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12 September, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Mykhelson

Disgracing a Country

The Ukrainian government has tried, and failed miserably, to improve its image in the world through the foreign media

“Ukraine is moving steadily forward towards creating a democratic society and building an independent media,” Viktor Yanukovych wrote in his letter to Christoph Riess, CEO of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), which was published by the president’s press service on 6 May 2011. In his message, Yanukovych invited the organisation to hold the 64th World Newspaper Congress and the 19th World Editors Forum, which traditionally take place together, in Kyiv.

At the time, the organisation completely lacked governance. It was only in April 2011 that it elected its new president, Indian Jacob Mathew, CEO of Malayalam Manorama Group. In May 2011, he accepted Yanukovych’s offer. Reportedly, there was opposition to accepting Ukraine’s offer: some WAN-IFRA leaders unofficially called on their colleagues to refuse to go to Ukraine to protest the curtailment of freedom of the press by the Ukrainian government.

A SEMBLANCE OF FREEDOM

It was clear even then that the current government under which Ukraine dropped to the 130th place in the Freedom House freedom of the press ranking due to “increasing government control over mass media” was pursuing its vested interests that had little in common with the needs of Ukrainian journalists. Like Euro 2012, the newspaper congress was viewed by the government as a way to legitimise itself in the eyes of the West, to create a positive image that would neutralise information about a clampdown on freedom of the press in Ukraine before the parliamentary election and create a semblance of democratic freedom. Proof of this is found in the fairly cynical expectations of what the event would yield that were published on the website of the Presidential Administration: “Ukraine is moving steadily forward towards creating a democratic society and building an independent media … Recently, transparent and efficient rules of access to public information have been introduced at the legislative level, real work has begun to create public television, the investigation of Georgiy Gongadze’s murder has been conducted more actively … Conducting these events in Kyiv is an important step on Ukraine's European path. This would reaffirm Ukraine's choice to be a country that seeks to strengthen democratic values, of which the freedom of speech and press is an integral part.”

It is no surprise that the Ukrainian government chose to build a Potemkin village in preparing for the event. Oleksandr Kurdynovych, Chief of the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting, said that US $800,000 had been allocated from the state budget for the forum and congress, a sum covering only 15 per cent of costs, while the rest was paid for by large private donors. All of these and the partners of the event were people close to the government. For example, the idea to hold the congress in Kyiv came from Borys Lozhkin, Vice President of the Ukrainian Association of Periodical Press Publishers and member of the WAN-IFRA management. He is also president of the UMH Group, a media holding known in the West – the Frankfurt Stock Exchange estimated its value at US $300mn in May 2008. However, the group has distinct Donetsk-Russian roots and openly seeks to monopolise Ukraine's market of published mass media. The official communications partner of the event was the Ukrainian Media Development Institute (UMDI) headed by Olena Hromnytska, a former press secretary of ex-President Leonid Kuchma. Prior to this appointment, she worked in Rinat Akhmetov’s media holding where journalists once accused her of publishing paid-for materials favouring the government. The general partner of the congress was Group DF, a group of companies controlled by oligarch Dmytro Firtash.

It was clear even before the congress that the Ukrainian government would try to use it to its best advantage and share its own view of “freedom of the press in Ukraine” with its foreign guest. Oleh Nalyvaiko, president of UNIAN, one of the largest Ukrainian information agencies, which is controlled by the government, symptomatically remarked: “The congress will be attended by managers who are used to solving specific issues: increasing print runs, earning more money, attracting advertisers, optimising costs, etc. I believe that this tone will prevail, and this is exactly what Ukraine needs now. If we politicise it all and start discussing other things, we will bore the congress.”

“From the viewpoint of Ukraine's international image, it's an issue of recognizing human rights and civil liberties. The very fact that Ukraine is hosting the World Newspaper Congress and the World Editors Forum speaks volumes,” an enraptured Kurdynovych said at a press conference on 14 June 2012.

Official Kyiv set about convincing foreign visitors of the great progress democracy has supposedly made in Ukraine and they did so in the most typical of Soviet traditions. According to sources which spoke to The Ukrainian Week, an order was sent down from the top to create conditions in which the guests would not have the opportunity to speak to “outsiders”. The programme of the congress and forum was designed to serve the same purpose.

Foreign delegates were accommodated in the luxury Intercontinental Hotel, where Yanukovych’s headquarters was located during the last presidential elections. On Sunday, 2 September 2012, a closed party was organised for them nearby, on the territory of St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Nonetheless, “semi-legal” videos reached the Internet audience. The day after the official opening, all the guests were taken to a “traditional Ukrainian dinner” in Pyrohiv. Moreover, people close to Yanukovych persuaded him to have a personal meeting with the most influential delegates. That event was not announced and took place behind closed doors.

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS OPERATION FAILS

The marathon of official speeches began with UMH Group President Lozhkin. Speaking in nice Russian, he told how he, as a patriot of Ukraine, expected the congress and forum to give “a great boost” to the development of published mass media in Ukraine. He shared an age-old maxim that honesty, enthusiasm and US $10mn were needed to launch a successful newspaper and called on both the government and the opposition to “view the press as a business rather than a way of settling accounts.” Finally, he thanked Yanukovych and Firtash for organising the event. Among more specific statements was a request for a “favourable” tax climate for publishers like himself, but he failed to indicate his addressee.

After Mathew’s speech, noted TV anchorperson and model Olha Freimut announced, in heavily accented English, the next speaker, President Yanukovych.

