The team of President Zelensky does not know or does not want to know how to build relations with the mass media. During the short (yet) cadence of the sixth president, at least dozen of media scandals took place. The number of claims was brought against Zelensky’s Spokesperson Yulia Mendel who prevented the representatives of mass media to carry out their work. Head of his office Andriy Bohdan came in sight twice (first time when he stated that the authority does not need the journalists; the second time, due to the “joke” about his resign). The next was Servant of the People MP Serhiy Shvets who decided to teach the press tribe “the war glossary” to make them cover the military topic properly. The particular story is tied with MP Maksym Buzhansky who reacted to the words of the journalists with rudeness.
From the last, we can remind the sex-texting of MP Bohdan Yaremenko. Actually, in this context, not the twisted relations of the lawmaker with the women are interesting but whom he accused of the disillusionment of his playful affairs. “The law exists in this country, which protects my and everyone’s personal chats. The publication of the chats is a criminal offense. And a person who did it faces from three up to seven years in jail (…) My chats was stolen. But it is even worse to use the stolen goods, resell it,” the MP, who did his personal business during the plenary session, complained. In response to half-disguised threats, the co-owner of Bukva online media, which was the first to publish texts of Yaremenko, noted that she is ready for the court sessions, including the European.
The idea of courts and punishment of the journalists suited the taste of presidential and governmental vertical. Rather than being friends with the press, the authority decided to hunt to kill media one by one and separated representatives of them. In that regard, Culture Minister Volodymyr Borodyansky and representative of presidential faction in the parliament Oleksandr Tkachenko made very symptomatic statements recently. More about that – next.
Journalists will be forced to generate revenue
Tkachenko played the benefit performance at the parliamentary hearings about the safety of the journalistic activities. Standing at the rostrum, ex-director-general of 1+1 TV channel said the next: “Ukraine is not the only country in Europe where the majority of the private mass media is loss-making. It creates suspicion toward the influence of the owners on the journalists (…). If, for example, during three years, the mass media is always loss-making, possibly, there is a chance of using particular sanctions. Yes, possibly, as the result we will have less spectacular shows, numerous TV series of a variety of information channels. But it will be an honest business. Similarly, all journalists will receive not envelope salaries and pay the taxes. In the new law on the mass media, which we plant to submit until the end of this year, this idea will be reflected”.
Well, the issue of loss-making will be solved easily, Interfax-Ukraine Director-General Oleksandr Martynenko said. “It is open to guesswork what will happen with it in Ukraine, considering the fact that nobody observes the laws. In other words, it is quite simple: the founders will process the support for mass media in another way. That is it. If such law is adopted then no loss-making media will exist in Ukraine. All of them will generate revenue,” Martynenko believes.
Editor of Livy Bereg Sonya Koshkina was also outraged by the words of Tkachenko. “It is said by the experienced person who perfectly knows how the advertising market for mass media works in Ukraine. Knowing, how much money is needed for subvention, for example, of a major TV channel (spoiler: from $30 up to $100 million per year). Understanding, how to come from offered “bracketing” to “heavyweights” and stab “the middle” and regional mass media with it,” Koshkina noted on the social network.
In other words, attraction to the financial transparency will turn to its opposite: big players of the media market will find a way to show the “correct” profitability of their mass media. And the heavy artillery in the form of the fiscal bodies will be brought against the completely undesirable media. By the way, exactly the fiscal service was the tool in the fight against the journalists during Kuchma’s presidency as Koshkina reminded. But it is not the only innovation, which will affect the media.
Meanwhile, the MPs elaborate the new media code; mentioned Culture Minister Volodymyr Borodyansky stands with the initiative to “criminalize for deliberate distortion of public opinion by mass media”. But what is the distortion of public opinion? According to Borodyansky, it is the management of the bot farms, misrepresentation of information and spread of various fakes.
“It is, basically, more direct responsibility, when people distort public opinion for money. Today, there is no responsibility for it but I believe it is necessary to impose such criteria when the criminal responsibility will be provided for such things,” Borodyansky stated during the interview to Novoe Vremia.
The intention to protect the information space of the country from the sleaze of fake information is, of course, commendable. However, the implementation of it as it may take place in Ukraine is quite dangerous. For the journalists, of course. Why? First of all, due to the absence of clear definitions of what is the “distortion of information”. And because Ukrainian Themis, famous for its probity, will interpret the contentious issue not in favor of media, in case of necessity. In other words, it will turn out to be the manipulation of the manipulation.
“Concerning the initiative of imposing the responsibility for the journalists, then we really want it to be discussed in public for a few rounds. To make its partakers answer a question: how we will distinguish deliberate manipulation in media from accidental mistakes, emerging during work? What experts will be involved in it? I understand the desire of the authority to formalize all difficult issues and solve them within the legislative framework. But as far as the issue is about media, it is very difficult to do it. That is why there are a lot of border moments,” Martynenko said.
“Mr. Borodyansky, as the experienced practitioner, multi-year top-manager of TV channels owned by Viktor Pinchuk, knows for sure the border between the information diversion and open-mindedness of the media workers. Why he is talking about aggravating punishment? Possibly, because he felt the trend, which lies in the exposure of the journalists as the undue link in the communication of authority and people,” Expert of International Center of Advanced Studies Ihor Petrenko wrote.
Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelensky, whose appointees offer to punish mass media harsher, knows how to manipulate. “As he mercilessly manipulated public opinion in his TV series and his speeches. The mass media cannot but irritate Volodymyr Zelensky due to his own unprofessionalism. As the source of the numerous scandals during the last months is the over-talkativeness of his appointees and lawmakers who were selected from various groups, including the oligarch, and who do not understand what is the policy of Zelensky,” former MP and ex-journalist Serhiy Vysotsky said.
It should be noted that the idea to prosecute a journalist for misleading information tempts the minds of every parliamentary convocation. It is not included in the election campaigns but, nevertheless, there are attempts to implement it. The only difference is that this time, the initiators of the amendments to the legislation operate with such words as “manipulation” and “fake’ as earlier there were talks about “slander”. The conceptual content differs a little but the tendency to enhance the pressure on mass media is the same.
Slander as Obsession
Back in the time, authorities under Kuchma tried to strengthen responsibility for slander, even up to criminal. In 2004, Leonid Chernivetsky tried this, and in 2005 - Volodymyr Anyshchuk. Vasyl Kyselyov twice stepped forward with initiative to criminalize slander in 2006 and 2010, Anton Yatsenko – in 2008 and Vitaliy Zhuravsky - in 2012.
Each time, such legislative initiatives have caused widespread condemnation not only by Ukrainian and international human rights and media organizations, but also by such institutions as OSCE, Council of Europe, and UN Human Rights Committee. It would seem one should know better by now, but no. Attempts to criminalize slander occurred in the previous convocation of parliament. In 2016, the MP Yevhen Muraev proposed the Verkhovna Rada such draft amendment to the Criminal Code. His document, however, was not even put on the agenda for consideration of the parliament.
Following Muraev, then members of Revival group, Dmytro Svyatash, Valery Pisarenko, Volodymyr Mysyk, as well as non-factional Anatoly Denysenko and Opposition Bloc member Dmytro Shentsev, introduced bill #8270-2, where they proposed to increase administrative liability for slander, not criminal. The “light version” so to speak.
Majority of Verkhovna Rada of the 8th convocation joined that time opposition. On April 18, 2018, the ex-head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on National Security and Defense Serhiy Pashynsky asked the committee to develop legislative amendments on criminal liability for spreading false information that undermines the defense capability of Ukraine.
In case of Pashynsky, it all started with an article in Novoe Vremia journal with the title Two Comrades Served, addressing corruption schemes of defense officials. The chief editor of the media resource reported of the threats from Pashynsky. In addition, Pashynsky filed a lawsuit ‘on protection of honor, dignity and refutation of false information’ against LLC Publishing House ‘Media-DK.’
Interesting fact: in the days of Soviet Union, liability for slander was criminalized, although provided the censorship at that time it is difficult to imagine conditions under which it would be necessary to apply this article. Nevertheless, the Criminal Code, adopted in 1960 and remained in force until the collapse of the USSR, had such an article. Independent Ukraine does not know this kind of punishment, although our Western partners apply it.
The laws of the United States provide for a fine of $ 250,000 or a long-time sentence in jail for slander. In France, libel not only with a fine of up to 45 thousand euros or a prison term of up to five years, but also with a ban on certain types of professional activity is envisioned. In Germany, there is such a thing as “slander against the current government, its insult or calls for violating the integrity of the Republic.” It is punishable by a large fine or imprisonment of up to five years.
But there is one important nuance: law enforcement practice in the USA, Great Britain or France practically excludes attempts to use the law for other purposes. They take special care of the rights and opportunities of the media. This means that both sides of the potential conflict are protected: both journalists and the figurants of their articles. In Ukraine, crossing the line does not cost anything to both “accused” and “accusers”. Our legal field is mined and the “blasts” on it is a common thing in our practice.
Lawmakers promise to submit a new law on media one of these days. “We are working on a new bill. We want to make it as verified as possible. It should be a document as close as possible to the media code. I hope that in mid-November we will be able to submit its first draft for public discussion, and if we all come to consensus, then in December it will be possible to vote for it in the first reading. And after going through a series of discussions, the bill will be completed,” MP from Servant of the People Mykola Poturaev said.
He added that the bill would contain a definition of what is the media and what is not. “It will determine whether online media is the media and which media it is. And as for the content control, of course, it should be there, otherwise we will constantly lose," Poturaev notes.
These two short phrases of the pro-government MP make you seriously concerned. Yes, the Internet resources of Ukraine are still outside the legal field, and their status has long required a legislative definition. However, it is strange that the creators of the media code have doubts as to whether the websites are “real” media.
Moreover, what does the intention to implement the “content control” mean (by whom, how and with what consequences?). It is not clear at all. In any case, as political analyst Ruslan Bortnik notes in a comment to 112.ua, “I think that the introduction of administrative and criminal liability for journalists for slander and the spreading manipulative information will not take place. There is another danger that the authorities, under the guise of anti-slander law, could pass a law about fake information. Borodyansky once said that it was quite possible.”
“The new government sees the media as a threat zone,” Bortnik summarizes. And it seems that he is absolutely right.