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5 March, 2012

Journalism Does not Have to Smell Like The Name of the Rose

The press is hard to heal in a sick society. At the very least, it should not be the starting point

“The only useful truths are tools to be thrown away,” said renowned Italian writer and culture expert Umberto Eco. I consider journalism to be a tool which, after it has been used, can be thrown away with no regrets. Do you know of many people who collect issues of their favourite newspapers or archive internet pages they enjoyed reading? And if some do, how often do they go back to their stashes?

Kost Bondarenko, a Ukrainian political scientist (who, I should add, dabbles in politics), has published a purification piece on freedom of the press in TeleKrytyka. Some of the points he makes are hard to disagree with, especially since he points to Umberto Eco as his ally. Say what you may, it is comforting to know that Ukraine and Italy have similar problems. The conclusion Bondarenko draws is as merciless as that reached by Eco: contemporary Ukrainian journalism is unfair, unprofessional, manipulative and provincial, with the possible exception of a few stars.

I would happily subscribe to the majority of his diagnoses. But I have an issue with two points he makes. First, Bondarenko claims that the freedom of the press is not in any way threatened in Ukraine. Of course, you can publish whatever you want online. Unlike in the days of Giya Gongadze, no-one will care. But if you target a large audience, especially a TV audience, you may face problems. Ask the 5th Channel of TVi what these problems may be. No entrepreneur has any guarantees of security, primarily business security and particularly in the mass media sector.

This leads to two thoughts: either the Ukrainian government has simply not found time to deal with the press or those who are authorised to sic hounds on the press simply read nothing of the kind. When they begin to read, especially just ahead of the elections, watch out for attacks. There are plenty of tools at their disposal: the fire inspection, the tax police, the Directorate for Fighting Economic Crimes (UBEZ), the Pechersk District Court, and so on. Do you still have any doubt?

The other dubious statement made by my opponent is that Ukrainian journalism in general is suffering from the “post-Maidan syndrome” and lambasts the government just for sake of criticism. It allegedly generates mostly teenage-like opposition, stubbornly ignoring the successes of the current administration and nagging it for any sins or even innocent mistakes made by its leaders, while at the same time forgiving opposition members the same kind of faults.

Let me say that, first, not all of the Ukrainian press has embraced the spirit of the Orange Revolution as Bondarenko portrays it. The biggest printed media outlets are quite loyal to the Yanukovych administration, a reflection of their owners’ positions. Television is generally magnanimous towards the power vertical and may only bite it gently from time to time. Moreover, we learn on almost a daily basis about new periodicals being launched. Considering the current lack of funds on the media market in general and the impoverished state of the opposition forces in particular, there is every reason to suspect that these new media outlets are pro-government. So there is no need to worry about a proper balance.

What regards the infantile illness of being in the opposition, my vis-à-vis may know better than I do the origin of the phrase “Journalists are the watchdogs of democracy”.  The maxim has become somewhat cliche, and as we utter it, it is unlikely to evoke the image of a real dog standing by a kennel and barking at every passer-by. A political scientist may watch events from his ivory tower, while a journo must nip at the ankles of anyone careless enough to expose himself. That is the nature of a journalist. He has a cleaning job to do in politics, and none of his statements can be, nor are they, perfect. The important thing is the general context. A toilet cleaning agent – pardon me for the parallel – should not smell like the Rochas perfume. It has a different purpose.

Let me quote Bondarenko again: “Even if the government takes the right step, [journalists feel they] have to write that the president is an ass.” I agree! For one thing, it is simply true. Second, any right steps in a wrong context lose any sense. It is like celebrating locking one porthole just as the entire Costa Concordia is rapidly descending to the bottom of the sea. What do I, as a man in the street and citizen, benefit from the fact that Ukraine has opened for itself another previously closed foreign market if only companies close to the president are allowed to operate there? Will Ukraine be stronger for it? Will any money be wired from Cyprus bank accounts to our Pension Fund?

Finally, I have to agree with Bondarenko when he says: “I want to see professional subjectivism in journalists!” The emphasis is both on subjectivism and professionalism. And this requires a more conducive environment: a free protected market, a level playing field and the predominance of ethic concepts in other spheres of life, starting from politics. It is hard to heal the press in a sick society. At the very least, that should not be the starting point.

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