With Friends Like These

The media coverage of Ukraine has really outdone itself the last few days. Ukrainians and Western observers alike were flooded with a wave of articles and opinions that proclaimed general doom and gloom. The most guilty of this were, surprisingly, not Ukrainian media proper, but Western-based media outlets – outlets such as RFE/RL and Voice of America, generally held by most Ukrainians as authoritative simply by virtue of being ran by the West. At least, that was the case, weren’t RFE/RL and VoA at the forefront of the latest media shitstorm campaign. To clarify, VoA went so far as to invite Ben Aris, the man who previously starred on RT and writes for Russia Insider. Just look at all those headlines, I bet they’re really unbiased and objective! VoA’s Ukrainian office, headed by Myroslava Gongadze, cites Aris’ article on his own Business News Europe, which says that ‘Kyiv lost, sanctions will be lifted this year’.

Aris is only the tip of the iceberg. An army of previously-unknown ‘experts’ – even Aris is quite niche by mainstream standards – is at RFE/RL and VoA’s beck and call when it comes to slamming Minsk agreements or bawling about corruption in Ukraine. Obviously corruption is far from done and gone, but, as I already wrote, corruption is a symptom, not a cause. And even dealing with the causes of corruption isn’t done overnight. But it’s not like anyone cares, do they?

Now, the problem isn’t with media criticism existing in the first place. Thanks in part to the media, for example, Ukraine has public lobbying mechanisms that actually work some of the time. The problem is with media criticism throwing the baby out with the water by focusing on the incessant doom-and-gloom. Ukraine is always swimming in corruption. Minsk is always the ruin of Ukraine. The end of sanctions against Russia around the corner. Oligarchs are always in power – although these days it feels like the media forgot about Akhmetov (still at large), Firtash (still in Vienna), Pinchuk (still paying the media’s bills) or Kolomoyskiy (still being Kolomoyskiy). Apparently, the only oligarch left in Ukraine is Poroshenko.

When Ukrainian media do this, it’s understandable: after all, most of Ukrainian media outlets are owned by oligarchs and financial interests. Most of them will further their master’s line when they are told – and since they are among the most popular in Ukraine, their message will reach out to large parts of the population. The immediate result is that the majority of Ukrainians, seeing on TV that ‘nothing changed’, lose faith in the government, and the reforms, altogether. Moreover, the nominally independent Ukrainian media follow suit: they see that doom-and-gloom and unabashed government smearing is trending, and they follow the trend – because it pays. And Ukrainian journalists do not need much effort to smear the government. They’ve done it for years.

This is what Western observers may not really understand: that Ukrainian people are not saints, and Ukrainian journalists certainly aren’t angels. To be sure, Ukraine’s reputation is unsavory still. Western NGOs and governmental organizations that help finance Ukraine’s independent media and anti-corruption initiatives may think that they’re doing the right thing – strengthening civil society, free speech, rule of law, et cetera. In practice, this doesn’t happen: what happens is an unending stream of ‘corruption investigations’ that flood Ukrainian media. Because this unending stream pays.

Media outlets have countless unnamed ‘experts’ at their beck and call that gladly smear anything the government does, or doesn’t, do – so much that ‘expert’ is fast becoming a swear word in Ukraine. This isn’t much different from RT’s modus operandi. Any headline referencing an ‘expert’ instantly becomes more trustworthy, thus shifting blame from the outlet in question – and Ukrainians don’t often read beyond headlines.

Some of these ‘experts’ aren’t nobodies – most often they have an axe to grind with the current government. Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, the former head of SBU, is particularly guilty of this nowadays: he wanders between news agencies, always eager to rant about corruption and the government’s inaction… yet he didn’t do anything to fight that corruption when he, until June 2015, headed the SBU! This is beyond ridiculous – yet Nalyvaychenko is a particularly notable example of this breed of ‘experts’.

Consider the average Ukrainian. He is surrounded by news programs, media outlets and independent media like Ukrainska Pravda or Hromadske all telling him the same things. That nothing changed, that the government is more corrupt than ever, that the economy is going to the shitter and that the Minsk agreements will be the death of Ukraine. Donbass will get ‘special status’, rebel warlords like Zakharchenko or Motorola will get elected to the parliament, and all that Ukraine’s true patriots did would be in vain. What would you think in that average Ukrainian’s place?

And if he turns to Western media – or, at least, the Ukrainian-language Western media outlets such as VoA and RFE/RL – he sees exactly the same headlines, the same news. And feels betrayed. He doesn’t trust the government, he doesn’t trust reforms, and he thinks that corruption only increased. And the cycle continues anew.

Sometimes the media manipulates and we get tragedies. The Minsk hatemongering is particularly guilty of that – political parties like Samopomich or Svoboda like to use it to further their popular support, yet it was a Svoboda man who threw the grenade at the Rada on August 31. He was ‘protesting against Minsk’ and ‘fighting the corrupt regime’ – yet the grenade killed four National Guard servicemen and injured others. Ukrainians fought Ukrainians, and Putin was probably ecstatic.

The media do not seem to realize that.

As for Western media, plenty of Ukraine watchers would probably love to see Ukraine fail – just so they could say ‘I told you so’. Most of them are stuck in the paradigm of Ukraine as a failed, or at least ‘nascent’, state. Myroslava Gongadze made all of her social capital by furthering that line (and being Gongadze’s widow is her only claim to fame), and is perfectly willing to do so still – even if it means citing Putin-verstehers like Ben Aris.

Ukraine watchers are so stuck in the ‘Ukraine-as-defective-mafia-state’ paradigm that they are unwilling to look beyond it. And Ukrainian media, with their loud headlines and conveyor-belt corruption investigations, does nothing to change that.



With Friends Like These

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