Ukrainian media and society: still "not so free"

In his analysis of the Ukrainian media landscape and its preconditions, Mykola Ryabchuk maintains that “a situation, when people have plenty of rights on paper but cannot employ them in reality has largely persisted in the post-Soviet space. The only substantial difference between the post-Soviet states and the Soviet Union is that the latter had had a compulsory ideology”. Rather than painting a negative or positive future in conclusion, he reminds that there is a future yet to be shaped.

Some nine years ago, American publicist Abraham Brumberg published an article about the nascent independent Ukraine, which could not but have infuriated many Ukrainians. Its curious title Not So Free at Last seemed to show rather little respect for many people of present and past generations whose life dream of a “free Ukraine” had recently been realized, and whose expectations of a prosperous, democratic, European state had not yet vanished. The editors of the New York Review of Books who featured the article did their best to pour some more oil on the fire, having highlighted the Brumberg article on the cover with the words “Nasty Ukraine”. As it often happens, the arrogant headline and frivolous title had rather obliqued than highlighted the perspicacious essence of Brumberg’s article – his apt observation of the ambiguity of Ukraine’s independence and, by extension, of all the dubious changes that have been happening in the post-Soviet countries. Today, this ambiguity seems to be the determining feature of Ukrainian politics, economy, culture and virtually the whole way of people’s thinking, feeling and behaviour. It largely stems from the fact that the anti-communist revolution in Ukraine, as well as in most parts of the former USSR (except the Baltics), has not been completed. The so-called “democratic Ukraine” (“democratic Russia,” etc.), which allegedly emerged in 1991 is no more than the wishful thinking of numerous Sovietologists and Kremlinologists who had always known everything about “Russia” except the most obvious things.

There was a nice joke in the late USSR about an American super-spy who was very carefully and intensely trained by the CIA after a number of tragic failures with his predecessors. He was taught by native-speakers and got acquainted with all possibly relevant things: to drink vodka straight up, never to use napkins or handkerchiefs, never pull out a teaspoon from one¹s glass when drinking tea and so on. Finally, he was brought by a super-plane into the depths of Russia, jumped successfully with a parachute that afterwards was immediately destroyed by special chemicals in the forest, and rather easily found the road since he knew the area by heart from a detailed map made with a help of super-satellites. He wore a typical Russian jacket called a and typical dirty boots called , and exuded the slight odour of a seldom washed body, developed, again, in super-secret CIA laboratories.

At the bus stop he lit up a strong Russian cigarette he’d been trained for years to smoke without coughing and eventually was approached by some from a nearby village who asked him for a cigarette, breathed in the smoke deeply, and suddenly remarked:
“Look, man, don’t you have better cigarettes in America?”
The spy was completely dumbstruck and the only thing he could utter was: “But how do you know I’m an American?”
“Well, man, that¹s easy. We don’t have any blacks here.”

Indeed, the 1991 events that climaxed, after the failed putsch, in a ban on the Communist party and the dissolution of the USSR, seemed so impressive that some of its essential, internal features went largely unnoticed or were simply ignored. People saw on the surface what they wanted to see and avoided an in-depth analysis, which required unpleasant questions and uncomfortable answers. Even Yeltsin’s bombardment of the Parliament in 1993 was treated candidly and rather benevolently as a young and vulnerable Russian “democracy” fighting the ugly relics of reactionary Bolshevism. Very few people dared to accuse the “democrats” of being not so democratic and to foresee in the fate of the Parliament the prefiguration of many further developments. Even less people dare, even today, to find any connection between that bombardment and the 1999 explosions in Moscow, allegedly masterminded by the evil Chechens. Or, let’s say, the farcical assassination attempt masterminded last year in the Ukraine, allegedly by the main political rival of incumbent President Leonid Kuchma during the presidential elections (or, maybe, the mysterious road accident which killed another rival, Rukh’s leader Vyacheslav Chornovil).

All these random events, including a dirty war in Chechnya, a dirty war with local governors, a dirty war with the independent mass-media (in both Russia and Ukraine) seem to have something very important in common: the old-style Bolshevik belief that any means can and should be applied for the right cause, especially if this cause means unlimited power and unaccountable property.

