Parallel Media Worlds
We overestimate the importance of multiple media sources at our peril. Our favourite websites, newspapers, contacts on social networks all know about the hard-hitting questions put to President Yanukovych last week at the YES Yalta Annual Conference. They can repeat the stern words about the risks to EU integration, Ukraine’s possible isolation – and, of course, the importance of fair elections.
In that parallel world inhabited by a very large number of Ukrainian voters there is only the news on national television channels, including the State-owned UTV-1. That, on the contrary, was only upbeat. Ukraine, we are told, is “accelerating integration”. It “is gradually moving towards signing the EU Association Agreement. The Head of State promises that after the parliamentary elections this process will speed up”.
The President’s own words were heard at the Conference by participants who knew well what the “additional questions” he mentions are. TV viewers have no such insider information.
Another brief news item that day stated the following: “EU Commissioner Štefan Füle supports Ukraine’s integration plans. … In his address to the Yalta Summit he stated that the parliamentary elections would determine the future prospects for relations between Kyiv and Brussels”
Not in the slightest inaccurate, of course, but scarcely informative. In fact, the very rationale behind the heavyweight presence at the conference is difficult to fathom. The response from Yanukovych, his Foreign Minister and others was absolutely predictable, but so too was the fact that most Ukrainians would hear only a carefully constructed version of the event. What did the honourable EU representatives really expect their words about the importance of honest elections to achieve? Surely not enough to compensate for the propaganda effect of such events on an increasingly duped audience.
The EU cannot be blamed if Ukraine’s leaders are willing to throw away European integration rather than play by democratic rules, but they should not help prop up a charade. The very fact that a huge number of Ukrainian voters have no chance of learning why this integration is at threat already casts doubt over the fairness of the coming elections.
This has been the case for the last two years or more. What, however, has intensified is the assault on one of the last relatively independent TV channels – TVi
Over the last two months we have seen serious attempts to block voters’ access to one of the last sources of criticism of the current government, hard-hitting questions and investigations exposing corruption and other infringements. Some 80 cable providers have by now removed TVi from their packages or, like the Kyiv Volya provider, moved TVi to a much more expensive package. TVi believes that the National Broadcasting Council is behind this behaviour which, from any business point of view given the channel’s popularity, is quite irrational.
On 12 September TVi lost its appeal against the results of the check carried out by the State Tax Administration. The Administrative Court of Appeal thus revoked the ruling of the first instance court which had been in TVi’s favour. It is worth noting that in July the tax authorities carried out a check leading to criminal proceedings being brought against the General Director of TVi, Mykola Knyazhytsky. He was accused of not having paid 3 million UAH in taxes. Mr Knyazhytsky asserts that this was money owed the channel in VAT. It was over this that, prior to July, a court found in TVi’s favour.
Following intense criticism including from international bodies, the Prosecutor General announced that the criminal proceedings had been terminated. There was no cause for relief since at the same time we began hearing that one after another cable provider had removed the channel. And now the inconvenient court ruling in TVi’s favour has been revoked.
Two days ago the President’s Press Service reported that Yanukovych had instructed the Broadcasting Council to look into the actions of the cable providers. Sounds fine, means little. On 19 September he “called on local authorities to prevent pressure on the media during the elections”.
Most laudable and his words will doubtless be heard throughout the country. Including by some of those viewers whose access to less bland fare has been removed.
The danger to fair and honest elections can be gauged already. With such flagrant disregard for media freedom and the right to information, perhaps international observers and EU representatives could make better efforts to ensure that this is understood now.
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