Reaction to closure of Kyiv Post once again highlights Western hypocrisy over Ukraine

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By Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa. He writes about Russian and Soviet history, military history and military ethics, and is author of the Irrussianality blog. He tweets at @Irrussianality.

News that Ukraine’s English-language paper the Kyiv Post will be shuttered led to an outcry from journalists this week. In contrast, previous assaults on media freedom have gone unremarked upon, and the double standard is clear.

At the heart of the liberal-democratic worldview is the principle that an independent press is an indispensable part of a free and flourishing society. At the heart of democracy is accountability – the ability to hold those in power to account for their misdeeds and failures, as well as to reward them for their successes. It’s also at the heart of efficient government. And, while the media isn’t the only institution able to provide this accountability, it’s undoubtedly an important one.

The idea that Ukraine is marching irrevocably towards a liberal democratic order that will allow it to take its place in the family of ‘free’ Western nations has thus taken something of a blow this year, after a series of steps that have cast doubt on the existence of independent media in the Eastern European country.

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Particularly notable in this respect was the decision by the Ukrainian government to shut down three Russian-language TV stations (ZiK, NewsOne, and 112 Ukraine) connected to Viktor Medvedchuk and Taras Kozak, two of the leaders of the anti-government party Opposition Platform – For Life. This was then followed by an order shutting down one of the most popular news websites in Ukraine, the Russian-language Strana.ua.

This week, the Ukrainian press received a new blow, with the announcement that the Kyiv Post had fired all its staff and was temporarily shutting down until a new team of journalists could be found to run the paper. How long it will be out of action remains to be seen.

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The exact reasons for the closure of the Kyiv Post remain a little obscure. Although there was some speculation online that the action had been ordered by President Volodymyr Zelensky in reprisal for some critical comments published in the newspaper, there is no publicly available evidence supporting this conclusion. Instead, the incident seems to have been the product of a dispute between the Post’s journalists and the outlet’s owner, Odessa-based real-estate developer Adnan Kivan.

According to a statement published by the journalists, Kivan had proposed the creation of a Ukrainian-language version of the Kyiv Post. This was to be run by a new editor chosen by him. The journalists complained that the details of the scheme impinged on the newspaper’s editorial independence and, after they protested, the real-estate magnate dismissed them as “an act of vengeance.”

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The story highlights a long-standing issue in journalism: the extent to which owners of media outlets should refrain from interfering in the editorial policies of those they employ. Unsurprisingly, journalists tend to the view that they should be left alone, while those who pay them often hew to the opposite point of view. Like many newspapers, the Kyiv Postis a loss-making enterprise, and according to Ben Aris of BNE IntelliNews, the newspaper is “not appealing” from a business point of view, with expenses far outweighing revenue. Kivan, who apparently paid over the odds for the publication, may have felt that the time had come to make changes.

His decision has, however, elicited little sympathy among Western and Ukrainian journalists and from the diplomatic community. The reaction on Twitter was almost universally negative. “A huge loss for freedom of speech in Ukraine,” “a huge loss for Ukraine,” “bad news for a country aiming at values of pluralism of opinion and strong independent journalism,” “independent journalism just suffered another small death,” were typical responses from reporters. The Kyiv Post was praised as having “defended democracy’s promise,” while the US Embassy in Kiev tweeted that, “for 26 years, the Kyiv Post has been one of Ukraine’s most important independent media voices in any language, and an indefatigable standard bearer of journalistic standards.”

Other diplomats also got in the act. The event was “not a good day for free media,” said the British ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons. “Free and independent media in Ukraine needs defence on multiple fronts. A sad day,” tweeted her Swedish counterpart, Tobias Thyberg.

One may well sympathize with these complaints. Arguably, the Ukrainian media landscape is not looking too healthy nowadays. But a serious question arises. Where were all these people when Zelensky shut down ZiK, NewsOne, 112 Ukraine, and Strana.ua? The answer is that most of them were nowhere to be found, or that, if they did speak out, it was to support Zelensky’s action. An example of the latter was the US Embassy, which strongly backed the suppression of Medvedchuk’s and Kozak’s TV stations.

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There are exceptions. The European Federation of Journalists, for instance, denounced both the shutting of the Kyiv Post and the earlier closures of other media outlets in Ukraine. Sadly, though, such consistency is the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, the assault on opposition media in Ukraine has been either ignored or praised. Only when the Kyiv Post was shut did Western journalists and diplomats remember their commitment to a free press.

The explanation is obvious. Outlets like ZiK, NewsOne, 112 Ukraine, and Strana.ua were perceived as “pro-Russian.” This is a rather inaccurate description. It would be more correct to describe them as “anti-government.” Regardless, the perception that they were hostile to the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, and to the anti-Russian, pro-Western policy pursued by its governments since then, was enough to render them unworthy of support – or worse, deserving of condemnation.

By contrast, the Kyiv Post has long been a reliably pro-Maidan, pro-Western, anti-Russian outfit. As a matter of editorial policy, the Kyiv Post always referred to the war in Donbass in Eastern Ukraine as “Russian aggression.” An American flag even flew outside its office. The newspaper is, of course, entitled to its point of view, but it was hardly an objective reporter of Ukrainian news.

In reality, the closures of opposition media in Ukraine are far more disturbing than that of the Kyiv Post. Strana.uaand others were shut down by government diktat for obviously political reasons, whereas the Post has been closed by its owner, and for causes that do not appear to be obviously political. As attacks on a free press go, the case of the Kyiv Post is relatively weak. The contradictory reactions to the various incidents send a clear and regrettable message: in the eyes of many, the cause of a “free,” “independent” press matters only when it affects those institutions that support Western policy.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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