24.04.2009 | Halya Coynash

Without positive content


In Soviet times the logic was eminently simple. If the Party is always right, then those who oppose it are either criminals or madmen. Those unable or unwilling to acknowledge exclusive rights to the one and only truth are no longer executed, sent to labour camps or “treated” in psychiatric hospitals. However the present authorities also appear to experience some difficulty in understanding pluralism. Maybe that’s why it’s hard of late to not feel a sense of déjà vu, which may not be surprising, of course, given the stream of remakes.

The latest repeat performance was a roundtable on fighting negative content in the media on 14 April. That the news which outraged some with its negativity is not the same as during the first such roundtable in October 2008 is immaterial: negative is negative. Other differences are noteworthy. Six months ago it was all organized by politicians, whereas last week’s meeting was officially initiated by a civic organization – “Ukrainska Hromada” and a Russian-language information resource called “Good News”. The Head of the National Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morality (the Commission), Vasyl Kostytsky officially only participated in both events. There were also different responses from the media. This time round, there was no silence, with entirely specific accusations flying of attempts to impose censorship.

It is precisely this which makes me wary and has prompted me to return to the bizarre battle supposedly for public morality. On the one hand, you can only welcome the awakening from slumber of Ukrainian journalists. When freedom is at issue, vigilance is seldom unwarranted, and I don’t imagine that politicians called the October roundtable just to bore the pants off representatives of the media.

Yet why organize a remake which has every chance of being a flop? Yes, they corrected a few particularly idiotic points: politicians supposedly had nothing to do with the latest event which came, so to speak, “from the grassroots”. And certain strange coincidences which at least I had found bemusing, for example, surveys supposedly proving public support for censorship and warnings from psychologists about the dire consequences of negativism on psychological and physical health, are now right there on the agenda. Questions are also raised by a letter with undoubted positive content from some “human rights activist” recently posted on the Commission’s website.

I will return to all “confirmations” of public support, psychologists’ warnings and justification in “international criminal law” for the Commission’s activities, however a couple of points need clarification. On the one hand, Mr Kostytsky complains that his position is being twisted. On the other, both at the roundtable and in the letter posted on the website, there are rather insulting accusations addressed at critics of the Commission. Mr Kostytsky words are also reported on the site of one of the organizers – “Good news”, while should there be any doubts as to my motives, I would ask for specific accusations, which we can review, most likely in court.

I would agree in one thing with Mr Kostytsky. The State sometimes must intervene in the work of the media, although not “for the purpose of harmonization of the news and features presented” (whatever that may mean in human language), but in order to comply with legislation and protect people. Mr Kostytsky has been extraordinarily active over recent months and he constantly speaks about the need to counter propaganda of hatred and xenophobia, which, like pornography, is an offence. Yet he has not once paid attention to the large number of specific publications which violated Article 161 of the Criminal Code, spreading lies and inciting enmity. For a year now an article directed against one specific ethnic group has been in prominent position on the website of the Crimean newspaper “Krymskaya Pravda”. The Head of the Commission can’t be unaware of this – we have constantly protested and two formal statements have been made to the Prosecutor over clear breach of the law against incitement to racial and ethnic enmity. The article remains in place, and Mr Civil Servant Watchdog maintains his silence.

He will say that he is awaiting the inclusion of the Commission on the list of State bodies authorized to make formal assessments for the court over cases of incitement to national, racial or religious enmity. His Commission at present is not authorized to make such assessments for the court on cases of pornography either, yet here the Commission shows quite staggering fervour.

I cannot be against reasonable and warranted limitations on freedom of speech. A famous American Judge once explained that freedom of speech cannot extend to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre hall (where nothing is burning!). In my view, there should be restrictions in the media or Internet on those who shout that a specific racial, ethnic or other group is to blame for the fire or any other ills, who brazenly lie and spread hatred. Due to the risk inherent in any such limitation of freedom, it is much better when responsibility for any control is taken by society, together with the media, and not the State. Many publications of an overtly xenophobic nature in the Ukrainian media would be simply unthinkable in EU countries. Whether the media in those other countries are concerned about public morality or guided by economic considerations (they don’t want to go bankrupt), I really don’t care. We need to develop and strengthen the role of public condemnation, and not increase intrusions by the State. There will remain situations when State or law enforcement bodies have to intervene. However their actions must be clearly regulated and foreseeable. And here, I’m sorry, but who in the world could predict that a State body would perceive a threat to public morality (and to national security!) in a novel with explicit sex scenes by a well-known writer, or even in real pornography (assuming it’s not child pornography where measures must be stern), and not in the deliberate incitement to hatred of a particular ethnic group? It would be equally impossible to predict the “recipe” offered of restricting negative news.

Mr Kostytsky referred last week to the results of a survey which supposedly proved that the public support censorship. I view such a simplistic interpretation as unwarranted and can only regret that almost all the media grabbed at the version. You need to process information, not just swallow it in order to then regurgitate it, distortions and all. Twice over the last six months we have been told how the public are just dreaming of censorship, although on scrutiny it turns out that people simply support certain restrictions on scenes of violence, brutality, sex, etc. I would have to answer in similar fashion since I also don’t want small children to watch such things, and I prefer to be warned if a film contains scenes of violence. I don’t know who the Gorshenin Institute carries out their surveys for, however I would suggest that they include a question as to whether people would support restrictions on any news because of its negative content, and I’m convinced they’ll get a very different response.

