater state control of mediaif, as expected, Yanukovich's Party of the Regions consolidatesits grip on the 450-seat parliament this month.

"I am afraid that after the parliamentary election therewill be a tightening of the screws to purge information space,"said Iryna Bekeshkina, director of the Democratic InitiativeFoundation think-tank.

Yanukovich's administration denies this and says he iscommitted to preventing any pressure being exerted on the media,especially in the run-up to the election.


Media freedom has played a pivotal role in post-SovietUkraine since the murder of opposition journalist GeorgiyGongadze in 2000 sparked protests which marked a turning pointin former President Leonid Kuchma's 10-year-rule.

The leadership of the "Orange Revolution" highlighted it inthe fight for power they won in 2005 after street protests and"Orange" leader Viktor Yushchenko's presidency broughtunprecedented freedom - often to his own discomfort.

Yushchenko's clashes with prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko,his unsuccessful relations with Russia, his personal foibles andthe exotic life-style of his son all became fair game.

All that changed when Yanukovich came to power in 2010.There are, for instance, now no satirical TV programmes pokingfun at the leadership as they did during the Yushchenko years.

Media criticism of Yanukovich is muted to say the least.

Sokolenko, who won an award for Ukraine's best TV reporterin 2009, says her troubles began in July 2011 when at a newsconference given by Yanukovich she alleged that his son, Viktor,who is a deputy, had proxy votes on his behalf in parliament.

"I asked him why he allowed his son to violate theconstitution like this. He got angry and said that he hoped if Ihad children they would be as good as his," Sokolenko said.

After that, and as she became increasingly involved incampaigning for press rights, she gradually lost access togovernment and presidential briefings - and began the slide downto the traffic and highways 'beat'.

As in most other ex-Soviet republics, television is far andaway the main provider of news for the 46 million population,but there is no independent public TV channel and almost all TVstations have a wealthy backer.

TVi station saw the writing on the wall when it was raidedby the tax police - a classic harassment tactic in post-Sovietsocieties.

The State Tax Service said it had launched a criminal caseagainst TVi's chief executive, Mykola Knyazhitsky, saying thechannel had evaded more than 3 million hryvnias ($375,000) inVAT payments.

Though the tax evasion case was dropped, the station sayslocal cable companies have come under pressure either to giveTVi up or move it to more expensive packages, putting it beyondthe means of many of its traditional viewers.

The station's audience has correspondingly slumped from 13million to 9 million, Knyazhitsky said.


Yanukovich's Regions and its allies, backed by wealthyindustrialists and businessmen, face a United Opposition bloc,including the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party of jailed formerprime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and the UDAR (Punch) party ofWBC world heavweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.

A big Regions victory, the opposition fears, will lead to aroll-back of the social and civil liberties gained in the OrangeRevolution.

One feature of the Ukrainian press which never died out evenunder Yushchenko's presidency is the practice of paid-for "news"- colloquially known in Ukraine as 'jeansa' - deriving from theidea of slipping money into the back pocket of jeans.

Telekrytika, a Ukrainian web-based media watchdog, says asmuch as $80,000 will change hands for a leading politician toensure a guest appearance on a popular TV show, while a20-second TV sound-bite in a news bulletin may cost just $200.

"There is a complete frenzy now ahead of the elections.Deputies are now shamelessly paying not just the journalists buttheir managers and the editors above them," Sokolenko said.

Knyazhitsky of TVi said politicians regularly extendedlucrative offers to get the station to insert a screen-shot orsound-bite of their candidates into news bulletins.

"They say to us: 'We'll place our party's advertising withyou as long as you feature reports about our politicians.' Thisis common practice on the Ukrainian television market," he toldReuters, adding that TVi refused these offers.

STB channel, where Sokolenko worked, was unavailable forcomment on whether it practised 'jeansa'.

The Internet is more free, but at the same time even moresusceptible to 'jeansa' as most bloggers and Web news outlets donot even pretend to be balanced or neutral.


Media circles say it is standard practice now forYanukovich's aides to call prominent TV channels to providedirection on how specific issues should be handled.

Replying to a question from Reuters, Yanukovich'sadministration said the leadership was committed to theprinciple of defending the free press against "any pressure orinterference", though it said the approach to the election couldbe marked by "increased emotion" and "provocative actions".

"The authorities will react sharply to any violations offreedom of expression," it said in a statement.

Yanukovich himself regularly speaks out in support of a freepress and in New York last week criticised a draft law presentedby a Regions deputy that would re-criminalise libel.

The deputy, Vitaly Zhuravsky, who sought to make libelpunishable by up to five years in jail, argued it was needed tosecure the integrity of the election.

Ukraine, he said, was following the lead of Russia - thoughsimilar legislation there does not provide for any prison term.

The move raised alarm among journalists who said it wouldcurb their ability to expose wrong-doing in high places.

"The parliamentary majority is using a law on libel as adisguise for bringing in a law on censorship," wrote VitalySych, editor-in-chief of Korrespondent weekly magazine whoseSept. 28 issue carried a whited-out cover in protest at what itsaid was a move to gag the free press.

Though the proposed law was dropped on Oct. 2, oppositionleaders expect the Regions to resurrect it if the partystrengthens its position in parliament.

Early last month, Yanukovich endured an embarrassing momentwhen a dozen Ukrainian journalists stood up and raisedanti-censorship banners as he hailed Ukraine's march to greatermedia freedom at a World Newspaper Congress in Kiev.

Even as he spoke, his security guards ripped banners saying"Stop censorship" from protesters' hands.

(Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; writing By RichardBalmforth; editing by Philippa Fletcher)