No Compromises on Dysfunctional Democracy

20.10.2010 |
Halya Coynash

Those who compare developments in Ukraine to 1937, the worst year of the Terror, obscure the real dangers. What is happening - and what is muffled – bears much more in common with the Brezhnev days, while the situation is made critical by similar processes to those which have already left Russia a democracy in name alone.  

It was cheering, therefore, to hear the assurance of the Head of the EU’s Delegation to Ukraine, Ambassador Jose Manuel Pinto Teixeira that “the EU will accept no compromises regarding democratic standards, including press freedom”.  

It is marvellous that the EU and Council of Europe plan to help Ukraine with public broadcasting, however the problems directly linked with lack of information and manipulation of public opinion are acute and require close scrutiny from Europe today.

It has become difficult to avoid using the old divide between “us” and “the West”, and just as hard to not feel that Ukraine’s leaders are treating the West more or less like the Kremlin guard back in the days of Détente.  In a nutshell, just make sure that the words sound good.  

During their visits to EU countries last week, President Yanukovych and Prime Minister Azarov both rejected any criticisms of infringements on freedom of speech. The President effectively called all those making such allegations “biased” and stated: “I travel a lot around Ukraine’s regions, meet with citizens. I have not heard such questions from people, or that they said that there was any pressure on the media.” 

Whether it’s his hearing or his memory which is selective is not clear. One can cite numerous specific cases, passed directly to the President, including information about SBU [Security Service] interference in the activities of a journalist from a prominent German newspaper. The President doesn’t want to know, and doesn’t plan to. There is, however, a more important aspect. In Soviet times most people did not see freedom of speech as an issue. To some extent that’s true in any country, yet there was a specific nuance. Put most brutally, there was every chance they didn’t realize there was none. After all, the arrests of dissidents, labour camps, serious criticism from the West were not reported, or only in a distorted manner.

According to Prime Minister Azarov there is nothing like this in today’s Ukraine. “I would simply invite everyone to come to Ukraine, live here for a week, watch 10 or so Ukrainian channels, but watch systematically.” 

It sounds great and not everybody will appreciate the worth of such an “invitation” issued in the knowledge that it can’t be put to the test. Or are they hoping that without knowledge of the language, visitors would be content seeing opposition faces on the screen?  

We are first of all not talking of 10 or more channels since most Ukrainians have access only to the First National TV Channel [UTV-1], “Inter” and several regional channels.  Here, as with my questions, which the President’s Administration did not see fit to answer, I will concentrate on UTV-1. This is the sole State-owned television channel surely obliged to cater to the information needs of all Ukrainians, regardless of their political preferences.  It would, of course, be good if the Head of the Security Service and owner of the other main channel, Inter, finally understood that he should also serve all the country’s people. Better still if the President finally grasped the damage being inflicted on Ukraine’s reputation through this flagrant conflict of interests. The fact that Yanukovych cannot see what is staring him in the face is in itself disturbing. If there is no conflict of interest why did the Inter news report from Strasbourg on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE] Report on the Functioning of Democratic Institutions in Ukraine chop out the words of Co-Rapporteur, Mailis Reps: “We would also like to call on Ukraine to reform the Security Service and Prokuratura”?

In view of Inter’s stable first or second position (competing with UTV-1) for the channel with most violations of journalist standards and news items avoided, one suspects that they chose to thus “edit” events in Strasbourg as the lesser of two evils. It would be dangerous to entirely ignore a Resolution with such unequivocal statements of concern regarding the role both of the SBU, and of Khoroshkovsky himself.  

The majority of television channels, including UTV-1, chose the line of least information, saying nothing whatsoever about the debate in Strasbourg and damning Report.

Will the President consider PACE representatives “biased” if they ask why a considerable percentage of the Ukrainian public heard nothing about the concern expressed over reports of democratic freedoms being under pressure, the conclusions and recommendations?  

He can think what he likes but the PACE, as well as all Ukrainians, are entitled to raise questions regarding the government’s attitude to Ukraine’s commitments before the Council of Europe if it allows the State-owned television channel to conceal such undoubtedly important information.

Let them ask, not just once or twice, but until the government understands that empty words will not be tolerated and stops such deception of the public.

It would be desirable also if PACE and the EU were aware of the situation and took appropriate measures. Even the diplomatic sops in the Report like the rather inexplicable praise of legislative initiatives, including (shelved!) anti-corruption laws were used by Inter to give an entirely misleading impression of the Report.  

Instead of substantive answers to questions regarding concealment by TV channels of a fair number of the concerns addressed in the PACE Resolution, the government is resorting to some kind of idiotic count of the number of appearances of the “opposition”.  Even when they don’t, as is often the case, use manipulative techniques aimed at discrediting the opposition, any audience has the right to process and assess information on its merits and not according to the oratory skills of this or that member of a political party. When questions are involved of socio-political or economic importance, you need to hear analysis and opinions of objective observers not the totally predictable self-praise or criticism of politicians. There are virtually no such objective commentaries.  

A classic example can be seen in the publishing of a so-called “audit” by a firm of lawyers employed by the present government. With what purpose in mind is amply demonstrated by the title of the feature on UTV-1: “Foreign auditors uncover proof of violations by the previous government”. We are first informed about the terrible misappropriations by former government figures and then that “representatives of the opposition –   former government figures – have called the check a pseudo-audit which will not have legal repercussions”. We hear the words of one of these “auditors” saying, a touch too defensively, that “this audit has nothing to do with politics. In our report you will see only facts and the information that we found”.  This is followed by sharp criticism from Hryhory Nemyrya, former Deputy Prime Minister. In theory, all according to the rules, with not a word from the government, only an “objective auditor” and one of those accused presenting their positions in the television court.  

All of the western analysts who considered this “audit” were lavish with inverted commas and scorn however their comments were available only on the Internet.  Nicholaus Marshall, Transparency International’s Regional Director had the following to say: “the recently released audit has serious flaws and in my view was not independent.  It was carried out at the bidding of a new government against its predecessors. It is very difficult to assert that we are dealing here with a fully-fledged investigation and not a witch hunt” It is not that he or other critics are refuting the results. The current investigation carried out by a law firm linked with one party is populism. We all know that the Ukrainian economy is corrupt through and through. It’s not difficult to find abuses. It’s not worth singling out any particular politician, it’s a general phenomenon.” 

It is depressing to read the PACE warning against consolidation of power since it has become truly difficult to mark out any borders, not to speak of clear division of powers. On the eve of the local elections there is either no reaction or blanket denial from the government of persistent reports of manipulation and rigging of the electoral process. National television channels however obligingly stay silent or distort information which could harm the government.  

They are silent, incidentally, about the absolutely inadmissible interference by the SBU in the work of journalists and civic activists and exceedingly dubious activities by all, with no exception, law enforcement and regulatory bodies. This applies in the first instance to the elections, including repressive measures against political opponents (the arrest of the popular Mayor of Kamianets-Podilsky and investigations initiated against businesspeople), as well as to civic activists.  

On 14 October Oleksiy Verentsov, lawyer and human rights activist received a three day administrative arrest sentence for supposedly disobeying police orders to stop a protest outside the Lviv Regional Prosecutor’s Office. There is a great deal which is worrying in this case, including the fact that even the judge considered, despite this being in breach of the Constitution, that the protest was illegal since the organizers had “not received permission”. On 15 October the police searched the flat of Vinnytsa Human Rights Group Coordinator Dmytro Groisman. They removed two leaflets and a cassette to check it for pornography, together with two computers. They also searched, this time without a warrant, the office of the human rights group, removing financial and other documents, including cases involving refugees.  

One feels at very least concern over the arrest and charges of extortion against the Head of the Civic Committee against Organized Crime and Corruption and deputy candidate for the Odessa City Council, Oleksiy Kosaryev. As well as the link, yet again, with the elections, Mr Kosaryev’s work in exposing abuse in psychiatric institutions does not gel with the image presented by the police..  

In March this year representatives of Euro-Atlantic countries were happy for the sake of “stability” to not overly scrutinize dubious methods for forming a new government. After scarcely 7 months, they would seem to understand what the price may be of total monopoly of power. That price is too high as has already been demonstrated in neighbouring Russia, and there must indeed be no compromises regarding democratic standards. 

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