A lot also depends on the actual questions, and on how the results are presented. It is a shame that the media were so hasty in bellowing about “censorship”, while paying only scant attention to yet another survey which showed a high priority for all basic rights, including freedom of speech. Incidentally, we are told clearly that it was run by the Razumkov Centre as part of a Freedom House project.

One needs to be extremely clear in defining terms which Mr Kostytskymust know. He also refers to Articles 3 and 27 of the Constitution which, in his view, make control over the activities of the media possible. He quotes the phrase “citizens’ safety is the duty of the State”, and states that “With regard to what is negative, the State can simply not be silent in this situation and silence in the State is a crime against society, a violation of its [the State’s] constitutional duty”.

That silence can be a crime is not in question. The Soviet regime committed just such a crime 23 years ago when it tried to conceal undoubtedly negative information about the Chernobyl Disaster. Party officials sent their own children to Moscow, and other children onto the streets to celebrate – in positive spirit – Mayday.

Serious objections also arise with regard to the present crisis. The State can try as much as it lies to not mention the scale of the crisis, the ineffectiveness – or brutal lack – of measures due to the inability of politicians just this once to put aside their vicious struggle for power. How will this help? Incidentally the Western press has long been expressing bemusement over the Ukrainian authorities’ obvious indifference to the public, and the country’s future. Do they think that instead of anti-crisis measures, next time they can demonstrate to the IMF some kind of anti-crisis “positivism” in the media? (“Crisis? What crisis?”)

Only the most committed masochist could fail to agree with the psychologist present at last week’s event that negative news has a negative influence. However the conclusions that she draws are her own personal opinion which many other psychologists do not share. Her question: “What is the purpose of this information?” reminded me of a rhetorical question two years ago from the Head of the State Archival Committee (and a communist) Olha Ginzburg – why do we need to know about the crimes of the communist regime? I answered then that this was my family and the families of millions, and that it was our right and our duty to know. As far as right and duty are concerned, my answer would be the same now.

Information gives us the opportunity to understand who we can trust, as well as to demand that those who should govern the country, and not only sort out their political and business interests serve their voters. I would just add one vital proviso: information can be mere dead weight or even distract from the issue, when it is not processed. Here I also feel that the Ukrainian media could be more conscientious and professional in fulfilling its duty. By, for example, asking more questions, including about the source of information and the probable motives of those providing it. You can avoid a huge number of problems that way.

 “Positive content” can be found on the websites of the second roundtable organizers – Ukrainska Hromad [Ukrainian Community] in Ukrainian here: and “Khoroshiye novosti” [Good news] in Russia - I have to admit that I found far from all that I was looking for. At first glance there’s a huge amount of information, and they certainly haven’t spared any expense on layout. However on one site it was totally unclear when it had all begun, and who was financing this “all”. On the other site – Ukrainska Hromada, there appeared plenty of information and yet I never did find out the specific sources of financial support On the other hand, among the organization’s media partners is the site “Narodny ohlyadach” [People’s Observer]. Now this is staggeringly incomprehensible. What kind of “positive content” can be in question when their partner is a site which virtually every day publishes material of a virulently xenophobic and anti-Semitic nature?

With regard to the purpose of information, I would add one more. I apologize for the pedantry but it’s nice to know what actually happened at an event reported. From this point of view, the coverage of the roundtable posted on the “Khoroshiye novosti” site here , while unquestionably more positive,seems to have missed out quite a lot..

As far as the letter (in Russian) on the Commission’s website is concerned, I have a whole string of questions, not least, why they posted such arrant nonsense. It is, incidentally, always worth asking questions if only to make you wary when there seems no rational answer. I imagine they counted on people not reading more than the first couple of paragraphs, and indeed reading the text is no easy matter - I was successful only on a third attempt.

Clearly it’s nice when somebody expresses respect for you as a Person and as an Individual, however when the author writes that he is the authorized representative in Ukraine of the “International Society of Human Rights (UNO), you would very much like to find out what the letters UNO mean for the author since the respected Society does not belong to the structures of the United Nations. It also wouldn’t hurt to find out more (including who finances it) about the “special programme” with the help of which he claims to have analyzed the text of criticism of the Commission. This, he explains, was “with the aim of studying the psychological state of a given author while they were writing the material, identifying the hidden subconscious impulses in a particular text aimed at creating in the reader the reaction which the author needs”. I would just note that the author of the letter, V.A. Halchenko, concludes that all criticism is of a commissioned, i.e. paid, nature. .

            Later he tackles human rights organizations and begins supposedly quoting international documents. Where he found his Russian translation, I was unable to learn, however in the English originals, the directives to nongovernmental organizations which he writes of are quite simply not there. I did find one heading, when trying with sincere bemusement to fathom where he had got the following: “Crimes against the health of the population and public morality in international criminal law, together with others, include: attempts against the cultural values of different peoples, the interests of public morality as a historically composed collection of rules of behaviour.”

            It turned out that here the “human rights activist” had muddled international criminal law with the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (Chapter 25).

            Why am I writing so much about this letter? Partly because someone is clearly trying to push the idea that human rights organizations should stay well away from issues regarding the activities of the Commission on the Protection of Public Morality and calls to restrict negative information in the media. They are justifying this bizarre position on the basis of even more bizarre “translations” of international documents. Information is also needed so as to understand that the eulogy and radical conclusions reached by the letter’s author could, at very least, benefit by being checked.       

            But most importantly, because I believe very strongly that one should treat people with respect, and not try to con and manipulate them for purposes which, by definition, can have no justification in a democratic country.

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