Giving the lie to lies

Recent events both in Ukraine and in some other former Soviet republics make Ukraine’s undoubted progress with freedom of speech all the more to be valued – and all the more to be defended. 

The “enemy”, however, is not necessarily from outside.  The “temnyki” [instructions on what to write about and how, and what to ignore] have gone, and while some worrying attacks in June and July raised many alarm bells, it would be entirely premature to declare a state of siege.

Not too early, though, to counter the “enemies from within”, and the journalist initiative, already reported at  “Better not to lie” has over the last 6 weeks been doing this with imagination and persuasive power.

These journalists are aware that with the old forms of more overt censorship and media submission seemingly behind them, the reasons for unprofessional journalism often lie in self-censorship and in journalists succumbing to temptation and accepting money for articles written to order.

In a post-Soviet and post-Kuchma society, where the majority of journalists earn little and a large number of media outlets are owned by those whose mentality only crawled far enough out of feudal mode to gather Soviet rot, the above-mentioned problems are seriously impeding the development of independent journalism and therefore of an informed and questioning public.

A number of journalists and television presenters, all with a well-earned reputation for being talented and honest professionals, have been sharing their experience with second-year students of journalism.

Telling them that it’s bad to lie?  That it’s unprofessional to write what those who’ve got the money want to pay for?  All is undoubtedly true, but no less wasted breath for the worthiness of such sentiments.

What the journalists have been running could better be defined as master-classes, albeit with a difference. The students are taught about lying, about being bribed, coerced, “persuaded” to behave unprofessionally, in order to both prepare them and to challenge them to decide what response is needed.

It is unlikely that the students normally hear about the insidious pressure, the veiled enticement to moral compromise they will soon confront from their average faculty lecture.  Nor do they see so clearly the hazards of succumbing.

One simulation, for example, at Lviv University involved a hypothetical scandal over polluted water in the Lviv reservoir.  After an initial “press conference”, the students were separated into three groups, one assigned the task of giving the most comprehensive and objective coverage possible, another of writing for a municipal newspaper taking the line (of total denial) of the City Mayor, and the third of a commercial station whose services have been bought by the reservoir itself (as advertisement).

Not surprisingly, the working groups, after extremely animated discussion, came up with entirely different “news stories”. 

There is a lot that is cheering about this initiative, beginning, of course, with the very fact of its existence and the refreshing ability to develop tasks that really do provoke thought and develop understanding. One result of the activity described was that all saw how significantly better the “news footage” from the independent station was.  One reason being, quite simply, that the team had more time to do their “job”, rather than grappling with principles, the management, or attempting to sneak the truth in surreptitiously.  The team “employed” as advertisers succeeded in upholding their professional duty, although not openly, by quietly (in agreement with their “boss”, one of the well-known journalists) slipping in the arguments of the other side.

The most cheering result, although doubtless the worst report produced, came from the municipal newspaper team.  Their “boss” – Yevhen Hlybovytsky – played his role perfectly if less than admirably, by applying all forms of pressure, with the bottom line being to swallow the official version or resign.  So what is cheering, you may wonder.  That came in not only the resistance from the students, but in the fact that they effectively “re-invented” all means of resistance by journalists and editorial teams to forms of censorship and pressure, including not only the covert “hints” of another point of view, but also group appeals, resignations en masse, etc.

Nobody, least of all the journalists running these sessions, is naïve enough to believe that one or two moments of clarity can provide immunity from temptation or capitulation when the newly-qualified students are first put to the test.  At the end of the day, such immunity, the aspiration of religious leaders and philosophers throughout history, has never been nor can ever be “mass produced”.

Nonetheless, a seed – and not I think just one – planted can have wonderful results, and with the will most certainly in evidence, perhaps it is not all so bleak.

Halya Coynash

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