To Kill A Journalist – Again?
By Marta Dyczok, Associate Professor of History and Political Science, University of Western Ontario
Imagine browsing a newspaper one day and finding an article by a fellow journalist speculating that you might be the target for a killing. This happened to Serhiy Leshchenko on January 26, 2011. The Ukrainian newspaper, Izvestiya in Ukraine, ran the following headline: To Kill A Journalist. Who Is Destabilizing the Yanukovych Presidency and How?
The story was written by Viacheslav Pikhovshek, known for censoring and distorting TV news during former President Leonid Kuchma’s regime. Now he is again toeing the official line – that talk of censorship is just an anti-Yanukovych plot. In Izvestiya he wrote: “The plan to discredit Victor Yanukovych lacks a finishing touch, some sort of culminating moment that would definitively label him an ‘anti-democrat.’ … This could even be the killing of a journalist, a la Heorhii Gongadze. I think that for the role of the victim they might choose Serhiy Leshchenko, a journalist who works for Ukrayinska Pravda, naturally without his agreement.” http://izvestia.com.ua/ru/article/1515
This thinly veiled threat is aimed at the internet journalist because he undermines state efforts to sanitize the news. Thanks to Leshchenko, Ukrainians (and the world) got to see a flying wreath that almost knocked down their President in May 2010, when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was visiting. The President’s men tried to quash the almost cartoon-like comical video footage, but Ukrayinska Pravda posted it on-line and the YouTube video quickly went viral. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPoYDfImnQU&feature=related)
Or imagine how Yanukovych’s wife, Liudmyla, must have felt when a group of 20 elderly women picketed near the Presidential Administration. They were demanding that she be released from house arrest and later elected her honorary leader of their assembly, “Respect the Rights of Elderly Women.”
The organization does not exist. But it allegedly organized the rally in support of her rights. In reality, it was a “special op” launched by journalist Kostiantyn Usov. He wanted to show how easy it is to rent a crowd in Ukraine and get media coverage for a completely fictitious organization or cause. He called it an ‘experiment’ and posted the whole thing on YouTube. (http://www.telekritika.ua/redpolitics/2011-02-07/59891)
Now try to imagine living in Ukraine. After one year of Yanukovych as president, creeping censorship has replaced the widely praised free speech of the Yushchenko era. However, as these stories show, things are not as black and white as they are often presented: most Ukrainians understand that their free speech is under threat, along with many other rights and freedoms to which they had grown accustomed. Yet they are responding in different ways.
Some are actively fighting back – like the group of journalists that created an organization called Stop Censorship. Starting last May, they have sounded the alarm and protested against pressures from the state and media owners. Others are putting their heads down, doing as they are told, or even working for the establishment.
The state continues to insist that there is no censorship, to the point of looking ridiculous. Recently, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov quipped that his predecessor, Yulia Tymoshenko, appears on TV five times more often than he does. This is true, but mainly because she is being accused of corruption. (http://www.interfax.com.ua/ukr/main/61121/)
One can’t help wondering whether Yanukovych and his team understand that the society they are trying to govern is complex, diverse, and not easily fooled. TV journalist Andriy Kulykov recently pointed out that the establishment seems to have trouble believing that some media professionals like Leshchenko are motivated by values rather than money and power. (http://osvita.telekritika.ua/material/1632)