Wednesday, April 6, 2016
How can Dutch citizens make an informed choice when it comes to the Ukraine referendum on the 6th of April? According to Nataliya Gumenyuk, head of the independent Ukrainian, media should cooperate more in their international coverage. “Ukrainian media have devoted a lot of time to explain the meaning of the Association Agreement to our audience. I can't expect that people in the Netherlands automatically understand what it's about.”

On the 6th of April, the Dutch people can vote for or against the Association agreement between the EU and Ukraine. This has drawn not only the attention of Dutch media, but also from Ukrainian and Russian journalists. Therefore, Gumenyuk came to Amsterdam to speak with supporters and critics of the Agreement.

Your TV report about the referendum shows that many people in Amsterdam have no clue what it is about. Did this strike you or was it something you expected?

“I wasn't truly surprised. It's a bit of ironic that the first referendum in the Netherlands -which is a very interesting tool of practicing democracy- is devoted to a foreign topic. Should foreign relations be the topic of a referendum at all? There is no easy answer to this question. As an international reporter, I've been covering the Association Agreement for a number of years. It was a very big internal issue that required a lot of time and effort. I can't expect that people in the Netherlands automatically understand what it's about.”

Do you think Dutch media could do a better job informing their audience about Ukraine?

“None of the Dutch media have permanent correspondents in Kiev. I am in contact with several colleagues that write about Ukraine, mostly reporters who were based in Moscow to report on this part of the world. I think this is caused by the global crisis in the media. When I talk to senior editors who have worked for respected Dutch media for many years, they say that nowadays there is no proper foreign coverage due to financial reasons. In the future, commercial media will spend more money on entertainment and less and less on the news. Therefore, I am not really surprised that the Netherlands are part of the general crisis in foreign news coverage in Europe.”

Does this referendum get a lot of coverage in Ukrainian media?

“We have a very simplified coverage, partly because there is no big tradition in covering foreign news, but also because of a lack of funding. Therefore, the coverage provided by most media does not go into the complexities of this vote, which, in my view, is more about EU-skepticism, and less about Ukraine. They use this anti-Brussels sentiment and fear of globalization and immigration. It is all, more or less, connected with this general idea: say no to anything that comes from outside.”

Have you observed any pro-Kremlin media playing a role in filling the information gap, supporting either of the camps?

“When I was in the Netherlands, I saw a report on the Dutch TV. It showed how easily Russian media had access to “No” campaign supporters here. Their message was clearly supporting those who were against the ratification of the Agreement. And there is an interesting phenomenon: while the Ukrainian audience possibly does not trust the Russian media when they talk about Ukraine (Kiev or Donetsk), many people do trust those media if they talk about foreign affairs. Unlike Ukrainian coverage, people don't have the resources to compare this coverage with real life, because it’s about a distant place. So, it is easier for well-funded Russian media to sell stories about the end of Europe.”

What could be a way out of this situation?

“There should be an increased flow of information about the situation outside our home countries. We should not only do that in times of crisis, when there is a scandal or some hot topic. We cannot change things with a single report. Some cooperation between our newsrooms is already there, based on personal contacts, but it could be more systematic.”

Some representatives of Ukrainian elites claim that the Association Agreement confirms that Ukraine and the European Union share similar values. That this is more about values than it is about benefits.

“I think we should clearly separate the rational and the emotional level here. On the rational level, we have to admit that the referendum is definitely about one particular document, which is a very technical document. It's about improvement of the law concerning free trade. However, the No-campaigners in The Netherlands call for this referendum without taking this rational, factual base into account. If you ask those who vote against it if they are voting against the fact that there would be stronger requirements and less bureaucracy and less ways for corruption and better food security in Ukraine, they would definitely say no.

But we understand that it is not just about rational arguments, that this referendum is mostly about emotions. Which brings us to the second layer, when Ukrainians say: we need your help in speeding up the reforms. The Association Agreement helps to set deadlines for Ukrainian reforms just as exams set deadlines for students. A student would probably reach the goal of getting new knowledge without exams, but it would be way harder. In the same way, the agreement would help the Ukrainian society that has been pushing for reforms for many years to bring about changes in their lives.”

You are a professional journalist, yet you are also a Ukrainian citizen. As a citizen, are you hoping the Dutch will vote “Yes”?

“First and foremost, I am a journalist. Voting on the referendum is the sovereign right of the Dutch people. But as I said, I am not sure whether referendums should be held on a foreign topic at all. I generally doubt that there is a good way for the Dutch media and the Dutch politicians to explain to people what they are voting for or against. For me, it would be equally irresponsible if somebody says yes without proper knowledge, as if somebody says no without understanding.”