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Is there a deterioration of press freedom in Ukraine?
Адаптований переклад англійською мовою статті Наталі Лигачової і Галини Петренко «Хто більший бот і менший патріот?». The adapted English translation of the article «Хто більший бот і менший патріот?».
The assassination of journalist Pavel Sheremet was a shock to Ukrainian society. It raised several versions and a number of important questions. During the following week, three well-respected Western media – The Guardian, The Economist and the Atlantic Council – offered their answers. However, in our view, each of them, instead of giving a balanced overview of Ukrainian media landscape, somehow mythologized the overall picture.
The publication in The Guardian is authored by Katya Gorchinskaya, executive director of Ukrainian “Hromadske” TV channel. She has concentrated on the attacks of what she calls Internet “trolls” against journalists, including her colleagues at “Hromadske” after a particular report from Avdiyivka in the Donetsk region. According to Gorchinskaya, the attack was successful enough, so that after the numerous “trolls” accused the channel in the lack of patriotism, her colleagues started receiving “angry phone calls from the troops on the front lines”, who also accused them “of betrayal and disloyalty”.
The Economist, in the anonymous article “Killing the truth: The assassination of a Ukrainian investigative journalist”, speaks about “the atmosphere of impunity that has taken hold in the country since the Maidan revolution”. Corrupt officials “roam free”, armed “volunteer battalions” “operate on their own terms”, and the killing of Sheremet “came amidst growing concerns over press safety in Ukraine”.
Melinda Haring, the editor at the Atlantic Council, recalls three attacks on journalists that happened in Kyiv during the last July. In addition to the assassination of Sheremet, she mentions the attacks on Maria Rydvan, the editor of Forbes Ukraine, and Sergei Golovnyov, the head of Business Censor, and also refers to canceling the work permit for Savik Shuster, a Canadian national, who runs a popular Russian-language talk show. Besides this publication, Melinda Haring expressed the same concerns on the air of “Chas-Time”, the VOA Ukrainian-language TV program.
All three articles also mention the list of journalists, published online by Myrotvorets website earlier this year, and make various conjectures regarding the role of Ukrainian government in this story. (The list contained names and contact details of several thousands of Ukrainian, Russian and Western journalists accredited during a certain period in the self-claimed “people’s republics” in Eastern Ukraine, and accused all of them in “collaboration with the guerillas of terrorist organization”). Thus, The Economist remarks that “human-rights activists and international observers worried about retaliation”, whereas “Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, backed Myrotvorets, castigating the journalists as ‘liberal-separatists’”.
The authors of all three publications draw a conclusion about “deterioration of press freedom in Ukraine” (Melinda Haring) and held Ukrainian government responsible for this decay.
We believe that the Ukrainian landscape presented in those three publications is unreasonably simplified and one-sided. E.g., more context is needed to understand properly the examples used as proofs for pessimistic assessment of press freedom and security of journalists. Thus, Maria Rydvan does not relate the attack on her to her professional activity. Savik Shuster appealed to the court against the decision of the governmental employment service and won; his show goes on as before. “Hromadske”, having a conflict with Ukrainian army press-office regarding the mentioned report, asked Presidential Administration for help and support, got it, and effectively proved its rightness. Moreover, the experts at Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information noticed certain improvement of the situation with violations of journalists’ rights: 129 cases in the first half of 2016 vs. 143 cases for the same period last year.
However, these figures, as well as the examples of effective self-organization of journalists and media experts for protection of their rights, promotion of the legislative basis for Ukrainian public broadcasting network, and other positive trends, are not mentioned in the said publications.
The danger of this unjustified one-sidedness is that such publications could turn the West away from Ukraine, due to traditional western sensitivity to press freedom and protection of journalists’ rights. An obvious analogy comes to mind. Whoever organized the assassination of Ukrainian investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze back in 2000, now we understand that the primary beneficiary of this murder was Kremlin. One should recall that President Kuchma, at the beginning of his second term, drifted westward in his foreign policy, but, after the disappearance of Gongadze and a couple of subsequent scandals, was forced to seek support in Moscow, as the West was very disappointed in the “government that kills journalists”.
In the same fashion, currently the top-version of Sheremet’s assassination originated in Russian media is that “Ukrainian government dispatched the free-thinking journalist who knew too much”.
It seems that those who darken the picture for Western audience, as well as Ukrainian journalists and bloggers who argue in social networks accusing each other in “treason” or “lack of patriotism”, are not aware that their actions, intentionally or not, benefit primarily the country that currently wages a “hybrid war” against Ukraine.
In this article we share our opinion about both alleged and real, but underdiscussed, problems in Ukrainian media.
