From Decapitation to Deceit – The Intimidation of Ukraine’s Journal-ists
By Denis MacShane
Losing your head is never advisable but it is some decades since chopping off a head was a state ordained punishment.
The one exception is Ukraine where a brave journalist, Georgy Gongadze, who had dared to publish criticisms of the then President Kuchma, was taken out 13 years ago, strangled and then decapitated on the order of the president.
The man who carried out the murder with his own hands was a high-ranking Ukrainian General Oleksly Pukach. Earlier this year he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He had confessed in 2009 after a tape was published recording a conversation in the then President Kuchma’s office, the general who carried out the murder, and two other named high ranking officials. One of those, the former Interior Minister, Volodymyr Lytvyn, died in unex-plained suspicious circumstances in 2005.
The trial of General Pukach was held behind closed doors with no journal-ists president. The man who ordered the murder of the journalist, the former president Kuchma, is still free.
Georgy Gongdze was publisher and editor of the Ukraine web journal, Ukrainska Pravda, which can still be read on line and in Google translation seems very lively, a match for Slate or the Huffington Post. (Pravda.com.ua)
Today’s rulers in Ukraine do not resort to such brutal methods to hit at journalists who they think are insufficiently respectful of those in power.
Gongadze’s news outlet Ukrainska Pravda (‘Ukraine Truth’) is still a vigor-ous online and independent journal. But now it has been cloned by a web paper, Ukrainska Kryvda, (kryvda.com) which means ‘Ukraine Falsehood’. It looks like Ukrainska Pravda, uses the same layout and type face but its stories are all at-tacks on journalists and on anyone who criticizes the ruling powers.
Other more direct means are used to sap morale of journalists. Media out-lets change owners, journalists are fired, there is crude intimidation. According to Natalya Perevalova, an editor at the ATV television station – the most popular in the Black Sea region around Odessa – ‘Journalists are just frightened. They don’t know what might happen to them so they are just cautious and conform-ist.’
Increasingly the press in Ukraine is less able to perform its role as a watchdog of government and political actions, and handicapped from delivering a reliable source of information to the public on the situation in the country. The instrument of “mass-media” has become institutionalised as a public relations and propaganda tool to serve political and commercial objectives without regard to factual reporting or analysis.
The Institute of Mass Information in Ukraine reports that 2012 saw a peak in repression applied against media critical of the government – with 324 cases. That is the highest number of cases in the last 10 years, and this trend is seen as being linked to the impunity of the police, officials and politicians. The trend has continued to rise in 2013.
Those close to President Yanukovich are known as ‘The Family’ and they want to ensure there is no media examination of how state assets or contracts are given on the basis of political loyality and pay-offs.
On the eve of Ukraine’s Journalist Day, 6 June 2013, forty human rights or-ganizations issued a statement expressing concern over the escalating assault on the freedom of expression and reduction of other fundamental freedoms in Ukraine.
The country’s main news agency, the Ukraine National News Agency, UNI-AN, saw five of its best journalists suddenly told in August 2012 that they could not access their computers and instead were relegated to a new TV-news moni-toring service. The journalists had all been involved a year ago in protest at UNIAN against the agency putting out fake stories and censoring reporting. There is even a name for news coverage paid for by oligarchs. It is called ‘Jeansa’.
Another example of media manipulation is the hacking into computers of journalists and then the publication of personal files to try and discredit the vic-tim. Oksana Romaniuk, director of the Institute of Mass Information, has seen material from her computer appear in a spoof newspaper so that her media oversight institute appears unreliable and without credibility.
These tactics and techniques are less murderous than the decapitation of Gogadze but whereas his brutal murder sparked a sense of outrage and a major international campaign, the updated methods used to damage and demoralize free journalism get little attention outside Ukraine.
The EU has tried its best as its seeks to persuade Ukraine to modernize and reform and move closer to a partnership with Europe in place of settling down to subordinate status as a junior partner in the Russian dominated Eura-sian Economic Union. Ukraine has passed a number of laws (Access to Public In-formation) and a wonderfully named decree signed by Yanukovich on 1 July 2013 entitled ‘On Ensuring Observance of Legislation On Freedom if Speech and Preventing Interference in Professional Activity of Journalists’. Like Potemkin villages these are designed to persuade international bodies like the OSCE or Council of Europe that the government is committed to media freedom. The reg-ular attacks on journalists and independent media operations tells the real truth.
