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Ukrainian PR: Beyond a Paint Job

30.08.2013    source:
Halya Coynash
Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers has recently allocated money for measures aimed at “encouraging” international media sources to say nice things about Ukraine and its “foreign policy”.

Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers has recently allocated money for measures aimed at “encouraging” international media sources to say nice things about Ukraine and its “foreign policy” and creating a positive image of the country.. 

Before examining just what this entails, it is worth noting that Ukraine’s leaders have generally shown little originality in their response to mounting criticism and disgruntlement.  Leading members of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s government began addressing the “problem” of negative content in the media in late 2008.   During the last year of his presidency, Viktor Yushchenko also had a lot to say about improving Ukraine’s image in the world, with this, in his rendition, jeopardized not by permanent chaos, conflict and lack of reform, but by various “Ukrainophobes”, both in the Kremlin and elsewhere.

There are, however, specific features of the present government’s efforts to create “a positive image of Ukraine”.   Most importantly, the audience is different.  Under Yushchenko and Tymoshenko there was a lot that was bad to say and Ukraine’s media felt entirely free to do so.  That freedom was rapidly eroded after Viktor Yanukovych cam e to power in 2010 and three years on, all main national TV channels, as well as a lot of printed press can be relied on to simply muffle information which puts the President and his government in a bad light.  Some, like the State-controlled UTV-1 often go considerably further in distorting news stores and misleading the viewer.

A second feature specific to this new thrust for a positive image is the sheer volume of issues needing to be muffled or carefully “edited”, Just months before the crucial Vilnius Summit at which the fate of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is to be decided, the government is concerned about Ukraine’s image in the world for good reason.  Weariness with political bedlam in Ukraine had reached a peak by the last presidential elections, however Ukraine’s rating in terms of media freedom, free elections and other democratic standards continued to be higher than in most post-Soviet republics.  Its rating has dropped dramatically over the last 3 years. While Ukraine is most often in the headlines over the politically motivated imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s main rival, there has also been plenty of bad press for attempts to bring in the same anti-homosexual legislation as Russia, marred elections, police impunity and much more.

Ukraine’s image, in short, is in need of much more than a touch-up job.

On 3 July 2013 the Cabinet of Ministers made important additions to an earlier Resolution on the use of public funding for ensuring a positive image of Ukraine in the world and on measures to support ties with Ukrainians living outside the country. The additions are to Item 4 and include the following:

17.  Cooperation with leading foreign media in order to post positive publications about Ukraine; 18 Organizing and holding forums, conferences, expert roundtables, press measures abroad in order to inform the community abroad about Ukraine’s foreign policy priorities.  Item 18 is to have a Memorial to the Victims of Holodomor 1932-1933 established in Washington, USA.

Since the page on the President’s website devoted to Holodomor, the manmade famine of 1932-1933, disappeared as soon as Yanukovych came to power and was only reinstated after considerable protest from abroad, the 2 million dollars to be spent on the Holodomor Memorial seems unlikely to convince many Ukrainians in the Diaspora that the current regime has seriously changed its attitude.

Ukraine’s leaders are certainly not alone in making use of the media.  Most countries finance efforts to “sell” their country abroad.  These can range from relatively open efforts to attract tourists, investors, etc to more questionable campaigns. Israel’s government, for example, is reportedly planning to pay students to “combat anti-Semitism” and “to combat calls to boycott Israel”.  It seems likely that these two quite different combat plans will merge into one simple equation: criticism of Israel = anti-Semitism. Nor will the readers of the relevant blogs necessarily be informed that the students are being paid.

While the new measures adopted by Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers on 3 July suggest that Ukraine’s leaders are concerned about the country’s international standing, they indicate concentration on propaganda, rather than compliance with very specific EU requirements for the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.. 

In a nutshell, rather than adopting European standards, they are trying to export media tactics used extensively at home.

They have been tried abroad as well, just unofficially. A recent report by BuzzFeed How Ukraine Wooed Conservative Websites speaks of a concentrated drive “to convince skeptical American conservatives that the pro-Russian Party of Regions, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, deserved American support.”   The measures described in the article are roughly those set out in Items 17 and 18 of the Cabinet of Ministers Resolution.  The campaign mentioned dates back to the parliamentary elections in October 2012, and the prompts which journalists were allegedly invited to tweet are dramatically at odds with the highly critical reports from all election observers: “Ukraine has demonstrated its commitment to democracy and passed the test put forth by the international community of holding transparent elections” and “The victory for the Party of Regions is a victory for the people, for Ukraine and for democracy.”

One article should not be enough to convict – or convince – anybody. Compelling backup to the claims is, however, provided by another article by Chicago journalist Warner Todd Huston.  BuzzFeed suggests it was written for money, and it is difficult to think of any other credible reason for fairly gross misrepresentation of the Tymoshenko case. .  

Taxpayers’ money has already been spent on similar output.  In April 2012 the Justice Ministry paid the US law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates a hefty fee to “justify” the prosecution and reject allegations that it was politically motivated”  This, not surprisingly but also not convincingly, it did.

How much other money has been expended on reputation launderers is clearly not broadcast, but even the services which have come to light are not cheap. 

In March 2013 Renat Kuzmin, First Deputy Prosecutor General visited London where his meetings with various analysts and law firm representatives were organized by the Ukrainian Embassy and by Burson-Marsteller UK.  The meeting was aimed at convincing them that Ukrainian legislation and judicial proceedings were undergoing reform to bring them into line with European standards; that the prosecutions of Yulia Tymoshenko and other former members of her government were justified, etc.

That was for foreign consumption. Back home, Ukrainians learned that Kuzmin was proposing to criminalize “defamation” which in his definition can include true statements.  What others might consider accusations of selective justice, judicial dependence and dubious court rulings reflected, he wrote, a “dangerous trend towards using the phenomenon of defamation in order to put unlawful pressure on the courts and criminal investigators”.

Ukrainians’ confidence in the judiciary being at an all time low, the likelihood of such a threat silencing many journalists in Ukraine is high.

There is, however, no chance of any EU or US official seriously believing that, for example, the renowned analyst Anders Aslund and former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Stephen Pfifer criticized Kuzmin in an attempt “to discredit the Prosecutor so as to influence the investigation in favour of Leonid Kuchma”  

It is possible that those in power, having tried such tactics at home, are not capable of understanding that a few commissioned articles are powerless to contend with very real stains on Ukraine’s reputation.  The number of journalists prepared to blacken their reputation through overtly commissioned material is simply not high enough. 

What remains unclear in all of this is why the clauses were introduced at all, unless certain sponsors have tired of footing the bill alone.  If making such efforts official is supposed to give them legitimacy it does not.

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