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Freedom of Speech Our Way?

26.10.2010   
Halya Coynash

The pronouncements by Olena Bondarenko, National Deputy from the Party of the Regions back in May to mark World Press Freedom Day clashed ominously with President Yanukovych’s promises to facilitate freedom of speech in Ukraine. Ms Bondarenko’s effective suggestion that journalists were irresponsible to report “irresponsible statements from politicians” was posted on the Party of the Regions official website making it difficult to dismiss this as her own personal view.

Six months later, following a damning report from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE] and a drop of 42 places on the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, Ms Bondarenko has done it again.  Given the nature and aim of her attack, it would seem imperative for those in power to clearly indicate that this is neither the position of her party, nor of the government.

The worth of Ms Bondarenko’s upbeat remarks about freedom of speech in Ukraine, her denial of any restrictions and assertion that the public receive full and objective information, can be easily assessed by scrutinizing just one or two days news reporting on national television channels.  The interviewers, however, clearly have a different agenda and ask Ms Bondarenko no uncomfortable questions.

In May, just before the first public protests by journalists against censorship and emergence of the Stop Censorship Movement, Ms Bondarenko still apparently saw an “enemy within”. There is a greater enemy now judging by her interview on 22 October.  When the interviewers ask whether “there is a difference between the work of democratic funds for the democratization of Ukrainian society and real interference in the internal affairs of the State”, we know where we are heading.  The response is nonetheless staggering – and highly disturbing.

 “The following is clear: when a country opens funds, organizations, movements in Ukraine, begins handing out grants, then it is in the first instance pursuing its own ends. All these heartrending declarations of supposedly disinterested help in developing Ukraine’s democracy from all those professional grant-getters and their patrons are only a cover for their real desire to control Ukraine. They try to finance the models for how events develop which suits their countries. We must travel our own road of democratization without outside help otherwise these staged experiments on exporting democracy for us will end badly”.

The above situation should, according to this Party of the Regions politician, be countered by “the State apparatus with a strong professional Security Service [SBU]”.  Yet if they raise the SBU from its knees, everybody will scream about a police state. Other countries, she alleges, don’t want Ukraine to have a strong Security Service because it will then be able to counter their efforts.  This may all seem like depressingly familiar rhetoric however the following should be clarified or retracted. 

“We’re frightened to slap their wrists over their unwarranted and immoral actions with regard to our homeland. Including over overt espionage”   

Some context would not go amiss. We are hardly talking about illicit interference by foreign states.. Ukraine was not hounded into the Council of Europe, but joined of its own accord in 1995.  It was the Parliamentary Assembly of this body [PACE] which on 5 October adopted its Report on the Functioning of Democratic Institutions in Ukraine.  The Report warns against the dangers of monopolization of power, expresses concern over possible curtailing of freedom of speech and democratic freedoms and calls on the authorities to take all necessary measures to protect media freedom and pluralism. 

The PACE Report was mostly ignored on Ukrainian television while on the channel owned by the Head of the Security Service, Inter, it was positively distorted.  Aside from empty phrases and equally unconvincing denials, there has been no substantive response from the authorities. And, despite repeated assurances to PACE from members of the Party of the Regions, it was due to lack of support from all but one member of that party that a vital Law on Access to Public Information was again rejected on 21 October.

Olena Bondarenko’s inept attempts to answer legitimate concerns regarding the conflict of interests given Khoroshkovsky’s role as owner of one of the main television channels, Inter, and as Head of the Security Service would be comical were the situation not so serious.  Having acknowledged that there is a problem, indeed “a difficult exam for Khoroshkovsky in morality and his prospects as a politician”, she suddenly hurtles into quantum flight, suggesting that the problem is about antagonism to those with property, and that “following the opposition’s logic, only cooks should govern the country”. 

If this is just downright absurd, the statement towards the end about journalists is menacing. She suggests that “if our journalism faculties, courses and journalist programmes continue to be financed by Soros-type outfits, then we will continue to lose information wars. Because training journalists on foreign money is the same as mounting a foreign army in your own country”.

Last week the Kyiv Administrative Court banned a demonstration against the highly controversial Education Minister Tabachnyk during the visit of Canada’s and Russia’s Prime Ministers because it could have an adverse affect on the country’s image.  It is difficult not to suspect that Bondarenko’s pronouncements are intended as music to the ears of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

It is well to bear in mind that her rhetoric about “our road to democratization” etc, as well as attacks on nongovernmental organizations, parrot the aggressive stand taken by Russia’s leaders as they systematically destroyed the country’s democratic achievements.

For this reason and others, clarification at the very highest level is urgently required as to which road the present regime wants Ukraine to travel.

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