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20 July, 2012  ▪  Yurіy Raykhel

Endurance Test

The government is testing how Ukrainian mass media and society are prepared to protect freedom of speech

The government does not like independent press. That is common for authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, but also for democracies where the leaders are not very fond of journalists. The crucial difference, though, is that civil society and the press have trained the governments in Europe, Japan and North America to an extent where the latter do not even think of persecuting or sending a tax inspection raid on newspapers and TV studios because it will turn against them eventually. Nor do they start court proceedings against newspapers and reporters.  

The struggle for freedom of speech was quite difficult and severe in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and 2000s. The Czech government tried to take one of the national TV channels under control yet encountered nation-wide resistance from journalists all over the country and rallies with many thousands of protesters. This forced the government to step back. Something similar happened in Baltic States.

Sadly, the CIS had opposite processes that inspired no optimism. Russia has not had live talk shows for so long now that people began to forget about them altogether. Central Asia has left virtually no space for opposition media. Belarus does not remember what the opposition media are. The era of free press was over as soon as Father Lukashenka came to power. After 2005, only Moldova and Ukraine still had relative freedom of speech. Ukraine, though, is now witnessing its stable decline.

TAKING THE EASIEST WAY

It is getting worse as the election campaign draws closer and the media buzz with news about the Party of Regions’ plummeting rates. If this was in a democratic state, its spin doctors would be running to invent attractive slogans, election platforms the voters would like and flattering promotion. These are challenging tasks that require the best experts and many more elements, including thorough and consistent work aimed at long-term results as the crucial element.

However, the Party of Regions’ leaders and officials of the Presidential Administration are guided by the totally opposite reasons. Instead of a delicate and well-thought campaign, they take chaotic moves to hush up both their political opponents, and independent press. According to second-rate spin doctors hired from Russia, it is free press that poses the biggest threat, and they recommend the most primitive way to avoid and overcome it. To begin with, the government should intimidate independent media and close them down if intimidation does not work. The latter should be done based on a court ruling. The processes of Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko are the perfect models to follow. 

INDEPENDENT MEDIA: FROM RARE TO EXTINCT?

Ukrainehas very few independent TV channels. As soon as Viktor Yanukovych came to power, the relations between the government and TVi, one of the few still standing, grew tense. To begin with, its broadcasting license was taken away from TVi and given to Inter owned by Valeriy Khroshkovsky, the First Vice Premier of Ukraine. Now, TVi’s signal covers only cable networks thus cutting back on its audience significantly.

The channel managed to survive the first tax attack on it. According to Oleh Radchenko, Deputy General Director for Legal Issues, “TVi had undergone a tax inspection a year before and everything had been fine. This year they found some violations. We filed an appeal against their decision and won the administrative case on this issue last month.” Indeed, tax inspectors would hardly have found any violations if the Ukrainian court had deemed the TV channel clean. Soon, Oleksandr Klymenko, Chairman of the State Tax Administration, issued a decree whereby he extended the moratorium on inspecting the media in the third quarter. On July 30, the election campaign would start extending the inspection-free time for the media. All in all, this would allow journalists and media mangers to work without pressure until November at least. But that had been true earlier, even when Leonid Kuchma was president. With the current government, everything is different. The ban on inspections is window dressing for Europe to leave the government alone. Internally, the situation is quite the opposite. There is always a way to exert pressure on an independent TV channel. Moreover, even if the left hand does one thing, such as signing the moratorium on tax inspections for the media, the right hand, such as the Presidential Administration, does not necessarily have to follow instruction.

Tax inspection has raided TVi yet again. Reluctant to violate the effective moratorium, the authorities opened a criminal case against Mykola Kniazhytsky, the channel’s General Director. The investigators seemed to care little about the lack of legitimate reasons for the case or the fact that the court had already deemed the opening of the previous case illegal. They have an order therefore they should turn around and march to the TVi office. This scenario is nothing new: they repeat the same procedure over and over again.

OFFSETTING FEAR

The government’s actions have several reasons. Firstly, it does not understand the outcome of its moves even if well-thought and planned. This signals that panic is growing within the Party of Regions. If it feels that its prospects in the elections are threatened by a TV channel with limited access to the audience, their spin doctors must be in a really bad situation. The raid on the TV channel is a proof of the lost campaign, at least in the media. Purging the informational space in the era of Internet, Facebook and Twitter makes no sense at all. Leonid Kuchma had already tried this through temnyky, instructions to the media on how they should present political developments his regime used in 2001-2004. They did not help – quite on the contrary. Similarly, tougher control over the media did not save Qaddafi or Mubarak, nor is it very helpful to Assad.

Secondly, the government is acting brutally showing openly that nothing can stop it. It seems to follow the principle where winners are not judged. Therefore, Ukrainians are likely to witness unprecedented falsification and rigging of the election. The impression is that the government feels trapped and is acting chaotically. In a situation this desperate, it can do anything.

Thirdly, the government is in a rush. As soon as the election campaign kicks off, European entities will monitor many things, including the government’s attacks on independent media. At that point, tax inspectors will no longer feel comfortable raiding the offices of TV channels and publications. While here, the case against TVi and its General Director was opened before the campaign begins, so there will be no violations of European standards regarding election campaigns, even if formally.

There is still hope that TVi will stand this attack. The key prerequisite to that is the solidarity of journalists in the first place, the way it was in the Czech Republic. If Ukrainians fail to jointly make the government respect at least some rules of the code of decent conduct, everyone will feel the impact. And a country that has no freedom has no future, too.


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