31.10.2011 | Halya Coynash

Ukraine’s Apathy Test


Coverage of the sentencing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on State-run UTV1

A political commentator recently wrote that over response to the Tymoshenko verdict you can give society a C grade, the regime a B, and the West – an A”.  Why he was so kind to the Ukrainian public is not clear.  Of course there have been demonstrations by Tymoshenko supporters. There have also been a number of hard-hitting articles in publications and websites read in the main by those also critical of the authorities’ actions.  The vast majority of the population has long been fed a different diet, and the events they learned of on television were entirely different. The West was supposedly disgruntled that a member of the opposition had been convicted, although the list of sins of that criminal was growing by the day. The conclusion seemed clear that this was typical anti-Ukrainian sentiment and unacceptable interference by the West in Ukraine’s internal matters.  How were they to know that this is not the case? 

Now obviously joint statements from members of civil society, lawyers’ organizations, etc, would have also been assiduously ignored on television. Nonetheless, the lack of any united protest against this mockery of the judicial system and a whole number of other worrying trends distances Ukraine from the democratic community no less effectively than the brazen stupidity of the present regime.

In March and April 2010 the West preferred to remain deaf and blind to the effective dismantling of admittedly fragile democratic foundations in Ukraine. This time western states cannot be accused of indecisiveness. The European Parliament Resolution of 27 October quite clearly indicates that failure to review Yulia Tymoshenko’s conviction and put an end to politically motivated prosecutions will jeopardize the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. 

It’s not difficult to get an A when you can wash your hands of the situation, and when your own voters are unlikely to react well to the use of sanctions against Belarus over political persecution and a carrot held out to Ukraine after the same treatment of the opposition. The very impossibility of finding another interpretation for the prosecutions and detention of former government officials, accompanied by flagrant violations of procedure and fundamental principles of fair court proceedings determined the ultimately concise, blunt and unequivocal nature of the statements of condemnation.

Following recent accusations in a Kyiv Post article of propaganda, the political talk show presenter Savik Shuster tried to justify the question he put to the studio audience: “Does the European Union have the right to impose its rules on Ukraine?”   He claimed that this was to stimulate discussion and that there is nowhere in the EU where public opinion changes during live broadcasts like during his programme on the State-run UTV-1. 

Perhaps Shuster himself was primarily concerned with ensuring lively debate however the question was clearly manipulative.  What does he mean by “the West’s rules” and, excuse me, where does he see the difference between those rules and Ukraine’s Constitution and legislation? Let him explain first why he quietly shelved the constitutional guarantee of independent judicial proceedings, in asking a question which diverts attention from the crucial point that there is no such division between “their” rules and ours. As well as that it is those in power who are sabotaging the clear European choice of a majority of Ukraine’s population.

It is the State-owned First National TV Channel or UTV-1 which is most servile in helping the regime to “change public opinion during live broadcasts”.  Is Shuster really not concerned that during the television news on his UTV-1 you can’t find out what in fact it’s all about, why the West is concerned?  On 27 October, the day of the vote on the European Parliament Resolution, Ukrainian viewers were informed that “Kyiv has all grounds for applying to join the EU” and that the December summit “will make it possible to overcome the last hurdles to signing the Association Agreement”. Since the Resolution was specifically prompted by the Tymoshenko verdict, it would have looked positively strange to say nothing. So the MEPs “called on the Ukrainian authorities to ensure fair and transparent legal proceedings in the case of an appeal by Tymoshenko, as well as in other court cases against members of the former government”.

Interesting coverage of a Resolution which is mostly devoted to unequivocal criticism of the trials of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yury Lutsenko and other former government officials, to insistence that they must not be prevented from taking part in next year’s elections, and to the clear statement that without resolution of this situation, there will be no EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

Why is this tolerated?  Why is taxpayers’ money being used to deceive those same taxpayers?  It would be absurd and inconceivable to imagine citizens of any EU country paying for such overt propaganda. For that reason alone pressure needs to be brought to bear on Euronews.  This international channel’s viewers in other European countries would surely wish to be informed how closely the channel is collaborating with the Ukrainian regime’s loyal mouthpiece.

What is the point of the much trumpeted Public Information Act, as well as Constitutional guarantees, if the authorities can with impunity lie and manipulate public opinion? Monitoring of such shenanigans is clearly important, yet hardly enough. The authorities must be forced to observe the right of all citizens to objective and unbiased coverage of events. If you can’t force journalists to remember their professional duties, you can at least shame those implicated in deceiving the audience. Are we supposed to understand that they’re afraid of losing their jobs?  We can understand yet there has to be a borderline which cannot be crossed.

Human stupidity can seem unbounded yet with regard to Tymoshenko and others at least the instinct of self-preservation may take over. Unfortunately, with regard to other threats to Ukraine’s democratic development, it would be unwarranted to rely on an uncompromising stand from the West at least until the results of the parliamentary elections next year. And then it will be too late.

There is little need to rack ones brain to understand the motives for the shift of hand over the Venice Commission’s Opinions on draft laws and the norms secretly added to legislation on both the parliamentary elections and the judicial system which will still further jeopardize the democratic course of those elections and independence of the judiciary. We are quite right to suspect that the amendments proposed to the Public Morality Act are not impelled by concern for the victims of child pornography and moral values. We know that those changes, as well as the new law on court fees which will make it possible to cripple media outlets through astronomical defamation writs, as well as other legislative initiatives can be used as a means of dealing with insubordinate journalists. We know that they can remove other television channels from air, as they did recently with ATN, A/TVK and Fora in Kharkiv, which covered the wrong news and said the wrong things.  They can because after a wave of statements, including from the OSCE Media Spokesperson, not only the channels will fall silent, but also those who protested.

If we know that it will all go on, and that the coverage of events on State television will be dictated not by the right of citizens to objective and truthful information and journalist professionalism, but by the regime’s total contempt for the democratic rules of play, can there really be no end to public apathy?


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