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Feed: Shine a Light, Shine a Light, Crush the Roaches in the Night

Three years ago, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a journalist. It’s easy to get tied up in social networking, self-promotion, and gossip and lose sight of what journalism really means. But after almost three years of teaching and observing the media in Ukraine, I’ve made a decision: Journalism is important. Here’s why.

by Kyle Adams

In late October 2010, the student-staffers of Globus, a school newspaper in a secondary school in Eastern Ukraine, were putting the final touches on design when one of the writers walked into the room. She had written an editorial about the litter problem in the town. She was now asking to remove her name from the article.

I asked why.

“It’s my senior year,” she said. “And I don’t want to cause a scandal.”

Cause a scandal. This has become my least favorite phrase in Russian.

At this point a young student on the newspaper staff jumped in and preached about freedom of speech and constitutional rights, and everything I had been teaching.

“This isn’t America,” the writer responded. The piece ran anonymously.

There was a time, I remember, in journalism school, when a professor asked my class what the point of journalism was. The debate was long: to inform, to make money, to entertain, to advocate, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted,” and so on. I was undecided. After almost three years in Ukraine, I have an answer: Journalism holds those in power responsible for their actions. Everything else is gravy.

When a co-teacher and I started this newspaper in the fall of 2010, I wanted to teach the importance of a free press in a democracy, as well as basic journalism skills– but my aims were general: I believed it was important for everyone, everywhere to learn these things. After just a semester, I saw that the need was acute.

Ukraine is not America, but the Ukrainian constitution protects freedom of speech and of the press. It allows for an unsettling amount of restriction, especially compared to the US’s unqualified First Amendment, and Ukraine lacks the nuanced canon of free-speech related Supreme Court decisions built over the years in the US. But the basic guarantee of freedom is there. The writer did not say, “Because I’ll be arrested,” or “Because I’ll be killed.” She was not afraid of legal repercussions, but social ones.

Despite constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech, Ukraine is plagued by a stifling social taboo on “causing a scandal” or criticizing authorities. The waters must not be stirred, even if stirring would clean out pollutants; the boat must not be rocked, even if it is sinking. The social norm is to sweep serious problems under the carpet, avoid public dialogue, and pretend everything is okay– while HIV/AIDS infection rates increase faster than anywhere in the world, alcoholism is normalized, women are a major export, and corruption is a way of life.

In November 2010, I showed my students Good Night and Good Luck, a film about journalist Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy. During our discussion, I wrote on the board: “A timid journalist is a tool of the state: a spokesman, a rumor-monger, no more valuable to his or her community than a blank piece of paper or a TV set,” and asked the students to talk about it. At some point, a Ukrainian teacher I worked with interrupted and said, “But kids, that’s just an ideal. That’s not how it is here.” This was not the first time she had said that. Whenever I mentioned criticizing those in power– “That’s not how it is here.” Whenever I mentioned journalistic independence– “That’s not how it is here.” Whenever I mentioned exposing corruption– “That’s not how it is here.”

My smart-ass answer is, “Clearly.”

She’s right, of course: that’s not how it is here.

Ukraine has an ugly history with press freedoms. The post-Soviet Kuchma regime was characterized by Soviet-style oppression and bullying of the press. After the Orange Revolution in 2004, the Yuschenko government turned things around, and Ukraine rose on international lists for press freedoms. In 2008, the country landed at number 87 on Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) press freedom index. Then Yanukovich took power in 2009, remarking during his campaign, “What did Yuschenko give Ukraine? Freedom of speech?” Since his election, Ukraine has fallen to 131st place on RWB’s index. International organizations like the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, as well as media watchdogs like RWB, have condemned increasing violations of press freedom in Ukraine. The violations include classic intimidation and physical abuse as well as more tangled forms of pressure.

The famous case of Georgiy Gongadze, a Ukrainian opposition journalist killed in 2000 under the Kuchma regime, was recently “resolved” by placing the blame squarely on a single man– Yuri Kravchenko—who is now dead. No living official has been brought to justice, despite the fact that Kuchma was heavily implicated in recorded conversations with his then-security chief.

On October 31, 2011, Ukraine held regional elections across the country. Most television news outlets reported that all went well: the elections were free and fair. These reports, however, ignored the criticisms of OPORA, one of the most reputable watchdogs in Ukraine, as well as international organizations, which all concluded the elections were widely and illegally manipulated.

“Ukrainian television news programming is becoming just like in Russia,” said Natalia Ligachova, head of the Kyiv-based media watchdog Telekritika, in a Kyiv Post article in November. “In such a model,” writes the Kyiv Post. “The news media’s role is to praise the nation’s leadership, refrain from criticism and leave the citizens with the impression that everything is well.”

“The news media’s role is to praise the nation’s leadership, refrain from criticism and leave the citizens with the impression that everything is well.”

Ukrainian journalism students created a calendar for President Yanukovich featuring questions like, "When will officials be held accountable for taking bribes?" The project was a reaction to a calendar for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, titled "We Love You," in which female journalism students posed in lingerie. Source: kyivpost.ua

Recently, Donetsk-based journalist Aleksey Matsuka suffered an attempt on his life for his honest reportage of the corruption in the Donbass region of Ukraine. His public reaction, “I Choose the Truth,” is a steaming indictment of the media environment in Eastern Ukraine.

