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27 October, 2011  ▪  Ivan Halaichenko

Bad Manners

Those in power conceal information and instil propaganda clichés instead of building a dialogue with society

The way the current government acts shows its arrogance and indifference to public opinion. Meanwhile, officials arrange window-dressing events, supposed to imitate communication with the nation, only to advertise themselves. It is clear the government’s communication with society will remain inefficient until they overcome their soviet complexes and accept reality as it is.   

WE DON`T NEED ENEMIES...

Here we take a look at just some of the ways the government has shown its lack of ability to communicate with the nation:

In the past the government has negotiated cooperation with the world’s leading power supply companies. While recently, аt a press-conference held in a hotel in downtown Kyiv, Yuriy Boyko, Minister for the Power and Coal Industry, met with European Commissioner Günther Oettinger and experts from Ukrainian and European ministries discussed the prospects of energy-related cooperation. All this could have been a great promotion campaign for those in power, if only they hadn’t blown it. Journalists and experts did not even know about the event until it had almost started, even though everybody in Europe had known about it for a long time and were wondering why the Ukrainian ministry was keeping the information secret.  Thus, Ukrainian reporters and experts waited for hours without explanation, neither allowed into the conference room, nor told of any prospects of talking to the officials. It was left up to the mass media to find out that Commissioner Oettinger had arrived during the night and would only visit the Energy Ministry. All this looks as though the government was not interested in spreading the information which, by the way, would have been good for it.

The National Committee for Regulating Electric Power in Ukraine is being forced to calculate an increase in electricity rates to the public. This was the announcement made at an event held by the Committee and the information obviously later surfaced in the mass media. Instead of explaining and showing why, and how much the rates will grow (because they definitely will), the Committee rushed to deny everything. What will the Committee say when eventually the rates do increase? Perhaps, the officials are hoping people have a very short-term memory and will forget all about their bravura statements.   

In 2013, a nuclear waste repository is supposed to open in the Chornobyl zone to store radioactive waste from all over Ukraine. It is an element of Ukraine’s “own nuclear cycle” as nuclear power stations generate over 50% of the energy the country consumes. Surprisingly, the current government became hysterical when their predecessors mentioned plans to build the same said repository. Now, they are building it, having quietly “forgotten” to hold any public discussions or talk to environmentalists. Even if the construction is vital, all the minute details are no less important. They will determine the repository’s safety, especially given the announced accelerated speed of construction. Monitoring all necessary aspects is only possible with appropriate public control. This demand looks justified in post-Chornobyl Ukraine, but not, apparently, for those in power.

All these cases are just a few examples showing how the government shies away from communication with the public, even if its moves are forced, logical or successful. When criticized, those in power often act rudely or get physical. All reporters who risk writing something negative about the government, and they are declining in number, turn into: “lackeys” according to Yan Tabachnyk, a Party of Regions Member of Parliament; “pocket dogs dependent on their masters” according to Hennadiy Kernes, the Mayor of Kharkiv; “liars” according to Oleksiy Kostusiev, the Mayor of Odesa; and so on. With this in mind, Premier Azarov’s meeting with bloggers, proudly entitled ‘Communication in the Time of Reforms: How Should the Government Communicate with the Nation?’ looks like window-dressing. Actually, the officials “responsible for mass media” now say more and more often, that the mass media is only there to inform people. Isn’t this some kind of preparation for the total purging of “inappropriate journalism” that dares to evaluate and analyze things from the media space?

THE CHOSEN OR PROVINCIAL?

The Premier’s responses to bloggers clearly show how top officials see the “appropriate” world of information. This is especially true of the paragraphs where Mr. Azarov claims negative information about the government is virtually the key reason for inflation which, by the way is another issue for public discussion with the government, as the State Statistics Committee’s inflation rate often referred to by officials does not match the price growth noticed by independent economists and average people. Mr. Azarov’s words echo what Belarus’s President Lukashenka had to say about all financial troubles in the country coming from foreign currency transactions, or, in simple terms, blaming it all on the people. In fact, though, the government has nothing to complain about in terms of negative media coverage. According to a content analysis by the Academy of Ukrainian Press and experts from the Sociology Institute at the National Academy of Sciences, leading TV channels give 64% of their air time to government representatives leaving 14% for the opposition and 10% for other politicians. Also, the country’s leaders can virtually talk non-stop on air as they have 76% of sound bites, while the rest, 14% and 10%, are divided between the opposition and other politicians respectively. Even more impressive is the portion for those in power and the ruling coalition in interview time on the ‘First National’ channel, a whopping 98%.

