The Ukrainian World Congress celebrated its 50th Anniversary recently with a series of celebratory events as well as organizational sessions and forums in Ukraine which hosted delegates from most of the countries in the world that have a significant Ukrainian diaspora.
These were both well attended and supported by Ukrainian politicians and government officials who recognized the influence that this international organization has on both the diaspora as well as the governments of the countries where they are located.
Although the week-long series of events generated a lot of good will and positive reactions from those attending, there was one aspect that gave me pause for some concern. Several prominent speakers, particularly, though not exclusively from the Ukrainian government side, complained that the independent Ukrainian press, both domestic and foreign, was unduly harsh on government reform and anti-corruption efforts, highlighting a perceived lack of sufficient progress on these critical issues. They claimed that the press tended to focus mostly on the negatives and not give due credit for the progress that has been made. Such negative press they claim, was hampering Ukraine’s access to foreign investment and economic aid.
This could not help but elicit a certain measure of hopefully justifiable indignation in my journalistic psyche. Since when has it been the role of journalists to function as cheerleaders for a government’s actions. The role of journalists, be they of the Fourth or the more outlying Fifth Estate, is to be the eyes, ears and critical defender of the public interest, against the actions of the establishment, be it government, business or other influential force in our society.
Although as a journalist I am not averse to giving credit where credit is due, I view my primary role as being an informed observer and critic of all the structures and individuals that have any significant influence on our daily lives, government being a primary one.
Although I acknowledge that this current Ukrainian government has accomplished many positive things since it came into power, and has made some measurable progress in reforming a dysfunctional state apparatus, I would posit that this is what it was elected to do, and Ukrainians have a right to take that for granted. One should expect high praise for doing the exceptional, and not for just doing what one is supposed to do.
What the Ukrainian government has done up until now may be viewed as adequate, but certainly nowhere near what the Ukrainian citizenry demanded and expected when they voted President Poroshenko and his minions into power. In particular, the government’s efforts at addressing corruption continue to be woefully inadequate and will continue to overshadow other progress until this issue is properly and forcefully dealt with. It is therefore incumbent upon the free press to continue to hold the government accountable until it fulfills its mandate to transform Ukraine into a country that approaches the standards of democracy, rights and freedoms, integrity and a civil society that meets European and free world standards. That is our job and our responsibility, one long acknowledged as a basic cornerstone of any truly democratic country and society.
Aside from the government’s misunderstanding of the role of a free press, there is also cause for concern that this may be the first step in a more ominous change in government’s policy towards a free press and independent media. Press coverage and press freedom in Ukraine is already in a tenuous state owing to the fact that most newspaper and media outlets are owned and controlled by the oligarchic class whose interests are more focused on maintaining their control of political and economic power than on serving the broader public interest.
In recent months, there also appears to be an increasing effort by the government and its agencies including the police, the SBU and tax authorities to intimidate critics, NGO’s and anti-corruption activists that expose government inaction and wrong-doing. As a preliminary to Presidential elections coming next year, many see Poroshenko as embarking on a deliberate effort to silence critics and undermine any significant opposition to his staying in power. A free and vocal press would obviously be part of that equation.
In view of what is continuing to happen in Ukraine, I would put forth the argument that what the country needs is more journalistic reporting that holds the government accountable and continues to exert pressure to keep it on the path that started on the Maidan three years ago, aimed at making Ukraine a truly free, independent, strong and democratic country.