The Soviet propaganda machine is alive and well in Ukraine
By Alexander Tkachenko
As Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 29, approach, the situation of the mass media has deteriorated sharply. You won’t hear a single voice against the government or the president or the parties associated with them on any of the country’s four national television channels. Almost all the major newspapers support one or other of the major parties. Journalists who have fought for press freedom ever since Ukraine became independent in 1991 are now forced to recognize that they have no choice but to join one or other of the interest groups controlling all the important national and regional media.
It is impossible to understand political developments if one reads only one newspaper. Publications such as the weekly Zerkalo nedely, which try to remain objective, are being squeezed out of the market. Thanks to financial support from politically-involved business organizations, several papers have lowered their prices. In return, they have to back one party and blacken its opponents. The situation is particularly acute where television is concerned, where some parties find themselves facing an informal but effective boycott which means they are not mentioned in news releases and cannot buy advertising spots. All they can expect to get is their legal entitlement to a single appearance in a political debate on state-run TV. But it is not unusual either for state-owned TV to criticize the opposition or for a commercial channel to devote all of its news coverage to the leaders of the party to which the channel belongs. Confronted with these facts, TV officials say they cannot forbid their journalists to support one or another party. The only problem is that their journalists always seem to back pro-government parties. The situation is reminiscent of the Soviet era, when Kremlin leaders claimed to be fighting for peace even as they stockpiled nuclear weapons.
The underlying reason of this depressing state of affairs is financial. It is an open secret that leading politicians indirectly control the country’s major newspapers and TV channels and that successful and profitable business can usually be carried out only with the protection of high officials.
Pravda Ukrainy, which has seen its circulation soar three- or even four-fold to half a million, achieved this feat by giving pensioners free subscriptions. The paper, which strongly supports the leader of the Hromada Party, former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, was recently shut down by the government on the grounds that it was not properly registered. The parliamentary daily, Holos Ukrainy, is edited by a leading member of Lazarenko’s party. Former premier Yevhen Marchuk is recognized as the patron of the newspaper Den’, while parliamentary speaker Olexander Moroz has ties with Sil’sky visty, which is popular among rural readers. Newly established papers such as Fakty and Segodnya support President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoitenko. Except for the president, all these politicians head political parties that are fighting the upcoming elections. One Kyiv-based Western diplomat compares the situation in Ukraine today to that in Europe and North America at the beginning of this century, when the press consisted exclusively of party-financed newspapers.
Managers of major TV channels privately admit that it is impossible to get a license to broadcast without political backing and bribes. Business people say they would think very carefully before criticizing politicians, especially those in power. Any company that does so is likely to find itself subjected to a barrage of tax audits and fire-inspections; given that Ukrainian legislation is always changing, it is easy for officials to obstruct a newspaper or keep a TV company off the air. The author’s 18-month experience as TV news director bears this out. My TV show Pyslyamova (Afterwords) was named Ukraine’s best political program in 1996 and again in 1997. And yet I had no choice but to close it down. Had I not done so, the whole of the 1+1 TV channel which put my show on the air would have been under threat. No other major TV channel has been willing to take my show on.
I started an independent television company in 1994 after I left Reuters news agency. At that time, I was full of confidence that there was no way back to Soviet-style censorship and propaganda in Ukraine. Four years later, I see that, with a few exceptions, not one national TV-station or newspaper is free from direct political influence. We were forced off the air because we tried to be objective and to air the views of all sides on each issue. Politicians who believe the press exists to support themselves found our approach disappointing. Most of today’s top officials are former members of the former Communist nomenklatura and accustomed to view the press as their servants. They believe the role of the media is to help boost their authority when the population become disenchanted with the continuing economic crisis. They try to convince Ukrainian journalists that the fact that the press here can criticize officials means that it is already free. Besides, they say, the press is not really free anywhere: in the West, too, the owners of the mass media have political sympathies which they try to project through their publications. But there exists a new generation of young Ukrainian journalists who do not believe them and who will continue to fight for the freedom of the press in this country.
Alexander Tkachenko is general director of Nova Mova Television Company in Kyiv. He writes a weekly column in the newspaper Zerkalo nedely.
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