I would be surprised if Geoffrey Pyatt actually read this blog (maybe he should, though), but it so happened that the U.S. Ambassador in Ukraine participated in the “Countering Information War in Ukraine” conference in Kyiv today.
Among other things Mr. Pyatt said were the need for Ukraine to counter Russian propaganda through success; to refrain from creating new state-run media; and to protect freedom of speech and fight corruption. I won’t focus on the ‘fight corruption’ angle, because, frankly, it is overdone. Instead, I’ll provide some of the Ambassador’s quotes here and comment of them somewhat in my capacity as editor-in-chief of The Ukraine Today (your 100%-independent news-about-Ukraine-you-didn’t-want-to-know outlet!), as well as a representative of the endangered porokhobot species in Ukraine.
There is a phenomenon in psychology called mirroring, where you fall into the habit of simply reflecting the behaviors of your opponent. And that is, for me, one of the risks for Ukraine. It’s a huge mistake for the Ukrainian government, for the Ukrainian people, to create a troll factory like St. Petersburg, churning out counter-propaganda in social media. It’s a huge mistake to create a “Ministry of Truth” that tries to generate alternative stories. That is not the way to defeat this information warfare.
The problem here, Mr. Pyatt, is that Ukrainian government – or, indeed, the Ukrainian people – have no such things. If my memory is correct, the massive public backlash in December 2014, particularly among Ukrainian journalists, ultimately left the newly-created Ministry of Information Policy without a sizable budget. Whatever the MIP wasted the said budget on is beyond me: while nominally they’re busy providing Ukrainian TV coverage over separatist-held areas in the Donbass, there are some who speculate it was spent elsewhere. The MIP does not do its job, whatever it is. It doesn’t deal in counter-propaganda, it doesn’t voice government’s opinions, and it most certainly does not generate alternative stories. The best things yet to come out of MIP were… about 3.5 social advertising posters I saw in the streets last May?
There is no Ukrainian troll factory, no Olgino, and despite the fear- and hatemongering on the social networks, the Lipetsk chocolate factory turns out chocolates, not voices drowning out the opposition. In fact, it is very much the contrary. The so-called ‘porokhobots’ – ‘Poroshenko’s bots’ – are not even affiliated with Poroshenko, nor with the government of Ukraine. They just happen to be people who realize that criticism should be constructive; that times are hard enough even without the Russian information warfare and Ukrainian oligarchs and oligarch-controlled media stoking the fires of discontent; and that sometimes, when the government is unable or unwilling to defend itself, it needs a voice.
We are not a troll factory, Ambassador. We’re real people. It is just that we want Ukraine to succeed, at least once.
In fact, Ukraine doesn’t need more state-sponsored media. What Ukraine needs is a successful Ukraine. And I would argue – and I was glad to see Dmytro say very much the same – the single most powerful refutation to the Kremlin’s hybrid war and information campaign against this country is a successful, modernizing, European, democratic Ukraine.
Ukraine doesn’t need state-sponsored media, that is true. However, as former President Kuchma succinctly put it, Ukraine is no Russia. There is no overwhelming state-run media machine; on the contrary, there are several smaller media machines, owned and run by oligarchs and financial interests. 1+1 and Inter, owned by Ihor Kolomoyskiy and Dmytro Firtash, respectively, are two such examples: they are immensely popular, they have outreach, and they will support their owners without a second thought. After all, these owners foot their bills.
This isn’t limited to 1+1 – which runs an English-language service known as Ukraine Today since mid-2014 – or Inter, either; there is ICTV, owned by Viktor Pinchuk, or 112, reported to be owned by former Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko. None of them are particularly loyal to the government, quite the contrary; 112 plays host to numbers of previously-unknown ‘experts’ and ‘politologists’ that seem to do nothing but bash the Ukrainian government for one reason or another. It also hosts the popular Savik Shuster Show, the premiere political
talk show circus talk show circus of Ukraine.
Online news outlets aren’t much better – neither censor.net.ua, managed by omnidisciplinary expert Yuri Butusov, nor lb.ua or zn.ua, the latter affiliated with Ukraine’s former defense minister Anatoly Grytsenko. zn.ua is especially notable for the fact that it’s been working overtime on ‘hot topics’ that discredit Ukrainian government: be it the Minsk Agreements, Constitutional amendments, or Kremlin emissary Gryzlov’s visit mid-January.
Kremlin has nothing to do with the war Ukrainian media wage on their government, which can not – or will not – speak to defend itself. Ukrainians do not trust their government, true; nor do they believe it to be trustworthy, which means that the media have a field day criticizing the government completely unopposed.
This is not how things are done. Criticism – constructive criticism most of all – is important to a functioning society; but the government must be allowed to defend or explain itself. Seeing as how confrontational most media are, it should probably be the former.
A couple of last thoughts. The media space is obviously key to all of this. In this regard, it is important that Ukraine continues to develop professional, credible, and independent journalism free from oligarchic control. I know it’s a tiny piece of the media space, but I cannot say enough good things about Hromadske TV and what it represents as a model of objective, independent journalism – not answerable to any oligarchic or political agenda. I don’t think Ukraine needs more propaganda machine. What Ukraine needs is more objective information.
Professional and credible journalism, not to mention independent, would indeed be a great thing to have in this country. And while I harbor no good feelings for Hromadske TV, I should note that they’re at least trying to be professional, even trying too hard. As an example, Hromadske plays host to Russian expatriates calling for a ‘third Maidan’ in Ukraine and Crimean referendum supporters, refuses to call Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine ‘separatists’ or ‘rebels’, much less ‘terrorists’, and refers to the Ukrainian military as ‘government forces’. Something is obviously not right here, but I just have to give them credit for trying. To be fair, Hromadske also hosted pro-government speakers before, but they’re increasingly few and far between this days.