“We recently celebrated the 21st anniversary of our independence,” he said after the welcoming statement. “I would like to thank Jacob Mathew for the wonderful words he said about Kyiv and Ukraine in general.” (Yanukovych’s lack of English language proficiency or simply inattentiveness again played a nasty trick on him, because the WAN-IFRA president spoke fairly critically of the situation in Ukraine. – Author.)

At this point, about two dozen Ukrainian journalists known to be active in the Stop Censorship! movement suddenly stood up and unfolded homemade posters which read “Ukraine ranks 130th in the freedom of the press rating”; “Access to public information is not working in Ukraine”; “2/3 of assaults on journalists are made by the authorities”; “Yanukovych is destroying freedom of speech in Ukraine”.

And then the president’s guards reacted in a way that completely erased every effort of the Presidential Administration to bleach its image. Numerous video recordings clearly show that security guards primarily tried to snatch the anti-presidential posters from the hands of the journalists. Ideally, the guards of any president would do the exact opposite: carry any slogans you wish but don't come near the head of state. If the activists wanted to disrupt Yanukovych’s speech (as the Presidential Administration firmly believes) rather than attract attention to the problems they raised, they were quite successful.

Yet, Yanukovych did not stop. But what he said next was literally the following: “In history which spanned many centuries, various legends were made about our land. Of course, if you look at the globe, there are many nice places about which good and bad legends can be invented. But now, when we live in the 21st century, when we are gathered here in Kyiv, we cannot but notice such beauty.”  Simultaneous interpreters had a nightmare of a job.

Gradually, the president took grip of himself but not fully: “One of the obstacles to the development of the media space in Ukraine is incorrect stereotypes about a lack of freedom of the press in our country. In my opinion, this is caused by a lack of objective information about the real state of affairs… Ukraine has made a transition, without exaggeration, from total censorship to open society.” But his gaffe close to the end of his speech made the passage an instant hit: “I urge journalists to maintain a high ethical standard, adhere to the principles of objectivity and political involvement.” It is easy to guess that the last word was supposed to be disinvolvement. But the agitated president missed the prefix.

The efforts by the presidential administration and the “official” Ukrainian organisers came to naught at the end of the forum. Using the reasoning and terminology of the presidential administration, it can be said that the captains of the world press came to Kyiv with a certain “bias” against the commitment that the Ukrainian government has to the ideals of freedom of the press and classical democracy.

Speaking to Ukrainian journalists on the first day of the congress, 3 September, Mathew admitted that there had been calls to boycott the congress and forum: “But we came to Kyiv to see everything with our own eyes and understand it all.”

In his opening address the WAN-IFRA president said straightforwardly: he welcomes the creation of a working group on cooperation with journalists in the Presidential Administration, but it would be nice if “journalists themselves trusted this group”. Moreover, he believes that the legislatively fixed punishment for interference with journalism is a good thing, but it would be good if these regulations were enforced consistently rather than selectively. Crimes committed against media representatives must always be solved. Mass media outlets that are uncomfortable for the government are “sometimes” artificially deprived of advertisement, he admitted. But the worst thing is paid-for materials, or dzynsa in Ukrainian, the word Mathew actually used. He considers it to be one of the biggest scourges of the Ukrainian press.

Mathew quoted Taras Shevchenko’s line about breaking the shackles but emphasised that, as a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, he does not support calls to sprinkle anything (or anyone, for that matter) with blood. But precisely as a Gandhiist he is strongly in favour of breaking chains. This suggests he did not fully believe what Yanukovych wrote to WAN-IFRA almost 18 months ago.

Mathew showed a stunning familiarity with Ukrainian reality. Chief of the Presidential Administration Serhiy Lovochkin, Foreign Affairs Minister Kostiantyn Hryshchenko, Chief of the Kyiv City Administration Oleksandr Popov and Anna Herman listened hard, visibly surprised. In the meantime, Yanukovych was mostly discussing something with Lozhkin during Mathew’s speech.

The foreign participants of the congress with whom The Ukrainian Week was able to talk were also critical of the Ukrainian government. “Today I have seen evidence that Ukraine also has problems with freedom of press,” Anabel Hernández of Mexico, the 2012 laureate of the WAN-IFRA Golden Pen of Freedom, said. She received the prize for uncovering drug trafficking affairs in her home country and risks being killed for her articles. Eighty-two journalists who reported corruption links existing between drug cartels and the government have been killed in Mexico since 2001, and 16 have gone missing. Hernández believes that they have died, too, but the police have not found their bodies.

“I have been blacklisted by influential people… Remember me as I am today,” she said from the stage in the October Palace in Kyiv. The audience gave her a standing ovation. But immediately after her address, contortionist Anatoliy Zalevsky, a Cirque du Soleil artist, came onto the stage. He was followed by the ManSound band and, finally, an ensemble of teenagers – girls wearing in wreaths and boys in traditional loose trousers. The impression was that, despite the clear fiasco of the Freedom of the Press in Ukraine Operation, the hosts continued to dictate their own reality to the audience, trying to make them forget as soon as possible that journalists are killed in the streets in some countries for their honest coverage of facts.

In any case, foreign mass media people will go back home with their own impression of freedom of speech Ukrainian-style. Despite certain apprehension prior to the event, its participants did not help legitimise the Ukrainian regime and, instead, pointed out to Yanukovych & Co. that the growing curtailments of freedom of speech under the cover of increasingly cynical declarations to the contrary are unacceptable. However, official Kyiv will likely continue to live in its invented reality, telling voters that the government's efforts to “secure freedom of speech” have borne fruit – the foreign guests did come to Ukraine.


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