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Analysis: A Sign Of The Times

Two weeks ago, Natalya Dymytruk, an interpreter for the deaf on the Ukrainian television channel UT-1, launched a mini-uprising among her fellow journalists. During a morning news program, Dymytruk signed on 25 November that she was "disappointed to have to interpret lies," adding that viewers "might not see her in the future." Her colleagues at the station responded by demanding that television coverage of events in Ukraine be unmuzzled.

UT-1 was not alone in providing a selective view of the political drama that unfolded in Ukraine's cities after the disputed 21 November presidential election. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 5 December, Oleksandr Rodnyanskyy, a co-owner of the Ukrainian 1+1 TV channel, revealed that his channel had been skewing news coverage in order to survive. "[We did not provide] complete and objective information enabling the viewers to make their own conclusions," he said. "This was a matter of survival for 1+1 TV. The company went through many difficulties in the past. We had to fight a legal battle for our broadcasting license and other issues more than 10 times, and we realized that, in order to survive, we had to come to a compromise. Some of our journalists made their own choice."

In an interview with U.S. National Public Radio's "On the Media" on 3 December, one of those journalists, Fedir Sydoryk, who resigned from 1+1 TV, suggested that most Ukrainian journalists have not followed Dymytruk's example but are instead following the whims of their bosses. "The owners are just seeing where the wind is blowing, and they want to jump on the last car of the train, because if they don't, they'll be left behind," he said. "The journalists are only doing what the ownership is doing, and not the opposite." He explained, "People are just afraid for their jobs. They make good money on television.... The people who are still working at certain channels -- I don't consider them heroes. I consider them chameleons. You know, they change color according to the trees that they're sitting under."

In neighboring Russia, television journalists have not changed sides over the past weeks. If they made a conscious choice at all, then apparently it has been to support the stance toward the Ukrainian election adopted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. President Putin has made no secret of his support for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, visiting Kyiv before the first round of the presidential election and being the first international leader to congratulate Yanukovych on his "victory" in the 21 November second round. Complementing his efforts, ORT and RTR provided close coverage of Prime Minister Yanukovych's campaign for presidential office. And since challenges have mounted to the election results, coverage of the events in Ukraine by Russian television has increasingly diverged -- in tone and emphasis, if not in substance -- from that provided by other Ukrainian and Western media outlets.
The Ukrainian Supreme Court's decision to overturn the results of the election runoff was portrayed as a setback to Ukraine's democratic development.

For example, ORT commentator Mikhail Leontev suggested on 23 November that it was Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's "constitutional duty" to introduce a state of emergency because "because Ukraine is split and because this is effectively a seizure of power." He continued: "One would like to believe [that] the Ukrainian authorities are ready to defend order and, basically, to defend Ukraine since Ukraine will cease to exist in a physical sense. It'll collapse. God forbid, I don't want to be a doomsayer, imagining civil war, but, you know, everything was fine in Iraq too to start with." The next day, RTR predicted -- incorrectly as it turned out -- that "support for candidate Viktor Yanukovych [in Kyiv] could turn out to be just as massive as the protest staged by [Viktor] Yushchenko's supporters."

Organized Attention

Both ORT and RTR have paid special attention to level of organization of the Kyiv protests. An ORT correspondent commented on 23 November that "there has been careful organization and I don't think we can talk of a spontaneous action here. It's all been very well organized, of course." The previous day, an RTR report focused on the foreign groups that orchestrated the protests in Kyiv and were financed "through the so-called philanthropists, for example, the Soros Foundation." TV-Tsentr's "Postskriptum" program also noted the opposition's "tight, mostly hidden, connections with the U.S." According to a 4 December report, "by various accounts, the Americans started to prepare for this in 1999-2000.... The line of Washington was such that the election would only be democratic if [opposition presidential candidate Viktor] Yushchenko won."

In a broadcast on 2 December, ORT turned its attention to the suspicious "enthusiasm of Ukraine's Polish and Lithuanian brothers to act as mediators in the postelection conflict." ORT commentator Leontev recalls the events of the 13th and 14th century when parts of Ukraine were under Polish and Lithuanian rule. "The motives of the Poles to [act as mediators in] Ukraine is transparent from Ukrainian history. The Poles have always been very active in Ukraine and today especially so.... They want to appear as the Great Poland, and to do so is possible only on the bones of Ukraine," he opined. In this context, according to Leontev, Russia is merely defending Ukraine and providing assistance to President Kuchma, "the great balancer between Russia and the West."

ORT depicted the Ukrainian Supreme Court's 3 December decision to overturn the results of the second round and call for a repeat as a setback to Ukraine's democratic development. ORT host Vladimir Pozner led a discussion on 5 December that posed the question, "Will Ukrainian Supreme Court's decision overturning the results of the second round and calling for a third round enable the development of democracy in Ukraine, or is this a democratic joke?" The consensus of most of his guests was that the decision was both unjust and undemocratic.

In the meantime, some Ukrainians apparently noticed the spin some Russian media put on events there. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko announced on 30 November that "all foreign correspondents find working in Ukraine pretty difficult these days, but if you take the Russian newsmen, we've been getting alarming information about grave problems they've faced in recent days," he said. "There've been cases of disruption of live coverage," he claimed. "The situation is getting worse day by day, and it can't but alarm us.... The ministry expresses the hope that the Ukrainian authorities won't overlook unlawful acts against correspondents."

Of course, if Kuchma had introduced a state emergency as Leontev advised, then Russian journalists might have little to worry about.

"Frequently Asked Questions" about the Ukrainian crisis
"Politicians To Watch" as events unfold

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