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21 July, 2012

Freedom Under Pressure

Current Ukrainian regime is diligently copying the best models of country’s northern neighbour, and it appears that the former is extremely envious of the latter’s success in constructing its vertical power structure.

It is impossible to be slightly pregnant. It is impossible to be slightly free. Either you are, or you’re not. I wrote this – and stopped. Really? Freedom is relative, particularly when talking about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It can be held in check by direct state sanctions, a phantom fear of these sanctions, the position of the owner of the mass media or even the personal inclination or superstition of the journalist. In short, there is no such thing as absolute freedom, as we were taught in the USSR.

All these complex cases of institutional, corporate or moral restrictions of freedom are being diligently researched by international organizations, based on which reports are written, it is possible to argue about them, conduct disputes and write theses, but in the specific situation that has emerged in Ukraine, such fine lines are worth nothing. Why measure finely-tuned interaction, when freedom is constantly being flattened under a roller?

The attack of the tax roller on TVi demonstrates the vector of the development of Ukraine far too transparently. The Ukrainian, let me say, “government” (as of June 3, I cannot bring myself to write the word without inverted commas), first and foremost showed the people its fear, trying to shut the mouth of virtually the last independent broadcaster. I am convinced that the issue is not about being exasperated or taking offence at harsh statements: I doubt whether the Presidential Administration watches anything on TV, other than “Nasha Rasha” (“Our Russia” – a TV show parodying life). It is hard to assume that political expedience was taken into account: the efforts of this “government” have driven the TV channel into a frequency ghetto. It can only be seen on the cable networks of several large cities and accordingly, the audience influenced by TVi is restricted in advance, both from the quantitative, and the qualitative point of view. No, this is fear.

In this instance, it’s worth looking at prototypes, since the regime is diligently copying the best models of Ukraine’s northern neighbour, and it appears that the former is extremely envious of the latter’s success in constructing its vertical power structure. In the Russia of the year 2000, Vladimir Putin, who had just taken the presidency, loved to read the highly oppositional “Novaya Gazeta” (New Gazette) – this was said by a person, who at that time had access to the Presidential office. You see, he was amused by Novaya Gazeta. He also did not make light of the daring Ekho Moskvy (“Echo of Moscow”) radio station. Morever, Dmitry Muratov, Editor-in-Chief of Novaya Gazeta and Alexei Veneditkov, Editor-in-Chief of Echo of Moscow were regularly invited to various events at the Kremlin and their journalists were asked to presidential-prime ministerial pools. This ensured a showcase of freedom of speech. Thus television, which addresses millions of viewers, was essentially purged; there were no allusions to pluralism, but a newspaper for one percent of highbrow people and a radio channel for office-official plankton – by all means, it’s even interesting.

Problems began when the “plankton” began to come out onto city squares in an amount equal to the population of a megapolis. But even here, Cheka agents acted elegantly: the leaders of pluralism were not squeezed; merely several laws were passed through parliament, which raise a far from symbolic guillotine above the heads of any daredevil. More specifically, the Law On Slander provides for a fine of RUR 5 million for the publication of information on felonies committed by any person (such as: particularly large amounts being stolen by officials), if they are not upheld by the Pechersk – sorry, a slip of the tongue, of course, the Basmanny! – District Court in Moscow, which is approximately USD 1,500. The Law On the Register of Banned Sites allows the closure of any internet resource if child pornography, announcements of the sale of drugs, instructions for committing suicide, etc. is found on them. It is enough to write “You can hang yourself” on the forum, for the lights to go out. For all their outward respectability, such measures are evidence of the insurmountable fear of dissent. Together with the draconian restriction of the freedom of assembly, they give a definitive diagnosis: panic.

In Ukraine, individual attempts at imitation are coy so far, being conducted as a test. A court ruling on the prohibition of assembly was shown to hunger strikers on Yevropeyska Ploshcha and subsequently quickly hidden away. Under the slogan of antimonopoly measures in the media (I wonder whether Khoroshkovsky was consulted on this issue?) and “reducing the possibility of using the mass media as a key factor in the manipulation of social awareness and the personal views of the population to a minimum”, the Ministry of Justice is proposing the prohibition of the activities of television and radio organizations, the founder or owner of which is an offshore non-resident, as well as the establishment (reading between the lines of the relevant draft law) of personal responsibility of the editor of individual issues of printed publications for “manipulation” … All of this fiction can theoretically be used in full, but for the time being, it is being used as a test shot. Criminal cases are a different matter. All that’s left is to rely on the strong nerves of Mykola Kniazhytsky’s colleagues and the self-preservation instincts of officials. But if no reputational risks stood in the way of the imprisonment of the former Prime Minister and the former Minister of Internal Affairs, why not add a journalist to them?

The fact of the matter is that based on mental capacity, the student-president does not differ in a positive manner from the teacher-president. No-one knows what will come into his mind, not to mention what will come into the minds of those controlling the puppet strings. Meanwhile, the roller is gaining speed and it appears that it has missed the turn to Europe. What road directions is Ukraine following? “Russia”? “Belarus”?


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