25.08.2010 | Halya Coynash

Discredited by Silence


In a number of interviews and statements last week, Anna Herman, Deputy Head of the President’s Administration, presented her understanding of freedom of speech and the situation in the country. It is possible she was still just in blithe holiday mode after a month away nonetheless one would not wish some of her remarks to mislead the reader.

Let’s begin with her accusations in the interview: “I see no censorship in Ukraine”. Ms Herman is profoundly wrong when she explains all happening in the media as being because “the opposition are trying to find problems which the West is most likely to react to … and blow up the subject of censorship.”

What the political opposition are up to, I have no idea. Monitoring of various disturbing events and trends regarding human rights, including freedom of speech, is carried out by media, analytical and human rights organizations. Not this year alone, and the picture was never unclouded even during recent years when Ukraine began receiving the best rating of all post-Soviet republics, barring the Baltic States, with respect to press freedom. There would seem little hope of maintaining such ratings this year.

Who is to blame?  If, as Ms Herman asserts, the political opposition, then let her provide proof that all the above-mentioned organizations are carrying out their orders.

Or are they to blame for saying out loud what is not intended for public and international ears?  The Soviet regime persecuted those who wanted the West to know what was really happening in the country. Are we also “traitors”, Ms Herman?

The Deputy Head of the President’s Administration clearly underestimates international organizations which have earned their high reputation through scrupulous investigation into all reports received.

What they check, incidentally, is the veracity of information, not the mellifluous sound of words, which the present regime seems incapable of understanding. Well-founded concerns expressed by such international organizations as Article 19 and International Media Support, Reporters without Borders, IFEX, the International Press Institute, Transparency International and others have been ignored by the authorities, with a number of television channels obligingly keeping critical voices from the public ear.  

Ms Herman, like the President, is lavish with fine-sounding words, but does not provide a single proper answer to specific criticism. Whether, as Herman claims, Yulia Tymoshenko has “a massive machine for discrediting the regime”, I couldn’t say. With the latter’s prowess at discrediting itself, extra help would hardly seem required.

The glossy words have already lost any persuasive power, and it’s not so easy to even be hypnotized by their flow when they have so little relation to hard facts. Take, for example, the familiar mantra “there is no censorship in Ukraine”. Criticism has been directly related to unacceptable interference by the Security Service [SBU] and the tax police in the activities of the Crimea’s only opposition television channel “Chornomorska”.  Concerns have also been expressed about the rather questionable law suit brought by television channels belonging to the Head of the SBU and member of the High Council of Justice, Valery Khoroshkovsky. If the appeal brought by TVi and Channel 5 is rejected, this will result in Khoroshkovsy’s competitors and two of the few more or less independent TV channels in the country being stripped of broadcasting frequencies. Under such circumstances, is it really fitting to boast that Ukraine does not have the old Soviet Glavlit or censorship department?

If the regime considers such interference to be compatible with democracy, they should stop being so modest and present this position openly – to both the Ukrainian public and international community. An explanation would also not go amiss of how we are to understand Ms Herman’s words here: “As for journalists, the weakest point is relations between journalists and the law enforcement bodies. However we are working on that”. There has not been a single case where those who assaulted journalists or obstructed their professional activities have been held to answer. In Kharkiv, despite harrowing video clips which travelled the world, showing the police helping the local authorities crush peaceful protest, the Ministry of Internal Affairs found no wrong-doing in either the actions or the failure to act of police officers. While with regard to the energetic activities of the SBU (visits to the Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University and recently a blogger, their attempt to prevent Nico Lange from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation from entering the country and others), the reaction of the authorities is confined to words which like a chameleon change colour depending on the environment.

Before considering the new wave of grandiose promises regarding a “Ukrainian BBC”, it is worth noting that Ms Herman seems to have a strange attitude to the role played by journalists. While it would be positively marvellous if the regime finally learned to heed criticism, journalists are not there to help in the authorities’ learning process, but to serve the interests of the public, and here the deception of all words regarding a lack of censorship hits one in the eye.

