A Managed Version of Freedom of Speech
Two press releases to mark World Press Freedom Day said it all. There remains the same question mark as to how much the words actually said and what journalists and others read into them, yet the warning signals regarding freedom of speech in Ukraine are difficult to ignore..
The first press release, in fact, said next to nothing. The President, his Press Service reported, greeted journalists with Press Freedom Day, spoke of the need for reform and stable development and promised to “facilitate freedom of speech in Ukraine in every possible way”.
It came on a day when Mr Yanukovych, in his former position as merely leader of the Party of the Regions was named one of the “Enemies of the Press” in the annual anti-award by the Institute for Mass Information and the Kyiv Independent Media Trade Union. This was over insisting on journalist questions being agreed in advance, and over threats to one particular journalist. Judging by reports of his press conference for journalists, now as President, on 22 April as well as initial scandals over accreditation for this, it would certainly seem that non-orchestrated questions from journalists are not part of that freedom of speech which the President plans to facilitate.
Olena Bondarenko, National Deputy from the President’s Party of the Regions, now the main party in the ruling coalition, also gave an address to mark the occasion. The words, at least initially, appear innocuous enough. Who can dispute that “freedom of speech is, first of all, the right to freely express one’s opinion without violating other people’s rights”?
Other sentiments are less unequivocal. “We see irresponsible statements from politicians, then the irresponsible broadcasting of these statements by irresponsible media outlets. Then we see how this irresponsibility like rust eats into the minds of our citizens and accumulates there in the form of absolutely distorted social attitudes”.
It would be difficult to deny any truth in these words however such sentiments expressed by a politician from the ruling coalition must per force be viewed in a different light from the same words coming from media specialists whose political views are not known. If one reviews claims and counter-claims made by different political forces over the last months, it would be difficult to find any party demonstrating a responsible attitude according to Ms Bondarenko’s description. On the other hand, the Prosecutor General has recently only interrogated the leader of the opposition over her allegations that there have been attempts to influence Constitutional Court judges, and even the EU has finally expressed concern over apparent difficulties for opposition members to gain access to television and threats to media pluralism (). It is therefore difficult to put aside unease that politicians should be deciding which statements it would be irresponsible for journalists to pass on to the public.
Another statement made by Ms Bondarenko can be queried. She claims that a large percentage of journalists are politically engaged, and says that “at present we have journalism of ideas, journalism of points of view and thought, and not journalism of facts”.
It is certainly true that most media outlets are in one way or another controlled by those with pronounced political views. All too often these are reflected in the media outlet’s editorial policy. It would be cheering to see a move from the government towards greater media owner transparency and media independence, however the actions of the new regime give the strong impression that control of the media is in fact being concentrated in the hands of those in power. Recent checks by the Security Service which is now headed by the owner of a major media holding have caused concern within Ukraine and abroad, with this receiving mention from Reporters without Borders and in the EU statement mentioned above.
What can also be queried is what Ms Bondarenko is dismissing as opinion, as opposed to fact. There have been clear signs over the last two months of a watering down of news broadcasts in general, with the news content, especially with regard to controversial issues in Ukraine, leaving a great deal to be desired. In her article “The Russian Variant and its Prospects in Ukraine” () , Victoria Syumar notes a reduction in expert assessments on air and cites the example of the Kharkiv meeting between Presidents Yanukovych and Medvedev and the highly controversial agreement effectively allowing the Russian Black Sea Fleet to be positioned in Ukraine till 2042 for 10 years of gas concessions. The agreement was a bombshell and it remains far from clear what was agreed and why, yet there was very little discussion by analysts in the media. As Ms Syumar writes:
“it remains a fact that most Ukrainian media outlets were not able to give a detailed analysis of what the recent moves by the President and Government would give the country, drowning in broadcasts of statements by the regime and opposition”.
One of the vital roles played by the media through journalists’ questions and experts’ opinions is to give the chance for the public to critically assess information and decisions taken. That involves hard-hitting questions, analysis, subjective views and discussion. As Victoria Syumar writes, this was all virtually removed from Russian television and, indeed, the media as a whole. Worth noting that on Press Freedom Day Reporters without Borders published a list of Forty Predators of the Press, which included Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin-chosen Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.
If the new Ukrainian authorities seriously wish to facilitate freedom of speech, they need to understand that freedom of the press, like democracy, can be only a hollow edifice when those in power seek to impose its “managed” hybrid.