The Zrada Card
The three Home Alone movies all featured in a list of the ten most watched TV programmes in Ukraine in January and it’s tempting to speculate that the popularity of the franchise reflects the way the country sees itself: abandoned by those who should be responsible for it, under attack from bigger powers and having to improvise its self-defence with anything that comes to hand. This isn’t just about the latest Russian aggression. Historically Ukraine has been invaded and occupied by everyone in the region: Romania, Austria, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia.
The sense of enemies all around has resulted, during the present war, in a public discourse centered on zrada (‘betrayal’) and peremoha (‘victory’). It started out as ironic. Journalists on the Maidan during the 2014 revolution, such as the radio host Andrei Brodeskij, became so sick of the overemotional revolutionary speeches on the stage they began to take the piss by describing the most irrelevant behaviour as either zrada or peremoha. When a report came out that some cows had crossed from Ukraine into Russia, for example, this was described as zrada.
The usage took on mass appeal and became serious during the war in the east of the country when Ukrainian soldiers were slaughtered by Russian troops after a series of military blunders by the Ukrainian leadership, who were accused of zrada online. When the post-revolutionary government was slow to clamp down on corruption or investigate the killings on the Maidan, it too was accused of zrada.
The discourse has caught up the country’s journalists, who have split between those who believe their role is to be part of the war effort (whether to support or denigrate it depending on the needs of their owners) and those who think that a journalist’s duty is to report the truth (as far as that’s possible). There are controversies over whether to call Russian-controlled forces ‘separatists’ or ‘terrorists’, and whether to register with the authorities in the separatist republics when reporting from there (there is no other way to report from there).
Ambitious tycoon-politicians, such as the interior minister Arsen Avakov, also play the zrada card. Avakov calls the small smattering of independent journalists ‘liberal-separatists’ for not toeing the government line: the ‘liberal-separatists’ then receive death threats from ‘patriots’. All this takes place in an atmosphere in which journalists are being killed and maimed.
Avakov has also accused the country’s biggest TV channel, Inter, of being ‘anti-Ukrainian’ and ‘anti-state’. Inter is owned by oligarchs behind the Moscow-leaning ‘Opposition Block’ party of the deposed president Viktor Yanukovych. According to researchers at the media watchdog DetectorMedia, Inter has the worst record for accuracy, bias and other news quality indicators in Ukrainian TV (the bar is pretty low). It supports Opposition Bloc policies and promotes Soviet nostalgia. The emails of one of its editors (a Russian national) were apparently hacked earlier in the year, and showed her making derogatory remarks towards Ukrainians and checking stories with the leadership of the separatist republics.
The editor in question, however, was deported to Russia in February, and Inter uses the official terminology, describing separatists as ‘terrrorists’ and the army as ‘ours’. It also avoids criticising President Poroshenko (though not the rest of the government), which leads many to surmise there is some sort of deal in place between the Inter oligarchs and the president. After another blast at Inter from Avakov last week, its offices were set on fire by well-known ‘patriotic’ rent-a-thugs. (The leader of the arsonists, now close to Avakov's people, claims to have fought on the pro-Russian side in Moldova for the ultimate aim of making parts of Moldova Ukrainian; it's unclear how many of his battle tales are true. The group used to be partners of the Russian fascist-imperialist Eurasianist movement, led by Aleksandr Dugin, but fell out with him and offered $20,000 to anyone who would film themselves publicly insulting Dugin's beard.)
Avakov’s spin doctors accused Inter’s oligarchs of staging the fire themselves for sympathy. Inter insinuated the Ministry of the Interior was involved. Everyone else wondered which clan was going after which assets. Kiev went into a speculative tail-spin. According to Otar Dovzhenko, who teaches journalism in Lviv, the person who came out worst may be the president: he appears unable either to guarantee freedom of speech (making him look bad in the West and among Inter’s huge ‘conservative’ audience) or to clamp down legally on ‘unpatriotic’ media (making him look bad among the nationalists). So the real target might not have been Inter at all.
What gets lost in all this is the need to move discussion about the media away from accusations of zrada and peremoha. A strong regulator, able to pass judgment on matters of accuracy, bias, incitement to hatred and so on, could curb the excesses of channels like Inter without recourse to standards of ‘loyalty’. The current regulator is weak and pushed around by oligarchs; a bill to create a better one is endlessly caught up in parliament.