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10.08.2010 | Halya Coynash

Freedom of Speech unlaundered

   

It would be unwise to assume that the mindlessness of some advertising adversely affects its impact. In the battle for the average buyer packaging, hypnotically repeated slogans, etc, are no less persuasive than hard arguments. Probably more since all the reasons for and against make your head hurt and you still can’t choose.

The battle for the hearts of the average members of the public does not differ markedly as specialists know very well, together with those who hire them, for big money of course. According to a recent report, London has become the world capital for “reputation laundering”.  Clients with dodgy human rights records who are turning for better packaging to such PR firms include leaders of some post-Soviet republics. It is not know how much the present Ukrainian regime and other politicians spend on PR specialists, but most unlikely to be peanuts.

Are those who do not wish the reputation of the regime and the country to need laundering powerless? I believe not, however it is worth considering the propaganda arsenal of those in power and coordinating efforts at countering it.

Take the latest “prophylactic” measure from Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU], otherwise known as their summonsing blogger Oleh Shynkarenko and forcing him to sign an undertaking not to criticize the President “in strong form” in his blog. Other bloggers show their derision by actively circulating Shynkarenko’s rhetorical question about whether one could find nationalists prepared to kill Yanukovych, Herman (the Deputy Head of the President’s Administration) and others. There is also a lot of discussion about why it was specifically Shynkarenko whose doorstep they turned up on and not others with similar postings. One suspects that the specific victim was neither here nor there so long as certain requirements were met. The blogger could not be a well-known activist and the specific blog entries needed to be devoid of inconvenient specific complaints about those in power. Above all, there had to be words about violence. These immediately render unlikely the scandal abroad which arose in May over the SBU visit to the Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Father Boris Gudzyak or in June when Nico Lange, Director of the Kyiv Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation was initially prevented from re-entering Ukraine on SBU instructions. Within the country also, even if the story does manage to get to some television channels, a large part of the public will approve such vigilance since “killing” was mentioned.

It’s cheering that bloggers are not letting themselves be cowered however somewhat disturbing that they’ve opted for protest actions where, for example, they all write in their blogs that they want to kill Yanukovych. Last year calls to fight the inept but dangerous intrusion into freedom of speech by the National Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morality by using foul language probably only played into the hands of the said morality brigade.  The situation in the country now is considerably more serious and it’s time to stop mocking the idiots who found a “threat” where there was none. They are no fools and are well aware what presents real threats to their power.

When television has largely fallen under the control of people close to the governing regime and pressure from State bodies is increasingly being applied, voices of protest are all too easy to marginalize. For  purely strategic considerations it seems unwise to uphold the right to foul language, or to musing in your own private blog about the murder of politicians, however in line this may be with a broader understanding of freedom in a pluralist society.

We need to be causing those in power discomfort, uncovering and making public their lies and behaviour which has nothing in common with democracy and the rule of law.

On Friday a letter was published from the President to Ukrainian bloggers. The letter appeared roughly a day after the response from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to an extremely critical blog entry from a Russian blogger, and gained absolutely nothing from the comparison. On the other hand, for a certain audience it was probably a fairly clever move.  The nice granddaddy figure is not angry at the hotheads who express a wish to kill him, and the somewhat sinister note where he talks about needing to take all efforts to avoid interrogations can be interpreted in different ways.

The nice Granddaddy admits mistakes, mildly criticizing the SBU, and suggests that they meet up, saying, for example, “there are exaggerations, like the story with the blogger. I think that your position and mine on this will help the management of the SBU correct the style of their work”.

You mean the SBU will publicly apologize, return the written undertaking? Maybe they’ll explain while they’re at it what they were doing reading such blogs. Perhaps it would be expedient to publicly ask for a meeting to establish what “mistakes” are referred to, and how they intend to “correct” them. They’ve already been a fair number of such mistakes. A month ago, in an open response to a critical article by David Kramer, Anna Herman wrote:  “we are able to correct our mistakes. .. It is a bad government that is unable to admit and correct its mistakes. I am talking now about the known incident at the UkrainianCatholicUniversity, when an SBU officer visited the Rector, Father Boris Gudzyak.  The Head of the SBU, Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, has in the last few days visiting the CatholicUniversity and met with the Rector. He brought Father Boris Gudzyak his apologies and the Rector accepted them. There was a sincere and open talk between them. I am convinced that the incident with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Representative will be laid to rest in an appropriate manner.”

