End Note: VERDICT AGAINST UKRAINIAN NEWSPAPER THREATENS
UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT AGAIN FAILS TO ELECT SPEAKER. The legislature's sixth attempt to elect its speaker has been declared invalid owing to the lack of a two-thirds quorum, Ukrainian Television reported on 9 June. Socialists/Peasants candidate Oleksandr Moroz received 177 votes, while Hromada candidate Oleksandr Pukhkal mustered only 30. As on previous occasions, the Popular Democratic Party, the Popular Rukh, the United Social Democrats, and the Greens refused to participate in the vote. They are demanding a "package vote" on a centrist speaker and two deputy speakers representing the left- and right-wing parliamentary groups. Some Ukrainian newspapers have dubbed the continued deadlock in the Supreme Council a "farce" that is preventing deputies from addressing the country's acute socio-economic problems. JM
EU LUKEWARM TOWARD UKRAINE'S BID FOR ASSOCIATE MEMBERSHIP. At the first session of the Ukraine-EU Cooperation Council in Luxembourg on 9 June, Ukrainian Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoytenko requested that Ukraine be granted associated membership in order to pave the way for a full-fledged membership in the future, Ukrainian Television reported. But according to Reuters, the EU reacted unenthusiastically to Ukraine's association bid, saying it is "premature" to look further than the current accord on Ukrainian-EU cooperation and partnership, which took effect on 1 March. "I'm sure that in the medium term Ukraine will arrive at that point which in our view, at the present time, it has not arrived at yet," Reuters quoted EU Commissioner for Foreign Relations Hans van den Broek as saying. JM
VERDICT AGAINST UKRAINIAN NEWSPAPER THREATENS PRESS FREEDOM
A Kyiv court last week ordered the opposition daily "Kievskie Vedomosti" to pay libel damages totaling 5 million hryvni (more than $2 million) to an ally of President Leonid Kuchma. If unable to pay, the newspaper will have to close down.
But there has been almost no reaction from the journalistic community. Only a few voices have been heard about the case, which many consider to constitute yet another assault on press freedom by the government.
"There has been no reaction from any sort of journalists' union and that is very surprising," said Volodymyr Mostovy, editor of the weekly "Zerkalo Nedeli." "This is precisely the moment that solidarity between journalists should be manifested through a statement that speaks out against such actions."
Mostovy said that the Starokyivsky District Court's ruling was a "purely political action directed at closing the newspaper" by forcing it into "an unsustainable economic condition."
That echoed the comments made last week by Yevhen Yakhunov, editor of "Kievskie Vedomosti," who also said that the court decision was "a political action."
But these were isolated comments. Last weekend, several journalists were given awards by Kuchma in a ceremony at Mariyinsky Palace marking Press Day. "Freedom of speech helps the development of democracy," the president said, adding that journalism is a "serious weapon" in politics but should be used with "objectivity and independence."
"Kievskie Vedomosti" is standing by its series of reports in which it alleged that Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko bought a luxury $115,000 Mercedes with money from a fund for the families of slain policemen. Kravchenko filed suit last year after the newspaper had first printed the allegation. The daily plans to appeal the ruling.
Four month ago, another Kyiv opposition daily, "Vseukrainskie Vedomosti," was forced to shut down after a court ordered it to pay 3.5 million hryvni in damages to a pro-Kuchma businessman and politician. At that time, however, many journalists openly argued that the government was trying to gag the opposition in the run-up to the March parliamentary elections.
Now, Yakhunov is saying, newspapers have not rushed to the defense of "Kievskie Vedomosti" for purely commercial reasons. "Mass media are separated into different camps," he said. "Even those on friendly terms with us might not support us because we are competitors. However, I want to warn them that the repression has started."
"Kievskie Vedomosti" attorney Viktor Nikazakov sees apathy as the main reason for silence. "Those newspapers that might want to scream about the decision don't do it because they know it won't accomplish anything," he said, adding that "more and more newspapers are working for the president in any case."
Foreign observers say that the case highlights a troubling pattern of opposition newspapers falling afoul of the authorities.
In two recent cases, the newspaper "Polityka" had its bank accounts frozen by a local tax administrator for failure to submit documents in time. The newspaper "Pravda Ukrainy" faced similar close scrutiny from government inspectors.
Tim O'Connor, Kyiv resident adviser of ProMedia, a U.S.-financed non-governmental organization supporting international press reform, says that cases like the "Kievskie Vedomosti" one are "worrisome because they show how one-sided the libel and defamation laws are in Ukraine." He added that loopholes in the Ukrainian press law are partly to blame, since plaintiffs are currently not required to prove any actual damage in court. He also said there is no legal distinction between press scrutiny of a private citizen and public official. "Certainly public officials should be scrutinized closely, no matter what country you're in," he commented.
Irina Polykova, regional office director of the European Institute for the Media, said that Ukraine lacks both courts and lawyers experienced in handling press freedom issues. And she criticized the fact that legislation places no limit on the amount of damages a plaintiff can seek from a media outlet.
"Kievskie Vedomosti" attorney Nikazakov said more public pressure should be put on lawmakers. "The media should press the parliament to change laws so that they defend themselves against high-ranking officials," he said. "The parliament probably would pass this kind of law just to spite the president."
The authors are Kyiv-based RFE/RL correspondents.