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Back Story: Orwellian-speak

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Sept. 13, 2012, 9:20 p.m. | Op-ed — by Michael Willard

Ukrainian journalists stage a protest against government censorship and oligarch control of Ukrainian news media during President Viktor Yanukovych’s speech at the World Newspaper Congress in Kyiv on Sept. 3. The silent protest involved about 16 journalists who rose from their seats and held up posters reading “Stop Censorship” and “Media Oligarchs Serve the Authorities.” Yanukovych did not acknowledge the protesters.
© AP

Michael Willard

 There is no censorship in Ukraine. Ukraine has an open society.

The economy of Ukraine is stable and will continue to be so as long as this administration is in power or until the end of time, whichever comes first.  

There is absolutely no corruption at the highest echelon of Ukrainian government. The existence of high-level corruption is a myth.  

If you believe those statements to be true, I have hectares of prime farmland in the Chornobyl dead zone to sell you. In the administration’s Orwellian-speak, black is white and white is chartreuse.

In fact, the official pronouncements often make the famous Twilight Zone seem as normal as Sunday morning pancakes and kefir. The truth is out there, perhaps hidden in a far-off black hole, but there.  
The sad thing is that at times the administration seems so earnest in its feel-good proclamations that one would think they actually believe it themselves.

It reminds me of some Ukrainian advertising “contests,” where the agency that bought first place convinces itself it won first place. Otherwise, why would they have been handed the gold-plated statuette?

I think this whole very translucent spin game is a remnant of the Soviet era. I was once in a meeting with the late Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Moscow in which he earnestly proclaimed interest in a nuclear arms limitation treaty (SALT II). He was passionate about it.

Four months later, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, thereby ensuring that the treaty, negotiated by several administrations, would not even be brought up in the U.S. Senate.

What sparked this discourse was the silent protest at the World Newspaper Congress in Kyiv recently where some 16 editors and journalists held signs reading: “Stop Censorship” and “Media Oligarchs Serve the Authorities” during President Viktor Yanukovych’s address.

The irony is that as the president boasted about Ukraine’s open society and asserted that it was free of censorship, his security guards were trying to take away the protest signs, knocking around a couple of journalists in the process.

The government’s actions gave the president’s words a hollow ring.  Captured on tape, they quickly found their way to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Sometimes the truth can travel faster than rumor and the big fib.

Two Kyiv Post editors participated in the protest. A business acquaintance, looking for dents in the Kyiv Post’s armor, suggested it was unseemly to have journalists participating in making the news, instead of simply covering the news.

I struggled with this question for a millisecond, and then moved beyond it.

For a newsperson to get personally involved in a story, there needs be extraordinary circumstances. To be honest brokers of news, reporters need not only be impartial but to have the appearance of impartiality in news – though not in editorial or opinion columns.

The Kyiv Post strives for this lack of bias. It is the wellspring of the newspaper’s credibility and it is why for much of its nearly 20 years, the newspaper has been considered the world’s window on Ukraine. 

However, the journalists’ quiet protest was one of those extraordinary circumstances.  It was dignified. It only became disruptive due to the ham-fisted tactics of the president’s security detail.
A journalist should refrain from protesting against a political candidate he or she could be covering in the future, or even against a government decision unrelated to his job. The wisest course is to remain a neutral observer.

In this case, Kyiv Post and other journalists were protesting what they felt was a dangerous infringement on their ability to do their jobs. Tax authorities have been used to harass government critics, and reporters have are being bullied and beaten.  

In my view, the journalists not only had the right to peacefully protest, but the duty to make their opinions heard where it counted - in the face of Ukraine’s president. It was an opportune time and a legitimate forum for dissent.

Early in the Yanukovych administration, the international business community felt the new president possibly could restore order and stability to the country.  At least, that was the promise. The previous administration had blithely navigated the ship of state over a waterfall.

For a while, international business was optimistic. But then the bloom was off the rose.
Within months, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was in the dock during what many around the world saw as a trial of retribution. Numerous stories emerged - spoken in business circles - that corruption was at the core of the current regime.

All that is negative about the administration might not be true.
Censorship in any form might not exist.
Ukraine might have a completely open society.
Corruption at high levels just might be a myth.

If the president believes this, it at best represents a leader out of touch with what’s happening in his country. At worst, it’s language fraud of the Orwellian variety.  

Having watched dysfunctional governments in Ukraine for nearly 20 years, I fear it is the latter.
Kyiv Post CEO Michael Willard can be reached at willard@kyivpost.com

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