How Much Freedom of Speech Can Be Preserved During the War?

Mykola Riabchuk

Paper presented at the discussion panel on “Censorship and self-censorship in totalitarian regimes and in new democracies”, at the 50th International PEN Writers’ Meeting in Bled, Slovenia, on April 17, 2018

Within the past few years, the international community has been gradually coming to terms with very serious threats and challenges posed by the revanchist Russian regime. Ukraine has been dealing with all these problems for years if not for decades.

Before Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in London earlier this year, the Ukrainian presidential frontrunner Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned in 2004, Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera was deadly poisoned in Munich in 1959, his predecessor Yevhen Konovalets blown up in Rotterdam in 1938, and the head of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic Symon Petliura was shot by the Moscow agent in Paris in 1926.

Before Russian trolls and hackers tried to influence American and other Western elections, they extensively mastered their skills in Ukraine since the late 1990s.

Before Russian fake news were recognized in the West as a threat, the toxic Russian pop-cultural and media propaganda was poisoning, fooling and dividing Ukrainian society for decades.

As a frontline country, we have a number of lessons, both positive and negative, to share with our international partners. At least two of them are a part of our, i.e. PEN Ukraine’s experience and, to a degree, our contribution.

First, from the first months of the Russian-Ukrainian war, we did our best to support the national mobilization under the civic rather than ethnic slogans, symbols, and narratives. We opposed any attempts at ethnicization of the enemy and fueling patriotism by xenophobia. Today, sociological surveys reveal the significant strengthening of national identity – but primarily of a civic rather than ethnic type.

And secondly, we did our best to preserve as much freedom of speech and expression as it is possible during the war. We recognize that some measures to restrict the subversive activity of Russian trolls, pseudo-journalists, overt and covert agents are necessary. And the inflow of toxic pop-culture and media propaganda should be restrained – at least till the end of the war. But it should not be unchecked and excessive.

So far, most restrictions on Russian books, or films, or media in Ukraine look more as a trade embargo than censorship. You may bring, or commission by mail, up to ten books or other products for personal consumption or gifts, but not for sale. The same with Russian mass media and social networks. They are disconnected but still accessible – for those who are really interested in. It just requires more skills and efforts to reach them – but is not punishable, like under a real censorship. I would compare this rather to the restrictions on pornography in democratic societies. It’s available but not by default – not everywhere in any show-window. Rather, you should make an effort and go to the sex-shop for the desirable item.

It would be too cheery to say that we have no real problems. The government is too weak and dysfunctional to protect all the rights and freedoms and enforce the law coherently and effectively. The society is not as tolerant as we’d like it to be, especially vis-à-vis racially different people and LGBT groups. The media are pluralistic and basically free, with fairly open news coverage, exciting political talk-shows, and courageous anti-corruption investigation. But

imbalance is rather noticeable inasmuch as the mainstream media are still monopolized by the government-friendly or government-cautious oligarchs. And, of course, as long as we have a de facto war, there is a persistent temptation for the authorities to expand their control over everything under the national security pretext. So, we still have to navigate carefully between Scylla and Charybdis, between the external threat and domestic overreaction. With your help, and advise, and friendly criticism, I believe we would manage it.

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