Ms Herman’s answer when asked about the increasing number of subjects being avoided and lack of balance in coverage of others on television is staggeringly feeble: “It’s all very simple.  Summer will end and the opposition will return from the islands”. It is disappointing that a person who once worked as a journalist herself can see the media’s work as being to present the position of the government and opposition however the argument holds no water for another reason.

Reporters without Borders were not on holiday, but came to Ukraine where they were unable to meet with those in power despite the fact that the very next day the President and some others interrupted their holiday to receive Kyril, Head of the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.  Nor were the human rights groups on holiday when they attempted to stop the signing of a law on the judiciary which jeopardizes judges’ independence and access to all stages of judicial proceedings. The SBU demonstrated its specific form of vigilance all summer, in recent weeks together with the tax police as regards the TV channel “Chornomorska”.  No less active were the traffic police who on 28 July prevented believers of the Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate [UOC KP] from getting to Kyiv for the events around the Baptism of Kyivan Rus.

Only one television channel (“1+1”) reported this extraordinary behaviour from law enforcement officers who are supposed to be ensuring road safety. This was despite vehement protests registered by the Patriarch of the UOC KP, Filaret and many believers, as well as the fact that in April there had already been similar allegations from activists of opposition parties.

Herman says that they are planning to create a Ukrainian BBC on the basis of the State-owned First National Television Channel [UTV-1].  It is inconceivable in any democratic country that allegations of flagrant abuse of police powers and violation of a whole range of fundamental rights would not be covered probably as top news items and not only on public broadcasting channels.

Some clarification, especially for the benefit of the President’s Administration. By coverage is understood presentation of the facts and a chance for all sides, including the traffic police to give their version of events.  This would be together with interviews, analysis and reactions from the relevant bodies, not shouting for and against by politicians.

A matter of months before elections in the country, it is scarcely possible to believe that the heads of television channels did not understand the public information of such information. The same can be said of the freezing of the assets of the TV channel “Chornomorska”, the law suit over broadcasting frequencies and related statements not only from the channels involved, TVi and Channel 5, but also the International Press Institute and Lech Walęsa, and a number of other developments and events which television viewers had every chance of never hearing about.

The number of subjects being avoided is rising inexorably. References to the commercial nature of the TV channel Inter, one of the worst offenders, are not overly convincing when this channel and others belong to the Head of the SBU and member of the High Council of Justice, however the regime can probably not be held directly accountable. This is not the case with the publicly funded First National TV Channel which in June and July actually outdid Inter for the number of subjects which it decided the public did not need to know about.

Not that this is surprising after the appointment in March by the new Cabinet of Ministers of Inter’s Executive Producer, Yegor Benkendorf, as General Director of the First National TV Channel. He is also the author of a eulogistic film about Yanukovych entitled “The President The Beginning of the Way” and says that he sees nothing wrong with this. One can therefore safely assume that he would find nothing strange in the position of his deputy, Valid Arfusz who stated recently: “the First National Channel should definitely be pro-regime … it should cover the work of the regime, provide viewers only with positive information.”

Rather baffling therefore to know how we should understand Ms Herman’s statement: “We want objectivity and truthful coverage of the activities of the President and his Administration. With all pluses and minuses. We need that for our work.”

It is even less clear who the regime takes us for, and that includes authoritative international organizations, when they go into lyrical mode about the creation of a “Ukrainian BBC”. We are told that “the President’s Administration has turned for help to the heads of Ukrainian media outlets regarding preparation of a concept strategy for the creation of national public television and radio broadcasting”.  What the heads of the First National TV Channel are likely to answer  we have already seen. It would seem hardly warranted to expect any other response from the television channels belonging to Khoroshkovsky, Rinat Akhmetov (millionaire National Deputy from the Party of the Regions) and people close to the present regime. This leaves the television channels which may shortly be deprived of their broadcasting frequencies, and printed media outlets.  Yet here too, we learn that “the best proposals will be considered”. The draft law drawn up by prominent media experts from the movement “Stop Censorship” has clearly not been added to their list of “best proposals” deemed worthy of consideration. This, it must be said, could not fail to bemuse all of the above international media organizations and force them to ask what exactly the present regime means by public television.

They won’t be the only ones asking that question.

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