As Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych stood proudly on a Kyiv stage telling hundreds of the world’s publishers and journalists that censorship is just a stereotype in Ukraine, he thought he was the “Good.”
He turned out to be an “Ugly Liar,” as demonstrated by the drama that unveiled in the audience. The “ugly” events that unfolded gave visitors of the World Association and Newspapers and News Publishers, and the World Editors Forum a snapshot of Ukraine’s deteriorating state of media freedoms and freedom of expression.
In a silent and peaceful protest, about 15 Ukrainian journalists pulled out posters reading “Stop Censorship” as Yanukovych started speaking. A few guards with official blue badges swiftly moved to protect their “boss” on stage from seeing the content of the posters, or being humiliated by them.
Sadly for them, their tactics backfired.
One of them, a tall light-haired man, approached me from behind. He pulled me roughly by the shoulders and yanked the poster out of my hands. Then he moved on to do the same to Olena Prytula, chief editor of Ukraine’s most read online news portal Ukrainska Pravda, who stood right next to me.
A short scuffle followed as we tried to reclaim our posters. We were shocked that he dared to scuffle with two women, a couple of perfectly peaceful posters, in the middle of a conference full of journalists while Yanukovych was speaking about how he will protect media freedoms.
Stripped of our posters, we quickly pulled out our notebook computers and wrote the same anti-censorship messages on the screen, holding it out for all to see. The guard then stood in front of us, attempting to shield us from Yanukovych’s view.
What made the situation comical is that he attacked the chief editor of the most read online news source in Ukraine as his own president stood on the stage saying: “Ukraine has made its way, without exaggeration, from total censorship to an open society.”
To add to the surrealism of the whole affair, another dozen journalists, including Kyiv Post Editor Brian Bonner, were left untouched holding similar posters amid in other sections of the audience.
Could the other guards not reach them? Or did their brains kick in, signaling that it would be unwise to squash peaceful protesters in the middle of an audience of 1,000 people from the news industry?
In an episode where the absurd became reality, the other guards filmed the other the protesters with their cameras as journalists in the audience turned their cameras on them.
All of this cross-filming and other minor dramas were instantly and dutifully reported on twitter, Facebook and blogs by dozens of foreign witnesses who, stunned from what they were seeing, took pictures with their phones and madly tapped keyboards of their digital devices.
Many of them later expressed concern for the protestors. “If they’re doing this in front of us, what are they going to do to you when you come out of here?” asked Anette Novak, a board member of the World Editors Forum and one of the event organizers.
In this particular case, they needn’t have worried about. The violent guards disappeared as soon as the president left the room.
Later, the presidential guard issued an official statement alleging that the attacker was not one of their staff, but a private individual. This is nonsense, because he had a document certifying he was a n official guard, and he acted (and then disappeared) in coordination with the rest of the security. He may not be on staff of the presidential guard, but he could be a members of the SBU state security service, or another dozen budget-sponsored security agencies.
Larry Kilman, deputy CEO of WAN/IFRA, expressed public support for the protest. “One of the main focuses of these events is to defend and promote press freedom. By choosing Ukraine as our venue, we stand in solidarity with the local independent press, and draw international attention to the situation here. The protesters were a very powerful reminder that there is still much to be done,” she said.
Kilman is right indeed. Ukraine has a dismal record as far as freedom of expression goes. International watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked the nation 116th in its freedom of speech rating in 2011-2012, up from its all-time low of 131 the year before.
Journalists are threatened with criminal cases and face a danger of violence and occasionally even death from officials as well as law enforcers. TV channels that attempt to report on corruption by influential officials or present a view alternative that of oligarch-owned channels that are loyal to the president are silenced through a whole range of means.
A good case in point is channel TVi. After being left without digital licenses by the regulator last year, it is being pushed out of cable networks, which are in turn pressured by the National TV and Radio Council, the same regulator.
This cuts the channel’s audience and chances for survival. Combined with pressure from tax authorities, the channel can go bankrupt, while its founder Mykola Kniazhytskiy (who is now running for parliament with the opposition to get immunity from prosecution) can potentially face criminal charges.
The story of TVi is, in some ways, hardly news. After all, in Ukraine, law enforcers, regulators and threats of criminal charges are often used to silence journalists and prevent them from doing their jobs.
Many media face censorship from the owners and managers, and often practice self-censorship. As a result, the public has little access to objective information, but plenty of propaganda, pro-presidential spin and paid-for content with no clear marking.
For journalists, access to information is getting more restricted as a number of new laws have been approved. The law on private information is cited any time a journalist attempts to get a hold of an official’s declaration and match it with the properties they live in and cars they drive.
A recent law has allowed the government to stop disclosing the results of public procurement tenders, which have in the past allowed journalists to uncover a number of potentially corrupt deals, such as the oil drilling equipment bought from a murky offshore company at inflated prices under the watch of Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko.
Thanks to Ukraine’s ridiculous legislation, censorship can be legalized. According to one interpretation of copyright legislation, anyone interviewed by a journalist is co-author of their story, giving them a right to edit and kill the content.
There is little will or prospect that the situation will change for the better any time soon, hence the Sept. 3 journalistic protest. It was addressed to the international community as much as it was to the president.
The community is still figuring out what it can do to help. But the president, traditionally, has pretended the problem isn’t there.
He’s still the “Ugly.”
Kyiv Post deputy editor Katya Gorchinskaya can be reached at email@example.com.
More video from the incident can be viewed here: