war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Where’s the patient?

Halya Coynash
On vague but disturbing noises about the scope and ambitions of the Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morality which are a dangerous encroachment upon freedom of expression

This year has certainly been seeped in crises: geopolitical, financial, political. And, it transpires, there’s also a psychological and moral crisis. Collective. We patients are only now learning of the scale and seriousness of the infection, however not everybody has been so light-hearted about our psychological health and there has been no let up on vigilance.

Maybe the reader has long known about the illness, however I learned of it first at the beginning of October after a roundtable in parliament attended by journalists. The event was aimed at “fighting negativity in the news”. Then just over a month later, on 11 November, the media reported that “on the proposal of the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council [the Council] and the Expert Commission on the Protection of Public Morality [the Commission], the Cabinet of Ministers is planning to sign public agreements with the heads of media outlets on the protection of morality in Ukraine’s information realm”. One might feel pleased at such swift processing of the results of the roundtable had even a word about such a governmental initiative been mentioned at the event. And the initiative, as we will see, is serious alright. Another report soon appeared about an additional initiative from the Commission – a prize for “journalists who cover problems of affirming and protecting public morality and popularizing the spiritual achievements of society”.

Almost happy-ending stuff, only before studying these forms of treatment in more detail, we mustn’t fail to mention the laudable harmony between the plans of the Cabinet of Ministers and the will of the people. After all, according to a nationwide survey on “The Media and freedom of speech” carried out by the Horshenin Institute and by strange coincidence published within a couple of days, “the majority of Ukrainians think that Ukraine needs censorship of the media ((59.1%)”  And judging by an interview within days of this by social psychologist M. Shapova, it’s no wonder. The consequences, after all, are scary: “Due to the constant negativity which the media spread, there are an increasing number of cases of depression, heart and vascular disease, and even oncological disease …. Oncological diseases most often develop when a person feels anger or cannot resolve the problem which is causing the anger. This is aggression with a sense of helplessness. And all illnesses arise when a person is destroying himself with thoughts and negativity.”

How terrifying! The words are spoken by a specialist who has presumably seen such results. I do nonetheless have some reservations as regards cause and effect.  Is the source of stress some kind of internal “negativity” or the unassailable fact for many people of unemployment, problems with paying back loans and looking after their families? Yes and with regard to the political crisis “negativity” is determined by objective factors which the average person already has no impact upon. The question remains open as to who is destroying the country, and I also wonder whether the efforts of the majority of average citizens to avoid focusing on “negativity”, so as not to end up with cancer may not lead tomorrow or at some point to even worse negativity for them and their children.

As far as I’m concerned, the biggest source of stress is a state in which we don’t understand what is happening and can therefore not respond adequately. Any teacher will tell you what is needed in order to check students’ knowledge; identify their problems and decide who deserves a prize. In the first instance there must be clear requirements and criteria for successful conclusion of the process.

In the given case we have nothing of the sort.  What will they get the prize for and who decides who the winners will be? But never mind the prize – they’ll doubtless find some journalist or other who espouses the need for platonic relations before marriage (or maybe no sex at all?). Or who’ll write nice words about the spiritual achievements of the Ukrainian people, and that will be the end of it.

The planned signing of “public agreements with the heads of media outlets on the protection of morals in Ukraine’s information realm” cannot be cast aside as something trivial. I am not talking about the bemusement which you can’t fail to feel at the attempts by current politicians to set themselves up as moral arbiters. And I will simply mention concern at the highly active role in all of this played by the Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Vasyunyk.

Mr Vasyunyk is proposing to “improve coordination of State bodies in the field of public morality”. I would very much like to know which State bodies in particular and what their activities are. We do admittedly have a likely answer to the first part of the question in the decision passed on 22 June this year, however in that case another question begs to be answered. If it is more or less clear what role the Ministry of Internal Affairs plays, it is absolutely unfathomable why the State Tax Administration should be taking part in “selective checks into observance of the demands of the law on public morality”. Or it is entirely clear, only in that case what kind of morality, excuse me, are we speaking of?

