Media purges at the door
There are signs that the latest purge of Ukraine’s information realm is beginning. The Verkhovna Rada did not pass a draft law which would impose a moratorium on checks of media outlets during the election campaign.
This means that the authorities have left themselves an administrative lever of influence as soon as journalists, in the view of those in power, overstep the line, they can expect to be graced with a check. Whether they’re closed, or just fined, they won’t be left to work in peace.
These are for no only guesses. Yet in Kharkiv they’ve got down to business. The broadcasters ATN, Fora and A/TVK were swiftly closed. In all cases this was done in the most flagrant manner – they simply cut them off. And then they called in the sanitary hygiene service and other bodies. For all the differences, these closed TV broadcasters had one thing in common: they weren’t afraid of criticizing the authorities.
This could obviously not fail to concern civic organizations defending freedom of speech in Ukraine. On 27 September the civic movement Stop Censorship led a delegation of members of NGOs to Kharkvi. It met with representatives of the closed TV broadcasters, Kharkiv journalists and the Mayor Gennady Kernes. The delegation included David Stulik, observer from the EU Office in Ukraine.
During a meeting lasting over an hour and a half with Gennady Kernes no conversation on the substantive issue transpired. The Mayor did everything to avoid answering specific questions. For example he was asked about a conflict of interests concerning him as owner of the TV channel “Tonis” which until recently shared frequencies with A/TVK, of the channels closed down. His Deputy, Marina Stamatina also owns part of the shares. Mr Kernes responded with a flood of words about his legal education and assurances that he knows the law and doesn’t break it.
The most substantive was his claim that he as the head of the city authorities cannot interfere in the relations of his own channels. They’re supposedly just arguing among themselves, and the authorities should be answerable. The members of the delegation did not accept this argument. In their statement they noted that they do not share the view that the removal from air of the three TV channels was solely linked with their economic relations.
Mr Kernes and his press service were also caught not telling the truth several times. The most striking example was his assertion that the delegation had not been interested in documents offered by the Mayor. Kernes had in fact promised to provide documentation to back his position, but nobody saw any sign of these documents. This was unlike the TV channels who presented their documents.
It is hard to say whether on instructions from above or at their own initiative, but the Kharkiv authorities have demonstrated a model of behaviour with respect to the media. To begin with the providers whom the authorities can influence, or the regulatory bodies remove you from air or deprive you of the opportunity to print material which the authorities don’t like. And then the authorities pretend that it’s got nothing to do with them. In that way only those media outlets which “like” the authorities and write nice things about them remain in the information realm.
If this experiment works in Kharkiv, it will spread to the whole of the country.