KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine's top television networks are too cozy with the country's leaders, reporters are hindered in investigations and independent journalism is under threat in the country's far-flung regions, an international media watchdog said Wednesday.
On a three-day trip to the former Soviet state, the head of the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard, called upon the journalists themselves to seek protection if the authorities won't oblige.
"If there is no political will to protect press freedom, journalists should keep fighting to defend their rights," he said.
Critics say media liberties have been stifled under pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, who took over from a Western-leaning predecessor earlier this year.
Chief among Julliard's observations were that top management and owners of Ukrainian TV channels are very close with the country's leaders, undermining objective reporting.
Ukraine has one national TV channel and dozens of private networks, but critics say all follow an unwritten rule never undermine or embarrass the authorities.
Julliard noted numerous cases of censorship and political pressure on Ukraine's TV channels where journalists were not allowed to cover some news, such as when Yanukovych was hit by a wreath amid strong winds as he honored war victims.
Media executives also block muckraking probes by their reporters, Julliard said, adding that political pressure on journalists outside the country's capital is even higher than in Kiev.
"Usually journalists in provinces are not so well protected as in capital and we have to find way to protect them more," he said.
Julliard called on Yanukovych to say "he is very committed to defending press freedom."
"If there is no strong political will at the highest level, the situation will go in the wrong direction," he said.
Yanukovych has repeatedly denied accusations of press censorship.