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30.08.2007 | Halya Coynash

Sniffing out political menus

   

A glance sideways at what is happening in Russia can do the world of good to those forlornly trying to hold on to their hopes for swift democratic reform in Ukraine.  Two electoral palates, so to speak, are being catered for.  We have one table, decked with all kinds of embellishments but no need for a menu, since what is on offer is fixed fare. And then there is another table infringing all rules of symmetry and order with its chaotic mishmash of different dishes. 

While the latter table will doubtless provide plenty to revive the energy and battered spirits of tired voters, a few words of warning are nonetheless required.  If we were dogs, now, all would be well – a sniff at each plate, and the relevant choice would be clear. No indigestion, no unfortunate, shall we say, consequences. 

For humans, however, the problems are greater.  Political dishes do not obligingly stink when they’re off or when the appearance is cunningly deceptive. 

We need, therefore, to be able to trust the menu.  With due respect to all the chefs, one would prefer an outside opinion.  Not unexpectedly here we also find complete mishmash. Dogs, it should be remembered, also sniff and otherwise assess strangers. Without their olfactory skills, we are entitled to make certain demands on those issuing us with the menu details.

We need to be clear who is providing the information; why we are receiving it now; and sometimes why, when any idiot can understand that it’s inedible, a dish is still on offer.

It would seem clear enough and legislation has chewed over what is or is not campaigning, what can only be written by agreement (or do we mean conspiracy?) with a political faction. Unfortunately, however, over the last month certain items in media outlets have exuded, shall we say, a certain unpleasant odour.

An example of attention to strange smells is provided by the journal and website “Telekritika”*.  In the course of programme monitoring during August, the Chief Editor Natalya Ligachova reports noticing a number of unknown journalists on certain channels.  After a news feature presented by Irina Boiko, Ivan Dryhailo and Tatyana Kudiyenko on “1 + 1” aroused certain suspicions, “Telekritika” wrote to the director in charge of the channel asking to meet “Irina, Ivan and Tatyana”.  The verbal answer received was that each journalist is entitled to use a pseudonym, and the director has no right to impose any other restrictions on them.  Natalya Ligachova leaves it to her readers to decide how convincing such an explanation is. For those who read the article, the conclusion would indeed seem clear. 

Those au fait with the journalist corps on different media outlets, with the names of institutes taking public opinion surveys and specialists in different areas are unlikely to be duped.

They are, unfortunately, in the minority  A white coat on an advertisement for toothpaste makes all too many of us convinced that the nice dentist (with white teeth!) recommending such goods is to be trusted.  When the difference between one tube of toothpaste and another is basically in the packaging, perhaps we can live with such deception. Here, excuse me, dazzling smiles are not enough.. 

We receive the results each week of public opinion polls from institutes few of us have heard of.  We are seldom given information about the institutes, including how long they have existed and what kind of reputation they have. The details which are provided makes little clear, yet the headlines reporting such “findings” present the latter as fact.

In the last few weeks, there have been a number of reports on Internet sites quoting “human rights activists”. No names, no organizations, and yet the news story is carried from one site to another, also as fact.  If the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union or other reputable organizations have concerns, they express them clearly and with no need for anonymity.  It should be made clear to journalists that vague references, whether they be to ”human rights activists”, “specialists”, or other invisible bodies are acceptable in headlines, but must somewhere be substantiated

The migration of news reports is also worrying.  News travels, and it would be unrealistic to expect each media outlet to scrupulously check each item it presents.  However, if it does not do so, then it must quote the original source.  The first outlet which takes somebody else’s story does indeed normally quote the source.  By the third, or at best, fourth “stop” on the migratory route, the trail has normally vanished.

We would also mention cases recently where information originated far from party or political bloc headquarters, but from sources we should be able to trust.  Since the end of July, the Ministry of Justice’s official website has twice presented upbeat conclusions about alleged improvements, one regarding the number of low-income families in Ukraine, and the other – applications to the European Court of Human Rights from Ukrainian nationals.  Both were based on information which was not entirely accurate, certainly incomplete and interpreted in a manner which would elicit doubts as to professional competence, if other suspicions were not also aroused. 

It is frustrating to see how these reports are swallowed whole, and most definitely without a preliminary sniff or two, by many Ukrainian media outlets.

Over the last two and a half years Ukraine has made significant progress as far as freedom of speech and of the press is concerned.  This is particularly to be valued given the disturbing developments in neighbouring Russia and Belarus.  Greater freedom brings with it more types of insidious manipulation and, unfortunately, more opportunities for attracting venal journalists and others for such dirty business.

Most importantly, however, it comes also with greater responsibility.  The freedom of speech and right to information affirmed - and won – on Maidan [during the Orange Revolution] must not be held hostage to greedy journalists and “specialists” of different ilk.

Legislative guarantees exist but they can, if the will is there, be manipulated. One can also, given the will or the greed, destroy all the achievements so hard-gained by Maidan.

I would therefore ask all journalists whose professionalism and integrity we must be able to trust to voluntarily reject the use of pseudonyms, manipulative tactics and all that puts them to shame and places in jeopardy fair and objective coverage of the coming elections.

Halya Coynash

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

(http://www.telekritika.kiev.ua/articles/174/0/9739/coynash/)

*  The report (in Russian and Ukrainian) is available at http://www.telekritika.kiev.ua/articles/174/0/9703/kartashkov/ .

**  http://www.minjust.gov.ua/0/10465  and http://www.minjust.gov.ua/0/10557  Comments from KHPG on these are available in English at: http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1186008979 and http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1186784588

 

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