When do you notice that something’s missing? It's not always easy, especially when media coverage, which has become bland, vapid, and lacking in discussion and analysis, was not exactly hard-hitting to begin with.
Media specialists in Ukraine expressed concern, within weeks of President Viktor Yanukovych’s inauguration in late February, over measures increasing government influence over the media. These included subordinating the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council (NTVBC) to the cabinet of ministers and the appointment of the former director of one of the most pro-regime channels as head of the state-owned National Television Company.
The most startling move was the appointment of one of Ukraine’s main media tycoons, Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, as head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). This state body shortly found the need to ask the NTVBC to carry out a check of another TV channel, TVi. You can take your pick as regards the motives, since Khoroshkovsky’s Inter channel would have business reasons for crushing a competitor, while TVi remains one of only two major channels, together with Kanal 5, not owned by supporters of the regime and where the opposition can air their views freely.
Or, of course, you can choose to believe the SBU press representative who, when faced with protests not only from the channel but by the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, claimed it was all a spelling mistake and that another, foreign channel had been the intended target.
All of this indicates the dangerously elusive nature of the problem. No need for gauche, heavy-handed measures when two media tycoons are part of the ruling elite (Khoroshkovsky and Rinat Akhmetov, a member of parliament) and most of the others have close personal and business ties with it. The government, as such, does not need to dirty its hands with directives and can claim it is all for freedom of speech and against censorship.
It can claim what it likes. However, recent events suggest the link is much closer, with rhetoric from politicians about the need for "constructive opposition," "responsible journalism," etc., difficult to view in separation from the slanted presentation of certain news stories on a number of television channels.
Take, for example, the Kharkiv agreement of April 21 between Yanukovych and and Russian President Dmity Medvedev, which allows Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to stay in Crimea until 2042 in exchange for 10 years of apparent gas concessions. The deal had been presented as a fait accompli, with no prior public or parliamentary debate.
There was to be precious little analysis of the agreement in the days to come, despite the clear economic and political ramifications of the accord. Of particular concern was the chaos in parliament on April 27 and the coverage this and the ratification of the agreement received on Ukrainian television. Certain channels were predictably slanted. However, the coverage by all channels was woefully inadequate.
Channel 1+1 , whose journalists were the first, on May 6, to issue a public statement protesting against censorship and government pressure produced a startling feature
read by a presenter unknown to his colleagues. This report suggested, among other things, that the mayhem in parliament had been manufactured by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to conceal her earlier agreement to the same deal. No discussion. No comments from Tymoshenko or her party.
The feature served a clear purpose -- to push a certain point of view. And this was on a channel that has generally provided reasonably balanced reporting.
It is cheering that journalists from 1+1, TVi, and another TV channel, STB, have had the courage to make their concerns public -- eliciting, of course, indignant denials from the president’s representative, Anna Herman, and members of the channels’ management. It is vital that the issues remain public and that journalists receive support both from Ukrainian civic society and organizations abroad.
The task, though, is monumental, especially given the lack of proper mechanisms and real public broadcasting. The blithe promises by Herman to have a law on public broadcasting tabled in parliament by September are as meaningless as most other declarations of commitment to press freedom in Ukraine. Such phrases came thick and fast from the previous government and president, as well, and nothing was done.
The situation has, however, qualitatively changed, with the government and Yanukovych now a united front with considerable levers of influence in most state bodies and, of course, in the media. At present, that influence is apparent on television and radio, as was the case with the clampdown in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as well. The dangers should not be underestimated, especially given an audience that quite simply has little quality coverage to compare it with.
The considerable fall in government interference under former President Viktor Yushchenko was unfortunately countered by an increase in “jeansa,” or commissioned news features, with politicians and parties known to be paying huge amounts for effectively covert advertising. Nor have any politicians in recent years demonstrated an unwillingness to use subterfuge, demagoguery, and straight-out lies in their dealings with the public.
Many viewers are quite simply unaccustomed to anything else. When they recently learned that the Kyiv prosecutor has initiated criminal investigations against two opposition deputies over the brawl in parliament on April 27
-- despite photos clearly indicating involvement from all sides as well as outsiders (including Yanukovych’s son) -- all too many see little to worry about. Only one television channel reported the actions of the traffic police who, throughout the country, prevented protesters traveling by coach from arriving at a planned demonstration on May 11 in Kyiv.
When do you notice that the opposition has, effectively, disappeared?
Unbiased information, as well as access to different points of view and analysis, are the stuff any democracy is made of. Any letup in media, public, and international scrutiny now could have disastrous consequences for Ukraine’s democratic development.
-- Halya Coynash