By Zion Miller
Imagine a world where politicians buy votes and kill journalists. This is the reality for seven Ukrainian journalists and NGO workers who traveled to Miami University on November 6 to talk to Dr. Emily Channell-Justice’s East-West Relations class and Joe Sampson’s Journalism 202 class.
The seven guests came from a variety of news outlets and media organizations. Yevheniia Kutnova works for Kharkovskye Izvestiya, a Ukrainian newspaper, and is also a television presenter. She focuses on election laws, campaigning use of social media, and fake news. Iryna Baryshevska is another journalist specializing in covering state, local governments, and world events on TV. Her reason for coming to Miami was to share her experience in covering the Ukrainian election process. Serhii Nikitenko is an internet focused journalist who is the editor of MIST (Bridge), a publication focusing on anti-corruption and public financing. Nikitenko is especially interested in how civic organizations in America work with local and national media. Oksana Stavniichuk is a journalist for the NGO “Center UA” which focuses on the attendance of people’s deputies at meetings and committees, legislative activity, conflicts of interest, voting of the deputies, and electronic declarations. She visited the United States with hopes of learning about our legislative and legal processes relating to elections. Oleksii Riepik is the head of an NGO named “Bohuslav Sic” and is currently the coordinator of citizen oversight of election campaigns for the Kyiv district through “Civic Network CHESNO”. He is interested in how to increase informational sources, including through social media. Oksana Bankova is the head of communication and public information for the Khmelnytskyi Oblast Regional Center for Free Legal Aid. She focuses on how media works during elections and the standards and laws they must follow. Finally, the visit was facilitated by Yaroslav Muraviov, a Program Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
One of the topics covered in the visit was that of “Fake news,” a buzzword that has become ubiquitous in the United States. But does it exist outside of the U.S.? Serhii Nikitenko, from the Kherson region, which borders Crimea, said that he and his organization frequently experience fake news throughout their work. The main way he and his colleagues fight it is through fact-checking. He said critical thinking was an essential skill in determining what is fake and what is not, and that critical thinking is a skill that many people are lacking when reading their news feed. Oksana Stavniichuk spoke about a website that was started to combat fake news called StopFake. This website is devoted to finding fake news articles and analyzing them, showing to what extent they are fake and what facts are either misrepresented or outright lies. It is devoted to Ukrainian fake news and is viewable in numerous different languages.
A second discussion question covered elections. It turns out that America is not the only country with election problems. When questioned on if the elections truly represented the people of Ukraine, there was a consensus that the system is not perfect. However, opinions varied as to what extent the elections are not representative and what the root cause of it is. Some journalists believed that election reform was required to solve problems with the political party lists, but others believed the problem was with the political culture of Ukraine. One specific problem with Ukrainian elections is buying votes. One specific story was told in which a politician up for election bought drinks for everyone in the voting line. During the discussion, comparisons were drawn between American political culture and Ukrainian political culture. In America, voting is considered a civic duty while in Ukraine it is simply a right. However, while Americans consider voting a civic duty, local elections still have a low turnout. Riepik questioned the audience about this, saying that it made no sense to have low turnout for the elections that most directly impact our lives. In Ukraine, local issues are very important. Oksana Bankova discussed how most people who get into Parliament from her home region of Khmelnytskyi work on local issues through charitable foundations, which are used to fix local problems like renovating schools. While voters do not really know what they are supposed to do in Parliament, they understand how voting for those people improves local problems.
Imagine risking your life just by going to work. That is the reality for journalists in Ukraine, where corruption in the government has made it unsafe for journalists and civic activists to criticize those in power. That’s because those with power have the ability to retaliate with without fear due to legal immunities, said Baryshevska, the TV journalist. Oleksii Riepik talked about a code of conduct among journalists that helps ensure their safety. They watch each other’s backs and use common sense to keep themselves and others safe. While some efforts are being made by the Ukrainian security services to catch those who are threatening the lives of the government’s critics, more often journalists and civic activists cannot be sure that their safety will be protected.
The journalists provided an exciting glance into how the press functions in post-socialist democracies. Even though Ukraine is a democracy, free speech and civic involvement is very different. Learning how Ukrainian citizens vote and how the system works was fascinating given how things work in America, and the parallels between press safety in Ukraine and Russia were disturbing. Dr. Channell-Justice’s class, Joe Sampson’s class, the Havighurst Center, and Miami University thank all who attended and the journalists for making visiting and sharing their knowledge with us.
Zion Miller is a sophomore majoring in International Studies.