war crimes in Ukraine

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Kyiv hotels and questions not asked

Halya Coynash
The very idea that the authorities could build a hotel at Babi Yar, a place where tens of thousands of people were murdered can arouse only sick outrage – and the urgent demand that the information be checked. There were few such public demands and the media worked in cut & paste mode

For brilliant execution of a special task codenamed “Reputation caput”, any special agent could expect at very least a reward.  It would be a staggering success, after all, with leading western media outlets providing coverage of Ukraine’s latest scandal. This is, of course, the mere suggestion that a hotel might be built at Babi Yar, where at the end of September 1941 at least 33 thousand Jews were massacred, and where before the Nazi retreat in 1943, tens of thousands - Roma, Ukrainians, prisoners of war and psychiatric patients – were slaughtered en masse.

However the story is not the latest episode in an information war, nor is there any need to look for agents or assume that western journalists have it in for Ukraine. The latter in the main repeated what they found in the Ukrainian press. And what they found was a shameful example of all that journalism should not be, and little real effort to get to the bottom of an outrageous scandal over an alleged hotel plan supposedly approved by the Kyiv City Council on 17 September. This, we are informed, anticipated the construction of a large number of hotels, some to house football fans during Euro 2012, and others to be built by 2020.  The hotel plan envisaged hotels on many of the last remaining parks and green areas of Kyiv, including at least one which is a natural reserve. It also spoke of a hotel at Babi Yar over 2 hectares around Melnykova St where Jews were ordered to assemble on 29 September 1941, and from where they were taken, undressed, to be shot. 

It must be said that neither at the beginning, nor on 26 September when Kyiv’s Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky called the allegations “flagrant provocation”, were the public shown the hotel plan. If the journalists themselves saw it, then they decided for some reason that it was too trivial a detail to reveal.

The story is a textbook example of the power of headlines, although Ukrainian environmentalists can doubtless sadly name a dozen no worse. The same information which was later to cause a furore elicited no response when presented until an “environmental headline”.  Serhiy Melnyk, member of the Kyiv City Council from the BYUT faction which is in fiercest opposition to Mayor Chernovetsky and his bloc, would seem to have first expressed his outrage over the plans of his treacherous Council opponents to the BYUT press service on 18 September. The most widely read Internet site which took up this information makes reference to the press service, but not the actual hotel plan in a short article with the title “Has Chernovetsky decided to turn Kyiv into a concrete jungle?”  Melnyk is quoted here mentioning Babi Yar, but without lingering on it, and clearly wanting to show his faction’s concern on environmental issues: “According to the appendix to this decision, Chernovetsky’s team is planning to build hotels on dozens of parks and green zones in Kyiv. Under threat of “concreting” are, for example, “Babi Yar, the “Friendship of peoples” park, …. BYUT cannot support such total transformation into concrete of Kyiv’s green zones by Chernovetsky’s team.”

The danger of crying “wolf” too often is well known, and even more so when the wolf always belongs to an opposing political faction. The lack of response, in my view, is explained specifically by this allergy to political PR and point scoring, and in no way by indifference to the fate of Babi Yar, or indeed to the prospect of living in a concrete jungle.

The situation changed radically with the publication on 23 September in the newspaper “Sevodnya” [“Today”] of a bit more information and a different headline, this being: “Kyiv could get a “Babi Yar” hotel”. This article, with the help of cut and paste commands, began roaming Ukrainian information websites, without any additional interviews or information, and at the risk of labouring the point, without a copy of the hotel plan in question.

We learn that hotels are planned in many parks and “even on Zhukiv Island which until recently was considered a reserve land”. However most attention is now given to Babi Yar where we are told that the plan sets aside two hectares on Melnykova St for a hotel. The BYUT Council member Serhiy Melnyk has disappeared, although he is constantly referred to as effectively the defender of Babi Yar in all the Israeli and other foreign media outlets which immediately covered the story.

