The July 15th announcement that Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers has submitted draft legislation to launch a new state-owned foreign broadcasting channel, Ukraine Tomorrow, appears to have turned few heads in the West, with pundits predominately focused on renewed tensions on the battlefield rather than the war of words being fought between Russia and Ukraine. The new station, to be launched in record time in September 2015, is an initiative stemming from Ukraine’s already controversial Ministry of Information Policy, dubbed the Ministry of Truth by critics, created in December last year to stop the spread of Russia’s aggressive propaganda. Run by Yuri Stets, former head of the Information Security Department of the National Guard, the Ministry has attracted stark criticism from journalists and media watch groups, who claim that it will act as a censorship agency, threatening freedom of the press and stifling opposition to Kiev’s overarching narrative.
It’s doubtful whether Ukraine Tomorrow will be an exception, since it seeks to battle with the Kremlin’s militant information warfare. The public already deems the initiative a waste of Ukraine’s minimal resources and argues that it will fail to adequately counter Russia’s $250 million propaganda machine, which comes both in the form of news sites such as Russia Today and Sputnik, alongside a dedicated army of pro-Kremlin trolls who post roughly 100,000 comments a day and actively tweet pro-Putin rants. Rather than countering propaganda with truth as many have proposed, including members of Poroshenko’s own Presidential Administration, Ukraine’s attempts to hijack a chunk of the information space has already become evident, as comments on international news site has diminished to a tit-for-tat battle between Russian and Ukrainian trolls. Indeed, in January 2015, Yuri Stets suggested the establishment of an Internet army to fight against Russia’s online attacks. No more than a month later, iArmy was created to mobilize Internet users to “fight Russian bots, [and] informational and psychological pressure from Russian media”, and has since then become its own mini-Ukrainian troll army aimed at fighting the Kremlin with its very own weapons.
Two-way trolling activities aside, journalists concerned about the Ministry of Truth’s wide-reaching powers over the media and information space, are right to be uneasy. Despite Kiev’s efforts to ensure the Ministry doesn’t infringe upon media freedoms in Ukraine, in January 2014 the government already came close to overstepping this line when it attempted to revoke the license of Inter TV channel. Owned by gas and chemicals tycoon Dmitry Firtash, and Opposition Bloc leader, Serhiy Lyovochkin, Inter has been Ukraine’s most popular opposition channel since the 90s. The showdown between the channel and the government came after Inter broadcast a New Year’s Eve show featuring three prominent Russian stars singing a satirical song about the Russian sanctions regime. What followed were accusations that the channel poses a threat national security and investigations were launched to look into its alleged biased reporting and its partial privatization after the fall of communism. Despite the government’s inflammatory accusations, the episode raised suspicions of Ukraine’s increasingly shaky protection of freedom of speech and attack on opposition forces, as it battles in the information war.
But unfortunately, the Ministry of Truth and its Ukraine Tomorrow project are just one side of the not-so-shiny coin. Other measures have recently included banning 38 ‘fascist’ Russian books written by journalists and political scientists critical of Kiev’s new government, evoking vocal responses by Amnesty International that “such lists and bans violate freedom of expression and cast a dark shadow of doubt over the image of a country that proclaims to uphold democratic values.” Additionally, 14 prominent Russian artists who have openly voiced their support for President Putin and his handling of the Crimea crisis have been banned from entering Ukraine on the basis that they pose a threat to the country’s national security. Such heavy handed and showcase tactics are likely to undermine Ukraine’s statements in favor of democratic change and confirm fears that the country seeks to restrict criticism of its policies and control the narrative available to Ukrainians.
While this sequence of events has yet to evoke outrage or debate among Kiev’s Western backers, Ukraine’s population is slowly growing weary of the government’s attempts to silence dissent in the name of beating Russia at its own game. If the Ministry of Truth is going to ride it out, it should work by the implications of its adopted name – promote truth, rather than fight Russia’s propaganda with the same propaganda. Whether Ukraine Tomorrow will become Russia Today is yet to be seen, but Kiev should think twice before it pursues the same path it was trying to escape almost two years ago when the Euromaidan chose democracy over Putin’s Russia.
Jo Simmons, Huffington Post