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05.12.2007

Freedom of speech in Ukraine – Censorship of the “carrot”, not the “stick”

   

Politicians, like in Kuchma’s time, are trying to control information broadcast on television. However now they don’t threaten journalists – all is resolved with money. 

We have already reported on the excellent journalist initiative “We’re not for sale!” where journalists themselves, prompted by the unprecedented amount of news material to order during the election campaign, are endeavouring to remove this scourge on their profession. 

The Ukrainian Service of Deutsche Welle looked into the issue.  They spoke first with Victoria Sumar of the Institute for Mass Information who spoke of hundreds of millions of dollars being involved.

“These are serious figures. For example, a two-minute feature costs approximately five thousand dollars. A programme or direct broadcast costs 50 – 70 thousand. According to different estimates, during the election campaign television channels received from 200 to 300 million dollars” from political parties”.

The initiative “We’re not for sale!” are about to make the results of their first month of monitoring public.  DW spoke with one of the initiators Yehor Sobolyev:

Yehor stresses that this is not a fight against “dishonest” politicians who try to use money to control the media. The issue is about protecting journalism as a profession. The initiative will therefore be presenting specific examples of some “jeansa” [news material to order] in order to make the public aware of how this phenomenon works. He is adamant that they should not only talk about channels and trends, but must also name the people who have taken part in it. 

He says that he is less worried of conflict and insults from colleagues than that that commissioned news items should become the norm. He points out that most of his colleagues are already quite relaxed on the subject of commissioned material.

He believes that the initiative “We’re not for sale!” is mainly a discussion about the future of journalism in Ukraine.

“When you broadcast a commissioned feature, this firstly means that viewers are having lies foisted on them and some may even believe them.  Secondly, and this is even worse, there could have been other material of importance for society. The commissioned report took its place and prevented the public from learning of it. This is a much more serious problem and we have to fight it even if those colleagues whose names are made public may take serious offence”.

Victoria Sumar notes with regret that it is not only parties that are prepared to pay for news items. State structures and even the central authorities are also not loath to seek such dubious publicity. This means that the media ceases to fulfil its direct functions, namely controlling the authorities.

“We had censorship from the regime, and now censorship of money. And how is this better?  The regime’s censorship was through the stick. Then they cottoned on to the fact that sticks are too gross and journalists begin to resist. Then they began using the carrot technique. After all money’s much nicer and hard to turn down. Yet we mustn’t forget that it’s the same censorship”.

Yehor Sobolyev is disturbed that the younger generation of journalists who didn’t experience Kuchma’s censorship doesn’t realize the danger which still hangs over freedom of speech in Ukraine. He points out that the stick can always replace the carrot.

“We see this tendency and want to quash it now before it destroys us. For example, on one of the central television channels most of the commissioned material is carried out by those doing their internship who have newly come to television. I see that as a catastrophe for their future career. They won’t become established anywhere, they’ll just be replaced by new interns”.

Yehor Sobolyev is optimistic. He believes that sooner or later television channel managers will understand that money from the coffers of the parties is only an ephemeral form of income. If you want to ensure that your channel has a stable rating, and therefore, profit, you should not place its reputation at risk by broadcasting news which has been commissioned.

Slightly abridged from a text by Yevhen Teize

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