This week, Ukraine's President Victor Yushchenko chewed out a reporter for asking questions about his son's incongruously lavish lifestyle. In response, some 200 Ukrainian journalists signed a strongly-worded letter protesting the reporter's treatment. And Yushchenko responded with a letter of his own. A sign of tough times ahead for journalism in the nascent democracy? Or an indication that Ukraine's free press is alive and well?
BOG GARFIELD: This week in Ukraine, media and democracy, an object lesson.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Journalist Serhiy Leshchenko, from the widely-read online newspaper Ukraine Ukrayinska Pravda, asked President Viktor Yushchenko a question about his 19-year-old son's income, the BMW he drives, and the cell phone he carries and how he supports his seemingly lavish lifestyle, a personal question to be sure, but not unreasonable to pose to an elected official. The President and his family are public figures, the way they spend money is open to scrutiny. Yushchenko did answer, saying this his son's income from two jobs covered the expense of renting the Beamer, and that his fancy cell phone was a gift from a friend. When the reporter asked on Monday where he earned his income, Mr. Yushchenko told him to quote, "act like a polite journalist and not like a hit man."
BOG GARFIELD: A slap in the face to the press. After supporting the Orange Revolution that put Yushchenko in office, journalists expected real press freedom, transparency and accountability. This week, after the flap, 200 journalists got together to write a strongly worded letter. This is a shortened version: [CLACKING OF TYPEWRITER KEYS, UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: "We Ukranian journalists are revolted by your humiliating statements towards our colleague, Serhiy Leshchenko, during the press conference on July 25th 2005. We reckon it is unworthy for the leader of a Europe-ean democratic country to use such phrases as 'hired killer.'" And they went on, "We remember your words, quote, 'I promise to render an account to you for my every deed, my family will render an account to you for every private action. I demand the same actions from every authority of Ukraine,' unquote. "According to all that, we demand a public apology for Serhiy Leshchenko and an account to journalists for the incomes of your family. We insist on your respect towards journalists and the constitutional right of freedom of speech and free access to information."
BOG GARFIELD: And President Yushchenko did offer a backhand apology in a return letter of his own. [CLACKING OF TYPEWRITER KEYS, UP AND UNDER] "I highly value the role of the Ukranian journalists in the victory of democratic forces during the Orange Revolution, and respect the point of view which the Ukranian mass media takes in the processes of the democratization of the country. For me, the freedom of speech and free journalists are axioms. We respect one of the major functions of the media to keep the government's action public and under control." "It is good," Yushchenko continued, "that we live in a country where no topic or person it taboo for discussion. It is right that the President and his family live under the watchful eye of the press, but it is not a reason to take away my family's right to private life. I never avoid answers to the toughest of questions. The answers may seem satisfactory, or not. But I am always honest with journalists. Having said that, I expect understanding and honesty in return."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sheesh! He expects this, they demand that. Our first impulse was to wonder why the President and the press of this formerly Communist nation just can't get along. Our second impulse, though, was to marvel at a press corps bold enough to demand an accounting from their President, and a President who deems it worthy to provide one. (MUSIC)
BOG GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson and Rob Christianson our engineers. We had help from Sarah Dalsimer and Josh Nathan-Kazis, and a magnificent return engagement from Arun Rath. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcasts at onthemedia.org, also in the ITunes podcast directory. And you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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