My co-teacher is right: journalistic independence and integrity are not the reality in Ukraine. But that does not mean the ideals are not relevant, it means they are all the more so. It means Ukrainians need to strive so much the harder to meet them.

In that same issue, the Kyiv Post ran an article about a calendar made by university-level journalism students in Ukraine. Each month was accompanied by a question like, “When will authorities be held accountable for taking bribes?” and “Why did Ukraine drop to 131st place in the freedom of press ratings?” The students were called by their dean to discuss “how appropriate” their questions were, writes the Kyiv Post. Soon after, the students backed off and stopped pushing the calendar.

This made me angrier than the election coverage. Here a dean– an educator– is telling journalism students to ask more “appropriate” questions– which is to say, questions that won’t cause a scandal, won’t stir the waters, and won’t make anyone important look bad.

That is not the job of a journalist.

Nor is it the job of a journalist to cause a scandal. It is merely to report the facts. If the facts make those in power look bad, so be it. If an official takes bribes, the journalist is not at fault for reporting it; the official is at fault for taking bribes. If the country is so hindered by corruption, if nothing can be accomplished without bribery, and foreign investors won’t waste their money here, then the question, “When will authorities be held accountable for taking bribes?” is not just appropriate, it’s urgent. And the answer is tied tightly to the future of this country. Corruption, I tell my students, hides in the dark like a cockroach. Journalism shines a light.

The calendar story angered me more than the election coverage because it’s more like problems I’ve encountered myself. While working on our first issue, which featured an interview with the school director, he asked us to publish a week early so that the issue would be out in time for an election in which he was running. I fumed and told my colleague absolutely not. I wasn’t about to teach my students that journalism existed to serve those in power. I offered to talk to the director myself, to explain the role of the newspaper in the school and what I was trying to teach. I was sternly told not to do that. I never heard of the request again, we published on our schedule, and I considered it a victory. I was wrong.

Throughout our four semesters, we were repeatedly told what to write, how to write it, what photos to include, and, at times, content was reviewed by the director before publishing. Perhaps even worse than this direct interference was the chill that came over the newsroom when someone mentioned a story that everyone knew the administration would not like. The students learned what topics and stories to avoid, and that kind of censorship– self-censorship– is truly poisonous.

During a lesson in which the students had to write a code of ethics, a rambunctious young student got fed up and illustrated this point for me. As we began to write, she scoffed at rule number one: “Always tell the truth.” I asked her to explain her reaction.

“For us, it’s a lie,” she said. Some other students objected.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s write about why the cafeteria is so much worse this year than last.”

The others responded immediately with “No, no, we can’t say that.”

She looked at me and shrugged. “See?”

These are small things, sure. It’s just a school newspaper, and it’s just one story, or one photo. But they’re small things in the way that a dragon’s toe sticking out from under your bed is a small thing. The relationship between the press and the authorities in this country is the same from school director right up to president. They tolerate the press the way they would an inquisitive child: a silly thing that can be ignored, brushed aside, or disciplined when it becomes a nuisance. Or worse, and more commonly, they see it as a propaganda machine whose purpose is to support the authorities– in the good old Soviet tradition. Of course, all public figures try to manipulate the press. The difference is, in the US, public figures know the press doesn’t exist to serve them.

A teacher recently shied away from writing an article about stray dogs in the town. She said it would be taken as a criticism of local government, and she feared being reprimanded, even fired. I was, again, outraged. If government isn’t criticized in newspapers, where is it criticized? To whom is it accountable? The answer is no one, and the result is visible in Ukrainian corruption. But how can I ask someone to stand up and take that risk? They live here, I don’t. How can we even begin to fight a problem like this– a problem not written in law, but in the culture? One student who is considering a career in journalism told me that her parents disapproved because, “to be a good journalist in Ukraine is dangerous.” And I know it’s true. I also know the only way to change that is for good journalists to make a stand. But how can I encourage her to put herself in danger? How could I live with myself if something happened?

I don’t know how to fight it. But I started by having this conversation with my students. I didn’t tell them what to write. I didn’t push them or encourage them to write certain stories or avoid others. I educated them, encouraged debate, then stood back with fingers crossed and hoped they’d make the right decisions. Sometimes they did. Sometimes the obstacles were just too great.

At least three of them are now planning to study journalism in college. I’m proud of that. And I was proud when the local newspaper wrote a story about Globus and my students brought it to me and tore it apart: His lead is awful. Half of it is opinion. The most important news is at the end. He didn’t even interview anyone. He spelled the name of the newspaper wrong. He made criticisms that he never gave us a chance to respond to.

“I wish I was an adult,” said one. “So I could go to the newspaper office and complain.”

“Someday you will be,” I said.

I look forward to that day with hope for Ukraine. Someday these kids will be adults, and hopefully they’ll keep shouting and criticizing and shining lights into all those dark places– because in the freedom to criticize is the power to change.

 

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In Feed, Kyle Adams takes you into the world of journalism– a mercurial bazaar of blogs, tweets, and social networking that’s nevertheless rooted in timeless, basic principles of freedom, democracy, and accountability. He’ll analyse local news, offer his views on media practice, and address the bigger questions: What role does journalism play in our lives, and what does the future hold?

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