Glasnost Under Pressure

27 January 2011, 00:00


In the past year, the government has had the same answer to all accusations of the lacking freedom of speech: cite facts. The number of facts grew on a monthly basis: journalists disappeared; they were beaten and pressurized; they were fired for reasons of censorship. However, government representatives never stopped repeating their mantra about facts. When the year 2010 came to end, we made a summary, compared the results with the past decade, and are now prepared to speak in the language of both facts and numbers. And the numbers are clearly not in favor of the current administration.

The mass media are now at the 2002 level. Back then President Leonid Kuchma tightened the screws after the Gongadze case erupted. The methods are still the same: independent media outlets are facing economic or indirect (for example, judicial) measures. They are stripped of licenses and opportunities to distribute or sell printed copies.

Certain journalists have also found themselves under pressure. They are denied access to meetings and events organized by the authorities. They are fired or transferred from news offices to documentary projects. This fate befell Serhii Andrushko who was recognized as the best TV reporter of the year. A journalist whose news reports constantly attracted attention and evoked wide response in the Ukrainian society (and, let me add, drove up popularity ratings) was transferred to another unit to work on documentary projects. Did STB Chief Volodymyr Borodniansky do it at Mr. Andrushko’s voluntary request?

Some journalists were forced to quit and seek a job with two TV channels which, under the pressure of circumstances, came to be called opposition channels: 5th Channel and TVi. Yulia Bankova, the journalist who made Hanna Herman’s and Borys Kolesnikov’s talk with foreign journalists public knowledge, left the 1st Channel. But from a formal standpoint, this is not the position or policy of the government.

When journalists are beaten, law enforcement agencies have to carry out an investigation and find the culprit(s). Meanwhile, one of the biggest high-profile cases of the year — the disappearance of journalist Vasyl Klymentiev — remains unsolved despite concerns voiced by Ukrainian and international journalist organizations.

Crimes against journalists are now more frequently committed by the guards of top officials and law enforcement officers. It can be argued that the ID check of Mustafa Naiem and Vitalii Sych were accidental. But the interference with the work of a 5th Channel crew on the Maidan, the beating of Mr. Andrushko by President Viktor Yanukovych’s guards, and the searches and confiscation of materials in Olena Bilozerska’s apartment are direct violations perpetrated by the government. Journalists never learned the name of the officer who knocked down and beat Mr. Andrushko. When the police burst into a journalist’s apartment to take away her camera, computer, and all information materials, it is highly unlikely that a full-fledged investigation will follow.

All of this is a result of reliance on force in the construction of an authoritarian state that has no room for the independent press. More than merely undesirable, it is dangerous to its masterminds.

The independent press, a powerful civic sector, the strong opposition, and an active and influential artistic community — all of these are from a different world that the current Ukrainian rulers fail to understand and are afraid of. The reason is that this world is based on open competition, from business to the public sphere. Persistence and creativity, rather than pure force, are a ticket to success in this competitive environment. This is what they call development in the Western world.

In contrast, when you cannot compete on a par, you are forced to use pressure and brute physical force. This is stagnation rather than development. It offers certain advantages but only for a short while. The most recent case in point is Tunisia — another authoritarian dictator from a long and well-known list has lost his throne. His experience should be closely studied by those who have opted for a similar policy in Ukraine.

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