Ukraine Verstehen: The Zelenskyy presidency as an era of experimentations in communication

A recent series of experimentations and controversies shows how hesitant the authorities are in dealing with media. The 10th October “press marathon” was first of all a way to patch things up with the press. It did not bring all answers though. Some elements of analysis on Ukraine verstehen

English version of a piece of analysis published in German on the website of the Ukraine Verstehen think-tank, on 15/10/2019

Ukrainska Pravda journalist Roman Kravets says it all. “On 9th October, the question was to know when would President Zelenskyy finally speak to journalists?”, he writes in a Facebook post. “By 10th October, the question was whether he would ever have enough of talking?” Five months into his presidency, Volodymyr Zelenskyy unexpectedly called journalists to meet him for his press first press conference on 10th October. And not any press conference: a “press marathon” at the new trendy Kyiv Food market. The announcement came less than 24 hours before the start of the event. Yet the president did not try to weasel. He spent over 14 hours to answer questions from hundreds of journalists. By the end of the day, some pleas circulated on social networks to set him free under the hashtag #SaveZelensky

The performance is unprecedented in the history of political communication. Zelenskyy actually broke the world record of the longest press conference, according to a representative of the national register of records. It is one more demonstration of the new media reality that the Zelenskyy team has imposed upon Ukraine’s media sphere. The “gladiator’s debate” between the candidate Zelenskyy and Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv Olympic stadium during the April presidential campaign is still in everyone’s minds.

One may have thought then that the former comedian would favour a more traditional style of communication once he takes office. It is now obvious it will not be the case under his presidency. Yet Zelenskyy’s communication policy is far from being obvious. A recent series of experimentations and controversies has proved how hesitant the authorities may be in dealing with media. What is clear though is the fact that journalists have to redefine their roles in this new media reality.

Experimentations and uncertainties

What the new office of the president has intended to do in terms of communication these past few months is quite blurry, to say the least. Shortly after Zelenskyy’s inauguration, journalists were invited to an off-the-record afternoon at one of the state residences near Kyiv. The president also gave a long interview to German tabloid Das Bild in June. His interactions with “traditional media” were more or less paused thereafter. He fancied instead giving a monologue behind the wheel of a Tesla car or answering to pre-agreed questions from Stanislav Boklan, an actor who had played Zelenskyy’s Prime minister in the TV series “Servant of the People”. Tense misunderstandings with media only increased because of his head of office Andriy Bohdan’s harsh reactions to journalists. Among other cases, the publication of a picture from a meeting with oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy in the president’s office was scorned as mere trolling.

A growing impossibility to obtain public comments from public officials did not help to foster the president’s vision and strategy. The “Mendel scandal”, that is Zelenskyy’s press secretary physically preventing journalists from asking questions, sent a shock wave of media resentment against the new ruling team. Although the Zelenskyy team is known for its skills in communication following years in the entertainment business, things seemed to get out of hand.

On 1st October, they could come up with nothing better than to call for a press briefing less than one hour before its start in order to announce that Zelenskyy now supports the so-called “Steinmeier formula” in peace negotiations to end the Donbass war. The 11 minute-long appearance did not answer any serious worries both journalists and society had. Instead it fueled critics and conspiracy theories over a “capitulation” to Russia. A 3rd October video monologue was not enough to cool journalists down. “Is it too much to ask for them to explain sensitive issues and to provide answers to our questions?”, journalist Kristina Berdynskykh wrote on Facebook on 1st October.

Reconciliation?

Thus the 10th October “press marathon” was first of all a way to patch things up with the press. It proved also important for Zelenskyy himself, who appeared to be hurt by the obvious media criticism he faces. “I lose two hours of sleep every night because of that”, he revealed. To hold the press marathon in such a hipsterish food market was also a way for the president to spend a day out of his office on Bankova, which he publicly hates.

Although Zelenskyy did not know all the answers, he did not censor a single question for 14 hours. He appeared as an open and sincere person who is committed to learning politics on the spot in order to achieve his goal to transform Ukraine. In that perspective, he did confess his previous naivety as he “was sure we could put all corrupt officials in jail… But as soon as we identified the first target, everyone started to scream ‘aye aye aye!’… The president cannot influence the judiciary”. Be it sincere or fake, this naivety made him look human.

“We all make mistakes”, he commented as an explanation for the “Mendel scandal”. “She should not have reacted this way”, he stated in an attempt to close the case. Yet he also blamed one of the involved journalists, Serhiy Andrushko for being “a big guy… who attacks and jumps to ask questions”. Such a justification is hardly satisfying considering that Andrushko was not the only victim of Mendel’s behaviour. A video shows journalist Christopher Miller gently approaching Zelenskyy for a quick chat only to be pushed away by the press secretary. Mendel herself never apologised for her behaviour. She instead put the blame on “uncivilised” journalists.