Despite the really impressive changes that shook and rapidly reconfigured the post-Soviet world in 1991, some basic features of the Soviet system remained unchanged. In time, they proved to be the main hindrance to further development and the main source of these countries’ subsequent stagnation and social ambivalence. The major fault of the “unfinished revolution” of 1991 was just that – it was unfinished. First, it didn’t replace the old political class with a new one; the major changes occurred within the old ruling elite; the opposition forces proved rather weak and their leaders had little choice (and too little imagination) but to accept second-rate positions within the old-cum-new regime. Second, the “unfinished revolution” put virtually no new institution into place and did not abandon a single old one. A part of the Soviet army became the Ukrainian army, with the same officers and ; the notorious KGB became the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) – again with the same staff, skilled in fighting “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists” and other dissidents; University departments of Marxism-Leninism, Scientific Communism, Atheism, etc., became departments of Philosophy, History of Religion, and so on – but again, with the same people who seldom bothered to revise the content, let alone the methodology of their courses. Even the Communist Party as a state institution remained virtually untouched: its ideological functions were abandoned but its administrative functions preserved; the “party of power” remained in power; the just changed their chairs and emblems to keep on ruling the same country by the same methods of the “telephone law”- now, however, under the guise of state administrators.

In sum, the Ukraine (as well as Russia and some other post-Soviet republics) became a show-case democracy with seemingly free elections, a free mass-media and a free, so they claim, market economy. However, none of these institutions work properly, in a Western style, simply because none of them are based on the rule of law. The lack of a strong and unshakeable, independent, transparent, efficient legal system, compounded by the very low legal consciousness of both common people and the ruling elites, is the main obstacle that hinders real reforms in the post-Soviet countries. Perhaps you remember that the Soviet Union used to have a very nice Constitution, maybe the best in the world, but very few people ever tried to employ it simply because there were no real mechanisms to implement in practice the numerous rights and freedoms it guaranteed. There was a nice joke about a Communist Party professional propagandist who delivered a lecture to workers at a weekly political information meeting. His topic was “Constitutional Rights of Soviet Citizens², and after the lecture he was ready to answer questions. Nobody was eager to ask anything because everything, in actuality, was clear even before the lecture began. Suddenly however, one Ivanov raised his hand and put a question: “Comrade lecturer, have I the right toŠ?” “Yes, yes, you have!” interrupted the lecturer who was eager to end the senseless ritual and go home. “Well, comrade lecturer”, insisted the worker, “you haven¹t heard me out. My question is whether I have a right toŠ?” “Yes, yes, citizen Ivanov, of course you have!”, exclaimed the lecturer impatiently. “No, comrade lecturer”, the nuisance was really unbearable, “I just wonder if I have a right toŠ?” “Yes, you certainly have!!!” – the lecturer was deeply annoyed by that stupid guy. “Well,” the worker began thoughtfully, “can I thenŠ?” “No, you definitely can’t.”

Such a situation, when people have plenty of rights on paper but cannot employ them in reality, has largely persisted in the post-Soviet space. The only substantial difference between the post-Soviet states and the Soviet Union is that the latter had had a compulsory ideology, i.e. it had to use excessive violence for the enforcement of ideological purity. However, as the and further developments proved, such an ideology was absolutely unnecessary for meeting the major goal of the ruling class – holding on to power and property.

Of course, such a difference is very significant since it marks the systemic transition from totalitarianism to various sorts of authoritarianism that emerged in the versatile post-Soviet states. Yet one cannot deny that, in terms of legality, authoritarian systems have much more in common with their totalitarian siblings than with Western-style liberal democracies. None of the 12 authoritarian states that replaced the authoritarian Soviet Union in 1991, (which itself had ceased to be totalitarian due to Gorbachov’s and the eventual collapse of its central institutions) have evolved into liberal democracies. On the contrary, virtually all of them became more authoritarian and some, like Turkmenistan, slid back to totalitarianism – this time, however, of a local rather universal (Communist) brand.

To make sense of what happened in the USSR in 1991 and afterwards, one should probably look at the process of as a manifold struggle between the degrading but still strong totalitarian state, subverted by Gorbachov and the reformation , and a nascent civil society striving for emancipation from the state. In the Baltic republics, where civil society proved to be strong enough, the revolution succeeded and much-needed systemic reforms were implemented. In Central Asia, where civil society was too weak or virtually non-existent, no substantial changes have happened; the late Soviet authoritarianism was merely substituted by local forms of post-Soviet despotism, more or less liberal or tyrannical.

In Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia civil society proved strong enough to challenge the state and even, here and there, to seemingly get the upper hand. Yet nowhere did it manage to essentially change the institutions or to establish new, democratic rules of the game. As a result, democratic leaders were easily swept away – by coups (in Georgia and Azerbaijan), by elections (in Belarus and Moldova), or they were simply corrupted and compromised by the ruling , who deceptively “shared” their power with “democrats” (in Ukraine and Russia) though never giving them any significant “share” in its profitable business.

From this point of view, one may claim that Gorbachov’s – as a painful multifaceted process of emancipation of civil society from the totalitarian-cum-authoritarian state – did not end in 1991 but, rather, continued in the successor states throughout the 1990s, and seems far from being over today, even though authoritarian tendencies apparently prevail everywhere. In a sense we are still in a situation of “cold civil war,” and the mass-media still have to take care of this battleground.

At the first glance, the Ukrainian media seem technically to be as free (at last) as their Western counterparts. Anybody can found a newspaper, a journal, a radio or TV company; no censorship is permitted; no media can be shut down other than by a court decision. And at a second glance, you would also hardly find any serious problems with the Ukrainian media. There are plenty of TV channels in Kyiv, and only one of them, owned by the state, seems to be hyper-loyal to the President. Nonetheless, its propagandistic impact is quite dubious, given the extreme stupidity of the staff. There are even more independent radio stations and newspapers, of which very few seem to be the President’s trumpeters. You may find very different opinions in the Ukrainian mass media, some of which are very critical of authorities, even of the President.

Ukraine is apparently not a totalitarian state, and the Ukrainian president is not a bloodthirsty paranoid dictator eager to eliminate innumerable conspirators, enemies of the State, of the People, or of His Own Person. On the contrary, Mr. Kuchma and his numerous spokesmen never tire of emphasizing Ukraine’s “European choice” and their commitment to democratic values. I dare to call this regime “authoritarianism with a human face”. Such a regime never applies excessive violence; it pretends to be democratic and usually follows democratic procedures – to the extent this doesn’t threaten its political and economic dominance. Yet any procedure can be abandoned and any law violated as soon as a threat emerges. The Russian case is the most graphic; Ukrainian rulers are dragging behind – not because of their democratic commitments but just because in Ukraine there are far fewer assets at stake to kill – sorry, to fight for.

The “party of power” that rules Ukraine (you may call those people fashionably “oligarchs,” but I prefer the old Soviet term which is actually generic for most of them), pursues a rather subtle and sophisticated policy towards the mass media.
First of all, being ideologically free, the party of power need not care about ideological purity or about dogma, thus making virtually any topic and any approach to it permissible. The only undesirable thing is investigative reporting. You may accuse oligarchs in the worst language but avoid, please, mentioning their names and God forbid you go deeper into their business. You may bitterly complain of corruption, economic decline and even of government inefficiency but avoid, please, mentioning the President’s name, and God forbid you try tracing the connection between all these phenomena and the activities of the President and his men.

Secondly, the party of power is smart enough to neglect those marginal publications with a low circulation (of 10,000 copies and less), and to focus primarily on daily newspapers with a national circulation of 100,000 or more and especially on a few radio stations and TV channels which have nation-wide transmission (its hardly surprising that the only channel available in most rural regions of Ukraine is the state-owned Channel 1).

Thirdly, the party of power has learned to be highly inventive in manipulating or, so to speak, “managing” the mass media. It applies a wide range of sticks and carrots to promote obedient species and to punch out the disobedient. The set of carrots, of course, is limited because of the scarcity of resources, but the set of sticks is extremely large. It includes various legal (technically speaking) measures of influence and an even more versatile set of semi-legal and overtly illegal, mafia-style, methods of coping with the media.

