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Ukraine's Parliamentary Press Restrictions: Protecting Journalists Or The Government?

Only one state-controlled media outlet has been allowed to report on parliamentary proceedings from inside Ukraine’s national assembly since Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of the country. (file photo)
Only one state-controlled media outlet has been allowed to report on parliamentary proceedings from inside Ukraine’s national assembly since Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of the country. (file photo)

KYIV -- As it prepares to start membership talks with the European Union, Ukraine faces a fundamental debate about freedom of speech, a key EU value: Does Russia’s full-scale invasion still justify restrictions on accredited journalists reporting from inside parliament?

To pro-government lawmakers, citing security risks, it does. But to some opposition members of parliament, the restrictions are a cover to limit public scrutiny of the legislature.

Over a year and a half since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s declaration of martial law, missile strikes on Kyiv have become more infrequent. A barrage on November 11 was the first in nearly two months.

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Although legislators and their staffs go to work regularly in parliament, restoring the access of all accredited journalists to the building is still deemed too dangerous.

Since September 2022, only one television channel, the state-run Rada TV, an outlet charged with covering the parliament, or Verkhovna Rada, has been allowed to broadcast the legislature’s plenary sessions, with a delay of at least several hours for security reasons. Other accredited journalists are not allowed within the parliament or its perimeter.

Zelenskiy’s February 24, 2022, order declaring martial law --recently extended until February 14, 2024 -- authorized expanded restrictions in the interests of security.

Yet, nearly two years later, the Ukrainian parliament’s website offers no explanation for these restrictions on media access. By contrast, a frequently-asked-questions piece addresses restrictions imposed in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, although the pandemic-related state of emergency in Ukraine was ended on July 1.

Asked about the grounds for the ongoing media restrictions, parliament Chairman Ruslan Stefanchuk, of the ruling Servant of the People party, told Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, that he needed to “clarify” the matter since “all this” was adopted when martial law first went into effect.

As “a decision-making center,” parliament cooperates “very actively” with the Ukrainian special services, “which constantly send us their messages regarding danger,” Stefanchuk added.

“As soon as this danger subsides [and] I receive notice that there is no longer any danger, we will return and restore everything as it always was in parliament,” he stressed.

Ukrainian parliamentary Chairman Ruslan Stefanchuk (file photo)
Ukrainian parliamentary Chairman Ruslan Stefanchuk (file photo)

The parliamentary administration, its bureaucratic apparatus, also could not help. A month after Schemes submitted a request for information, a staff member responded that the administration must first “summarize all the facts” related to the restrictions and then “analyze it.” Stefanchuk later said the inquiry would be answered.

As of the date of publication, neither Stefanchuk nor the parliamentary administration had completed their clarifications, summaries, or analyses.

Verkhovna Rada Deputy Chairman Oleksandr Korniyenko, the former head of the Servant of the People party, told a conference in September that “[i]f parliament were in a different location, outside of the government district, it would be easier” to allow journalists to return.

No 'Clear Arguments'

However, no security guard challenged Schemes journalist Maksym Savchuk in October when he walked through the restricted government district to an interview near parliament.

A former head of the SBU security service, the main organ responsible for ensuring parliament’s safety, said he did not understand the security arguments for keeping accredited media out of parliament.

“We do not hear clear arguments about security, and I am a security professional like no other,” said opposition deputy Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, who ran the SBU under then-President Viktor Yushchenko from 2006 to 2010, and also led the security service in 2014-15 after popular protests resulted in the ouster of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.

Former SBU head Valentyn Nalyvaychenko (file photo)
Former SBU head Valentyn Nalyvaychenko (file photo)

In case of a Russian air strike, journalists “have the same safety (provisions) as me or any other deputy,” he said, adding that they would also have access to the same air-raid shelters.

Nalyvaychenko, a member of parliament’s European Integration Committee, contended that restricting media access to parliament could impact Ukraine’s EU membership talks since “access to mass media and access to information, freedom of speech, are one of the key requirements for joining the bloc.”

