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24 September, 2019  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

Anti-media campaign

Why the new government is trying to mess up with journalists and why direct communication with the people is a myth

From now on, the Cabinet will work behind closed doors. This was announced on Monday, September 2 by the newly elected Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk. According to him, the meetings “should not be turned into a show”, which is why the officials will talk to the journalists after them. Whatever the personal premise of the prime minister is, this decision is like another demonstration of power: the new government is deliberately provoking a conflict with the media community, expecting to impose its own rules of the game. It should be reminded that a week earlier Nestor Shufrych was nominated to the post of Chairman of the Committee on Freedom of Expression in the Verkhovna Rada. It is possible that the decision to give away several parliamentary committees have been made to demonstrate political diversity. But you can hardly find worse defenders of free expression than ex-regionals. And even more so in the person of Shufrich, who in January 2014 voted for dictatorial laws. So it is not surprising that this employment issue has been considered as a gesture of contempt for the media community and civil society in general. But it seems that the authors of the decision hoped for this effect. Against the background of the sudden rummage of “Suspilny” TV channel, all this seems rather gloomy. It is not excluded that a cold war will indeed start between the authorities and journalists. However, its results are unlikely to meet Bankova (Government) expectations.

The new government's dislike of the media has had a long history. “I owe you nothing,” Zelenskiy (then the presidential candidate) told a journalist when asked about business in Russia. It was January 2019. In the same vein, his entire election campaign was held. There was virtually no direct communication with the press, and most of the public communication was carried out on behalf of the candidate by representatives of his team. “The Media for Conscious Choice” movement openly called for Zelenskiy to give a press conference, but to no avail. Subsequently, in June, they called on the president to report on the actions in office, instead the meeting with journalists was closed, moreover, with off-record. There was also no traditional press conference to mark the first 100 days of the presidency. Meanwhile, an interview was broadcast on TV by Zelenskiy given to his former colleague – an actor from the TV series “Servant of the People”. Even though the conversation was about topical issues, it can be regarded as a regular mocking at the media, rather than a serious report to the public. The head of the Presidential Office, Andriy Bohdan, has voiced the new authorities’ strategy in regard of the mass media. Having ridiculed a large part of the media community with his fake release statement, he said: “Classical journalists have got accustomed to being aware of themselves as society. But, as our election campaign has proven, we communicate with society without intermediaries, without journalists.” And, as the facts above show, these are no longer mere words.

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The persistent desire to mess with the press seems, at first glance, absurd. We don’t lack examples of the country's leaders declaring war on the press – it is enough to recall Donald Trump. However, in this case, you cannot draw the parallels. Trump was the number one enemy of mainstream American media before his election, but the attitude of the Ukrainian media community to Zelenskiy was (with a few exceptions) quite loyal. Having come to power, he had a good chance of building, if not friendly, at least neutral relations with the press. But it seems Zelenskiy’s team had already had a different plan. Probably, it was due to dizziness from success. The spectacular election campaign built around Zelenskiy’s personal popularity instilled confidence in them that without the media one can not only win races but also successfully run the country. However, this statement is false. First, Zelenskiy’s electoral result was not only thanks to his personal charisma and political situation, but also to the fact that his face has been on the air of popular TV channels for the last 15 years. And second, election campaigning and routine communications with the public are fundamentally different tasks that cannot be accomplished by the same means. No matter how spectacular the election performance is, no politician – neither in Ukraine nor in the today’s world – has been able to stretch it to a full cadence.

It should also be borne in mind that before the eyes of the Zelenskiy team there were experiences of predecessors, who were loyal to the press, at least agreed that the press itself should be a mediator between the authorities and citizens, and also on its role as a watchdog of democracy. However, they did not provide any political dividends to them. Even worse, the media community made a tremendous contribution to the destruction of Petro Poroshenko’s rating (to what extent it was deserved is a separate issue). In short, Zelenskiy’s team clearly understood that the press could be dangerous for the authorities. A politician like Viktor Yanukovych would have acted in such a situation quite predictably, launching an attack on independent media with the help of gag-orders (so-called temniki), security agencies, thugs for hire (titushki) and other brutal means. Instead, Zelenskiy’s team have decided to go the other way: not to force the press into loyalty, but to nullify its socio-political significance by establishing direct communication with the people. That is, to do as Bohdan directly stated. It is difficult to say to what degree that is an unconscious desire to copy Trump or a conscious calculation. However, such plans seem very self-assured. Whether Trump’s war against American media is victorious is a debatable question. But whatever is happening in the US, Ukrainian society in its mass is focused on classical media, not on any alternative sources.

According to sociologists, television is the main source of information for 74% of our citizens. The second place with a big gap is occupied by Ukrainian internet media (27.5%). Social networks only ranked third (23.5%). Although the level of trust in all sources is low, 40% of Ukrainians still trust television, while online media and social networks account for only 14% and 12%, respectively (KIIS, 2019). Therefore, communicating with citizens through video blogs and social media posts is an ambitious idea, but in Ukrainian realities it is impossible. At least when it comes to full-fledged routine communication, not situational “throw-ins”. Theoretically, the new government may find its point of support among classical media. This is “1 + 1” TV channel owned by Ihor Kolomoisky, with whom the current president has had long-standing partnerships. But even if it becomes Bankova propaganda outlet, it is unlikely to be sufficient. “1 + 1” is undoubtedly one of the five most popular TV channels: it is often viewed by 50% of Ukrainians. However, only 24% trust what they see. It is obviously not enough to communicate effectively with the 44 million country. Moreover, the rating of the audience is a variable substance. A year and a half ago, in February 2018, 61% of Ukrainians watched “1+1” and 35.4% trusted it (KIIS, 2018–2019). Therefore, it seems that the refusal of the authorities to act as “intermediaries” in the face of journalists is a desire not supported by real possibilities.

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However, there is another important nuance. Bullying the media, the new government confronts not only the journalist department but also civil society, at least the part that feels to be the driving energy of the changes that have been initiated on the Maidan. Historically, the journalistic and activist environment in Ukraine has many points of interpenetration, which were formed during both Maidans, during the confrontation with the Yanukovych regime and during the resistance to Russian aggression. Some of the ordinary people who are “tired of the war” and perceive the events of recent years solely as television shows can really be set against journalists. Even after that, their agenda will still be shaped by TV and the editions of popular online publications. But it is impossible to confront journalists with civil society, however heterogeneous and internally conflicting, this environment is. All the more if the open ordering customer of such a split will be authorities. “The people”, on appeals to whom the rhetoric of Zelenskiy’s team is based, really exists and is truly an arithmetic majority. The fact that the new government has come to terms with them is an undeniable achievement, but not absolute. Because the political subjection is only reached by people’s majority once every five years when they are handed out the ballots. However, in order to sit to the end of their cadence, the authorities must also reach out to those who are able to shape state events without ballots: media and civil society. But it seems that Zelenskiy’s team has not understood it yet.

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