Year of Tightening the Screws on the Media and Freedom of Speech
The title reflects the bleak assessment from the Institute for Mass Information of the situation in 2010. In summing up the year, they point to attempts by the regime to exert pressure and attempts to counter these by journalists.
At the outset they cite an example from a neighbouring country. During the evening after Belarus’ presidential elections, the enforcement bodies kicked women, detained journalists from Belarusian and international media outlets, shoved into vans and drove away opposition candidates and activists.
The next day Lukashenko gave a press conference at which there was applause and questions.
“Allow me first of all to congratulate you on your confident victory. What would you, Alexandr Grigoryevich, wish Belarusians in your New Year address?”, was how one of my colleagues turned to the Head of State.
“My relatives have their wedding anniversary today, and they are raising a glass for your victory”, another stated instead of asking a question.
“What will be your activities regarding Belarusian – Japanese relations?”, a foreign colleague asked.
At the same time human rights activists report that rough estimates would put the number of people arrested at 600.
That example is indicative, demonstrating the dependence of the press and journalists’ consent to the situation.
Judging by the trends of 2010, attempts are underway to turn Ukraine in that direction. Such changes in society are as imperceptible as global warming. Only some individual cases betray the general tendency but then the individual case turns into a norm and that most dangerous zone emerges.
So the tendencies …
Firstly, we can with certainty state that over the last year the regime has heightened control over the larger television channels and media holdings.
Monitoring of the news on the largest TV channels in Ukraine shows a sharp increase in the number of features presented without balance on TV. The top offenders are the Inter TV channel owned by Valery Khoroshkovsky; the First National Channel under the directorship of Yehor Benkendorf and Valid Arfush and 1=1, belonging to Ihor Kolomoysky and directed by Alexander Tkachenko.
Secondly, instead of the promised freedom, small TV channels received major problems.
It is enough to analyze the conflict over frequencies of Channel 5 and TVi which showed that the regime has sufficient mechanisms for removing all those who try to uphold an independent position. Accusing the Head of the Security Services [SBU], Valery Khoroshkovsky of exerting influence over the cancelling of licences for those frequencies, the channels were still not able to defend themselves in the courts.
Thirdly, although the press did not undergo such overt pressure, it still allowed itself to be pressured with the use of money. Newspapers this year saw an unprecedented surge in commissioned material, virtually from all political parties taking part in the local elections. Not like with nationwide publications, however the columns of the local pressure were almost totally bought up by “jeansa” [apparently factual news, etc, reports, in fact written on commission – translator). One cannot speak of any critical coverage of the elections and other political topics.
The result is three powerful factors of influence – careful positioning of the “right accents”; political pressure and easy money could render meaningless all the capacity that the press and TV have for covering events objectively.
Impunity leads to new crimes. The string of unsolved crimes against journalists in 2010 in various regions of Ukraine only confirms this tendency. Media Lawyer from the Institute for Mass Information, Roman Holovenko can recall only one case recently where those responsible have been punished. The case involving the filming crew from “Zakrytaya Zona” [Closed Zone) happened back in June 2009 when the former Head of the legal department of the factory “Pharmacy” sprayed a gas banister at the face of the photographer. The culprit was prosecuted under Article 171 of the Criminal Code (obstructing the work of a journalist) this year.
The string of episodes which have gone unpunished would take up too much space to list, and the following are just the most prominent.
The disappearance of Kharkiv journalist, and Chief Editor of Novy Styl [New Style], Vasyl Klymentyev
Despite the fact that the journalist was himself involved in the information wars between police officials, neither he nor the abductors have been found.
The case over the attack on the Chief Editor of the Kolomiya Herald, Vasyl Demyanyn, has become waterlogged in the courts and even the victim does not hope that his assailants will be punished, although he had told Radio Svoboda after the attack that “they beat me as though they wanted to kill me”. The very similar case of Russian journalist Oleg Kashin created a whole precedent, although, as in Ukraine, neither those who carried out the attack nor those who ordered it have been found.
The decision to initiate a criminal investigation against the Special Force Berkut officers who used force against journalist Serhiy Kutrakov has been cancelled. The examination of the case in the courts at various levels did not result in the culprits being held to answer.
Applications to initiate a criminal investigation against the President’s security guards who brought STB correspondent Serhiy Andrushko to the ground have been turned down. Even the culprits’ names have not been revealed.
Nor were the guards around Prime Minister Azarov punished for infringing the right of Channel 5 journalists from filming the conversation between the Prime Minister and demonstrators on Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square] protesting against the Tax Code.
The most recent two incidents with the checking of documents of journalists Mustafa Nayem and Vitaly Sych can hardly even be linked to their professional activities, but they graphically demonstrate the attitude of the enforcement bodies to citizens.
Where’s your strength, brother? In the enforcement agencies
The role of the enforcement agencies in the country has increased substantially since the new regime came to power. Whereas in the previous year, the public heard of the SBU [Security Service] extremely rarely, in 2010 the acronym SBU was capable of frightening children.
There was the case of the blogger Oleh Shynkarenko who was summoned to the SBU after posting what they claimed was a threat against the President’s life on his blog.
The wish of the SBU “to check the accreditation” of journalist from Frankfurter Allgemeine, Konrad Schuller, turned into an international scandal.
The last (we hope) highly publicized case of the year just passed was the summoning for questioning of the Deputy Chief Editor of the Internet publication “Phrasa”, Kyryllo Baranov. He was held by the SBU for 12 hours.
These cases are well-known characteristics of totalitarian states. One of these feature is the increased role of internal enforcement agencies. This is again reminiscent of contemporary Russia and Belarus.
Is such behaviour of the regime unexpected? Those journalists who know Viktor Yanukovych’s team well and remember the times of Leonid Kuchma are certainly not surprised. The pressure was predictable. And it has become a challenge for which we need to formulate answers. One of these answers was the movement “Stop Censorship”.
Nonetheless the level of solidarity and self-organization among Ukrainian journalists remains pretty low. This is precisely the reason for the pressure being successful.
The journalist community, finding itself before a huge number of challenges, must either learn to form joint answers, offering the public independent and high-quality journalism, or accept with time the “Belarusian scenary”.
Alexander Akimenko, Viktoria Syumar, Institute for Mass Information