A November 8 report from the European Commission recommended the start of membership talks with Ukraine and recognized that martial law had “led to some restrictions of rights and freedoms.” But it added that “these have so far remained largely in proportion to the actual needs and have been applied with caution.” The report did not criticize the restricted media access to parliament.

The discussion of the Verkhovna Rada’s media restrictions comes amid concerns about a lack of content diversity among Ukrainian television outlets, including from the EU. The Zelenskiy administration has not responded to such criticism.

'What Exactly Do You Want To See?'

Rada TV’s broadcasts of parliament’s plenary sessions do not come live. For security reasons, the state broadcaster posts its recordings on YouTube with a delay of hours.

Rada TV’s other coverage often focuses more on presidential administration officials than on the workings of parliament. News briefs called “Parliamentary Day” are updated daily, but are under 11 minutes long.

Opposition deputy Mykhaylo Bondar, a member of the European Solidarity faction, complained that Rada TV often only broadcasts parliament’s sessions at night “so that people go to sleep and don’t watch what is happening inside parliament.”

Servant of the People deputy Maksym Buzhanskiy, a member of parliament’s Law Enforcement Committee, defended the access restrictions.

They enable the legislature to “work properly for the country,” he said.

“If we want to see populist slogans, a populist contest (among deputies), then perhaps we really need to open the door,” Buzhanskiy said.

“And you, personally, what exactly do you want to see that you couldn’t find?” he asked a Schemes reporter.

Buzhanskiy’s own committee, however, has not published transcripts or protocols of its purportedly open hearings since a meeting in February 2022.

Sufficient Public Scrutiny?

Some deputies provide livestreams themselves using their mobile phones.

On October 6, Stefanchuk chided European Solidarity deputy Oleksiy Honcharenko for “conducting a live broadcast on TikTok” using his phone mounted on a tripod.

Such actions put “our state’s legislative body and the people here at risk,” Stefanchuk said from the speaker’s chair.

Honcharenko retorted that deputies had closed off parliament from “the people so that they would not know anything about what is happening here.”

European Solidarity deputy Volodymyr Vyatrovych, a former head of the SBU’s archives, agreed. He told Schemes that the lack of live access to parliament “corrupts the parliament from within” by isolating the body from public scrutiny.

But Voice opposition party deputy Yaroslav Zheleznyak argued that, given existing coverage and deputies’ own social-media feeds, there is no need for extraordinary security restrictions.

“Are we afraid that some Russian will find out that we’re convening?” he scoffed.

Although the pro-Moscow Opposition Platform-For Life party has been banned, its deputies are “still in the parliament,” he noted.

Pro-government deputies respond cautiously when asked about the restrictions.

Stefanchuk said only that his own views follow the constitution and parliament’s Rules of Procedure.

Serhiy Shvets, a former journalist for the 1+1 television channel, which broadcast Zelenskiy’s series “Servant Of The People” and provided strong backing for the former comedian during his 2019 presidential campaign, claimed he had no opinion about the restrictions.

Kostyantyn Kasay, a member of the parliament’s Human Rights Committee, acknowledged that he supported returning all accredited media to parliament, but said security concerns had prevented the committee from finding a “solution.”

Even with the ban, Kasai argued, “you have the opportunity to talk with people's deputies whenever you want.”

Written by Elizabeth Owen based on reporting by Serhiy Andrushko of Schemes, the investigative unit for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.
  • 16x9 Image

    Serhiy Andrushko

    Serhiy Andrushko is a journalist with Schemes (Skhemy), an investigative news project run by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in cooperation with UA: Pershy television.​ Andrushko began his career in television in 2000 as a journalist for STB, reporting on government corruption, before working for the National Radio Company of Ukraine. He was also a founder of Hromadske digital TV​. Andrushko was a winner of Ukraine's prestigious Teletriumph Awards in 2010.

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