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series of angry protests by media representatives, including the printing of publications with blank covers, Parliament rescinded a bill that sought to criminalize libel, which was widely viewed as an attempt to crush independent journalism.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) cortège.”
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!”