Just the facts? Journalists hold blank sheets of paper during a protest on October 2012 against censorship near the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev. The press has resorted to public rallies and political theater to challenge government curbs on free speech. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)
One breezy morning in June, a group of leading Ukrainian journalists drove to the small village of Novi Petrivtsi, on the outskirts of Kiev, for what has become a familiar ritual: Annually, on Ukraine’s Journalists’ Day (June 6), the reporters approach the closed gates of the lavish suburban residence of President Viktor Yanukovych to stage a rally protesting censorship, are told their presence is illegal, hold the rally nevertheless, and then go home.
This year, as several dozen of them strode toward the giant fence that separates Yanukovych’s Mezhygirya estate from the rest of the country, some 50 beefy riot police, wearing crisp red berets and bulletproof vests, appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, forming a human barrier between the journalists and the gates. “It gets more fun every year,” quipped a female journalist wearing a T-shirt with Yanukovych’s portrait on the back and the words “Let’s Defeat the Mafia” written in large red letters.
Next to the riot police stood Rodion Starenky, the head of the Novi Petrivtsi village council, waiting for the procession with a smile on his face and a court order banning the rally in his hand. As he has done every year, he amicably reminded the reporters that they were violating public order and congratulated them on Journalists’ Day. Then he invited everybody to lunch at a nearby restaurant. “You asked for a rally of 30-to-50 people, so that’s how many tables we reserved,” he said timidly.
Giving Starenky a friendly pat on the back, one journalist refused the invitation on everybody’s behalf, saying that taxpayers’ money should not be wasted on such meals.
Barely able to keep straight faces, the journalists asserted that they were not there to stage a protest in violation of the court ruling but, in fact, to make sure that no one else was and that the law was being properly observed. Starenky just smiled; he had heard this explanation before. One reporter asked whether holding a funeral procession would also be considered a violation of public order. After some hesitation, Starenky said it wouldn’t, and the journalist suggested that perhaps next year the group could carry a coffin symbolizing the death of Ukrainian democracy.
“So how about that restaurant?” Starenky asked, even more shyly, but nobody paid any attention to him.
There is no doubt that freedom of speech is under threat in this former Soviet republic. When Yanukovych was elected in 2010, he quickly started undoing the victories of the 2004 pro-democracy protests known as the Orange Revolution. Between 2009 and 2013, Ukraine slid from number 89 on the press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders to number 126. Television channels, the main source of information for most Ukrainians, have been taken over by government-friendly tycoons, leaving government critics little access to voters’ TV screens. Journalists have complained of being censored, denied information, and intimidated. In May, a TV reporter and her photographer husband were beaten by pro-government activists while covering an opposition rally. Police standing nearby did not intervene.
It has become evident that the Fourth Estate has little power in Ukraine, and that the hard work of investigative reporting often is done in vain. In Western democracies, journalistic investigations exposing corruption, deception, and mismanagement by top government officials can result in scandals that cause multiple heads to roll. Not in Ukraine.
The Journalists’ Day rallies held at Mezhygirya the past three years are intended to force Yanukovych to answer questions about his residence. He admits to having privatized a modest house on a small plot of land within the 345-acre government park of Mezhygirya outside Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, but he refuses to answer questions about who has built and enjoys the mansions, gardens, and sports facilities around his property.
Documents and photographs uncovered by journalists suggest that it is Yanukovych himself, and his entourage, who occupy the entire vast territory of the park through a controversial leasing agreement and make use of a helicopter pad, an ostrich enclosure, and a floating house with marbled columns, among other displays of opulence.
Beyond the Mezhygirya protests, Ukrainian journalists have disrupted a Cabinet session chaired by the prime minister and a Yanukovych speech at a media congress, worn Yanukovych masks to one of his press conferences, and camped outside police headquarters. One reporter (the woman who wore the T-shirt likening Yanukovych to the mafia) even broke into Mezhygirya to photograph the luxury the president has tried to conceal from the public.