Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stated at a press conference a while back that “the level of freedom we have now … is unprecedented. Never in the history of Ukraine we had so much freedom … in regard to journalists … in regard to public figures …”
President Poroshenko must either live inside an information vacuum or else his memory is failing him. Otherwise it’s hard to reconcile these words with the murder of Oles Buzyna, a very popular opposition journalist in Kiev (his killers were detained but quickly released), the torching of the studios of the Ukrainian broadcaster Inter TV – the only opposition television station – which went unpunished, and the legal harassment faced by the journalists Ruslan Kotsaba, Artem Buzila, and Elena Glischinskaya (a young mother whose third child was born in a pretrial detention center), plus many, many others.
It is possible, however, that Poroshenko is deliberately championing the anti-utopian reality of life in Ukraine and has already committed himself to the Orwellian principle of “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.”
Last week Ukraine was shaken by yet another media scandal. Igor Guzhva, the editor-in-chief of quite a well-known news site, STRANA.UA, was arrested on trumped-up charges. Sizing up events in Crimea and southeastern Ukraine from a purely patriotic standpoint, Strana.ua took the liberty of publishing hard-hitting information attacking the corruption within Poroshenko’s inner circle, as well as unflattering images of the country’s social conditions. President’s complaisant prosecutor general and intelligence services came up with a very crude and unconvincing ruse, intended to show that Guzhva was supposedly extorting money from an odious parliamentary group in return for not publishing some compromising material. In fact, Poroshenko’s crony, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, was unprofessional enough to offer up a secret videotape as “proof,” in which an intermediary from the Radical Party persuaded (!) Guzhva to accept $20,000 for taking down a published compromising information against Oleh Lyashko, controversial leader of the Radical Party faction in the Verkhovna Rada. In the end, a police plant merely brought a package with marked money to Guzhva’s office a few minutes before the investigation team arrived. What’s intriguing here is not the egregious stupidity and disregard for the law, but the fact that it is the power brokers championing “European values” who are orchestrating and readily supporting this kind of entrapment. For example, here is the Facebook update posted by Anton Gerashchenko, the influential adviser to Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, on June 22, the day of Guzhva’s arrest:
“The editor-in-chief of the website has been taken into custody.
How could that happen? That’s an attack on the freedom of press!?
Yes, that is an attack! An attack on the freedom to lie with impunity, to spread the misinformation for money and to destroy own country.
The first one is in jail. He will be followed by other traders of lies and misinformation.”
One can only imagine the global media’s hysteria if a “pro-Russian” politician in Ukraine had publicly posted something like this. You might recall Western reaction back in 2000 (under President Kuchma) when Georgiy Gongadze, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, was killed in Kiev as part of a sophisticated plot, thus triggering the anti-government protests that eventually led to the first Maidan demonstrations in 2004.
Over the past three years, journalism NGOs like Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, and the OSCE have been keeping mum about outrageous incidents in which journalists and public activists in Ukraine have been terrorized and intimidated.
In June 2014, the pro-Russian journalist Sergei Dolgov was kidnapped by unknown persons in Mariupol. As was later revealed, he had been seized and taken to Dnipropetrovsk by a guerrilla unit of the Dnipro-1 police battalion, which is composed of Ukrainian nationalists. The partisan “interrogation” of the journalist ended in his death. A few days before the kidnapping, the pro-government newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda published an article, titled “Separatist Newspapers Are Being Sold in Kiev,” which included a clear reference to Dolgov and his publication by a spokesman for the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU): “We are figuring out their identities and attempting to rectify the situation.”
The Kiev-based journalist Dmitry Vasilets has been in custody for a year and a half now. Unable to gather evidence of his “guilt” and come up with something to charge him with, the SBU simply prolongs the term of his detention.
Besides journalists, public figures and mere social media users are subject to persecution of the thought police of Ukraine. Here are a few examples from Ukraine’s Register of Court Decisions:
One trial involved a retired resident of the Transcarpathian region, who read a prepared speech at a rally in March 2016 about the need to establish a Transcarpathian People’s Republic. As a result, this pensioner was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment (with probation term), and was ordered to pay a large fine.
In another case, several residents of the Luhansk region, active users of the social-media network VKontakte, who had continually written and posted messages on their group’s page publicly urging civil disobedience to support the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics also got a five-year prison sentence.
In the city of Sumy (north-east of Ukraine), a businessman from Donetsk was convicted for publishing a message on his VKontakte page from one of the groups that was urging voters to cast ballots during the May 16, 2014 referendum in Crimea. One of his shared posts also mentioned the prospect of Ukraine’s southern regions joining the Russian Federation. As a result the man was given a four-year sentence and the laptop he used to access the Internet was seized.
The Register lists yet another verdict that was handed down on a man from Cherkasy. Complaints were made about the main photo uploaded to his page, which was accompanied by the words “Action Plan …” and ending with phrase “to bar anyone from Western Ukraine.” The court decided to imprison the miscreant for four years, in addition to seizing his electronic media.
