On December 4 Verkhovna Rada held a public hearing — Society, Media, and the Regime: Freedom of Expression and Censorship in Ukraine. The hearing began as lawmakers honored with a moment of silence the memory of fallen Ukrainian journalists. What followed was evidence that the subject could be broached in a reasonable rather than overemotional and politicized manner.
Journalist Andriy Shevchenko spoke on behalf of journalist and volunteer organizations, offering the innovative conclusion, something for the sake of which such discussions are truly worthwhile. First, he said, “there is no doubt that the journalists assume their own, very bitter responsibility for the current situation” (the same conclusion was drawn by his colleague Roman Skrypin). Second, he said that it is necessary to work out a system of coordinates in which there would be no need to raise the topic of political censorship, regardless of who is in power and opposition. “The number one priority is to protect and strengthen professional standards,” noted Shevchenko and proposed several options: “collective agreements must be signed by all media; the independent media union of Kyiv, formed Saturday, is working on them,” also editorial office bylaws that will “eliminate the painful subject of editorial policy,” a code of professional ethics “that could have the force of law as it did in Germany,” and finally, “a uniform press card securing the bearer against all those ‘accidental’ refusals of accreditation by the authorities...”
The hearings also demonstrated that the topic is so many-sided practically everyone taking part in the debate understood it his own way. Vice Speaker Oleksandr Zinchenko, presiding over the hearings, proposed to discuss the media being pressured by authorities, media owners’ policy, social responsibility, and personal safety of journalists. He and many others taking the floor said that the hearings should result in upgrading the legal framework (incidentally, the Ukrainian media are subject to almost 240 “normative-legal acts”; experts say that in this sense Ukraine is among the CIS leaders, although by and large the nation’s media legislation is rather liberal; the problem is most likely is not the absence of the required laws as the manner in which they are implemented). Mykola Tomenko, chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on the Freedom of Speech and Information, spoke of the “invisible censor’s hand” which is particularly, even rudely, obvious in the regions. On behalf of the committee, he urged working out an official definition of political censorship, criticizing the practice of ungrounded lawsuits against media, calling for regulating the journalist’s status and his relationships with the employer.
Vice Premier Dmytro Tabachnyk cautioned against placing “a poisoned bayonet rather than pen in the journalist’s hands,” attributing the sharpening of the freedom of speech issue to the judicial practice being inconsistent with the demands of information in a modern society, said that finishing touches were being applied to the draft of a special national program called “Journalist,” and that the state tax administration would stop practicing inspections of the media as business entities. Prosecutor General Sviatoslav Piskun told about the General Prosecutor’s Office’s efforts in investigating the cases of Heorhy Gongadze, Ihor Aleksandrov, and Mykhailo Kolomyiets. Ombudsman Nina Karpachova spoke about violations of journalists’ rights and their personal humiliation, using Volodymyr Lutiev, editor-in-chief of the Yevpatoriyskaya nedelia, as an example (he is charged with conspiring in an attempt on a member of the Crimean Parliament).
The parliamentary hearings of the status of freedom of expression in Ukraine are evidence, Ms. Karpachova said, that such freedom is possible, but one must fight for it. “We have no right to remain silent while journalists are getting killed in Ukraine,” she declared, stressing that transgressions of the freedom of speech prompted the institution of regional representatives of the Ombudsman, people monitoring observance of that freedom and of journalists’ rights.
The Day has long campaigned for relations between the regime, media, and their owners in which it would be impossible to practice journalistic character assassination and hurling buckets of dirt where journalists are involved not as rank-and-file soldiers but already as junior officers. It is true that the state is in a position to pressure practically all media outlets under all patterns of ownership, trying to influence the process of forming public opinion. The interest of political and economic groups in the media is explained not by the media being just another line of business (some of those taking the floor, particularly Zurab Alasania of Kharkiv’s Simon television company, noted that running a media outlet does not mean doing business in Ukraine, because it brings no revenues more often than not), but a desire to have levers of political influence. The situation will remain the same until the regime becomes actually transparent, the economy is out of the shadow and the press truly free.
Of course, all these problems cannot be solved by parliamentary hearings. It is like opening the window to air out the room. It takes time but the result is there.