Being unable to prove they are right, especially with the above mentioned opportunities, means that those in power are having a hard time finding a way to present their position, if they have any at all. The plummeting trust for the government speaks for itself.

The way the talking heads brag about a great life under the rule of “tough managers”, which is actually running more and more counter to the reality, leads to an even larger drop in confidence. Nobody likes to be lied to, especially in a “dumb and stupid” manner, as someone who sounded rather like Mr. Azarov once said on the ‘Kuchmagate’ tapes.

However, it looks like government officials know no other way. This is due to a number of reasons. The first being their background, which can be traced back to soviet times, regardless of what they were decades ago: small time clerks, criminals, enterprise employees or directors. All these types of people worked with a sense of being exceptional, having access to what was forbidden to others as a result of getting exclusive rations in addition to salaries, or cash not related to work, and being different from other citizens who lived on their salaries alone. The second is their habit of clinging on to power and the fear of losing it. Virtually all the nation’s current officials once sat in top positions, or had been on their way to one. And what is more, the few years they suffered in opposition were not too much trouble for them. Only the nerve tickled by the few weeks of the Orange Maidan (Independence Square) lingers at the back of their minds. The third is their mindset focused on “the accumulation of capital” typical of the early 1990s when the current officials gained their first capital, which was guided by the “grab everything you can and keep everyone off your manor” rule. The last one is egos which have been hurt by “ungrateful” voters, including the electorate in the most loyal regions, who, for some reason, are never happy with the biological norm and refuse to wait patiently until the government finds time to deal with their problems.

Taking all this into account there is certainly some bad news for politicians with all these features – it proves their owners to be provincial, rather than chosen. Status alone does not mean the owner is exceptional in today’s society. Only one’s actions prove he is exceptional.

PUTTING A SCHMUCK WHERE HE BELONGS

The government will continue to have problems with its image and popularity until it realizes the public does not owe it anything. Quite the contrary, it is the government that must report, preferably on a daily basis, to the nation that entrusted them with power. Whoever likes to be referred to as a manager should live up to that title.  

Sadly, hopes for their sudden enlightenment are minimal. With pressure rising from the West and their popularity falling so low, a decent result in an election is only possible if nobody really counts the ballots, and we can be almost sure the government will announce a false outcome, hide behind special police units and then hire spin doctors to create the illusion of being close to the public.

Apparently though, those in power are expecting to see another “miracle” from lobbyists, including Paul Manafort & Co, who managed to rebrand the Party of Regions back when it was the opposition. Strategically, though, these PR guys played a mean trick on the Party of Regions by creating expectations its members have failed to meet.

After all their obviously failing games with the public, the government may end up with only two possible ways out. One is to go straight ahead and turn a blind eye to criticism and crush any resistance, thus turning the country into a stifling ghetto or facing the Arabic scenario. The other is to try and open up to dialogue rather than preaching (their instincts push those in power to the former; society should lead them to the latter).

Equally inefficient ways for the public to be heard are firstly, brutal force, to which we can be sure the government will respond with its own, and secondly there could be attempts to “inform them about the drawbacks and offer arguments” which the government most probably will not hear. The only real solution is to combine approaches and to unite. Combined pressure can include protests, spot rallies, media campaigns and so on, all of which are opportunities to increase the pressure. And more importantly it should not stop after those in power disperse a rally or tear up leaflets. Moreover, society should offer a constructive alternative option to the government after the pressure period – a clear, pragmatic scenario that could be realized here and now. This uniting is for various social groups who should coordinate their activities, support and protect each other. When networks start to act together, not as individual campaigns, our leaders will be forced to hear us, even if not everybody is speaking at any given time. Otherwise, the government will never learn good manners.