A third-year student at Lviv University received a 2 1/2 year sentence, suspended for one year, for quoting Lenin on a social-media network. It’s possible that no one would have known about this dubious verdict if the Lviv prosecutor’s office had not made public announcement of this “victory” in the war on crime.
Hundreds of cases of this kind are already recorded in Ukraine’s Registry.
Tellingly, no reasonably clear criteria exist defining what are “acceptable” activities for the opposition, beyond which one could be subject to criminal prosecution. Problems can emerge for the editor-in-chief of a popular publication, as well as for a user of social media whose opinions are being publicized to – at most – a few dozen of his ‘net friends.
And this selectivity is actually a carefully considered modus operandi: it is not currently possible to “shut down” every opponent of the existing political regime, due to both “technical” problems (there aren’t enough security staff or facilities to hold them all), as well as political reasons (it would be difficult for their Western partners to “not notice” tens of thousands of political inmates). Therefore, the task is to apply punitive measures “selectively,” in order to foster an atmosphere of fear that will permeate society from top to bottom.
It must be made clear to everyone that any expression of discontent with the government – from posts on social media to conversations at work or while riding public transportation – is “problematic.” I believe that it is this “indirect” impact that is the primary intent of the SBU’s billboards imploring everyone to blow the whistle on “separatists,” while emphasizing that it is necessary to report not only the things other people actually do or prepare to do, but even conversations. Ratting others out serves as the very basis of the current political regime in Ukraine. And people are not just being persecuted for their actions, but even for their critical comments about the government.
And the methods for applying pressure vary, ranging from sickening murders (Oles Buzina) to arrests and searches or summons to the SBU (as happened to Miroslava Berdnik), or to ultimately to being included in the lists found on the “legendary” Myrotvorets website (literally, “The Peacemaker”).
Whenever it would be awkward to act in an official capacity, “activists” get into the picture, as they did when the Inter TV studios were burned or during the attacks on those who gathered to celebrate Victory Day. The most recent event was when protesters were beaten for picketing against renaming Prospekt Vatutina as Prospekt Shukhevycha. And naturally all these incidents fly under the radar of law enforcement, because the government governs through terror.
The saddest part is that it works. Self-censorship has turned out to be far more effective than the traditional version. “If you watch TV, this will be the clearest proof that you can broadcast whatever you think is necessary, guided solely by your understanding of the standards and ethics of journalism,” noted Petro Poroshenko, with subtle humor. And none of the major TV stations have criticized the president for a long time, even those stations that belong to oligarchs who have complicated relationships with him.
The talk shows that saw record-breaking ratings back during the Yanukovych administration while relentlessly “laying into” the then-president all seem to have disappeared. Almost no print media remains that is friendly to the opposition. “The opposition segment” has been preserved only on the Internet (in the form of online broadcast channels and publications), but judging by the ban on Russian social-media networks and the problems faced by strana.ua, the government has been going after them in earnest as well.
And as a rule of thumb, criticism “from the right” – i.e., from a fascist viewpoint – is generally permitted, and only those who make the case for a meaningful quest for peace in the Donbass, the restoration of relations with Russia, and a policy aimed at protecting the genuine national interests of Ukraine are the ones who find themselves subjected to reprisals.
But those who like to lecture us about “universal values,” the rule of law, etc. are notorious for their use of double standards, just like Franklin Roosevelt, who was careful to distinguish “our son of a bitch” from all the others out there. It should also be understood that this policy of double standards involves more than just goodwill toward one’s ideological and geopolitical allies. The West monopolizes the right to determine who is a “democrat,” who is a “dictator,” who requires nothing more than a light rebuke from the international community, and who needs the sledgehammer of international sanctions – or even direct intervention – brought down full upon him, and this is equally as powerful a geopolitical tool as the monopoly held by the Federal Reserve’s dollars in world finance.
Therefore it is naive to expect that either the leaders or the public in the West will be receptive to appeals and suddenly grasp the fact that democracy and freedom died in Ukraine in 2014. After all, when US interests were at stake, they shut their eyes to the “dealings” of personalities like Pinochet, Stroessner, and Baby Doc Duvalier. This is precisely why Ukraine has now become like Duvalier-era Haiti.
And what has changed in the last few decades? Nothing except that the cynicism and hypocrisy of the “collective West” has increased. Back then it was enough to simply soft-pedal the issues of democratic freedoms and human rights in Chile, without stooping so low as to extol the “significant” or even “unprecedented” progress in this area compared to the Allende era. But now they look at Ukraine and do this quite disingenuously. And the fact that the “world community” keeps as silent as the grave about the arrest of Igor Guzhva and the trashing of the editorial offices of strana.ua is unequivocal confirmation of this.