Revolutionary reporting

In Ukraine, the truth is out there thanks to the stand taken by a group of TV journalists
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It was time for Wednesday's mid-morning news bulletin on Ukraine's First National television channel, and things were falling apart. As the newsreader began viewers could hear shouts of "Rubbish!" from inside the studio. A voice cut in: "That's only the technicians, ignore it."

It was time for Wednesday's mid-morning news bulletin on Ukraine's First National television channel, and things were falling apart. As the newsreader began viewers could hear shouts of "Rubbish!" from inside the studio. A voice cut in: "That's only the technicians, ignore it."

That morning 14 news journalists on First National or UT-1, which is tightly controlled by President Leonid Kuchma's henchmen, had announced they were on strike and would not work on news stories that did not meet professional standards. They issued a signed public statement: "Ukrainians, we have conquered our fear because there is an even stronger feeling: shame. We call on journalists to think hard about their duties to the people."

What impact could 14 journalists in a company with 700 staff have? But other journalists and staff signed up to the statement and by Thursday morning they numbered 330. Later reps from all editorial departments met management with an ultimatum: either you let us broadcast what's happening in the country, or we all walk out. At 9pm the channel carried its first uncensored news bulletin.

"The day before there wasn't a single shot of the crowds on Kiev's central square, nothing about Kiev at all," says Maxim Drabok, news reporter on the channel. "There is a total information blockade - people didn't know what they were voting for."

Olga Kashpor, a reporter and another of the original 14 who started the UT-1 snowball rolling, explains its dynamic: "News is the core around which the rest of the channel revolves, so the other staff realised they had to help. On Thursday we reached a critical mass. We began to believe in ourselves, in what we could achieve. That night the editors gave us full freedom - usually we'd simply carried out their orders."

Inspired by what was happening on the streets and at UT-1, protest rolled through newsrooms in Kiev. On Inter, the nation's largest channel, a well-known presenter, Oleksander Liukianenko, walked off the job he was so disgusted with events. "We started with Yanukovych supporters, but an hour into the programme I was told I had to keep on interviewing them. It went on like that for nearly five hours," he says.

"Then to make matters worse they broadcast the programme on three channels simultaneously. It looked like I had betrayed my colleagues by going along with it. So during an ad break I got up and walked out."

After Liukianenko quit, journalists demanded a crisis meeting with the editor, which lasted several hours. The result was scrupulously balanced news bulletins on Thursday evening.

"It astonished me," Liukianenko says. "The broadcasts were fundamentally different from anything we'd seen in the last four years. They were balanced, gave different points of view, and the journalists didn't follow a temnik [instructions how to report events]."

The notorious temniks first appeared in 2002 as a means of whipping journalists into line. The result was that news bulletins on different channels could be almost exactly similar, right down to words and phrases. Temniks also operate in the press, but regional papers are far more numerous than television stations, which blunts the impact of central control. Like the television networks, however, ownership of the national press is highly concentrated in the hands of wealthy "oligarchs" closely linked to the regime.

Andrei Tichina, a presenter on Channel 1+1, the second largest in Ukraine, told how his colleagues' battle against the temniks also boiled over last week. "For years the channel has been under intense political pressure. We tried to fight the censorship, constantly arguing over phrases, words - even commas."

Just before the first round of the elections on October 31, seven journalists from Channel 1+1 walked out in disgust. The day of the second round, four more news presenters followed their example, including Tichina. The result was that Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, a presenter known for his subservience, had to read all the news.

"Eventually, after long arguments with management, journalists reached an agreement to start working on news again, but without censorship. Pikhovshek was taken off news altogether. On Thursday evening we broadcast our first honest bulletin," said Tichina.

The eruption of protest did not come out of the blue. Yegor Sobolev, the young Kiev organiser for the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine, had been focusing journalists' anger for two months. The union secretly circulated a statement in early October calling on staff to refuse to compromise their professional ethics.

The breakthrough in the media came at a crunch time for the mass opposition movement. Thousands of people were in tears on Wednesday when Yanukovych was officially announced the winner. At the same time, Russian politicians were calling openly for the East to split away, while the opposition leadership seemed unable to reach out to Yanukovych supporters.

"The TV broadcasts played on the ideological difference between east and west Ukraine," says Yulia Mostovaya, leading opinion writer for respected liberal weekly Zerkalo Nedeli (The Weekly Mirror). "Yanukovych's entire political strategy was aimed at dividing the country. Now that journalists can work professionally and freely, people in the east will see that Yushchenko doesn't have hooves and a tail, that he doesn't wear a swastika. The TV has been responsible for fermenting division - now it can re-unify the country."

After the breakthrough on Thursday night Sobolev pointed to a string of other, smaller advances elsewhere that added up to a picture of "total victory". But the union organiser said the victories must now be backed up with agreements on editorial policy to stop any back-sliding in the future. "I've never been so happy in my life," Sobolev says. "I'm so proud for my country."