Zelenskyy’s attack against “Novoe Vremia – New Times”, one of Ukraine’s most independent and balanced investigative media, may also be a source of concern. The president’s assessment that “only Ukrainian citizens may own media, which should be ‘pro-Ukrainian’” raises some serious questions in a country where media ownership is nothing but a tool of influence for dubious oligarchs and Putin-friendly political forces. Such assessments highlight a structural disdain for the way modern journalism operates. It indicates that the essence of the president’s team relationship to the press may not change despite the “press marathon”.

An invitation or a trap?

All the more so, the very format of the event may well be interpreted as a way to “make journalists themselves agents of Zelenskyy’s no-press strategy”, journalist Oliver Caroll writes on Twitter. With hundreds of guests showing up despite being invited less than 24 hours before the start of a day-long press event, the president confirms his undeniable power of attraction. Moreover no one seriously expected the leader of a country at war, who has to struggle with major challenges to lead an all-reform agenda, to be available for 14 hours straight. Yet this is what Zelenskyy did. This included wasting time in answering several times the same questions as different journalists sat at his table. It raises the issue of the relevance of such an extreme format at a given moment. It may also provide his team with an excuse to keep journalists away from the president for the next few months. “Didn’t you have enough on 10th October?” is a typical reply I already picture in my mind.

What would you have wanted?”, deputy head of the Office of the President Kyrilo Tymoshenko defended himself in the food market. “Would you have preferred to have some 300 journalists asking questions to a president standing on a stage, like a tsar? He would have answered 20 questions and left amid the outcry of the ones who would not have been able to speak up”. Tymoshenko makes a very valuable point here. As a press correspondent, I know first hand the frustration that comes from that kind of event, let alone from one-on-one interviews with “traditional” politicians. The new political communication that we witness under Zelenskyy brings an undeniably exhilarating new twist. Furthermore, as Ukrainska Pravda journalist Roman Romaniuk stresses, it is up to the media to adjust to Zelenskyy rather than the opposite. “The fate of the Steinmeier formula and negotiations with Putin hangs on the decision of the president. Whether one likes this ‘press marathon’ format or not, it is impossible to ignore it”.

Calling for redefinitions

Still, I find very troubling the conceptual implication of the “press marathon”. This event was designed to satisfy the media. It was hardly intended as a way to spread some news and elements of analysis that would later spread out to society and inform voters. Andriy Bohdan clearly stated that his team “does not need journalists to do it” since it has opted for an all social media strategy. In this respect, the president’s team allocated this day for journalists to meet with the president in the same way it would be organised for any other corporation or social group, be it war veterans, teachers, nurses or coal miners. Journalists are thus denied their specific role as intermediary between politicians and society that is supposed to be an essential component of a plural and informed democratic society.

Such redefinition of the understanding of journalism I here identify should not be understood as an irrevocable critics of the Zelenskyy new media reality. The choice to favour social media above all does have some added value. It is indeed a way to reduce the distance between politicians and citizens in establishing some sort of direct, targeted and intimate contact. Such a strategy has shown how efficient it may be in the context of an election campaign. It is confirmed today with the astonishing 71% level of support that Ukrainians grant Zelenskyy. Again, it is up to journalists to adapt to this new reality.

The question is nonetheless crucial. Direct communication through social media obliterates the crucial component of both critical analysis and contextualisation of the political discourse. Journalism is supposed to act as a check on power, to dig out corruption schemes and to denounce human rights abuses, among other things. To set it aside is to create the conditions for political actions to go unchecked. Several cases across the world such as Donald Trump in the United States and Matteo Salvini in Italy demonstrate how damaging such an all-social media strategy may be for the very institutions of a democratic system. In Ukraine, “Zelenskyy pits ubiquity for transparency”, journalist Ian Bateson explains in an attempt to explore the potential dangers of the country’s new media reality.

Because the president’s team has embarked on such drastic changes, the society’s reactions are also extreme. On social networks, the comments to the holding of the “press marathon” range from scorn for “an absolute desacralisation of the institution of the president” to passionate admiration for “a proof of a unique openness”. Regardless of journalists adjusting to the new reality, it is the Ukrainian society as such that is to decide whether such experimentations have a future. Incidentally, this choice will not depend on communication but rather on the effective results of the Zelenskyy policy.

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