Do Ukraine’s Leaders Understand Freedom of the Press?

Do Ukraine’s Leaders Understand Freedom of the Press?

On Tuesday, Ukrainian authorities banned the country’s top television anchor, Savik Shuster, from working in the country. Shuster, who is a Canadian citizen, hosts the country’s leading Russian-language talk show, Shuster LIVE, which is watched by four million people each week. The government’s action prompted corresponding outrage. Mustafa Nayem, a former journalist who is one of the leading reformists in parliament, assailed the move on his Facebook page, calling it a fresh example of the government’s “idiocy.” Vitaly Klitschko, the mayor of Kiev, also condemned the measure, and offered Shuster a slot on a TV channel run by the city.

Later in the week, another Ukrainian agency blocked the ban, saying that Shuster’s case required closer scrutiny. But that’s no guarantee that the final decision will go his way. In any case, the ban has already struck a blow to Ukraine’s image as an aspiring liberal democracy — coming as it does after a series of other moves that call into serious question the authorities’ commitment to freedom of speech.

“I’ve already been banned before once, in Putin’s Russia, in 2004,” Shuster told me earlier this week. In the 1990s he was a star on the Russian airwaves, first as the head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s bureau in Moscow, then as a reporter for the private broadcaster NTV. His talk show Freedom of Speech enjoyed a high profile during the late 1990s and early 2000s, even, at first, surviving a crackdown on his network organized by President Putin.

Shuster kept the show going long after most of his colleagues had left the country, but was ultimately forced to follow them into exile. The Kremlin was particularly angered by his coverage of the Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002. Shuster allowed the relatives of the hostages to come on his show, where they begged the authorities to open negotiations with the Chechen terrorists who were holding their family members captive. (Ultimately 133 hostages and 40 terrorists were killed when Russian special forces stormed the theater.) Shuster says that the Russian president, who has always declared a tough line on terrorism, took his show as a direct affront. “Putin did just the same thing that Poroshenko is doing now,” Shuster told me. “First the Kremlin banned me from working at NTV, and then from living in Russia.”

In this latest case, it looks as though Shuster may have provoked Poroshenko’s personal ire as well. Shuster often conducts impromptu polls of the studio audience during his live broadcasts, and last week he asked them what they thought of the president’s recent claim to have “shown determination” in the fight against corruption. Ninety-three percent of the audience disagreed. “We carefully chose our 100 participants to represent the full range of political views in today’s Ukraine,” Shuster told me. “We actually have Ukraine in our studio.” The result of the vote, he said, “was the last thing the Ukrainian authorities wanted to hear.”

Despite Kiev’s claims that it’s trying to adopt European-style rule of law, “Ukraine has not become closer to Europe in the way its authorities wield power,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst with George Washington University. As she noted, the Ukrainian government has banned 12 Russian television channels from broadcasting in Ukraine, and has blacklisted dozens of Russian cultural figures, including journalists. “Unlike Russia,” Lipman said, “Ukraine still has opposition parties, but the tools used by the Ukrainian government are not much different from those used in Russia.” Earlier this month Kiev issued a law banning the showing of Russian-made films — part of a tit-for-tat culture war fueled by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are at war with the Ukrainian government.

Needless to say, Russia has also banned Ukrainian cultural figures and harshly suppressed any criticism of the Kremlin’s policies toward Ukraine. Russia’s parliament has been churning out oppressive laws at a startling rate. In February, a Russian court sentenced a woman to 320 hours of “corrective labor” merely for sharing criticism of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea on social media. Earlier this month, the Russian government outlawed the Tatar Assembly, which peaceably represented the Tatar ethnic minority in Crimea for years, after declaring it “an extremist group.” The Kremlin routinely denounces civic groups — even the most inoffensive ones — as “foreign agents,” a definition that curtails their ability to work and raise funds. Pro-government thugs routinely result to violence. This week some of them stormed an event commemorating Stalin’s terror, where they poured green antiseptic over Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya and audience members.

Ukraine hasn’t quite reached that level of paranoia yet. Even so, it is clearly headed in a bad direction. In the heady days of the Euromaidan uprising, when Ukrainian activists took to the streets to denounce then-President Viktor Yanukovych and demand European-style reforms, many of their Russian counterparts looked up to them as models. One wonders if that would still be the case.

Now Yanukovych’s successor, President Poroshenko, is feeling increasingly besieged in his own right. The war in the East continues to simmer. The economy is weak. Popular anger at the failure to deliver on promises of reform is rising. And his own hold on power looks increasingly fragile: The latest polls give him a dismal approval rating of 19 percent.

Given this dire situation, one can easily imagine that the temptation to crack down on his critics is growing. Will Poroshenko be able to resist it?

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