This is after a widely-publicized interview where Khoroshkovsky himself made it eminently clear that he endorsed such practice. It should be remembered that the visit came to light thanks to the civic position taken by Father Boris. There are no grounds for believing that there have been no other such visits. It is just as unclear how the incident over the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Representative is to be laid to rest when the SBU claims that Nico Lange was legitimately refused entry (for 10 hours before being allowed in after all!) on the basis of a provision of the law which envisages a ban “in the interests of ensuring Ukraine’s security or protecting public order.”

The conclusion would seem called for that what needs to be “laid to rest” is the attention of the media and that correction of mistakes is confined to cosmetic appearances.

It is frustrating that the attention of the public and the media is swiftly exhausted, while questions which would uncover hypocrisy or downright deception by politicians are often not asked at all. Last week the President’s ambitious and glowing plans for the Crimea and for resolving its problems were reported in the media. It sounded absolutely wonderful. After all, plans can also be naked if nobody is prepared to look closely.

It’s unfortunately clear what’s happening on television channels, yet why even Internet publications mindlessly slip into copy and paste mode is less apparent. Even on those sites which had published critical articles about the Law on the Justice System and assault on freedom of speech, pure propaganda from the President’s site was reported without a scrap of analysis or explanation that there were widely divergent views on the subject.

To some extent this is all natural. How many times, after all, do you want to repeat yourself, warning of dangers and putting the same questions?

However rhetorical the question, the answer must be that one way or another we repeat ourselves until they start listening and answer the questions, or until everybody realizes that they are being ducked.  It is excellent that TVi has gone to court challenging the President’s Decree appointing Khoroshkovsky, SBU Head and major media owner, member of the High Council of Justice which has just gained considerably more power than allowed for by the Constitution. There are ample grounds for more such law suits, and even without the court, questions need to be put – again and again – as to why the ruling coalition are adopting and the President is signing laws which breach the Constitution.

Here bloggers, including those living in other countries, could make a serious contribution. On television channels there is ever less analysis while a fair number of socially important issues are simply being hushed up. Even with those media outlets on which you can still publish critical material, it’s clear that they will publish one or two articles, no more. Thus the voices of criticism will rapidly be muted while the flow of propaganda continues. There can surely be no question as to which voices have most chance of being remembered.

Information about the visit to the Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University sped around the world and aroused strong protest which the authorities could not just brush off. Obviously there was an element of shock involved at such a sudden revival of an old spectre seemingly laid to rest. However it was also vital that a strong network showed immediate solidarity and very swiftly enlisted other voices as well.

At the end of July, for the second time in a matter of months, the traffic police were used to obstruct believers from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate from attending the events to mark the festival of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus. In May, as a result of equally inadmissible action by the traffic police, many supporters of opposition parties were unable to reach Kyiv. Virtually no television channels provided information about this, and despite reports in other media outlets, there was little public outcry. This is despite the flagrant violations of freedom of speech, conscience and of movement, as well as clear parallels with the situation in 2004.

The results if the law enforcement agencies and other bodies of power are allowed to behave like this with impunity, especially with elections just a few months away, are disturbingly clear.

Subjects are hushed up because of the authorities’ weak position, fear of those who can point to the truth or simply propose alternatives.

According to “Telekritika” monitoring, not one TV channel informed its viewers that Reporters without Borders had said that it was unacceptable for the Head of the SBU to also be in charge of a media holding. On 23 July most channels did not deem it important to report that the Prosecutor had failed to recognize Oles Doniy, a parliamentarian from the opposition who was hospitalized with serious injuries as the victim of actions by Party of the Regions member Stelmashenko during the chaos in parliament on 27 April over the ratification of the Kharkiv Accords. This is extremely important information given that two opposition Deputies are facing criminal proceedings over smoke bombs they allegedly let off during the same events and the assurances by the same Prosecutor that all violations would be investigated regardless of party affiliation.

Each time that the authorities and pro-regime television channels muffle socially important information this should be circulated as widely as possible, together with questions about the issues and why they are being hushed up.

Social networks such as Facebook should be used with an English page created in support of the movement “Stop Censorship”, and a network developed of bloggers and others prepared to circulate information, put questions or lobby leaders and politicians in other countries to raise such questions.

Obviously this will not just happen, and without care it can turn into an additional field of battle between political players. Coordination is therefore needed, and help, especially with information in foreign languages. It’s crucial that people know what to do, and are only asked to do what is feasible. All this needs to be thought out. On the other hand, not so very much is need to demand answers to fully warranted questions and to demonstrate that information about subjects which are being hushed up will be provided to the entire world – and loudly.

When there are a lot of people, the questions come from different countries, and inconvenient information is published with details about where and by whom it’s being hushed up, it is the regime which should worry.

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