Protests in The Ukraine: Not Just About The European Union

The following article is a contribution by guest writer, Yulia Bodnar. A  freelance journalist and blogger from Ukraine, she currently lives in Amsterdam, where she is completing an MA in Journalism, Media and Globalization.

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If you were wondering why mass demonstrations in Ukraine continue even after the government ditched the Association Agreement with Europe, here is the simple answer: it is not only about the European Union anymore. Now the protest is about human rights, democracy and a civilization-defining choice.

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How it all started

Over the last two weeks, my Facebook news-feed has exploded with pictures and videos from Kiev, which has quickly become the current biggest capital of peaceful revolution. The nationwide protests began with a demand to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, during the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. The agreement was believed to be the very first step towards European integration for the country, where 60 percent of the population want to join EU.

No wonder then, that the day after the Ukrainian government froze negotiations with Brussels, almost 200,000 people walked on the streets of Kiev to start the biggest demonstration since the Orange Revolution in 2004.

Unlike nine years previous, however, Ukrainians were mobilized not by a political leader or party, but by the desire to replace post-Soviet lifestyle with European standards. As euro-skeptic experts predicted the same destiny for Ukraine as that of Greece and Cyprus, ordinary people were rejecting their criticism with a simple argument: Ukraine is facing an in/out option, and it simply has to choose for the lesser of two evils.

Facebook and Twitter became the main communication base for the demonstrators. They asked the opposition leaders not to use political parties’ flags and banners to make this a nonpolitical and nonviolent protest. The whole demonstration reminded me very much of a weeklong day and night football fan celebration  (in its best-case scenario): The same raising spirit of national pride, the same passion and the same hope.

Government beats up students and journalists

Then came the government’s turn to act. After the utter diplomatic failure at the Vilnius summit, the demands of the protesters started to sound annoying. President Victor Yanukovych subsequently decided to end the jubilation of Maidan with violence and abuse. On November 30th  at 4 a.m. he sent in special troops to beat up the few hundred students which were staying at Maidan overnight.

Without exaggeration, it was the most violent and outrageous reaction of the government in the history of independent Ukraine. The police smashed heads and beat people to the ground, hitting even the female protesters and reporters.

That was the turning point for the whole protest movement. The very next day people returned on the streets and their number at least doubled, with news agencies reporting the total number of demonstrators to be between 400,000 to 800,000.

This time the mood in the crowd was filled with shock and anger. Yanukovych not only betrayed the national interests by consciously ignoring a chance for Ukraine to get closer to Europe, but he also acted like a cruel tyrant by openly disrespecting and violating the people’s constitutional right to assemble.

Choice of civilization

The protesters started to demand the resignation of the president, the government, as well as demanding punishment of policemen who were beating up protester and reporters.

But the most crucial element of this story is not that of violence but that, for the first time in so many years, Ukraine is witnessing a rising up of civil society. People are fighting not for political parties and leaders, and not even for the visa-free regime with EU, but for democratic values, accountable government and the rights of Ukrainian citizens.

The choice of post-Soviet civilization means an endless Russian political, economic and cultural domination and adoption of its rules of the game: no real freedom of speech, no political pluralism and no rights for the citizens to protest against omnipotent state. The choice of the EU vector means a choice of completely opposite set of values and standards.

As Timothy Snyder put it:

“If this is a revolution, it must be one of the most common-sense revolutions in history”.

What is next

Having briefly told you the beginning of this story, I cannot yet tell you how it will end. The Euromaidan camp is still there and it keeps growing. While I am writing this post, thousands of people are gathering again in Kiev. A call to organize another mass demonstration was spread on web after the media reported some protesters are still kept in jail against obvious lack of evidence.

 Despite the attempts to provoke violence and clashes with the police, the demonstration remains peaceful. The protesters occupied a couple of governmental buildings and transformed them into a base where people can have a rest, warm up, get free food and even winter clothes.

Today, a  possible way-out for Ukraine would be to come back to the parliamentary democracy, and abolish the strong presidency which is presently in place. Nevertheless, this  would be quite hard to do without unanimity in the current parliament. Indeed, this week opposition leaders couldn’t collect enough votes for the resignation of the president and the government.

Being ignored by the state and having no effective support of the opposition, Ukrainians seem to be left alone with police and winter. The real help could come from United States, European countries and officials in Brussels particularly. American and EU leaders have already condemned the violence but the protesters are calling the international community for more radical action, for example, to impose personal sanctions on president Yanukovych (e.g. to freeze his accounts and accounts that belong to his family members – one of the richest people in Ukraine).

In 2004, I was standing at Maidan side by side with my parents and thousands of Ukrainians during the Orange Revolution. Being a teenager, I couldn’t fully comprehend what was happing there, but I clearly remember that spirit of unity and a hope for better life. In a couple of days I will fly to Kiev and join my friends at Euromaidan which, hopefully, will be still full of protesters.

I believe Ukrainian people have already delivered a decisive message to Europe, and to the whole world. Even without an official proof and signed agreements, Ukraine has already shown where it belongs geopolitically and, most importantly, which values, rights and life standards its citizens choose.

I do hope that this choice will be finally heard and supported by the world.

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Fight For Your Freedom (And Polish Off The Latest Grisham Thriller)

taksim reading

Apparently, standing in silent protest is just a little bit too provocative for Erdogan to ignore and last night many non-violent protesters were detained by the Turkish authorities. Not to be perturbed, this evening demonstrators took to the streets in response, armed not with rocks but with newspapers and books.