Handling the media without censorship, without ideological secretaries and instructors has proved unexpectedly easy in a country where civil society has a very weak economic and social base and even weaker legal ground to stand on firmly. The post-Soviet economies, despite broadly trumpeted privatization and the emergence of seemingly free market institutions and market-style relations, still have much more in common with the Soviet administrative system ruled by the “telephone law” than with a really free market where all subjects are playing the same game, according to the same stable rules, and where their success depends on their entrepreneurial skills rather than on personal ties with the authorities and an ability to be “more equal” than others. The low level of efficiency of both the Soviet and post-Soviet economies is largely determined by their basically medieval, feudal character: the economic prosperity of any “businessmen” here depends very little on how he tills his land or which technical innovations and structural changes he introduces to his business, but primarily it depends on which concessions, licenses, tax reliefs, and other privileges he manages to arrange in the corridors of power and which shadow schemes he manages to realize in cooperation with the authorities. Power still is the major source of income in the post-Soviet republics and this is why nobody cares about production but first and foremost about getting into power or making appropriate contacts with the appropriate people. Moreover, this is why no oligarch has made his fortune producing something – whatever; they all got their millions from very dubious trade operations with natural resources and state-cum-privatized property. That’s why, by the way, virtually none of them wants to share his business experience with the general public and to reveal where his fortune comes from.

Such a perverse economic situation has a destructive impact on both the society and the mass media. Since virtually all economic activity is controlled and, if necessary, manipulated by the state with its notorious “telephone law,” no citizen can feel free and economically independent vis-à-vis the authoritarian state. This hampers dramatically the development of civil society anywhere beyond the capital city and some other large urban centres, where the economic scene seems more competitive due to the presence of foreign companies and institutions, and to the greater number of participants in general, to the presence of foreign journalists and diplomats who dare, from time to time, to remind Ukrainian officials about their democratic commitments and “European choice.” But in small towns and especially in villages where the serfdom remains virtually untouched, people are completely dependent economically and therefore politically on the authorities, who are certainly no friends of democracy and legality.

In turn, this means that relatively independent mass media are contained largely in Kyiv and some other big cities, but in most cases are unavailable in the provinces. First, most people in the provinces have usually no idea about their very existence, since the newspapers they are accustomed to read and the only TV channel they are allowed to watch provide no information about the worthless junk. Second, even if somebody gets information about an alternative publication, he can easily be barred from a subscription at the post office under some awkward pretext (the publication doesn’t exist any more, the subscription period is over, circulation is limited, and so on. And apart from the state-run post offices one can hardly find any other place to subscribe to periodicals in the provinces). And thirdly, even if one succeeds in securing a subscription, there may be serious problems with delivery: “undesirable” publications are often lost, delayed, or damaged, and usually nobody is responsible. As a result, very few people in the provinces dare to challenge the existing state of affairs or to launch a war for their civic rights or their rights as customers. The decades of totalitarianism have taught them a simple thing: might makes right or, as they say, not one who’s right is right, but one who has more rights.

In big cities, however, the “telephone law” doesn’t work as perfectly as in the provinces, and urban folk are usually not as obedient as rural folk. The party of power thus needs much more skill and inventiveness to keep major mass media outlets at bay. You may find a long list of crimes against journalists indirectly permitted if not directly committed by the authorities. Every year half a dozen Ukrainian journalists are killed or are said to have committed suicide under very dubious circumstances, or merely disappear – as happened to the extremely courageous Georgiy Gongadze. So far, nobody has yet proved that the authorities have somehow been involved in these crimes. Two things, however, make their role in all these events very suspicious. First, none of the numerous crimes against journalists has yet to be investigated successfully. This may mean that the authorities are highly incompetent, at best, or that they have their own reasons not to find the killers. And second, virtually all Ukrainian journalists who were murdered, beaten, wounded, or who suddenly disappeared or committed “suicide,” used to practice investigative reporting. All of them traced very concrete political and economic affairs in which top Ukrainian officials and their friends – the “oligarchs”- were involved.

Finally, all these events occurred in a very peculiar context of permanent pressure on the media, aggressive obstruction and persecution of journalists carried out by the authorities in the most different ways: direct threats, arrests, blackmail, false libel suits and fantastic multi-million fines imposed by the courts on the authors and periodicals. Perversely, some persons’ allegedly defamed dignity costs much more than other people’s lives – miners’ relatives, for example, get some £250, or 2,000 hryvnias, in compensation for fatal accidents. One can hardly deny that brutal murders and strange “suicides” of Ukrainian journalists seem to be rather a natural part of this context rather than a tragic exception to a relatively normal state of affairs.

