To the barricades

Is it okay that Ukraine's journalists are using protests and political theater to fight for press freedom?

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.

Ukrainian journalists’ refusal to yield and their determination to fight for their rights have led to some significant victories. In 2011, after years of deliberations, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a law that requires government officials to disclose information and documents to the public. As lawmakers voted on the bill, journalists stood nearby holding up a poster that read “Now or Never.” Last year, after a series of angry protests by media representatives, including the printing of publications with blank covers, Parliament rescinded a bill that sought to criminalize libel, which was widely viewed as an attempt to crush independent journalism.

The assault on the two journalists last May was followed by days of protests. Reporters covering a cabinet session turned their backs on Prime Minister Mykola Azarov to display critical posters attached to their shirts. Journalists also set up a protest tent outside Interior Ministry headquarters. As a result, more than a dozen Kiev police officials were investigated for alleged negligence during the attack. Authorities in Donetsk offered police protection to journalists covering demonstrations. And Yanukovych was forced to condemn “those who raised their hand on press freedom,” albeit nearly two weeks after the incident.

Still, questions are being raised within the media community about the actions of some of the protesters. Are their theatrical tactics undermining the cause they’re defending?

In Ukraine, as in the rest of the former Soviet Union, journalism has become a largely discredited trade. After decades of press manipulation and propaganda under the Soviets, there is little trust among Ukrainians that journalists would actually dare to—or even want to—expose the authorities’ malfeasance and hold them accountable. Paid-for stories promoting politicians and companies, disguised as news, are widespread, further undermining the media’s credibility.

So what kind of message are the country’s top journalists, already viewed with suspicion, sending to the public when they turn a presidential press conference into a sideshow? When they insult and mock officials, what does that say about the good manners that they are trying to teach to the government? For instance, a prominent journalist accused the deputy prime minister of “unforgivable impudence” for refusing her an interview and fumed about his “smug, plump face on billboards.”

The unorthodox tactics are defended by Serhiy Leshchenko, Ukraine’s star investigative journalist. Leshchenko co-founded the movement “Stop Censorship!” which organizes the annual protests at Mezhygirya, and he wore a Yanukovych mask to the president’s news conference earlier this year. He says that defending media freedoms through conventional ways is a luxury only established democracies can afford: “We are defending ourselves to the extent that journalistic freedoms are being encroached on. All our protests are within the law. We don’t block roads or throw ourselves under the (presidential) cort├Ęge.”

Not everybody agrees. “Some of my colleagues look for alternative ways of putting pressure on the authorities, and without realizing it, they are turning from journalists into public and even political activists,” said Sergiy Sydorenko, a political reporter with Ukraine’s leading daily newspaper, Kommersant. “Such things are hard to reconcile, because an activist is a person who is by default interested and involved in the process, while a journalist must be impartial.”

The rally outside Mezhygirya was a strange blend of journalism, activism, and satire. The journalists had planned to send a radio-controlled micro helicopter over the fence into the presidential estate, to provoke a reaction from the authorities, but they could not find one on short notice.

After the nonprotest protest ended, it was time for a photo session with the riot police in the red berets. A young reporter in a dark-blue miniskirt stood playfully next to the burly law enforcers as her giggling girlfriends snapped a photo. Nearby, a husband and his wife held hands and jumped high into the air, with the somber police behind them. Finally, everybody crouched or sat down on the ground for a collective photo. One journalist looked coquettishly into the camera in her flowing pink dress; a cheerful young man half-lay on the ground, as if posing for a beach photo. Everybody smiled for the camera.

“Happy Journalists’ Day!” someone yelled after the photograph was taken. The group responded, “Hooray!”

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Maria Danilova is a Knight Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University’s Journalism School. She has covered Ukraine for The Associated Press since 2007.