Andriy Klyvynyuk (right) and fellow activist Eugene Stepanenko in front of a projection of Ai Weiwei’s freedom of expression symbol in London. Photo: Nicolai Khalezin
Ukrainian rock musician and activist Andriy Klyvynyuk spoke to Index on Censorship about his support for popular film director and pro-Ukrainian activist Oleg Sentsov and the other Ukrainian political prisoners held by Russia.
Klyvynyuk, the frontman of the pop group Boombox, was a speaker at Belarus Free Theatre’s Freedom of Expression in Ukraine event at the House of Commons in London, where he called on the British government to demand Sentsov’s release. Sentsov is serving a 20-year prison sentence on charges of being part of a terrorist conspiracy. He has stated that he was tortured by investigators and that a key witness recanted in the courtroom on the grounds that evidence had been extorted under torture. His lawyers describe the case against him as “absurd and fictitious”.
Sentsov faces another 18 years in jail but Klyvynyuk, who drove an ambulance during the pro-EU Euromaidan protests in 2014, is determined that Ukraine will continue to work towards a future free of Russian interference.
“We used to cry but now we are laughing because we are not afraid,” he told Index. “We are only 25 years old as a country, and we are at the very beginning of a road. We want to be open and don’t want to see a great wall. I don’t want to be a big star somewhere, having everything but not being able to travel, speak with you, and that was the point of Euromaidan. We are not for the money, the wealth, houses and cars – it’s not what we want, it’s not the point of life at all.”
According to Klyvynyuk, it is Russia that is afraid. “They are very frightened to lose their dominance, to lose their money, to lose their superpower, in such a way as our mafia lost their power,” he said. “The officials are so much afraid that they invaded an independent state.”
Other speakers at the House of Commons event included journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev, and film and theatre director turned soldier Eugene Stepanenko. A video was shown including messages of solidarity from artists including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and actor Will Attenborough.
Klyvynyuk welcomed these contributions. Although he does not mix his art with his activism, he feels strongly that those with a public position have a responsibility to speak out on human rights abuses. Those who shut their eyes to it, he says, are “clowns dancing on the tables of dictators”.
“I’m a patriot of course but I don’t think Ukraine is bigger or better than any other country in the world,” he said, calling on the world’s media to refocus on Russia’s behaviour towards its neighbour. “This is why we talk about political prisoners all over the world and wars all over the world. But to forget about situations like that, then everybody says ‘Oh, how are you? Are you okay?’ three years later. I say ‘Hey, stop, you know nothing’, and if you are a media person, if you’ve got followers on your social media, if thousands of people are waiting to hear from you, you should find some time to tell these important things.”
As for Oleg Sentsov, Klyvynyuk’s message was one of hope. “I hope that he won’t be broken inside, I hope that he, all of them, will find strength to live through, and then after we win, go out and not just sit and do nothing but continue their work, what they are here for.”
Ukraine is seeing a “concerning pattern of grave violations of media freedom commitments” warns OSCE press freedom boss Dunja Mijatovic in a new report.
“As we know too well, in times of crisis and conflict, journalists and members of the media are among the first to be attacked, both physically and psychologically. Because those in power during periods of conflict demand complete control of all information free media is often their first target,” the report, published on Friday, states. Covering the time between 28 November 2013 and 23 May 2014, these are the three key findings.
1) Journalists face serious threats to their safety
There have been “nearly 300 reported cases of violence against journalists, including murder, physical assaults, kidnappings, threats, intimidations, detentions, imprisonments, and damage and confiscation of equipment”. These attacks are divided into two phases — the first covering the Maidan protests in Kiev, and the second the ongoing crisis in the east of the country. In Maidan, journalist Viacheslav Veremyi was killed, while almost 200 others were victims of violence. These include the over 40 journalists who were assaulted while covering protests on 13 December 2013. “In some cases,” the report states, “journalists were specifically targeted by law enforcement despite displaying clear identification as members of the press.” Since March, attacks on journalists in the east have intensified and gone without prosecution — something that “points to the breakdown of the rule of law in the parts of Ukraine affected by conflict”. On 18 May, Ukrainian military arrested two Russian journalists from LifeNews, while two journalists from Otkritiy Krymskiy Kanal were detained, interrogated, beaten and had their equipment seized by a group of people wearing military uniforms. Journalists in Crimea — recently annexed by Russia — who are not considered loyal to the region’s authorities, and who refuse to change citizenship, have been faced with regular threats, harassment and the possibility of eviction.
