• Topics / The right to a fair trial
• Topics / Freedom of expression
State TV ignores international criticism of Tymoshenko verdict
There were few diplomatic euphemisms in the international response to last Tuesday’s verdict and harsh sentence meted out to former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The condemnation was unequivocal, the reasons spelled out together with the likely serious consequences. After this sentence no further confirmation may be needed that President Yanukovych’s words about non-interference in judicial matters are empty and the charges of selective justice and politically-motivated prosecution well-founded. However EU and other organizations would be well-advised to scrutinize coverage of the events on Ukrainian television when assessing their next moves.
Coverage on all channels was seriously inadequate but we will focus on UTV-1, the State-owned channel whose new management was appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers soon after the change in regime last year. This is not only because the channel is paid for by all taxpayers regardless of political affiliations, but because of the propaganda value of its close association with Euronews and the obvious care taken over coverage of the verdict. Care aimed very clearly at misleading the viewers.
In the evening news, Marina Kukhar first reads out the sentence, adding that the court had totally agreed with the prosecutor’s case. We are then shown protest scenes in the centre of Kyiv before moving to the courtroom, where we learn that Judge Kireyev has stated that because the crime was of danger to the public and the defendant has not shown remorse, the sentence is harsh. We then hear Judge Kireyev himself stating: “The court finds no grounds for a more lenient sentence then that envisaged by the law and concludes that only a sentence of imprisonment is necessary and adequate for her reform and the prevention of further crimes”. The sentence is repeated in full, after which Ms Tymoshenko is heard stating: “No sentence will stop me. We will fight and defend my good name in the European Court”. Since not all viewers would be aware what Court was meant, it is worth noting that Yulia Tymoshenko’s full statement made this quite clear: “And I am convinced that the European Court of Human Rights will issue a lawful court judgement”. Lilia Frolova for the prosecution is given considerably more airtime. She asserts that the sentence was lawful, justified and as required by the Criminal Code and all evidence was analyzed thoroughly. Ms Tymoshenko’s lawyer is then heard denying this, maintaining that the defence’s arguments were ignored and that it is not clear what the trial was about in the first place.
The apparent presentation of opposing views is deceptive. The parties to the case say what one expects parties to say, regardless of the merits. This leaves the viewer with nothing to go by but the court verdict.
No information is given as to what the protests are about, why the case was widely reported, generally as breaking news, by the world media, what the charges were and why a maximum sentence was issued. It is surely redundant to ask whose side is served by such shoddy reporting. It is also impossible not to feel that this is quite deliberate, as the end of the news report makes plain. We are told that MPs say it is possible that Ms Tymoshenko will not be imprisoned thanks to the adoption of a law decriminalizing the charge of exceeding official powers. V. Oliynyk, MP from the Party of the Regions is heard: “But on condition that the party doesn’t say that it’s not needed, because now we’re hearing – why do we need it, acquit her. And secondly – that we definitely stipulate her guilt and the losses sustained must be covered. And that is a mutual step towards one another”. We mustn’t be too magnanimous, the news reader suggests: “the Regions Deputy is convinced that administrative liability must remain. So that an official does answer in law, not through being arrested, but through a fine.”.
Thus, whatever comes next, according to the court, the prosecution, the ruling party – and State-owned UTV-1 - guilt is proven.
It is not at all clear why in this case the President is then reported as saying that this may not be the end of the matter, that the Criminal Procedure Code has flaws, and that a new version has already been drawn up and sent to the Venice Commission. “This is a very big draft law which will be considered by Ukraine’s parliament and passed. I am sure that in that way we will carry out this complex work. Ukraine will receive modern European standards on issues of law, procedure of freedom of speech, and we will implement it.”
Perhaps you can understand that the news team might have difficulty commenting on this bafflingly woolly statement from Ukraine’s President. One cannot be so charitable about the reports regarding international reactions. We learn that “Europe will also be following the trial of Tymoshenko at the appeal stage. The European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle has said that the future fate of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement will depend on the democratic situation in the country. The European Parliament hopes that Tymoshenko’s sentence can be changed through the appeal process. Furthermore, Jerzy Buzek expects that amendments will be made to the Criminal Code in the near future and some articles decriminalized.”
The last word is given to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry which hopes that the “sentence in the Yulia Tymoshenko case will not worsen relations with the EU. And the negotiations on the Association agreement will be completed as soon as possible. In the Ministry they say that European diplomats also have an interest in further cooperating with Kyiv and preparing an Association Agreement”.
The above reports were in the last news programme on 11 October which went on air after statements had been issued by a very large number of European bodies, foreign ministries, Amnesty International and others. All had condemned the verdict, calling it politically motivated, and warning among other things, that it placed any closer relations with the EU in jeopardy.
None of that was even mentioned, let along analyzed on State-owned UTV-1. The hard-hitting statements from Jerzy Buzek and Štefan Füle were adeptly doctored to omit such unkind words. .
Over the next few days there was virtually nothing about the verdict and the likely ramifications for Ukraine’s future, but a great deal about the new criminal investigation initiated by the Security Service against Tymoshenko over alleged embezzlement of money now owed the Russian Defence Ministry. This included commentary from Prime Minister Azarov on the damage to the country of that debt to the Russians.
It is not for a national television channel to resort to the diplomatic euphemisms the world has now put aside, nor is the UTV-1news team there to feed the public with lies and distorted information.
The prosecutions of Yulia Tymoshenko and other members of the opposition have forced the international community to abandon diplomatic reverences and insist on adherence to democratic standards. With hard-hitting statements concealed and he content and tenor of State visits abroad distorted by subservient television channels, such insistence needs to be translated into decisive measures. Pressure is still possible – and needed.
Photo from UTV-1