05.08.2006 | Natalya Ligachova

They don’t need to love us. They need to beware of us.


The present situation of “soft” censorship may be even more dangerous than that under strict censorship

How in terms of press freedom does President Yushchenko’s rule differ from the regime under Leonid Kuchma?  First and foremost, of course, by the lack of “temnyki”[1] as a method for imposing this or that interpretation of events on the mass media. One should not forget, however, that “temnyki” are essentially the most archaic form of censorship, their own value lying in the fact that as written instructions (even when only circulated by email), they provide the possibility of systematically monitoring whether they have been implemented. And even then, only – as the events of 2002 and 2004 showed – in the absence of organized and mass-scale opposition from journalists.

Yet does the absence of “temnyki” indicate the absence of censorship on the part of the authorities?  Is it not possible to use the law of the telephone to apply censorship?  Or personal contacts with editors and journalists?  Or when one applies a combination of the law of the telephone and personal contacts?

In fact, a year and a half after the “Orange Revolution”, it is possible to identify four levels of media freedom in Ukraine.

The first level: media outlets which are totally free of any influence or pressure from the authorities. In Ukraine effectively only Internet publications belong here. Yes, you get a fair amount of dirty PR and compromising material, but one should not forget that the first journalist investigations like “Son of God” [about the lifestyle of President Yushchenko’s son – translator] or “Ivchenko’s Mercedes” appeared precisely there. At the moment, admittedly, the Internet doesn’t touch on issues which are much more important both from the financial point of view, and in terms of their social significance, and even their influence on the level of national security abused by the authorities. However one suspects that this is not connected with pressure from the authorities, but merely with the level of professionalism of journalists working on the Internet, or more broadly, on the professional of Internet outlets, their level of culture, and on the underdeveloped nature of the media Internet market. By this I mean its qualitative format: when the ratings of site visitors can be maintained by primitive sensationalism, one cannot expect to find huge amounts of serious journalist investigations.

To some extent the TV channel STB is close to Internet media outlets, purely by virtue of the specific symbiotic relationship between Viktor Pinchuk[2], the channel’s owner and the head of the STB Information Service Alexei Mustafin.  Mustafin, on the one hand has the opportunity to provide some kind of opposition to the regime in connection with the soft opposition stand towards the “Orange” regime of his boss. On the other hand he has sufficient professional standing, and enough negative experience of working in conditions of SDPU[3] censorship to be able to fairly successfully counter attempts at direct influence on the news exerted by the channel’s owner on the news in his own corporate interests. As a result there is a kind of critical objectiveness in the STB news which gives rise to one question only: is it for long?

The second level of media freedom: the printed press. The most intelligent investigations into the shadowy side to “RosUkrEnergo” appeared in “Dzerkalo Tyzhnya” [“The Weekly Mirror”]. One should here also particularly note that over one and a half years of “Orange” rule, not one television channel carried out its OWN investigation into abuses by individuals from he new regime, not even STB.  All television investigations (for example, “Closed zone” on Channel 5) concerned only the political competitors of the regime. And in fact, there were only a handful of such investigations for the almost ten television channels aspiring to national coverage. Not to speak of the fact that the figures whose interests were touched upon were by no means those of the upper echelon.  

The third level of media freedom: politically involved television channels and press outlets. The newspaper “Sevodnya” [“Today”] regularly raises issues around the President’s family which are then seized upon by the Internet website “Obozrevatel” [“The Observer”] which has those involved in Yulia Tymoshenko’s team. The newspaper “Bez tsenzury” [“Without censorship”] writes about the criminal life of Donetsk.

The television channels NTN and “Ukraina”, controlled by the Party of the Regions, freely speak about all issues concerning the new regime which arise in the media, but would never allow themselves to quote Viktor Yanukovych’s gaffe about “Anna Akhmetova”[4]. Channel 5 for propaganda purposes used the clip several times during the election campaign of 2006, this being supported also by the election headquarters of “Nasha Ukraina”.

Yet it is clear that the new regime has its levels of influence on NTN and the Television and Radio Company (TRC) “Ukraina” also. For example, it is always possible to threaten to take away quotas on metal exports from the owners of those channels.

Clearly this, together with the wild determination of the Party of the Regions in any bloc to cling on to power, whether with the “Orange” contingent, or the grey-brown-maroon brigade, or with the Devil himself, explains the lack of their own investigations by those television channels. The principle here being that they “don’t bark at those from their own patch” with serious public attention in order to grab a piece of the goodies in the political and financial behind-the-scenes dealings,

And, finally, the fourth level of media freedom: the nationwide television channels First National Television Channel,  “1+1” and “Inter”. Here the influence of the authorities is more significant.  

