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07.09.2010 | Halya Coynash

Potyemkin TV Channel

   

It was all good news for Ukraine last week.  Those readers who have rather different memories clearly watched the wrong channel.  They only needed to have switched to the First National TV Channel [UTV-1], financed by the taxpayer, and all would have fallen into place. The country, in safe hands, is moving in the right direction and they can sleep easy.

No clouds marred the report on Viktor Yanukovych’s visit to Germany on 30 August.  “The EU – Ukraine Association Agreement should be signed in the near future. This was announced by President Viktor Yanukovych in Berlin after his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel”   The grounds for such certainty are not clear. The lyricism regarding their “friendly handshake” and how the Chancellor “personally checks that the guard of honour is ready to greet the high-ranking guest” .is somewhat embarrassing, yet in principle it’s clear that the President should want to focus solely on positive moments. That’s what his official website is there for.

Here we are dealing with the news on the First National TV channel which is there to inform the public of important events in the country and abroad. Whatever other roles it may be performing, this task it abysmally fails.

The headline from one of the biggest information agencies, Associated Press, said it all: “Germany’s Merkel voices concerns over media freedom in Ukraine at president Yanukovych’s visit” The Chancellor, we are told urged Yanukovych to strengthen media freedoms in the country, and spoke of Germany’s interest in a continuation of democratic processes.  They apparently had a very open discussion on the subject.

Are we to assume that UTV-1 simply decided that this theme was of no interest?  Only with the greatest difficulty, since it was not precisely ignored, rather, shall we say, adapted.  The effect is quite different: “The issues ranged from energy security, joint innovative projects, an increase in trade between the countries to the processes of democratization in Ukraine”.

To reiterate, this is on the television news, not a political party advertisement, and on a national channel financed by supporters of various political forces, believers of different faiths, etc. It was their channel that saw fit to mislead viewers regarding the subject matter of State-level talks. The same channel chose not to inform them of Germany’s Reporters without Borders appeal to Chancellor Merkel to raise threats to freedom of speech with Ukraine’s President. It was just as silent over the damning report published by Reporters without Borders on 1 September with an equally telling title “Temptation to control”.

Silence was extended to the court ruling on 30 August by the Kyiv Administrative Court of Appeal which upheld the cancellation of the results of the January tender for frequencies and declared the subsequent licences of Channel 5 and TVi invalid. This is entirely logical if you follow the thinking of UTV-1’s Deputy Director, V. Arfusz who believes the channel must only speak positively of the regime.  Scarcely surprising that they go mute when confronted with the extraordinarily negative consequences all around of this civil case where the plaintiffs are part of Ukraine’s largest media holding owned by V. Khoroshkovsky, simultaneously Head of the Security Service and member of the High Council of Justice with direct influence on the appointment and dismissal of judges,

Quite possibly Merkel, Sarkozy and other leaders sometimes dream of a blissful day when the press lay off or write only glowing praise of their actions. Dreams they remain, and little understanding need be expected of the Ukrainian authorities who react to critical comments regarding freedom of speech by hushing them up.  What other interpretation can be found for failure to respond to the incredible statements regarding channel policy of its new management and actions which include blanket avoidance of subjects inconvenient to those in power?

Given Yanukovych’s words about the wish of the Ukrainian people “to do everything to become part of a common European great family”, certain warnings from the Reporters without Borders report must nonetheless be mentioned.

“The performance indicators in the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument for Ukraine include “fully sustained levels of freedom of expression and media freedom demonstrated by independent assessments, NGO reports etc.” At the same time, the European Commission has included respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in its list for priorities for the 2010 EU-Ukraine association agenda.

After the attempt in June, initiated by the Security Service, to prevent the Director of the Kyiv Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Nico Lange, from entering Ukraine, it was easy to predict that Chancellor Merkel would raise inconvenient questions regarding observance of democratic norms and human rights. You can, of course, prepare yourself in different ways. Most regrettably, instead of heeding public opinion, those in power are resorting to unconvincing imitations or half-measure “reforms”.

Coincidence seems unlikely that the special session of the Verkhovna Rada on amendments to the Law on the Local Elections was scheduled specifically for 30 August. The President himself at the press conference in Germany cited it as “one of the examples that Ukraine is on the road to democratization”.  The two amendments are certainly to be welcomed, however they were, firstly, needed for a law which specialists, including from the Committee of Voters of Ukraine [CVU] had slammed before the coalition pushed it through and the President signed it in July.  The Head of the CVU, O. Chernenko, called the law “a crime against the voter”. Secondly, the coalition only removed a small part of the threats to democratic freedom which were criticized not only by Ukrainian experts, but by two US organizations, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute who consider the law “a step backwards for democracy”.

The Head of the CVU called the amendments to the law “changes for appearance to please the West” and noted that “the members of the coalition have still not allowed independent candidates to put themselves forward for city mayoral posts, with this being the prerogative of parties

Is this all just too negative?  That was clearly the decision of the news editors on UTV-1 who daringly chose instead to simplify the issue according to the motif “the responsive government versus the mean and ungrateful opposition”.

“Yulia Bankova, correspondent. The opposition asked and the coalition obliged.”  You can even say that they thought about “balance of views” since in the first of two features on this theme we even hear two sentences from a disgruntled Deputy from [Tymoshenko’s BYuT (and after all, it’s not their fault that the viewers will understand nothing). Then the second feature begins with the words:: “The President’s team are surprised that the opposition did not vote for the proposed amendments to the Law on the Local Elections”, followed by an unchallenged interpretation from the Deputy Head of the President’s Administration of Tymoshenko’s supposedly base motives.

All of this is like in soap operas – binary, simplistic and false. The well-founded concerns and voices of both Ukrainian and international specialists warning of the threat to democratic elections and democracy itself are left out of the camera’s focus and unheard. 

The authorities can forget their facile assurances regarding the number of critical websites, newspapers etc. The absolute majority of people in any country receive their information from television. Those in power are well aware of that, just as they are of the state of the First National TV Channel under the management appointed by the coalition’s Cabinet of Ministers back in March.

When asked about Germany’s response to the case involving Channel 5 and TVi, Nico Lange predicted that “Germany’s reaction will depend, among other things, on the processes and reaction to the frequencies issue of the Ukrainian public themselves”.  Developments over recent months make it likely that the same can be said of any encroachments on democracy, including the flagrant manipulation of public opinion by the mass media. Silence will be fatal.

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