KIEV, Ukraine – Top Ukrainian journalists interrupted President Viktor Yanukovych's speech on press rights Monday, protesting increasing media censorship by the authorities.
About a dozen reporters rose from their seats and held up posters reading "Stop Censorship" and "Media Oligarchs Serve the Authorities." Security guards violently ripped them out of the hands of some protesters.
Yanukovych was speaking at the opening of the annual World Newspaper Congress, a meeting of dozens of news executives from around the world that has complained of waning press freedoms in the former Soviet state.
Opening the event, Jacob Mathew, president of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, urged Ukrainian authorities to "regain freedoms that sustain democracy and human dignity."
Since Yanukovych's election, opposition parties have had little access to television, with the majority of TV channels controlled by magnates loyal to the government, reporters complain of being denied access to crucial information, and a rising number of attacks on journalists are left unpunished.
Yanukovych did not react to the protest. Some of the journalist were allowed to hold up their signs through the entire speech.
Yanukovych's office later called the incident an "unfortunate event," but said that the fact that the journalists were able to hold their protest was a testament to Yanukoyvch's commitment to democracy.
In his speech, Yanukovych vowed to uphold democratic principles and media freedoms.
"The main task of the government in the media sphere, as I have set it, is to create conditions when free press can develop freely and be independent of any kind of control," he said.
However, later in his speech Yanukovych called on journalists to be "biased," when he apparently meant the opposite — a slip of the tongue that critics said demonstrated his stated commitment to freedom and democracy is merely lip service.
"I call on journalists to maintain a high level of ethical standards and uphold the principles of being objective and politically biased," Yanukovych said.
Mustafa Nayem, a top investigative reporter who took part in the protest, called Yanukovych's words on media freedom cynical lies.
"When the president says everything is good in Ukraine, he is lying ... to put it mildly," Nayem told The Associated Press. "It is not a secret to anyone that the (media) atmosphere under President Yanukovych has worsened drastically."
Larry Kilman, a spokesman for the congress, said the protest underscored press freedom problems in Ukraine — such as corruption, a lack of transparency and corruption in society as a whole, a lack of pluralism on television, and frequent cases of impunity for those who attack the media.
He expressed hope that the conference would help address these problems and improve the media climate.
"By choosing Ukraine as our venue, we stand in solidarity with the local independent press, and draw international attention to the situation here," Kilman said. "The protesters were a very powerful reminder that there is still much to be done."