Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Opinion

Ukrainian PR: Beyond a paint job

  • Yanukovych says his country's rotten image is caused by 'Ukrainophobia' (Photo: goobimama)

Ukraine’s cabinet of ministers recently allocated money for measures aimed at “encouraging” international media sources to say nice things about Ukraine and its “foreign policy” and at creating a positive image of the country.

Before examining just what this entails, it is worth noting that Ukraine’s leaders have generally shown little originality in their response to mounting criticism and disgruntlement. 

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Leading members of former prime minister Tymoshenko’s government began addressing the “problem” of negative content in the media in late 2008. 

During the past year of his presidency Viktor Yushchenko also had a lot to say about improving Ukraine’s image in the world, which, he says, was not caused by internal chaos, conflict and lack of reform, but by various “Ukrainophobes," both in the Kremlin and elsewhere.

There are some new features of the present government’s efforts to create “a positive image of Ukraine." 

Most importantly, the audience is different. Under Yushchenko and Tymoshenko there was a lot that was bad to say and Ukraine’s media felt entirely free to do so. That freedom was rapidly eroded after Yanukovych came to power in 2010.

Three years on, all the main TV channels, as well as a lot of printed press can be relied on to muffle information which puts the President and his government in a bad light. 

A second new feature is the sheer volume of issues which need to be muffled or carefully “edited.”

Just months before a crucial EU summit in Vilnius, at which the fate of the EU-Ukraine association agreement is to be decided, the government is concerned about Ukraine’s image in the world for good reason. 

Weariness with political bedlam in Ukraine had reached a peak by the last presidential elections. But Ukraine’s rating in terms of media freedom, free elections and other democratic standards continued to be higher than in most post-Soviet republics. 

Its rating has dropped dramatically over the past three years. While Ukraine is most often in the headlines over the politically motivated imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s main rival, there has also been plenty of bad press on attempts to bring in Russia-type anti-gay legislation, on election rigging, on police impunity and much more.

Ukraine’s image, in short, is in need of more than a touch-up job.

Funding the positive image

On 3 July 2013, the cabinet of ministers made important additions to an earlier resolution on the use of public funding for ensuring a positive image of Ukraine in the world and on measures to support ties with Ukrainians living outside the country.

The additions are to item four and include the following: "17. Co-operation with leading foreign media in order to post positive publications about Ukraine. 18. Organising and holding forums, conferences, expert roundtables, press measures abroad in order to inform the community abroad about Ukraine’s foreign policy priorities."  

Item 18 aims to have a memorial to the victims of the Holodomor, the man-made, Soviet-era famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933, established in Washington.

Since the page on the President’s website devoted to the Holodomor disappeared as soon as Yanukovych came to power and was only reinstated after considerable protest from abroad, the $2 million to be spent on the Holodomor memorial seems unlikely to convince many Ukrainians in the diaspora that the current regime has seriously changed its attitude.

While the new measures adopted by Ukraine’s government on 3 July suggest that Ukraine’s leaders are concerned about the country’s international standing, they indicate concentration on propaganda, rather than compliance with very specific EU requirements for the EU-Ukraine association pact. 

In a nutshell, rather than adopting European standards, they are trying to export media tactics used extensively at home.

A recent report by BuzzFeed on "How Ukraine Wooed Conservative Websites" speaks of a concentrated drive “to convince sceptical American conservatives that the pro-Russian Party of Regions, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, deserved American support.”  

The measures described in the article are roughly those set out in items 17 and 18 of the new resolution. 

The campaign mentioned dates back to the parliamentary elections in October 2012. 

It speaks of prompts which journalists were allegedly invited to tweet and which were dramatically at odds with the highly critical reports from all election observers: “Ukraine has demonstrated its commitment to democracy and passed the test put forth by the international community of holding transparent elections” and “The victory for the Party of Regions is a victory for the people, for Ukraine and for democracy.”

One article should not be enough to convict – or convince – anybody. 

Compelling backup to the claims is, however, provided by another article by Chicago journalist Warner Todd Huston. BuzzFeed suggests it was written for money, and it is difficult to think of any other credible reason for this fairly gross misrepresentation of the Tymoshenko case.

Ukrainian taxpayers’ money has already been spent on similar output. 

In April 2012, the justice ministry paid the US law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates a hefty fee to “justify” the Tymoshenko prosecution and to reject allegations that it was politically motivated.”  

How much other money has been spent on reputation launderers is not public knowledge, but even the services which have come to light are not cheap.

The phenomenon of defamation

In March 2013, Renat Kuzmin, the first deputy prosecutor general visited London, where his meetings with various analysts and law firm representatives were organised by the Ukrainian embassy and by Burson-Marsteller UK. 

The meetings were aimed at convincing them that Ukrainian legislation and judicial proceedings were undergoing reform to bring them into line with European standards. 

Also, that the prosecutions of Tymoshenko and other former members of her government were justified.

That was for foreign consumption. 

Meanwhile, back home, Ukrainians learned that Kuzmin was proposing to criminalise “defamation,” which in his definition can include true statements.

What others might consider accusations of selective justice, judicial interference and dubious court rulings reflected, he wrote, a “dangerous trend towards using the phenomenon of defamation in order to put unlawful pressure on the courts and criminal investigators.”

Ukrainians’ confidence in the judiciary being at an all time low, the likelihood of such a threat silencing many journalists in Ukraine is high.

But there is no chance of any EU or US official seriously believing in any of it.

It is possible that those in power, having tried such tactics at home, are not capable of understanding that a few commissioned articles are powerless to contend with very real stains on Ukraine’s reputation. 

The number of journalists prepared to blacken their reputation through overtly commissioned material is simply not high enough. 

What remains unclear in all of this is why the new clauses were introduced into the resolution at all, unless certain sponsors have tired footing the bill alone. 

If making such efforts official is supposed to give them legitimacy, it does not.

Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, a Ukrainian NGO

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