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They Didn't Eat Cake

Happy Journalists' Day
In Washington, journalists are a kind of royalty. They pretty much have the run of the place. In today’s Ukraine, on the other hand, journalists mostly do what they’re told. The telling is usually done by an oligarch owner or by a scared and servile editor. If that fails, self-censorship kicks in.

Although Ukraine is far from being the servile, stodgy Soviet republic it once was, you can’t really say that the country’s journalists call the shots. They basically earn money. Sometimes they break big stories, and sometimes they get killed.

While the average journalist probably doesn’t have much of a chance at getting a one-on-one conversation with the U.S. president, if you’re accredited with the White House you do have a good chance of asking him a question during the many briefings and press conferences that he holds regularly.

If you work for a big journalism outfit (or if you happen to be a celebrity or a famous comedian), you can get even closer to the President during the annual White House Correspondents dinner. That’s a glittering political soiree to which – see Matthew 22:14 – many are called, though few are chosen.

And even if you don’t want to hang around near Obama’s office, you can still get plenty of insight into the highs and lows of a presidential day by following the reports posted regularly by members of the media pool that travels with him. You’ll learn whom he hugged at the Chrysler plant in Toledo and how he scoffed down two chili dogs with fries at Rudy’s Hot Dog.

In America, in a word, you can get to know all the intimate details of the daily routine of the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. You can travel with him vicariously and watch him eat the same junk food that his wife is warning the rest of his fellow Americans about. And, if you have a bit of talent and perseverance, you can even challenge him during an open press conference or briefing.

Not so in Ukraine. The daily schedule of the president there is often as closely guarded as a state secret. There is no tradition of the kind of pool reporting that gives the office and its holder a human dimension.

And, to be frank, the attitude of many of these post-communist presidents towards journalists leaves a lot to be desired. Just take the cat-and-mouse-game played out between the president and reporters in Kyiv this week. It’s a good example of the dysfunctional relationship between the press and the powers-that-be.

When Viktor Yanukovych took over as Ukraine’s president last year, he promised that he would open his Mezhyhiria residence to the journalists and invite them all over for “tea and conversation.” But try as they might, no invitation has followed, and the president continues to elude their efforts to hold him to his word. So this week they decided to take him at his word.

Every year, on June 6, Ukraine marks “Journalists’ Day,” and this time around a couple of reporters decided to use it to give the president a chance to make good on his promise. They decamped outside the grounds of the residence early in the morning – only to be met by the mayor of the local town, who tried to shoo them away for disturbing the peace of the local residents. The journalists persevered, but it seemed that the president once again had no time for them – even on this, their official holiday. The president sped off to work in a five-car motorcade.

Then Yanukovych’s press secretary, Darka Chepak, drove up to the assembled reporters in a small car and emerged with a giant bouquet of red and white roses. She greeted everyone and attempted to pass out the long-stemmed blossoms. But no one took the flowers.

The flowers were followed by a huge blue and white cake in the shape of an open book that emerged from the trunk of the car. It was decorated with the inscription “Happy Journalists’ Day” in blue icing. No takers for the cake, either. Poor Chepak was forced to answer uncomfortable questions about the president’s refusal to speak to the press. The roses ended up wilting under a tree. A bunch of construction workers nearby were happy to eat the cake.

A year ago, on Journalists’ Day 2010, Chepak was taking part in a campaign to stop censorship in Ukraine. Together with other journalists she was distributing pamphlets on the streets of Kyiv that warned of the dangers of rising authoritarianism. This year, however, she was on the other side, performing a ritual that perfectly sums up the contempt in which Ukraine’s elected leader holds the press.

The Ukrainian president, meanwhile, met later in the day with a select group of journalists who have spent most of their careers saying nice things about the government. He passed out state awards that bring a nice dollop of extra pension money and provide access to a multitude of state perks, including free vacations in government sanatoria and resorts. Some journalists in Ukraine get state awards, while others get cake and flowers. If there’s a good side to all of this, it’s that not all of them take what they’re offered.

- Irena Chalupa