Yes, in this threesome, “Inter” stands somewhat apart, allowing itself some opposition and showing off. At present, it’s true, it is difficult to gauge whether this is under the external influence of some opponents of the regime (including by the “Jeans” opponents), or whether under the rather specific understanding by the leaders of the news-room of journalist standards. Sometimes one has the impression that it is simply a lack of professionalism in which sloppiness can sometimes be taken for daring (the last example being the coverage of the events in Feodosiya around the visit of the American boat on the concluding “Podrobnosti” [“Details”] for 4 May this year).

Nonetheless the unity of specifically these three channels in their coverage of issues important for “dear friends” and the President’s family – on that same “RusUkrEnergo” or the scandal with the Prosecutor Kuzovkin – demonstrate the presence of levers of influence from certain people in the President’s Secretariat on that channel as well.

On the whole we have nationwide media outlets which are “softly” controlled by the regime, and regional outlets which the regime has virtually no control over. These regional outlets, unfortunately, can most often not be considered independent forms of the media – they simply depend entirely on local financial and industrial groups which have become merged with the local authorities which at present in the East and South of the country are entirely “white and blue”.

The greatest danger for principles of press freedom in Ukraine is probably the moving together of levels one and four. Attempts by the authorities to control the Internet are unending, just as there is a tendency towards a successful bringing to fruition of the desire to “keep their finger on the pulse” of news-rooms of nationwide channels.

However, let us be honest and fair. The desire to control the mass media has always been, is now and will be in the future typical for ANY regime. The “orange” regime in this sense could also not, nor did it need to become the exception to the rule.
Quite another matter that even if not on a wide scale nonetheless there was on the one hand a journalist – corporative movement against censorship in 2002-2004   On the other hand there is the considerable contribution made to that movement by the then members of the political opposition whose interests coincided at that time with those of members of the media. This substantially narrows the options for the “orange” team to “steer” the media after they came to power.

Ukrainian journalists must not under any circumstances sit back and relax

The present situation of “soft” censorship may be even more dangerous than the situation with a strict regime of censorship. The stronger and more flagrant the pressure is, the greater our will to resist it becomes. When, on the other hand, everything is friendly and “human”, solely out of the desire for the good of the state to “not rock the boat”.  (Remember the situation in the early days with Kuchma whom we journalists helped to fight a “reactionary” parliament), it’s much harder to not put ourselves in the position of the “orange friends” in power. The bemoaning by the “white and blue” brigade and the communists about freedom of speech and “clean hands” cannot fail to seem pure hypocrisy (and often enough hypocrisy with particular cynicism at that).

So what is the solution?   In one thing alone – in strengthening journalist opposition to all attempts both from those in power, and the opposition, including from among owners of media outlets, to exert influence on the mass media with the aim of getting such outlets to breach professional standards. Are the authorities trying to bring two of the media sectors  - Internet outlets and national TV channels - closer together from the point of view of controllability?  Then let’s respond by making sure that on the Internet much more effort is taken to check information, and by not avoiding controversial issues on television.

What about if the authorities and politicians, with the help of their specialists “on communications” attempt to influence the media through informal contacts with top managers and the most influential journalists? Then let us establish equally  firm and powerful contacts among ourselves in order to act swiftly and efficiently, and in coordination, against any attempt at pressure. And not necessarily only within the framework of official structures like trade unions – the immediate response from the journalist community to the President over his conflict with Serhiy Leshchenko from “Ukrainska Pravda”[5] showed that more often than not what is needed is someone’s active initiative.

Do the authorities and politicians want, under the guise of principles of mutual responsibility of the media and the authorities, to again impose the principle of political expediency?  Then let us become firm lobbyists for the formal introduction in each media outlet of principles of editorial policy which put down in writing both the responsibility of the media to give balance, appropriate and accurate information, an d the responsibility of the owners of each particular media outlet to not interfere in the work of the editorial office as long as the latter observes journalist standards.

They don’t need to love us. They need to beware of us. The yardstick of our responsibility is only TRUTH which only deserves this name when we have no other motives for circulating information but to tell our fellow citizens what they NEED TO KNOW. This is vital, in turn, to be fully responsible for our own future, for that of our children, and of our country.

[1]  “temnyki” were instructions issued on what was or was not to be covered, and how  (translator’s note)

[2]  Viktor Pinchuk is Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law  (translator’s note)

[3]  the United Social Democratic Party was the party of Kuchma and Viktor Medvedchuk which backed Yanukovych’s  presidential candidacy in 2004 [translator’s note]

[4]  The poet whom Yanukovych, or his speechmaker, should have referred to was Anna Akhmatova. [translator’s note]

[5]  This involved President Yushchenko’s emotional response when asked to comment about the series of articles looking into the lifestyle of the President’s son  (translator’s note)

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