In actual fact nothing is comprehensible, starting from the very existence of a law on public morality and an “expert commission” on these morals. It has all been discussed and more than once, so I will confine myself here to just two points. Firstly, no one is denying that there are things which it’s better not to expose children to, and that there need to be age restrictions. When we are talking about restrictions to the rights of people who are already entitled to vote, who have their own children to care for and who may be holding down responsible jobs, one would like to hear absolutely clear and strong arguments. I haven’t heard anything of the kind even once and cannot fathom on what grounds a supposedly democratic and modern state can decide which films an adult can watch. It is to be hoped that people whose films have been banned will turn to the European Court of Human Rights and that the esteemed judges in Strasbourg will finally provide a legal assessment of such vague words from some other century or political system.  And secondly, let the representatives of the Commission on morality give a detailed explanation of which democratic country could prohibit the showing of a film or sale of printed material based merely on considerations of decency.

It is in general baffling that such issues should be raised in a post-Soviet country and in the age of computers and the Internet when everything is available anyway. Although in fact there have already been suggestions from the Commission that the Government should bring in restrictions on the Internet as well. Clearly not everybody parts willingly with their Soviet mentality and lack of respect for the country’s citizens.

The song being foisted on us of late, and from all quarters, is familiar from Soviet times. One could welcome statements from members of the Commission that it’s not just a matter of sex and pornography, if there wasn’t a fossilized Soviet subtext to it all. We are not talking about awareness of the real problems, but about the wish to stretch the possibilities of control as far as they can.

Of particular concern is the fact that the sphere of activity of the guards of our psychological health is being expanded by people who are not doctors, without a diagnosis or clear definition of the illnesses. According to the Deputy Prime Minister “More and more material is being circulated by TV and radio which attacks things of religious significance, State symbols, denigrates the national dignity of the people and the individual, cultivates a spirit of intolerance, brutality, propagandizes xenophobia, distorts Ukrainian history and disregards the spiritual achievements of previous generations of Ukrainians.”  Obviously I understand something when reading these words, the reader also. On the other hand I have no idea whether what I understand will fit with the interpretation given by the reader, or by Mr Vasyunyk.  What if our views on the meaning of “national dignity” or “distortion of Ukrainian history” diverge: who is to decide which version is “correct”?

In a recent interview given to “Telekritika”, the Head of the Commission V. Kostytsky stated that “the Commission should be involved in preventing encroachments on the constitutional order, on the national dignity of the people, the individual, on places and things of religious significance, on ignorance”. Is a separate punishment envisaged for ignorance or will that be viewed in the same way as an encroachment on the constitutional order”.  And how exactly are they going to set about preventing either of them?

We do have one answer to this question - via self-regulation. I would say immediately that in principle I have nothing against self-regulation. I would be delighted if this were practised by representatives of the government and parliament. However there is a significant difference. There are albeit faulty, nonetheless clear regulations guiding the activities of elected representatives. The problem is in implementation, or more precisely in their reluctance to carry out their duties. As far as self-regulation for journalists is concerned there is not even a minimal level of clarity. It is totally baffling what they are infecting innocent people with, and it is therefore also not clear what kind of treatment is needed. 

In the above-mentioned interview, Mr Kostytsky complains of the “juridical weakness of a lot of documents and actions” and states that they “have done a major amount of work and have prepared amendments to a number of laws linked with adherence to the norms on public morality.” As we know, both the Cabinet of Ministers and Parliament have long had more exciting activities and legislative work does not seem to bother them a lot. Yet it is difficult to understand how changes precisely in this sphere can be made without public discussion. It would be highly desirable to also provide clear definition of the terms and not manipulate people’s responses with vague or leading questions. I suspect we will find that the patient is in glowing health. Certainly that he is healthy enough to not want the authorities to dictate how to live and what to think. Let the authorities think about how to gain the trust of the population. It’s easy enough to advise them on this: do what you were elected to do and keep out of areas which in a democratic country you have neither the moral nor the legal right to interfere in

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