Text by Agnė Dovydaitytė
Don’t trust the news. This phrase appeared several times in the theatre play ‘The Point of No Return’ based on 2014 Maidan protest. In reference to the raised issue, a post-play discussion ‘Silencing the people: freedom of expression in a global society’ took place on the 6th of May in New Diorama Theatre. This time the conversation was lead by Dr Sherrill Stroschein (University College London), Jodie Ginsberg CEO (Index on Censorship) and freelance journalist Kate Maltby. Even though the debate was too short to cover the magnitude of the topic, panelists still managed to raise important points about freedom of press in Ukraine as well as in the UK and the rest of the world.
One of the main points raised by panelists was the difficulty of overcoming controversies and obscurity by the media in the beginning of the conflict. Dr Sherrill Stroschein reminded that after the first western journalists went to cover Maidan, Twitter was full of protesters’ pictures and interviews, as social media was used to mobilize people and express solidarity and indignation. This revolution which was happening not just in the streets but also in the internet triggered questions about the safety of people who were exposed as protesters in social media.
According to Jodie Ginsberg, after the conflict evolved it was clear enough that the internet and technologies generally started to be used not just as a means of mobilisation but also as a means of surveillance. The same is happening in Azerbaijan, which has some of the worst censorship controls in the region. The government denies it and claims to be observing the right to criticise and express citizens’ personal opinions, but everyone who does that can be easily sued for completely unrelated things, such as taxes. ‘What governments in these countries are doing is they are using this wonderful and powering social media mechanisms to turn it against activists’, said Ginsberg.
Kate Malby agreed saying that this appeals not just to Ukrainian conflict but also to Arab Spring or a wave of civil unrest in Turkey. This issue was perfectly represented in the play, where one of the characters was warned about tracking of her phone. Director of the play Tommy Lexen said that all stories showed in the play were heard from the people during his visit to Ukraine, and freedom of expression was an especially sore subject. ‘After the events a lot of news channels were shut down because of this ‘tax avoidance’ reason, but at the same time most of them kept on going and started working underground, and news reporting was broadcasted through the internet’, he said.
A more active and engaged media in the face of this kind of conflicts is a challenge not just for journalists but for readers as well. Ginsberg noted that it was becoming harder and harder to find reliable news sources outside of Kremlin, Ukraine nationalist or western propaganda. While absorbing the information it is very important to understand that visions of the truth depend on what side you are standing at, she stressed.
As for propaganda channels, such as RT in the UK, which is gaining more of an audience, the solution, according to Ginsberg, is not banning or treating them differently, but challenging the local media to offer more alternative points of view and overtaking disinformation with truthful facts and qualitative coverage. The rise of radical media must be accepted as a sign that traditional news has to transform itself.
In this respect, the UK media has not had the best start. When the conflict in Ukraine started, there was considerably vague coverage in the national media for various reasons. One of them was named by Dr Stroschein, who admitted that at the beginning of the unrest a lot of specialists avoided giving comments to the journalists as they were not confident about what was happening themselves. ‘We just didn’t now’, she said.
After all, the discussion topic was very relevant not just to the play but also to the modern world, where some countries, especially in Eastern Europe, are struggling to implement their right to criticize governments and stand for their views and values, which is a vital and inalienable aspect of democracy and development of media as the fourth estate.