2) Ukraine is in the middle of an information war
There have been a number of accusations of the media being used to disseminate propaganda. “Propaganda and the deterioration of media freedom combine to fuel and contribute to the escalation of conflict, and once it starts they contribute to its escalation,” the report states. Among other thing, broadcasting stations “and related infrastructure” in Crimea, Sloviansk, Donetsk and Luhansk, have been attacked by unidentified and often armed individuals who supplanted regularly scheduled television programming with Russian state media. In March, the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Council of Ukraine ordered all cable operators to stop broadcasts of several Russian state TV channels. “No matter how loud and outrageous certain voices are, they will not prevail in a competitive and vibrant marketplace of ideas,” the report argues. “Therefore, any potentially problematic speech should be countered with arguments and more speech, rather than engaging in censorship.”
3) Media workers are being denied entry
In the past months, the OSCE has intervened in some 30 cases of journalists being denied entry into Ukraine and Crimea. “I have serious concerns about excessive restrictions on such travel, which ultimately affects the free flow of information and free media,” writes Mijatovic. Recently, Russia Today’s Arabic news crew, who travelled to Kiev to cover Sunday’s presidential election, were denied entry at immigration. Two crews from the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) were not allowed to enter Ukraine, despite having all required accreditations. On a related note, a Rossiya-1 TV crew were this week deported from Ukraine.
Walking around Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti square, months after the protest that enveloped the city and toppled the corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych died down, is a strange experience. International attention has understandably shifted, the images now beamed across the world are from the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine. The capital is calm these days, so I don’t know exactly what I was expecting as I made my way down Mykhailivska street.
Tents still populate Maidan, with young and old lounging, talking and cooking in the May sunlight. I walked past sandbag barricades, and ones made of tyres painted in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. There were flags were everywhere — EU, American, British, and many more. I walked past the independence monument, juxtaposed against the new year tree, covered by protesters in posters, and yet more flags. Music was blaring out from the small stage facing these towering structures. The lyrics I couldn’t understand, apart from the cry of “Ukraina” in the chorus. I made my way past the Maidan press centre, towards a bridge which had a large banner emblazoned with names and faces hanging from it. The Hotel Ukraina behind me, I looked out over the square.
(Photo: Milana Knezevic/Index on Censorship)
The only thing missing was the crowds. It felt like they had just taken a break — gone for lunch, to return at any moment. Perhaps I arrived with a naive “out of sight, out of mind”, mentality, subconsciously assuming that the square would to an extent have been cleared out. But Maidan seems to be, for now at least, a living monument to the profound change, and crisis, Ukraine is going through.
It was against this backdrop, and with the country’s general elections set for this Sunday, I travelled to Kiev to take part in the conference Ukraine: Thinking Together. The brainchild of Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder and the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, its purpose was “to meet Ukrainian counterparts, demonstrate solidarity, and carry out a public discussion about the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for the future of Europe, Russia, and the world.” The guest list included academics like Bernard-Henri, Lévy Timothy Garton Ash and Ivan Krastev, and journalists like The New York Times’ Roger Cohen and The Atlantic’s David Frum. Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt also made an appearance at the welcome reception.
(Photo: Milana Knezevic/Index on Censorship)
One could question what, if any, effect the discussions of a group of intellectuals might have on the very real crisis on the ground. Over the weekend, there were among other things, a Crimean Tartar journalist was detained in Simferopol, while the Ukrainian military arrested two Russian reporters. But Kiev-based journalist Maxim Eristavi told me, and tweeted, that it was “surreal” to have the “intellectual powerhouse of the West in one room in Kyiv”. If nothing else, organising a big-name gathering to talk about Ukraine, in Ukraine, makes a bold statement — and one likely to be heard all the way to Moscow.
