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A confrontation on live television throws a spotlight on the country’s twisted media scene under Yanukovych.by Halya Coynash 24 February 2014
Where Viktor Yanukovych is hiding out from “fascists” is not known, but after the point of no return forced on Ukrainians in the last week, he had reason to feel worried about remaining in Kyiv. When you have had dozens of unarmed protesters gunned down in the center of the capital by police snipers, there is no going back.
On 21 February journalists and presenters on one of the main national TV channels, Inter, heard in a live broadcast that they personally had lied and twisted the truth about Maidan for three months, and that they too had the blood of the dead on their hands.
It was not what Andriy Danylevych, presenter of the talk show This Concerns Each of Us, had planned for the audience’s consumption. Following the agreement signed that morning by the president and opposition, the program was supposed to be about reconciliation. Danylevych had invited STB television journalist Lidia Pankiv to recount how she had restrained Berkut riot police from turning on protesters and became the fiancée of one of the men.
Pankiv said the following:
You probably want to hear a story from me about how with my bare hands I restrained a whole Berkut unit, and how one of the Berkut officers fell in love with me and I fell in love with him. But I’m going to tell you another story. About how with my bare hands I dragged the bodies of those killed the day before yesterday. And about how two of my friends died yesterday. … I hate Zakharchenko, Klyuev, Lukash, Medvedchuk, Azarov. I hate Yanukovych and all those who carry out their criminal orders. I came here today only because I found out that this is a live broadcast. I want to say that I also despise Inter because for three months it deceived viewers and spread enmity among citizens of this country. And now you are calling for peace and unity. Yes, you have the right to try to clear your conscience, but I think you should run this program on your knees. I’ve brought these photos here for you, so that you see my dead friends in your dreams and understand that you also took part in that. And now, I’m sorry, I don’t have time. I’m going to Maidan. Glory to Ukraine.
Danylevych tried to turn the subject back to its Inter groove, but was stopped by Konstantin Reutsky, a human rights activist from Luhansk. He agreed with Pankiv and addressed the Inter journalists “who lied and distorted information about Maidan over the last three months. Recognize the responsibility that you bear. The blood of those who died yesterday, the day before, over these days and months is on your hands.” With Danylevych trying desperately to intervene, Reutsky insisted that he and all other activists on Maidan were all in favor of peace and had done everything in their power all these months to stop bloodshed. “But what happened yesterday is a point of no return. After that you can no longer say, ‘Sorry, we got carried away, let’s turn the page and start afresh without offense.’ What happened yesterday is impossible to forget.”
Danylevych finally got in there and effectively shouting down the activist’s demand to discuss the crimes committed, forced the talk back to “peace.”
Unlike Danylevych, other members of the Inter team approached Reutsky after the program, thanking him. Some had clearly reached the same decision without prompting since earlier on 21 February, 16 Inter journalists issued an open letter expressing disagreement with Inter editorial policy.
The criticism is warranted. After a brief period when almost all television channels unexpectedly broadcast fairly unadulterated reports about the EuroMaidan protests, Inter began seriously distorting and manipulating information about the protests. At the beginning of 2014, the Maidan Council felt compelled to call on “ordinary Ukrainians and politicians” to boycott Inter because of its biased coverage.
The bias was part of a renewed drive against media freedom. At the end of 2013, Yulia Mostova, editor of Dzerkalo Tyzhnya (Mirror of the Week) wrote that Yanukovych had accused the owners of national TV channels of treachery since they were providing objective coverage of EuroMaidan and that channels had been passed into the strict control of a team formed by the president and his elder son.
Under Yanukovych’s predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, few significant moves were made toward safeguarding democratic institutions and media freedom, but there was also little direct encroachment on freedom of speech. This did not prevent media distortion, as many media and their journalists proved all too often prepared to produce commissioned reporting for material gain. That may in part explain why it proved unnervingly easy within a matter of months of Yanukovych’s election to remove most critical analysis, negative reports about those in power, and inconvenient information from television. During 2013, a large number of printed publications were also bought out by people with links to the regime, this widely being viewed as taming the media before the (then-scheduled) 2015 presidential elections.
There were some cheering exceptions when journalists defended their right to freedom from editorial interference. Increasingly, however, they defended their profession at the cost of their jobs, and those willing to do so were always in the minority. The others found excuses for going along with editorial policy imposed from above.
Sniper bullets and bloodshed on Ukraine’s streets last week removed all excuses. Reutsky was right – there can and must be no going back.