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Two months ago, many Canadians would have been hard-pressed to name Ukraine's capital, but recent weeks have seen a barrage of breathless headlines tracking the political situation in the eastern European nation.
"Ukraine moves to control official investigations into Yushchenko's illness"; "Doubts arise: can poisoning of Ukrainian opposition candidate be proven?"; "Ukrainian opposition leader Yushchenko poisoned with dioxin: Austrian doctors"; "Doctors 'closing in' on cause of Ukrainian candidate's face disfigurement"; "Ukraine's opposition takes campaign to hostile east".
All of these headlines appeared on the CBC's Web site within a 24-hour period, a saturation of coverage more reminiscent of a typical Canadian election rather than one that took place weeks ago, thousands of miles away. Why the sudden flood of coverage? What is its meaning, and more importantly, what has been excluded?
Perhaps, as the cliché has it, the "Orange Revolution" has "captured the imaginations" of Canadians. But why this one in particular? It's not as though there are a shortage of potentially inspiring mobilizations of thousands of citizens in defense of democracy to pay attention to. The tenacious popular revolt against the three-day coup in Venezuela comes to mind; it received minimal coverage.
In terms of explaining the enthusiasm of the Canadian media in covering the situation in Ukraine and our government's glorious role in cultivating democracy there, the most useful counterexample is the comparatively stark situation with respect to media coverage of events occurring in Haiti.
Just under a year ago, hundreds of thousands of Haitians filled the streets of Port-au-Prince in opposition to ongoing attempts to unseat their democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. The anti-Aristide demonstrations topped out at a few thousand participants, their numbers occasionally bolstered by sweatshop workers forced to protest under threat of losing their jobs. It would not be an exaggeration to say that mainstream Canadian media failed to report these basic facts, deciding instead to take every opportunity to demonize Aristide, depicting him as corrupt and unpopular.
In contrast, it would be an understatement to say that the Canadian media is friendly to Viktor Yushchenko, the "pro-western" presidential candidate in the 2004 Ukraine election. For example, footage appearing on the CBC's news program The National featured positive images of hundreds of young protesters in Kiev, which were immediately followed by images of a mere handful of Viktor Yanukovych's (the Putin-backed presidential candidate) supporters. The small group was shown milling around a bus at night, with one individual dressed in military uniform. Similarly, The Globe and Mail recently featured a cover photo of two pro-Yushchenko protesters "sharing a tender moment". The binary symbolism is more worthy of an issue of the Soviet-era Pravda than of a free press: west vs. east, young vs. old, democracy vs. autocracy, day vs. night.
There are, of course, legitimate reasons for Canadians and Canadian media to be sympathetic to the Ukrainian-speaking westerners. In the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia continued to intervene in the economic and political lives of its former colonial charges, often using Russian-speaking minorities as pawns. Russian President Putin's backing of Yanukovych is as real as his autocratic tendencies and his murderous policies in Chechnya.
But Putin is not alone in his meddling.
Yuschenko's ties to anti-semitic groups -- Ukrainian neo-Nazis and holocaust deniers -- and far-right partisans have gone similarly unreported. Some have speculated that antisemitic activity, which was strictly curbed by Yanukovych's government, could run amok under Yuschenko.
Is there a debate to be had about US and Canadian intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, or Yuschenko's shady political associations? With these facts suppressed, a rational debate is impossible.
While the press provides plenty of arguments to depict Yuschenko as one of the good guys, Ukraine is not the first place that a "democratic revolution" has been enthusiastically embraced by the Canadian and American press, only to go awry after the media spotlight fades. The combined effects of privatization and inequality have had devastating effects throughout the post-Soviet world, but there is little or no criticism--much less awareness--of Yuschenko's advocacy of massive privatization of the Ukrainian economy.
Similar replacements by "democratic" oppositions occurred in Serbia, Georgia, and may soon occur in Romania. In Georgia, the initial enthusiastic press coverage of US- and Soros-backed Mikhail Saakashvili has abated, yet subsequent findings show that the new President has consolidated power, put further constraints on the press, and has used violence on demonstrators--not what most Canadians would call democratic reforms.
However, Saakashvili has fulfilled the European and American requests to privatize the economy, impose fiscal discipline, and "modernize the military and police force". Yet these changes have not been deemed newsworthy. Will the public be informed if Yuschenko follows in Saakashvili's footsteps? To whom does Yuschenko owe more loyalty: his voters, or his foreign investors?
In the absence of meaningful and consistent criticism, the media will support the official policy, as it is the journalistic path of least resistance.
Will the press continue to pay such close attention to Ukrainian politics if Yuschenko assumes power? If the precedents of Haiti and Georgia serve as indicators, the answer is no. In any case, serious considerations of the interests of the people of the Ukraine, Georgia, or Haiti have yet to make an appearance in the Canadian media, that's as worthy of concern as any election fraud.
» Jakarta Post: Dividing the Ukraine, Putin's imperial dream
» Associated Press: U.S. money has helped opposition in Ukraine
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.