A range of topics were tackled in five days of panel debates and public lectures. The Maidan protest was applauded, with Wieseltier in his opening remarks calling it “one of the primary sites of the modern struggle for democracy”. Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, called Maidan a geopolitical move, but by a people rather than a government.
(Image: Milana Knezevic/Index on Censorship)
Bernard-Henri Lévy spoke of his recent visits to eastern Ukraine, explaining that while they might be fewer than in the Maidan, there are people in these areas who support a unified Ukraine. He contested what he believed to be the image presented in western media that people in the east are all separatists. While the point was made that flags, national symbols and the Maidan movement is not perceived as positively in all parts of the country as in Kiev, Constantin Sigov, professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla, argued that the Ukrainian crisis is first and foremost civil and political, not one of identity.
Russia’s foreign policy and Russian President Vladimir Putin were unsurprisingly recurring themes. “He has values. They are not our values, but they are values,” said François Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, talking on the panel of geopolitics after Crimea. Writer Paul Berman argued, in the same panel, that Putin is acting from a position of weakness, and fear that Russia is not stable. Others, meanwhile, were uncomfortable with the term geopolitics, saying it legitimises Putin’s world view.
(Photo: Milana Knezevic/Index on Censorship)
Russia’s propaganda strategy was also a hot topic and elicited strong responses, with one audience member referring to it as a weapon of mass destruction. “Propaganda is the beginning of bloodshed, it precedes bloodshed,” said Alexandr Podrabinek, editor-in-chief of Prima information agency, on the panel discussing whether rights make us human. State-run news channel RT, formerly Russia Today, got several mentions. Academic Anton Shekhovtsov argued that RT gives space to democratic consensus in its coverage, but also to left-wing, far right and libertarian narratives, and even conspiracy theories. Because each is treated in roughly the same way, the democratic narrative becomes just one of many. He said this explains why RT appeals to some people in the west, but stressed that they’re pushing an overall Russian agenda.
Podrabinek, despite dubbing RT “hateful”, argued that while there might be a temptation to shut down views we don’t like, this is not a good way of confronting them. If we want freedom of expression, he said, we can’t do that. On a related note, Carl Gersham argued that while Ukraine needs to be supported economically and militarily, they also need support in modernising the media landscape, to foster internal dialogue.
(Photo: Milana Knezevic/Index on Censorship)
And while the regime was criticised by speaker after speaker, ordinary Russians and their rights were not forgotten. Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Museum and Public Centre, put the support for Putin into the context of fear. When people see that the state is cracking down on human rights again, he argued, they make themselves fit in — go into survival-mode. While rights exist formally in Russia, he explained the practical situation through an old Soviet joke: “Do I have the right? Yes. Can I? No.”
In a weekend of intellectuals discussing how to solve a crisis, novelist and non-fiction writer Slavenka Drakulic gave a sobering lecture on the role of intellectuals in causing crises, specifically the Balkan wars. To be able wage war, to kill, you have to create an enemy and dehumanise it, she argued. Here is where academics, poets, journalists came in handy in former Yugoslavia — by preparing people psychologically for conflict, “using words almost like bullets”.
(Photo: Milana Knezevic/Index on Censorship)
And this leads well into the final panel of the conference, on the role of history and memory in politics, the difference between official history and collective and personal memories of the people, and how especially the former can be manipulated. We’re arguably seeing that today already, with Timothy Snyder saying that with events in Ukraine, a European revolution is being contested even as it’s happening. The Russian Ministry of Education is already writing new chapter to explain Crimea, said acclaimed Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov. “And Ukraine might have their version.”
After my trip to Maidan, I asked a Ukraine-based AP journalist what the future might bring for the square. There are only a specific type of people still there, she explained, and they might see how the elections go before they decide to stay or leave.
Or as Myroslav Marynovych, the founder of Amnesty International Ukraine, said during the conference — when there is democracy, there will be no need to go to Maidan.
Umida Akhmedova took part in a small protest in Tashkent, in solidarity with the Euromaidan movement.
On 27 January, internationally renowned photographer Umida Akhmedova, her son Timur Karpov and seven other people took to the streets of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Armed with Ukrainian flags, cameras and a petition, they staged a peaceful protest in solidarity with the Euromaidan movement.
