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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #340

The mercury’s falling faster in the frozen Saigon. I was so cold on my daily route march to work in my military kitchen today (I work there seven days a week), that I needed to wear no fewer than four layers of over clothing to keep my body warm. Moreover my legs were so cold that on the way back from work I decided to buy a pair of military camouflage padded over-trousers, in the Russian non-NATO black and green squares style (they are always cheaper, for some reason), to place over my normal trousers. By contrast yesterday lunchtime was sunny and the afternoon wet and windy but not too cold, and last night it all changed. I feel frozen to the bone as I write this, like those frozen hunks of meat stuck in large plastic pots in the kitchen where I work. I feel as though I need thawing out in a large bath before I’m again ready to operate.

The weather isn’t the only thing that’s falling. I’m concerned about press freedom in Ukraine - or, at least, the cultural attitudes of people towards freedom of the press. My friend who I had persuaded to give me a podcast interview yesterday evening, really about nothing of substance - but it did mention her name - suddenly changed her mind today, saying that she “could get in trouble for that”. This strikes me as a totally Soviet way of thinking, as though the secret police are going to come round and arrest or question you because you spoke to the press. And this lady is in her early 20’s, yet she’s nevertheless infected with this fear of the press. What she doesn’t understand is that she has a legal right to speak to the media in a free country and it is no business of the Police or any other authority to speak to her or to me or to anyone else if we want to interview one-another for the purposes of media or newspaper journalism.

The very essence of a free press is the competition of ideas: that newspapers and the media must be unregulated so that different ideas can make competition in the minds of the listeners or readers and they can draw their own conclusions. This is an essential premise upon which true democracy rests, and without a change in mindset in which people understand and appreciate that they have a legal and political right to speak freely, without a chorus of condemnation or attacks by the authorities, unless they feel they can do this without threats or intimidation then democracy cannot thrive and in fact there can be no democracy in so-called free Ukraine because this involves the sharing of ideas and opinions without fear or fervour.

Even if your opinions are unpopular or unconventional or different from the norm then it doesn’t matter because democracies are socially tolerant, liberal places in which a variety of different and contrary opinions can and must be tolerated so that each member of society feels included somewhere. Conformity of opinions is dreadfully dreary and depressing and saps the life out of a society as well as denuding formal democratic institutions of their true meaning and purpose. You cannot expect people to vote meaningfully unless they are allowed the freedom to share ideas in public fora that will help them in the process of deciding how to vote.

This lady is only 23. It is particularly dispiriting that a person born in the twenty-first century thinks that giving an interview to a newspaper about a relatively uncontroversial subject - her experiences of being a refugee - could get her into trouble. If she feels so constrained - and I wonder where these fictitious restraints come from: family; friends; or actual encounters with law enforcement? - then what hope is there for the older generations who were actually born in the Soviet Union and carry all the more intellectual and cultural baggage against freedom of the press as a result? The contemporary youth of Ukraine are supposed to be spearheading the movement of ideas towards a renewed genuinely democratic Ukrainian future outside the orbit of this mania such as Russian “managed democracy” in which there are elections but everyone already knows the results because the newspapers have in effect dictated to them how to vote in consequence of the opinions they have conveyed and that have been accepted unquestioningly.

I once had a long-term Ukrainian domestic partner who infamously said to me “you shouldn’t read the newspapers; you might find something in there that it’s bad for you to know.” As though the very act of reading a newspaper might associate me with an anti-establishment intelligentsia, teaching me things the knowledge of which it would become obvious that I possessed and then I would be tainted as an intellectual or a member of what the communists called the “petty bourgeoisie” and I would be harassed or discriminated against as a result. In other words, according to this old Soviet mindset of thinking, pursuit of the truth, or reasoned debate, from whatever source might appear appropriate, is a bad thing that can cause you harm. It is much better to force yourself to believe things that you know to be false simply because they have come from officially state-sanctioned sources.

So my friend who gave the interview that she then asked to retract became emblematic to me of how far Ukraine has to go in establishing a culture of freedom of speech in which we can all say what we want. I was gracious enough to take the interview down while she decides whether she persists with her decision; or I might just anonymise the interview and run it anyway. In the West, the press is aggressive and you cannot ask them to take a story down that you participated in the authorship of. They consider it their prerogative to publish whatever materials they are able to acquire. However I was not going to be so cruel. I just want her to understand that her old-fashioned way of thinking is indicative of a profound malaise in this country and represents one of the gargantuan hurdles Ukraine will have to overcome if she is genuinely to pursue European Union integration. And it is not a matter of changing laws and procedures; it is a question of changing the way people’s brains are hardwired from the Soviet Union to now, something that is a lot harder.


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