September 3, 2012 / 2:24 PM / 7 years ago

Ukrainian journalists protest as leader hails media freedom

KIEV (Reuters) - A dozen Ukrainian journalists stood up and raised anti-censorship banners when President Viktor Yanukovich hailed his country’s march to media freedom at the World Newspaper Congress in Kiev on Monday.

“Ukraine has made its way, without exaggeration, from total censorship to an open society,” Yanukovich told the conference as his security guards ripped banners saying “Stop censorship” from protesters’ hands.

Yanukovich did not react to the silent protest.

Ukrainian opposition and Western rights watchdogs have accused Yanukovich of cracking down on media freedom after coming to power in the former Soviet republic in early 2010.

In July, three months before the October parliamentary election, tax police raided the office of TVi, a television station often critical of the government.

Although a tax evasion case against TVi’s chief executive has since been dropped, the station says local cable companies are either dropping it or moving it to more expensive packages, cutting the station’s viewer base.

Yanukovich said the alleged lack of media freedom in his country was due to ignorance and misinformation. “I think this is mostly due to the lack of objective information on the real state of affairs,” he told the conference.

After winning the February 2010 presidential election, Yanukovich quickly consolidated power by forging a majority coalition in parliament and installing allies in key positions.

Last October, a local court sentenced his arch-rival - and defeated presidential contender - Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison for abuse of office, after a trial criticized by the West as an example of selective justice.

Despite calls by the European Union for the release of Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, Yanukovich refused to intervene, and analysts say this may affect the EU judgment on the fairness of Ukraine’s October 28 parliamentary poll.

Tymoshenko appealed to Western powers on Monday to step up measures to isolate Yanukovich. “(European politicians) should stop trying to urge Yanukovich to become a democrat,” she said in an interview in the Polish edition of Newsweek magazine.

“They should understand that admonishing a dictator will not change him. It’s like urging a cannibal to become a vegetarian.”

Tymoshenko alleged that Yanukovich and his allies planned to rig the legislative election to cancel out all opposition. She said Ukraine’s democracy and its status as a part of the European family were at stake.

Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; additional reporting by Christian Lowe and Patrycja Sikora; Editing by Tim Pearce

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