While journalists should indeed strive to be free from oligarchic control, it is very easy for a Ukrainian journalist to fall into the familiar paradigm. The problem here, however, is that Ukrainians do not really like their government – any government – and everything that attacks the government pays in pageviews, rankings and social media likes. To put it blindly, it is popular, so it pays – but it does nothing to bolster Ukrainians’ confidence in their government, their pride in their country, their support for reforms and their willingness to do their part. It can sometimes lead to tragedies.
But the greatest tragedy is that corruption isn’t limited to the top echelons of Ukraine’s society: rather, it permeates it thoroughly. Every single Ukrainian is complacent of corruption at some point in their lives. Every single Ukrainian greased someone’s palms for favors, preferences or a blind eye. Sometimes bribes were demanded; sometimes giving them was standard procedure.
Imagine if Ukrainians stopped giving bribes. This would not defeat the cause of the corruption, but it would certainly strike a massive blow – especially for those who think that nothing changed or ever will change. But the average Ukrainian is surrounded by the media that are playing to the same trend: that nothing changed, that the current management is just as corrupt as ever, if not worse. There is no motivation for the average Ukrainian to stop supporting corruption, and the fault with that lies with the media.
Corruption stories sell like hotcakes. The impetus to stamp them out exists. It saddens me that it is the case and that publicity and free speech are misused in such a way. Because ultimately, when you cry ‘corruption!’ one too many times, people will stop being able to tell fact from fiction, real from wrong, and real wrongs will go unpunished. If we are to fight corruption, this would not help win the fight. Quite the contrary.
In fact, plenty of Ukrainian journalists have been branding themselves as ‘corruption fighters’ for more that fifteen years now. Somehow, despite all their efforts, there was no noticeable drop in corruption over the years. What is the point of fighting corruption if it still exists fifteen years down the line, I wonder?
Protect freedom of speech. It’s critically important, and a core European value, to allow diversity of opinions, even if those opinions are critical of the government, and even if one political faction or another may not agree with those opinions.
Unfortunately, it seems as if freedom of speech is only allowed in Ukraine if you criticize, attack and bash the government over every minor detail; the government is not allowed to have a say. This is hardly a European value. And while freedom of speech is indeed important, the government should be given a chance if not to defend, then to explain themselves – but most media do not give them the chance. The government itself is to blame, too, although there is some progress with government offices and officials interacting with users on social media. One particularly nasty example involved Andrii Olefirov, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Finland, who once found himself under attack in Twitter – but not by Kremlin information warriors, but by Ukrainians. Distrust of the government runs deep in Ukraine, and when stoked by the rating-hungry or oligarch-controlled media, the distrust turns into open hostility.
Voices of reason are drowned out by voices of hatred – people crying for another bloody revolution, a regime change, or an armed coup. They have perfect reason for that – so far as they know, nothing changed in the country, but rather got worse. The media – both the oligarch-owned and the independent outlets – told them that. But while the media are concerned with the narrative because it pays, the masses are plunged deeper into despair. Those that seek to provide reasonable criticism or even defend the government’s action are attacked, harassed or bullied into silence, their voices unheard.
This is not plurality. This is the opposite of plurality. What Russia required a propaganda machine and troll factories to achieve, Ukrainians did on their own. And while this sorry state of affairs is based on a legitimate grievance, this is a volatile and dangerous situation for Ukraine, and Ukrainian society, as a whole.
And Ukrainian media are not making it any better.
Of course, the government is at least partially at fault in this; but there are too many in Ukraine who simply refuse to listen to the government. After being lied to and cheated for the better part of 25 years, this is understandable. But at the same time, this is unacceptable.
I believe in freedom of speech. I believe in the free and independent media. I also believe that both not only must, but will exist in Ukraine.
But to think that they already do is a dangerous delusion.
These are the ingredients for Ukraine’s success. And what I want to underline today is my government’s commitment to continue, as we have for the past two years, to stand foursquare with the Ukrainian people, to work closely with the government and the presidency and the people of Ukraine to advance the European choice that you have made. And most importantly, to always side with those who are committed to reform, and to always side with those who believe that falling into the habits of the past is the single biggest trap that Ukraine faces looking to the future.
And while I agree with Ambassador Pyatt’s last statement, I have to state that we, the Ukrainian people, are ourselves responsible for all of our modern woes. Nobody forced us to squander the last 25 years squabbling between each other and dividing the country, furthering corruption and losing trust in the government. I refuse to believe in the illusion that the government is inherently evil, while the people are inherently blameless; the officials we elect and the officials we appoint are, ultimately, the flesh and blood of the Ukrainian people.
And, unfortunately, the resistance to progress is not the sole province of corrupt old guard politicians: there are too many in Ukraine that do not believe in reform, that do not understand the concept of reform, that feel that the common good should be second to personal gain, and who ask, first and foremost, what their country has to do for them, rather than what they can do for their country.
However unfortunate this may be, this is reality. This is reality we have to embrace, and this is reality that we have to struggle to change.
Reforms take time, Mr. Ambassador. You of all people should know that. No country rises from the ashes in the blink of an eye, and certainly not Ukraine, beset by woes from within and from without. We are a sad nation: selfish, deluded and untrustworthy; one that had its eyes finally open in the last few years and was overwhelmed by the reality outside; and one that struggles to find itself – and its way – in that reality.
I am an optimist. And for the last two years, since fires burned on the Maidan, I have always believed that the darkness is thicker just before dawn, and the trials Ukraine undergoes just now are growing pains.
I am not planning to give up. Even if I am hounded, reviled and misunderstood, I will not and I refuse to ever give up.
All I ask of you is that you understand me.
And that you give us – the people, the state and the nation – a chance.