We’ll start with a set of general statements.
Every day Ukrainian nationwide and local informational channels broadcast a whole range of diametrically opposed opinions of politicians, experts, political commentators and lay people on all topical issues. The majority of Ukrainians everyday watch TV news, where, along with official governmental information, a considerable part of information contains critical assessments of this very government.
Among the most popular private media are those which are highly critical towards the acting government – e.g., “Inter” and “Ukraine” TV channels, newspapers “Segodnya” and “Vesti”, etc. All political parties who criticize the government have no problems with access to media resources, including nationwide TV channels.
Every week Ukrainian media (broadcasting, printed and online) publish a huge number of journalist investigations exposing corruptions at all levels of government, up to the very top. Several investigative projects, sharply critical to governmental corruption, appear on the air at “UA:Pershiy” – the TV channel that is currently owned by the state, and now undergoes the process of transformation into all-Ukrainian public television.
In addition to alleged armies of bots and trolls, supposedly under the guidance of some governmental structures or officials (?), certainly there are lay Ukrainians who, for any reason, may sincerely dislike either “Hromadske”, “Ukrainska pravda”, “Detector Media” or any other media. Indeed, there are some of them who might resort to accusations, and even threats, in their communication with journalists, including via social networks. One might add that many thinkers and activists who truly influence public opinions (including very critical towards these and other media) do not enjoy any compensation for their public performance but simply write and say what they think.
Indeed, Ukrainian tycoons still heavily influence various spheres of social life, including media. Sometimes journalists become the suffering side in the informational wars between media tycoons, political parties and leading politicians. There are no indicators that Cabinet of Ministries or Presidential Administration might carry systematic policy of silencing the free-thinking media and punishment of investigative journalists; there is no threat that the government would establish censorship and total dictate in the media sphere; however, the ex-vice-minister of information Tetyana Popova is certainly right when she says about pressure on journalists from certain politicians, officials and organizations.
One could also agree that the admitted cases of obstruction of journalist activities could be investigated by law enforcement agencies with more eagerness than up to now.
In the situation as described above, can we ascertain any serious danger to the pluralism of opinions, freedom of journalism and free criticism towards governmental structures in Ukrainian media? No, we can’t. There is no problem with finding a public outlet for any criticism, however harsh, towards any Ukrainian politician, official or businessman. And the situation is not going worse: if anything, it slowly goes better.
At the same time, is there a danger for investigative journalists, as well as other citizens who criticize either government or any other organizations and institutions? Sadly, we should say “yes” – especially as Ukrainian society is tangibly exhausted by constant high tension of the ongoing war and drastic social reforms. As in any other country, those who are criticized try to oppose their critics. Some of them do not hesitate to use the dirtiest methods, including lies, slander and manipulations. Of course, the assassination of a well-known journalist, especially as cynical and impudent as the murder of Sheremet, crosses the “red light”; however, although accusations of the government appeared in some circles almost immediately, so far there is not a single proof that Ukrainian government or law enforcement institutions have anything to do with planning and execution of this murder.
The internal climate in the milieu of Ukrainian journalists is also complicated: mutual aggression towards colleagues, high level of privately-sponsored materials presented as impartial, breaches of professional standards, and, on the other hand, discussions whether these standards should go unamended in the times of internal crisis and external aggression… These and other factors caused serious decline of trust to mass media as social institution, so that currently a considerable part of society actually supports baiting of journalists (both personally and generally). Karen Wykurz, Eurasia Programme Officer for the Rory Peck Trust, considers this as especially dangerous phenomenon.
At the same time, many grudges against particular journalists are reasonable, although sometimes improperly generalized. Ukrainian hackers from the mentioned Myrotvorets website recently published e-mail correspondence between top-management of some nationwide Ukrainian TV channels with Russian propagandists and certain officials of Russian-backed puppet government of “Donetsk people’s republic”, which proves that those Ukrainian journalists indeed collaborated with foreign aggressor and anti-Ukrainian separatists. On the other hand, Ukrainian patriotic community sometimes hastily transfers similar accusations also to other media, suspecting “treason” where actually there is none.
Thus, there are many actual problems. However, the situation is not black-and-white, and its deliberate or inadvertent simplification could be no less harmful than the actual challenges of our current standing. Here are the main problems we see in and around Ukrainian media community.
Owners’ censorship. The mentioned influence of tycoons to the media they own leads to “competition” of mercenary interests of political and business clans, instead of competition of positions and ideas. In addition to traditional media, these political and business clans now also actively enter the most popular social networks, including via the mentioned armies of paid bots and trolls.
