A discussion organized by DW Akademie and the public broadcaster ARD brought together media experts to discuss Ukraine's coverage of the current European Football Championship.
Freedom of the press remains a highly sensitive issue in Ukraine. "You'll only find criticism on the Internet," said DW correspondent Oleksandra Indyukhova , "but only 40 per cent of the population have access." She joined the discussion from Kharkiv via Skype. "These days newspapers, radio and television rarely print or broadcast opposing views."
Barbara Oertel, an Eastern Europe expert and head of the "taz" daily newspaper's foreign desk, agreed. "The media are in decay," she said at the "Media International" discussion. The event, organized by DW Akademie and the German public broadcaster, ARD, was held in Berlin in early June. Oertel has often reported from Ukraine. During the Orange Revolution, she said, the media had been open and critical but on a recent visit she had found much had changed. "People on the street feel intimidated and are afraid to answer journalists' questions. It's very different from 2004."
Views are now only expressed in private, she said. Journalist Olaf Sundermeyer and author of 'Tor zum Osten' ('Gate/Goal to the East') is familiar with these so-called 'kitchen table discussions'. Sitting at a table with the chief editor of a Ukrainian football magazine he had discussed what had gone wrong in preparation for the football championship: inflated stadium construction costs, corruption, exorbitant hotel prices and apparent volunteers who were helping out. The magazine later published Sundermeyer's criticisms as direct quotes. "They felt safer by quoting me as a foreign journalist," he said.
Politicians using media coverage for self-promotion
Positive reports on championship preparations had come mainly from radio and television stations, and particularly from local ones, said correspondent Clemens Hoffmann. "They're usually owned by private investors and they are often related to construction company owners or other businesspeople. These stations would never broadcast a critical report." Hoffman was based in Kiev until 2010 and continues to conduct DW Akademie journalism workshops in Ukraine.
Radio journalist Viktor Voloshchenko also joined the discussion from Kharkiv. He criticized Ukrainian politicians who, with support from the media, were using the championship - Euro 2012 - to boost their public image. "They're basically just campaigning with it. Sports in Ukraine are currently highly political." Barbara Oertel nodded. She'd had the same experience with German politicians. "They're all suddenly giving their views on Ukraine - some even wanted to boycott the games." She was irritated by how little they knew about the country and by the "nonsense German politicians had expressed" over the past few weeks. "They're not interested in the country's prospects but just in how they come across to others."
Euro 2012: Opportunity or risk for freedom of the press?
Amidst all this self-promotion, said Clemens Hoffmann, few were paying attention to the Ukrainian people. On his last visit many had appeared frustrated. "Kiev now has the world's most expensive stadium, but there's nothing in it for regular Ukrainians. Cities that aren't hosting a game didn't receive any funds for building infrastructure."
During the discussion Olaf Sundermeyer also criticized the decision to make Ukraine the co-host of Euro 2012. "The ones getting the most out of this mega-event are the ones currently in power." But Barbara Oertel disagreed. "We now have 21 days to report on all the things we've always wanted to tell about Ukraine." Western media also had a responsibility, added Oleksandra Indyukhova. "If Ukrainian journalists continue to report uncritically, locals could start forgetting that there are other views out there."