The EU’s media monitoring survey on the six Eastern Partnership coun-tries (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia) says Ukraine is second bottom in the list just above Armenia. This is a long way from the self-proclaimed European status Ukraine claims for itself.
The EU has focused more on the issue of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister jailed on trumped up charges to remove a powerful popular potential rival to Yanukovich and the ‘Family’ from Ukrainian politics. In addition, the EU has not been willing to make a serious offer to Ukraine in terms of market access for its exports or freer movement of Ukrainian citizens.
Media freedom in Ukraine has not had much profile beyond specialist writers and media freedom NGOs. It is almost as if there has to be a tragic mur-der like that of Gongadze before there is wider public concern about the erosion of journalists’ freedom.
Press freedom is not a given when a country moves from full-on authori-tarianism as at the end of the communist era or some other regime change pro-cess. After 1945, in West Europe there was a deliberate effort to encourage the creation a nucleus of independent, rigorous newspapers and a conservative broadcasting network where news selection was anti-sensationalist to the point of being almost boring.
This did not stop excesses of tabloid journalism underlined in Heinrich Boll’s ‘The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum’, the right-wing excesses of the Her-sant press in France or as can be seen today in the trials for illegal phone hack-ing of Rupert Murdoch’s editors.
Yet there was always a silver thread of high quality journalism with a clear journalistic deontology that set higher standards. Other than possibly Gazeta in Poland the post-Soviet imperium countries have plenty of vivid journalism in papers, on television, and on web sites but there is there a nucleus of reliable, balanced, fair journalism which owes no favour to a political party, a business group or an ideology?
When I worked for the BBC World Service in the 1970s we were not al-lowed to include a fact unless it came from three sources – Reuters, AP, BBC Monitoring etc. At one level this made for agonizingly slow journalism but it al-so raised that status for careful unbiased truth-telling of the BBC to heights that few other news disseminators could match.
The question is how does one create that journalism in cultures like Ukraine where journalists are often political activists with Ipads and see their task as putting their case not reporting facts. Journalism as a liberal profession has taken a severe battering in recent years. You cannot really be a doctor, archi-tect or lawyer without some professional training and a quasi-legal obligation to ensure the patient does not die, the house does not fall down, and the accused are not allowed a defence.
But anyone can write, photograph, video and every blog or Facebook page is now part of journalism. Business journalism is over-taking political and social journalism. The highest paid practitioners of public relations are now to be found in the world of business and finance as they try and steer good news about their clients into the papers and keep out or minimize bad news.
The wall between business and journalism has become porous. In this con-text hoping that Ukraine will conform to standards that are rapidly being eroded in the West of Europe and the wider democratic world may be a hope too far.
That is not a council of despair. The European Union and the Council of Europe via the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights emphasizes media freedom. According to the European Court of Human Rights, EU member states must guarantee media pluralism un-der Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 10 of that Convention contains provisions similar to those of Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which forms part of the Community acquis. Ukraine of course is some way from membership of the EU as Russia threatens Ukraine with a denial of market access or cheaper gas. And the ‘Fami-ly” prefers doing business à la Russe.
But the best hope for Ukraine’s ambitions to secure greater media free-dom lie in its getting closer to the European Union. Certainly if Ukraine prefers to look north to Belarus or east to Russia and the Kremlin’s Eurasian Economic Community then there can be little hope that media freedom will sink roots.
The British journalist-philosopher, John Lloyd, Director of Journalism at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, has written-recently of Samuel Huntingdon’s 1993 warning in the context of his much dis-cussed thesis on a clash of civilisations : ‘The principle conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations.’ Lloyd points out that Huntingdon said the ‘Slavic-Orthodox culture’ to which Ukraine belongs was a civilizational group headed by Russia and distinct from the rest of Europe.
For those in Ukraine who insist on Ukraine’s European destiny this should be worrying. But the evidence of more and more difficulties for freedom of ex-pression in Ukraine suggests that Lloyd is right to raise the question : Quo vadis Ukrainia?
Kuchma’s brutal decapitation tactic to intimidate journalists has been re-placed by a broader set of measures, a strategy almost, decided, financed and enacted by those at the head of the political-business elites that control Ukraine.
The longer Ukraine stays distant from the EU the stronger those forces – and the weaker Ukraine’s media – will become.
Denis MacShane was Minister for Europe in the UK and a former president of the National Union of Journalists. This is based on a talk given in the European Par-liament 20 November 2013 at the invitation of Fabrizio Bertot, MEP, and the Foundation for Democracy and Governance at seminar seminar “Freedom of Speech in Ukraine”