There stands a rather extensive record of violations of people’s right to inform and to be informed committed by the Ukrainian authorities – from “stepping up tax checks” and “hygiene inspections” to freezing bank accounts, asking the fire brigade to inspect offices, and even organizing power cuts to obstruct journalists in their work. Many, though far from all, of these violations are listed in annual reports by international organizations monitoring human and, particularly, journalists’ rights in different countries. (See, for example, the comprehensive annual collections of relevant data by the French group Reporters without Borders, or Freedom House reports, or The Ukrainian Weekly‘s coverage of crackdowns on Vseukrainskie vedomosti, Pravda Ukrainy, Kievskie vedomosti, Sil’s’ki visti, STB and some other TV channels). The Ukrainian entries in those international reports, I must confess, are not the longest or the most impressive. They are too long, however, for a country whose authorities talk non-stop about their belonging to Europe and commitment to democratic values.

The main and least visible problem is the problem of economic vulnerability of the Ukrainian mass media and, therefore, their heavy dependence on subsidies. Nowhere in the world, actually, can media survive without external subsidies or significant revenue from advertising. The newsstand price of any Western newspaper is lower than the cost of the paper it is printed on. In post-Soviet Ukraine, however, with its peculiar, underdeveloped “market” and impoverished middle class, revenues from advertising make up a relatively small part of the media’s revenues. As a matter of fact, all Ukrainian mass media exist rather for political influence (as an expensive tool of public relations) than for profit per se. Again, as in other post-Soviet economies, political weight and connections are much more important and profitable than mundane media, agriculture or other business.

Of course, the mass media should be efficient, if not quite profitable, in order to effectively fulfil their political/propagandistic/public relations function. In this regard, the oligarchs who own the media cannot afford to issue bad products. They have to compete with each other, if not for profit then at least for the readers’ and therefore the rulers’ attention. This means also that they need to hire competent staff, who may agree to omit some names and problems (for a good salary) but would hardly agree to lie openly and deliberately for any royalty because that would compromise their professional names, which are major assets to be sold. Moreover, there is a significant number of not-for-profit media in Ukraine, subsidized by various funds and other, mostly international, sources (Radio Liberty, the dailies Den’, Dzerkalo tyzhnya, Grani). They provide not only alternative information for readers and listeners but also job opportunities for honest and courageous professionals fired elsewhere. Moreover, they establish quality standards, which cannot be ignored.

Thus, there is a significant space in the Ukraine for media pluralism, which is not, however, protected by law and which results more from the weakness of Ukrainian authoritarianism than from the strength of Ukrainian democracy.

I’m rather optimistic about the Ukraine’s future in the long run, even though I don’t expect any significant changes for the better in the near future – at least until a new generation comes to power (the government of the current prime minister, Viktor Yuschenko, seems to be the first step in that direction). There is a number of reasons why Ukrainian authoritarianism cannot be as strong and rough as in neighbouring Belarus or Russia. First, civil society in the Ukraine, apart from the capital city of Kyiv and some other urban centres, has a very important stronghold in the western part of the country, which had not been exposed to Russification/Sovietization until 1945 and still has a different political culture, more similar to that of Poland and the Czech Republic than to Russia, Belarus, or eastern Ukraine. And second, Ukrainian leaders, as long as they want to be independent from Moscow (and they do want that), have no choice but to emphasize their commitment to Europe and to accept, , European rules. It doesn’t mean we should take their words at face value and neglect their tricks under the table. It means only that the European Community has a powerful lever to influence Ukrainian politics – a lever that, so far, is largely underestimated or even misused since Ukraine is still treated as a Russian appanage.

Meanwhile, a double-track policy towards Ukraine, if properly applied by the West, could be even more efficient than in the case of Yugoslavia. On the one hand, it would be desirable to get tougher with the Ukrainian authorities and to force them to strictly follow the rule of law, to fully protect human rights and democratic procedures and institutions, and to fight corruption. On the other hand, Western representatives should clearly state that a democratic and economically reformed Ukraine can become a full member of the European Community, including NATO and EU membership. So far Europeans have been rather reluctant to state this unequivocally, even though they have welcomed countries with worse economic or human-rights records (Turkey, Albania, Romania, Macedonia).

There are only eight post-Communist countries that have performed better than Ukraine. The rest – 20 countries more – have performed alike or much worse. Again, we can refer to the old parable about a glass of water. Optimists may say that the glass is half-full, pessimists that the glass is half-empty. I would say only that the glass is there, on the table, and it is rather a large glass – of the size of France or Italy or England – and needs to be handled carefully.

Published 23 November 2001
Original in English

Contributed by Krytyka © Mykola Riabchuk


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