Knowing they might attract unwanted attention, the group, which included one journalist reporting, posed for a few photos outside the Ukrainian embassy, handed over the petition, and quickly wrapped up the demonstration. However, their worries soon proved valid. Three days later, the protesters were hauled in one by one by police for a “short talk”. They would be held incommunicado for one day, first in a central Tashkent police station and later at a more remote location.
Karpov, a photographer based in Russia, told Index about unprofessional and aggressive officers, who called the protesters “dissidents” who were “ruining the constitution”. Passports and phones were taken away, but Karpov managed to keep one concealed to alert the outside world to their detention. It was eventually discovered and confiscated. When he got it back, it had been completely wiped. Without access to lawyers, the protesters were questioned by the SNB — the KGB’s successor — before being put through a quickie court session and ordered to pay fines of some £1,200. Three of them have been sentenced to 15 days in prison. Justice, as understood by Uzbekistan’s notoriously repressive regime.
This is not the first time Akhmedova has run into trouble with the regime of former Communist Party official Islam Karimov. In 2009, the photographer and documentary film maker, whose work has been published in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, was charged with “damaging the country’s image” over a series of photographs depicting life in rural Uzbekistan. Similar charges were later levelled at her over a film about challenges facing Uzbek women, and in 2010, over a book about Uzbek traditions. It’s worth noting that she never intended to make a political statement with her work — the authorities’ reaction is what has politicised it. The cases have made Akhmedova a credible voice of opposition, and while her high profile provides some protection, it also means her every move is noted — as the latest case shows.
Umida Akhmedova (Image: Uznewsnet/YouTube)
“We live in a strict, archaic society, where all unregulated acts, especially those that can cause some kind of a response in the society, are nipped in the bud,” she told Index. “In the case of our Maidan project, the authorities did not have to be clairvoyants to see the similarities between the situation in Ukraine and the one in Uzbekistan. The government has started scaring children and adults with the word Maidan and did not like it when we showed support for Maidan.”
“As for our previous case,” she adds “we were charged with slander and insult of Uzbek nation, because the government wanted to teach us a lesson that without the approval from above, we were not allowed to film anything or publish books, or generally, do anything artistic without a superior permission.”
While Akhmedova’s latest arrest hit headlines across Central Asia, the story made little impact in the west. This is not surprising. Earlier this year the soap opera-like falling out between first daughter Gulnara Karimova — businesswoman, sometimes pop star, and until recently tipped to follow in her father’s presidential footsteps — and, seemingly, the rest of the family was covered by media outside the country. But on the whole, Uzbekistan rarely commands international attention. Like many other countries in the region, it is able to carry out its repressive rule away from the global spotlight.
President Karimov, by taking a number of liberties with the country’s constitution and term limits, has been in power since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Reports of torture and other power abuses are widespread, the darkest days of the regime coming with the Andijan massacre, where security forces killed hundreds of people in the aftermath of a peaceful protest. The country is also one of the most corrupt in the world and despite its gas resources — part of the reason for many western sanctions quietly being dropped — suffers “recurring energy crises“. But Karimov has been careful to remove nearly all institutions that might use this information to challenge his power. Uzbekistan has no official opposition parties and no press freedom to speak of. Opposition news sites that operate outside of the country are blocked. Karpov puts it simply: “There is no freedom of expression in Uzbekistan. Absolutely none.”
One aspect of the widespread press censorship, is that developments in Ukraine have been met with near media blackout in Uzbekistan — the same way authorities dealt with the Arab spring and other incidents of popular unrest outside the country’s borders.
“From my point of view, they’re afraid. Extremely afraid of any sort of freedom,” says Karpov. ” That’s why they made the case with us. To frighten us. To show to other people that if you do this, you will be sentenced.”
Mother and son have accepted their punishment — partly because refusal to do so would lead to further blacklisting, and partly because they weren’t alerted to their appeal until after it had taken place. Unsurprisingly, the sentences were not overturned.
Despite this latest setback, and the possibility of being handed down a travel ban, Akhmedova remains undeterred. “Nothing has changed for me. I will carry on ‘slandering’ as I have done,” she says. “The state cannot help or stop me.”