FREEDOM OF A SPEECH 

Restricted access to information, twisted facts, pressure on the mass media and uncovered rude behavior is the normal way for Ukrainian politicians to talk to the media

On 8 October, ‘Ukraine’ TV channel aired the opening of the Olympic stadium in Kyiv, which has recently been reconstructed for Euro 2012, as a ‘live’ broadcast. In fact, though, the ceremony started at 8 p.m. while ‘Ukraine’ began to air the show 20 minutes later. Reporters who were at the ceremony assume the full live broadcast was cancelled due to the fact the audience booed Viktor Yanukovych as he delivered his opening speech. Obviously TV viewers had no chance of seeing this.

Following the ‘Congress of Russian-Language Media’, Ukrainian and foreign reporters waiting to talk to Mr. Yanukovych were locked in the conference room of ‘Kyivsky President Hotel’ immediately after the President had left the room. They were there for nearly 15 minutes. Earlier in the day Mr. Yanukovych had promised the visitors to answer their questions after the Congress.  

At a press-conference with Mr. Yanukovych, Darka Chepak, his press-secretary,chose questions from journalists in a different order to those officially listed. Later she admitted she had previously coordinated the questions with reporters.

Journalists with accreditation for the Cabinet of Ministers session on 23 June 2010 with Viktor Yanukovych were not allowed in. Vitaliy Lukianenko, press-secretary of Premier Mykola Azarov, said the session room was too small for the attending mass media representatives  

President Viktor Yanukovych stated for an article in the The Wall Street Journal that FDI growth was 35% compared to the real 5%

Representatives of mass media in Ukraine blame Euronews, a Ukrainian news service that has only been on air for a month and a half, for being biased in its presentation of information and playing into hands of the government. Euronews is funded by the National Television Company of Ukraine. Valid Arfush, Deputy Director of the National Television Company, once interpreted the channel’s news policy like so: “I believe the First National channel must be pro-government. It will always cover the work of the government and bring only positive information to the audience. It is supposed to support the government while the government should know that the First National channel always protects it.”  The Ukrainian version of Euronews has openly been supporting the country’s leadership since its first days. In particular, the channel claimed the number of participants in an anti-government rally which took place on Independence Day was smaller than it really was.

Journalists were denied the chance of asking their questions to Gianni Buquicchio, President of the Venetian Commission, who visited Ukraine to take part in the international conference for the 15th anniversary of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine.   

During his visit, an interpreter consciously gave an incorrect translation of the question reporters asked Michel Platini, UEFA President. The journalists asked “Does Mr. Platini know about repressions going on under the Euro 2012 brand in Ukraine?” The interpreter offered his own version of “Does Mr. Platini know all Ukraine is grateful to the people of Donbas?”

At a briefing with Vice Premier Borys Kolesnikov and UEFA President Michel Platini, a local journalist asked the latter whether he knows that “enforcement authorities and the Ukrainian government use UEFA’s good name to fight against businesses, in particular, the firm that produced the T-shirts with “Thank you, the people of Donbas…” prints. While the interpreter translated the question to Mr. Platini, Mr. Kolesnikov told the journalist to “ask more appropriate questions.”

Two local opposition channels have stopped broadcasting in Kharkiv for unknown reasons. Mass media insiders are certain this was on the instruction of the Mayor and the Head of the Oblast State Administration. They often mentioned how unhappy they were with the reporters’ coverage of land grabbing, ruining green zones in the city and funneling public funds.

Mykola Porytsky, Deputy Mayor of Kremenchuk, Poltava Oblast, banned journalists from visiting a meeting of the head of local utility service providers

Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes called a reporter “a pocket dog dependent on her master” after she asked him why political billboards with Viktor Yanukovych on were not removed in the city on the day of the presidential election  

Oleksiy Zhuravko, PR’s Deputy at the Verkhovna Rada, attacked a reporter of Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), a popular online publication, trying to grab his camera

Sloviansk Mayor Nelia Shtepa called a journalist from an opposition newspaper a “bitch” during the press conference celebrating her 100th day in office; after the journalist had said “We thought there would be changes for the better here, for something new. We’ve see none so far, though”

Odesa Mayor Oleksiy Kostusiev referred to local publications outside his own pool as “liars”, and questions from their reporters as “nonsense”

Volodymyr Yatsuba, ex-Minister for Regional Development and Construction, and currently the Head of Sevastopol State Administration, swore at reporters standing in his way in a Cabinet of Ministers hallway. “Standing in my way, f…king bastards!” Mr. Yatsuba said aloud to the journalists 


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