Jag blev inbjuden att delta i Russian Journal of Communication’s forum om medierna och krisen i Ukraina, och valde att skriva denna korta text om hur jag uppfattade att denna skildrats i svenska media.
Tänk på att texten är skriven i slutet av mars 2014 och inte förhåller sig till saker som hänt därefter. För den slutgiltiga, något längre, texten får man gå till http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19409419.2014.919817#.U9-BgbEfNFs
Russian Journal of Communication Vol. 6 No. 2 2014, pp. 166-168.
My answer focuses on how the events in Ukraine, starting with the emergence of the Euromaidan in the end of November 2013 and continuing into the Russian intervention in Crimea, have been reflected and portrayed in the Swedish media. Although I follow the events mainly from Ukrainian media outlets, including social media, I have also tried to keep an eye on the perspectives offered by Swedish news media in this regard. This I have done both as a news consumer and as a researcher in Ukrainian Studies repeatedly approached during this period by the media for commentaries on various aspects of the unfolding situation.
My conclusion after having followed more than three months of reporting is that Swedish media coverage of the events has not been dominated by one single interpretative frame, but rather by a few competing perspectives and questions. There is also a difference between the coverage during the first months, when the situation was viewed mostly as an internal Ukrainian conflict albeit with important implications for international relations, and the period of the Russian take-over of Crimea, which changed the perspective to that of an inter-state conflict with far-reaching consequences for international security. This change of perspectives also affected the frames through which internal Ukrainian politics were understood.
Initially the most used frame for Swedish reporting was probably quite similar to the “freedom-seeking Eastern Europeans looking to Europe”-view summarized in the question. This depended not only on dominant negative views of the authoritarianism of the present Russian regime, which was identified as supporting the Yanukovych side, but also on a more general Swedish media frame for understanding upheavals in authoritarian countries less familiar for journalists and their audiences: the people striving for freedom and democracy versus the brutal and corrupt dictator clinging to his power. This frame is recognizable from the initial stages of covering events in e.g. Libya, Egypt and Syria. In the Ukrainian case the integrity of the first element of this frame – the people – was subsequently qualified with wide-spread references to a perceived (and often unproblematised) dividedness of Ukrainian society into vaguely conceived “pro-European and nationalist” Western and “pro-Russian” Eastern parts, and to the support the regime was believed to have in the East. Basically, one simplification with some merits was qualified with another simplification with some merits. In connection with this point it is noticeable how the Swedish media had to come to terms with highly politicized concepts such as “Russian-speakers” – a term used by Russian diplomacy to establish a would-be homogenous sociolinguistic category on behalf of which, Russia could act as protector. In some cases the media discourse allowed for the deconstruction of this skewed and manipulative notion, while at other times it was merely reproduced and naturalized as self-evident without any contextualization.
The second element of the frame, the brutal and corrupt dictator – remained in place during all the events and was strengthened, not surprisingly, after the mass killings in Kyiv and the opening-up of the fled dictator’s luxurious estate in Mezhyhirya to the eyes of Kyivans and media consumers.
Already during the first weeks of the protests another frame significantly interfered with the previous one – the strong focus on the role and influence of the Ukrainian far right, first in the demonstrations and later in the new government, mainly through the parliamentary opposition party Svoboda and later also through the Right Sector activist network that emerged as an important street actor in conjunction with the growing authoritarianism of the regime from mid-January. This focus was also part of a previously established media frame: “the threat from the xenophobic far right in Europe”. The medialization of this perspective was further strengthened by much attention to a small group of Swedish far righters who took off to Ukraine to assist activists from Svoboda and the Right Sector. The overall function of this frame was to undermine the image of a democratic and European (in the sense of “EU values”) protest movement. While in some cases this focus may have contributed to a more nuanced covering of the events, what often was achieved was rather distortion, as some journalists and columnists clearly overstressed – both analytically and in terms of the media attention devoted to the issue – the significance of those groups for the protests. Interestingly, one characteristic feature of this frame, in spite of its ubiquity, was that its proponents often portrayed themselves as representing a repressed opinion on the Ukrainian events. In terms of largely absent perspectives one could perhaps add that the participation of activists from the Russian far right in street fights in Kharkiv and Donetsk in March 2014, the far right elements in the intellectual underpinnings of the Russian regime, as well as the Pro-Russian position of many European far right parties have largely been ignored in the Swedish media.
The relative weight of the “far right influence” frame somewhat diminished, however, after Russia began the process of annexation of Crimea, which shifted the general focus to an inter-state conflict involving an aggressive and authoritarian Russia threatening a weak Ukrainian state. The only media outlets that explicitly supported the Russian position was on-line editions associated with the far right, such as Fria Tider, not the least by referring their readers to news items from Russia Today. In mainstream media some voices from the political left, while not being explicitly Pro-Russian, downplayed the Russian aggression and focused on the Ukrainian far right. In the case of the leading Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, these divisions stroke right through the edition, as the op-eds defended consistently Ukrainian state sovereignty while the culture section criticized alleged Western anti-Russian bias and preferred to talk about the dangers of Ukrainian fascism.
As a final point here it is quite striking how commonsensical media understandings of political institutions such as elections and referenda effect the reporting on current events in situations when what takes place is rather the imitation of such institutions. Although the particular circumstances of the Crimean “referendum” on March 16 was covered quite extensively, when “exit-polls” and “results” came in they were often reported as if they concerned a routine parliamentary election in an established democracy.