Freedom of speech matters to everyone
Somehow, suddenly, the news lost its sharpness. Criticism of those in power shrank. The number of independent experts went sharply down on TV.
The political talk show “Ya tak dumayu” (I think so) with Anna Bezulyk disappeared from the air. In other words, President Viktor Yanukovych’s promised “stability” somehow moved to national television programming. At the same time, talk about issues that the authorities would prefer to not discuss – such as the Holodomor, the anti-Soviet Ukrainian Insurgent Army, real reform -- has all but disappeared.
Clearly, the public sanitization of the national airwaves was preceded by private talk with TV channel owners, most of whom have much bigger non-media businesses in Ukraine. Such tycoon owners, among the nation’s richest citizens, are used to using the media as a bargaining chip with authorities for economic preferences or other benefits.
A case in point is the appointment of Valery Khoroshkovsky as head of the State Security Service. He also owns Inter TV channel, the nation’s No. 1 station. Now Khoroshkovsky is asking questions about a recent tender from the National TV and Radio Council, the government regulatory body, which failed to give Inter the desired frequency licenses.
At the same time, the authorities are less accessible. Journalists capable of asking awkward questions have found their accreditations turned down. The only press conference that Yanukovych has given so far turned into a flattering exchange of opinions among him and regional journalists.
The new Ukrainian authorities, through deputy administration head Hanna Herman, continually talk about their commitment to the principles of democracy and free press. However, they don’t seem to understand the meaning of freedom of the press. This is the only conclusion to reach after Herman’s intervention in 1+1 TV channel, whose journalists complained of government and station management censorship.
Herman recently followed up on these allegations by checking out a news segment banned by the channel’s top management, so that she – a former journalist – could decide if the piece in question was up to journalistic standards!
Another self-proclaimed information specialist, Olena Bondarenko, who is currently in charge of the information service of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s cabinet, made an interesting statement on World Press Freedom Day on May 3. She said that journalists must be responsible for improper declarations by politicians. Still unknown is what sort of responsibility she proposes for simply reporting a politician’s words. Perhaps criminal responsibility will do?
All of this is testimony that the people in the president’s administration and cabinet do not understand that news media representatives are not their private press services. Journalists should not serve as loudspeakers for the authorities, nor should they ignore “improper” declarations by politicians.
None of this is new, of course. This is a flash of déjà-vu from the neighboring state, where the media space was thoroughly cleansed of dissent by the iron grip of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The parallels are obvious. Many of the journalists now signing anti-censorship petitions remember the pre-2004 Orange Revolution times and the height of ex-President Leonid Kuchma-era censorship. These journalists know the price of gradual surrender and permanent concessions.
The small pockets of rebellion that are appearing in the media are just the beginning. For this mini-revolution to become successful, several conditions need to be fulfilled.
1. Publicity and solidarity.
Every attempt at censorship and pressure has to become public. All media have to consider this topic as top priority on their agenda. Publicity is the journalists’ main weapon to protect their legal rights.
2. Stay alert.
Ukrainian and international watchdogs have to monitor events in the information sector. They need to note violations of free speech rights, assess standards and analyze content.
3. Challenge all repression against journalists.
Journalists from 1+1 and STB TV channels who have signed anti-censorship addresses deserve protection and support, from human rights groups and colleagues. Otherwise they will be taken down one by one.
4. Support of the society
Journalists should be able to rely on the support of public organizations and a democratic society as a whole. If freedom of the press is a value, everyone needs to stand up for it.
Freedom of the press is a frontier. If journalists and society fail to defend it, authoritarianism is unavoidable. And that will be felt by everyone, from foreign investors and large businesses, to ordinary bureaucrats and small business owners.
Viktoria Siumar is head of the Institute for Mass Information in Ukraine, a non-profit organization. You can read more about its activities on http://imi.org.ua/.