There should be no surprise that the information so swiftly sped around the world. The very idea that the authorities could build a hotel at or near a place where tens of thousands of people were murdered can arouse only sick outrage – and the urgent demand that the information be checked. On that day there were no such public demands and the media simply copied information which it gleaned from the newspaper “Sevodnya”, including the apparent confirmation that such a hotel plan was adopted from a member of the Council from Chernovetsky’s party, Viktor Hrynyuk.  Mr Hrynyuk assures the reader that the hotel will be “far from the mass graves”.

It should be mentioned that on that day, i.e. a week after the hotel plan is said to have been approved, we learn from “Sevodnya” only that the Head of the Kyiv Council Committee on Culture and Tourism, Oleksandr Bryhynets stated that “the hotel will also be called “Babi Yar”. Why Mr Bryhynets did not seek to clarify his position is baffling given that the following day the same newspaper quotes him as presenting an entirely different stand: “This is beyond all limits of morality. And in general the hotel plan legalizes the distribution of land in green zones, and therefore the Committee is calling for the hotel plan to be totally scrapped.” 

Unfortunately this belated response from the Head of the Committee did not receive coverage in the foreign media, however most of the latter did comment on “outrage from Jewish organizations”.

Should we express indignation that the international media said bad things about Ukraine? I for one will not, and must repeat that for two days the Ukrainian media reported protests of representatives of the Israeli authorities and the reaction of “Jewish organizations” as though other Ukrainians were not outraged. And the very headlines were misleading. Take, for example, the title “Jewish organizations are outraged by the hotel at Babi Yar”, although there is no hotel there. Considering the careless use of words on many sites, it is worth mentioning that Israel’s President (who was visiting Yalta) and other Israeli representatives were very careful in speaking on the subject and stressed that they would first be checking the information.

One could perhaps express some surprise at the BBC and the representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Israel whom they quoted. His words were, of course, published immediately on a Ukrainian website as: “the plan of the Kyiv authorities is a demonstration of extreme insensitivity to the memory of those who died.”

            They clearly should have checked the information and stressed that they would protest against the plan if the reports were confirmed. However it seems hardly appropriate to abuse western media outlets for a minor bleep with regard to those fundamental journalist skills which proved so catastrophically lacking among the Ukrainian media. Still more so given the silence of the Ukrainian authorities, and civic organizations in general.

            It is difficult to say how many people would have supported our public appeal to the authorities to confirm or deny the information had we not suspended the call for signatures following public statements from, first, the Head of the “Babi Yar Memory” Foundation Illya Levitas, and then Mayor Chernovetsky. What we heard from them, however, cannot strictly speaking be called a denial, and in fact Mr Levitas carefully uses the word “exaggeration”. While according to his press service, Mr Chernovetsky is virtually bellowing that there was no plan, however he’s put a veto on it. And he’s threatening that “the Kyiv State Administration will take the sources of this report to court, including to international courts, if the source proves to be outside Ukraine”.

            One would hope that Mr Chernovetsky is aware that any court will demand to be shown all papers, including the hotel plan and the document vetoing this. In fact, though, we also have no intention of being satisfied with angry words. We will, of course, lodge a formal request for information however do not cherish any illusions that we will be told the truth. We call also upon members of the City Council from all parties to demonstrate civic responsibility and show the public all documents. That unfortunately is also a futile hope unless the media begin asking hard-hitting questions and not letting go until they receive adequate information from all parties involved. And unless the public begin demanding real participation and no pitiful imitation in decision-making on construction in the city and any other issues of public importance.

At least one English language article ended with virtually the same words as those about the Hitler doll scam in April 2008 and loads of other texts presenting Ukrainians as some kind of innate anti-Semites or Nazi-supporters. There were no factual mistakes in the text and following the events of the last week it is, regrettably, harder to be surprised at such conclusions, however erroneous we know them to be.

There need be no doubt that for the majority of Kyiv residents, and for Ukrainians in general any construction of a hotel at Babi Yar would be monstrous and unacceptable. However it is also difficult to feel doubt that due to cynical politicians, less than professional behaviour by the media and civic society’s passiveness, there can be many people both in Ukraine and abroad who may have a different impression.

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