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Ukraine’s Quest for Mature Statehood: Ukraine’s Transition to a Stable Democracy

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this conference on Ukraine ‘s Transition to a Stable Democracy. Media freedom is an especially important topic with the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine , in what will be a defining year with respect to Ukraine ‘s democratic transition. Given the stakes, we should not be surprised by the fact that the powers-that-be have launched an all-out campaign to pressure the media. 

Freedom of expression – and its corollary, freedom of the media – is one of the most basic human rights. It is vital to the development of civil society. Numerous OSCE agreements include various commitments on freedom of the media. These are agreements that Ukraine has voluntarily and freely committed to abide by as one of the 55 participating States of the OSCE. 

The Helsinki Commission, whose mandate is to monitor and encourage compliance by the OSCE States with their OSCE agreements, has also maintained a strong interest in freedom of media in general and recognizes its importance in democratic development. As many of you know, the Commission has also maintained a strong interest in Ukraine and has, over the last several decades, been steadfast in encouraging Ukraine’s independence. We are eager to have as an ally a democratic country where human rights are respected and the rule of law prevails. 

We continue to maintain our strong interest and concern, especially with the critically important October 31 presidential elections. I am the original cosponsor of a House resolution, H.Con.Res. 415, introduced by Rep. Henry Hyde, the Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, calling on the Government of Ukraine to ensure a democratic, transparent, and fair election process for the presidential election. (This resolution, which was introduced by Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Campbell, has recently passed the Senate and will soon be taken up by the House.) The resolution outlines measures Ukrainian authorities need to take – consistent with their own laws and international agreements – to ensure an election process that enables all of the candidates to compete on a level playing field. The resolution specifically identifies violations to free media and urges unimpeded access by all parties and candidates to print, radio, television, and Internet media on a non-discriminatory basis. 

Unfortunately, the situation with respect to the media in Ukraine in the run-up to the elections is discouraging. The election – apparently because of the clear-cut choice between current Prime Minister Yanukovich, and leader of the Our Ukraine democratic bloc Victor Yuschenko – seems to have frightened those who are now in power. It seems the ruling regime has decided to interfere in media election coverage at an unprecedented scale, presumably with the expectation that the interference will ensure their victory at the polls. 

The OSCE recently assessed the media situation in the election campaign. They noted that overall, media pluralism is present in Ukraine – different views are represented and politicians of all ranks are regularly criticized – and in general the legal framework is satisfactory. On the other hand, according to OSCE and many other observers, “the one view dominating the airwaves is that of the government”, due to an ownership structure closely connected to, or influenced by the current government. It is also due to the infamous so-called “temniki” or “secret instructions” to media from the presidential administration about what or what not to cover and how to cover it. The institutional framework of frequency allocation and licensing also allows for favoritism in the electronic media. 

In short, the electronic media is heavily dominated by government and oligarchs, and the media tilts heavily towards Yanukovich, while casting Yuschenko in a negative light. The media is under attack: 

* Since the beginning of this year, Ukrainian authorities have harassed, closed and filed lawsuits against numerous electronic and print media. 

* Radio Liberty , an important source of objective information, and other radio stations such as Radio Kontynent have been either partially or totally taken off the air. Months of promises to various U.S. officials that Radio Liberty would be put back on the air have come to naught. 

* Print runs have been permanently or temporarily stopped for several newspapers. Just a few days ago, authorities in the Kharkiv region temporarily confiscated 42,000 copies of the newspaper Without Censorship. Other media face politically motivated law suits. 

* Volia cable, the leading cable television operator in Ukraine , (which carries the only channel which reports objectively on the democratic opposition – Channel 5) is experiencing severe pressure from the Prosecutor-General’s office. Almost all cable companies that carry Channel 5 received a variety of threats and tax inspections, and some reportedly had cables “accidentally” cut. 

* Reporters face harassment and censorship daily for their objective reporting. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, equal access to media must be provided during the remainder of the presidential campaign and will be key in determining whether or not the presidential elections will be judged as free and fair by the OSCE and the international community. The elections will be a watershed for the future direction of that country. Ukraine has tremendous potential. Ukrainian authorities need to radically improve the election environment, including the media environment, if there is to be hope for these elections to meet OSCE standards. 

In just two days, on September 16, we will mark the fourth anniversary of the killing of independent journalist Georgi Gongadze, who was exposing high-level corruption in Ukraine. His murder has been subject to numerous international protests, including statements, intercessions, and queries, by me and other Helsinki Commission members. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a case of a massive cover-up by high-level officials. 

This is the fifth time that your conference is being held. The first took place four years ago just two days after Gongadze’s disappearance. It was at that first conference that representatives of the Helsinki Commission and State Department first called for the Ukrainian government to investigate his disappearance. Four years later, the case remains unresolved. Ukrainian President Kuchma and a number of high-ranking officials have been implicated in his disappearance and the circumstances leading to his murder. The Ukrainian authorities’ handling, or more accurately mishandling of this case, has been characterized by obfuscation and stonewalling, destruction of evidence, and the persecution and even death, in one instance, of those who tried to tell the truth about the case. 

Tragically for Ukraine, the handling of this case has made a mockery of the rule of law. Not surprisingly, lack of transparency illustrated by the Gongadze case has fueled the debilitating problem of widespread corruption reaching the highest levels in Ukraine. A credible and transparent investigation of this case by Ukrainian authorities is long overdue and the perpetrators – no matter who they may be – need to be brought to justice. I hope that well before the sixth of your conferences, this case is resolved, as well as the cases of at least 18 other journalists in Ukraine who, according to Western media watchdog organizations, have died because of their work. 

These journalists, including Mr. Gongadze, were exposing the massive problem of corruption and crime in Ukraine. One important issue intimately linked with corruption and crime worldwide – a global scourge to which Ukraine is by no means immune – is the trafficking of women and children. Each year, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 girls, boys, women and men, including tens of thousands of Ukrainians, are bought and sold like chattel across international borders, many of them for brutal exploitation in the commercial sex industry. The plight of these individuals has touched many hearts and has led to a global movement to eradicate this form of modern-day slavery known as trafficking in human beings. 

In November 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which I authored, was enacted with broad, bi-partisan support. The Act provides a framework for combating trafficking through law enforcement, prevention programs, and assistance to those victimized. The Act mandated major changes in U.S. law, including severe penalties of up to life in prison for those who traffic in humans and treatment of the victims – mostly women and children – as victims of crime rather than criminals themselves. This past December, President Bush signed a reauthorization of the Act, which I also wrote, to expand and strengthen the U.S. response to this scourge. 

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women and children have been trafficked mostly to Europe and the Middle East over the course of the last decade, making it one of the largest source countries in Europe . It is also a major transit country. Ukraine has been designated in the most recent State Department report as a Tier II country (there are three tiers), meaning that the Ukrainian Government does not yet fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so. I am pleased that our government, the OSCE and other international organizations and NGOs are devoting resources to combat this modern day slavery, but much more remains to be done. I encourage the Ukrainian Government to make further progress, and implement its Comprehensive Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons, better coordinate with law enforcement officials of destination countries, and fight government corruption. 

By conducting free and fair elections, respecting media freedoms, including resolving the Gongadze case, and effectively tackling the scourge of trafficking, the Ukrainian authorities will go a long way in restoring the trust of the citizens of Ukraine and strengthening Ukraine’s independence, democracy, sending a powerful signal of its readiness to join the Euro-Atlantic community of nations. I stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people as they strive to achieve these important goals.

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