Journalists’ self-censorship. This phenomenon is primarily caused by war. Many journalist believe that in the hard times they should postpone some kinds of criticism, e.g. regarding corruption, abuses in the army, etc. Some journalists also afraid that such criticism might entail aggression from the side of those who have contrary expectations about the role of Ukrainian media in the current “hybrid war”. The ongoing discussion on whether the journalist is called now also to be a propagandist, and/or put one’s patriotic affiliation above one’s professional standards, is very hot and often boils down to aggressive exchange of peremptory accusations.
Other reason of journalists’ self-censorship is fear to hurt the business interests of either owners or advertisers, even if there is no direct pressure.
Privately sponsored materials presented as impartial still appear quite often in many Ukrainian media. This traditional illness is currently sharpened by the war-related economical crisis. E.g., the national market of TV advertisement is now estimated about $170 millions per year vs. expected $1,5 billions if there were no war. Thus, virtually all Ukrainian media are unprofitable; they are supported by their owners primarily in order to protect their political and/or business interests.
An alternative group of media are those who financially depend on Western donors, rather than Ukrainian tycoons. Those radio/TV channels and news websites sincerely try to follow the international standards of fair journalism. However, their audience is many times smaller, and they depend on quite unstable financial sources, because Western donors usually prefer short-term special projects, instead of directly supporting daily journalist activities in the long run. As a result, now we have an overflow of western-sponsored journalist investigations (of very different quality), whereas other branches of journalist activities fall into decay.
Low social trust to media. According to sociology, Ukrainians are either losing, or just having no confidence in not only journalistic community, but also other governmental and social institutions. The figures of trust/mistrust balance, as reported by The Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF) and sociological service of Razumkov Centre, show that only few institutions have relatively stable positive balance of trust (e.g., for July 2015, Church +34, Army +18, public organizations +13), whereas for most of the institutions the balance is deeply negative (e.g., for July 2015, courts and prosecution office -67, Parliament -63, banks -62, police -57, Government -56, President -33, etc.). Against this backdrop, Ukrainian mass media, until recently, showed disturbing decline of positive balance: +24 in May 2013, +19 in December 2013, +13 in December 2014, and +2 in July 2015 (figures for 2016 are not yet available).
This general mistrust could be explained by many factors. In addition to those mentioned above, one could also refer to high social expectations immediately after the “Revolution of Dignity” (2014), and current general atmosphere of nervousness, often exacerbated by journalists’ public quarrels. In addition, professional organizations of Ukrainian journalists are now also in the midst of internal crisis, while politicians sometimes use this atmosphere of general mistrust in order to undermine the credibility of even well-grounded journalistic accusations. All this adds up to the negative dynamics of trust that is indeed catastrophic for Ukrainian journalism.
Thus, although we consider an overestimation to talk about “deterioration of press freedom in Ukraine”, we do admit that there are many problems and challenges. Here is what we believe is to be done in the first place:
- To take care about the development of both advertising market and media market. A number of positive legislative initiatives are already in the Parliament waiting for consideration. Also we need legislative stimuli for business investments into independent media with the purpose of making direct financial profit instead of having political influence.
- To increase the professional culture of journalists and media managers; to deepen the level of discussion on proper relations between journalistic professionalism and civil patriotism, both in the peaceful times and in the times of war.
- To expedite the official investigations by law enforcement agencies of all crimes and offences against journalists.
- To increase mutual trust and coordinate the efforts of independent media, civil activists and journalists’ professional organizations. In addition to numerous critical investigations, we also need to promote positive reforms that actually take place, although maybe slower than one might wish. No important positive changes in economical, political and social life are possible if people mistrusts (not always justifiably) every single step of their own state and elected politicians.
- To introduce civil society control over media, with mutual and deepened understanding of what are the primary roles of national and local media in today’s Ukraine.
- To complete the transformation of state-owned TV and radio channels (both central and local) into nationwide public broadcasting network.
- To promote self-regulative processes in the media market; to oppose all external pressures on journalists with the purpose of censorship, intimidation, bribery, compulsion to abandon professional standards.
- To stop the current “war of everyone against everyone” within the journalists’ community.
- For international donors: to move from short-term program financing to long-term support of independent media, including their institutional development; to avoid the situations where some formats of journalism are heavily supported at the expense of others; to pay special attention to local journalistic initiatives.
All in all, we should find again the crucial points of our unity, and then go to our hard, systematic, everyday work. This is the only way to render totally impossible the deterioration of press freedom, threats to independence of media and journalists, and, generally, attacks on European values in Ukraine, so important both for us and for the authors of the mentioned articles in The Guardian, The Economist and the Atlantic Council.
Natalia Ligachova, Galina Petrenko