Saturday Summary: The Police In Pictures

What a marvelous few days it has been for state forces worldwide! And by marvelous please read utterly and completely diabolical.

Opening up my computer this morning, I saw a friend had posted a video of the police in Switzerland breaking up a reggae party. Remember that Harlem Shake thing that went viral? It bears a certain reminiscence. The ridiculousness of it would almost be funny if it were not so barbaric.

Here is that video re-posted, along with a few other heart warming images of the police in action this week.

SWITZERLAND (yesterday)

CHILE (Thursday). The “pacos” approach us as we stand in an empty street. The police had already successfully dispersed the crowds and the air was thick with tear gas. We sheltered in a local cafe to avoid the force of the water.

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Photo by Felipe Antonio Olguin Donoso

TURKEY (Tuesday). Spoke to a friend in Istanbul on Thursday, the day Erdogan made the threat about fathers and mothers removing their children from Gezi park as the occupation would no longer be tolerated. She told me that in the evening, hundreds of women went to Gezi and surrounded it, holding hands. Ready to protect.

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BRAZIL (last night). Protests that began as a demonstration against rising transportation have spiraled out of control across the country.

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Breaking News: BBC Output Censored In Turkey

Two journalists from BBC Turkish, Selin Girit and Goktay Koraltan, had prepared a TV package about why Turkish media is unable to broadcast gezi events, as well the issue of censorship in Turkey in general.

BBC Turkish has a 20 minute slot to broadcast on NTV news everyday. NTV is available nationwide and is partnered MSNBC.

Today, NTV refused to broadcast the story. The 20 minute bulletin was not aired.

Although the story is currently on BBC Turkish’s web page and it will be broadcast on BBC World tomorrow, this is a significant breach of contract. BBC editorial was removed for the airwaves.

On June 6th, BBC Global News Director Peter Horrocks has issued the following statement regarding the BBC and NTV, Turkey.

“The BBC is committed to fair, balanced and impartial coverage of events around the world.

“The BBC has complete editorial independence over its programmes broadcast by NTV in Turkey. Following the start of protests in Turkey last week, the BBC sought and received assurances from NTV that BBC programming would continue to be broadcast in full and without interference.

“NTV has apologised to its staff and viewers for not covering the protests in their early days and has reaffirmed its commitment to international standards of journalism, both to its viewers and to the BBC. NTV is now reporting all aspects of the protests in Turkey in its news coverage.”

The question is, will the British broadcaster choose to break it’s relationship with NTV as a result of this clear example of unashamed censorship?

Censorship

 

Russel Brand, Chest Hair And The World This Week

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A couple of days ago Russel Brand did an interview with Huffington Post Live. Through the chest hair and a semi-embarassing attempt at lactating the show´s host, he made a few rather salient points.

The crux of Brand´s argument was that “the system”, or the governing structures that exist to organise society, not only serve to benefit only a wealthy and powerful few but are also inherently fragile. It is for this reason, he says, that politics  and the media are so stringently controlled.

Not especially profound maybe. The type of statements that are easily dismissed as the rantings of a conspiracy theorist. Or even, viewed in the context of his later attempts at milking an australian, the warblings of mad man.

Nevertheless, with Mr B in mind, let´s take another look at three key events this week.

Each of the below represents an attempt by the state to quell an uprising in form or another, and each represents a fear by the ruling power of the ordinary man realising he has the power to change something:

1.) America attempts to blacken name of CIA whistleblower

Ed Snowden, former NSA employee blew the whistle on United States surveillance of it´s citizens and beyond. An incredibly brave and commendable act, wholeheartedly applauded by this blog.

“I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in. My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” – Ed Snowden

It is little coincidence, says Foreign Policy magazine, that America has now embarked on a concentrated smear campaign against him across the media, at the same time as the administration tries to press criminal charges against the guy and extradite him to the US. In light of the information that Snowden has revealed to the watching world, the idea that it is he who should be answering to questions of criminality is laughable.

2.) Turkish autocracy opts to crush rather than engage with new, vibrant civil society movement 

Turkey´s  Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today issued protesters with a “final warning” to leave Gezi Park in central Istanbul. According to the country´s leader, the wave of protests are over:

“We have not responded to punches with punches. From now on security forces will respond differently. This issue will be over in 24 hours.”

Amnesty international have responded by saying this statement is  “only likely to lead to more violence and more injured protesters, particularly as fresh demonstrations are planned this evening in Taksim Square and elsewhere.”

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In the last few days, the ruling party AKP have inflicted heavy fines on four television channels that have been streaming the events from Taksim Square. According to the Radio and Television Supreme Council, the images showing the dispersion of protestors by riot police “harm the physical, moral and mental development of children and adolescents.”

Meanwhile, rumors of plain clothes police infiltrated the protesters in order to create mistrust and divide the demonstrators have now been verified. The UK´s Guardian newspaper confirmed that an attack by five “protesters” wielding a Maxist flag and throwing Molotov cocktails, broadcast on Turkish television, were in fact middle-aged undercover police officers staging an “attack” for the benefit of the cameras.

3.) The Greek government closes down public broadcaster

Late Tuesday evening, viewers watching the news on the main TV channel ERT saw the screens go to black. This was followed by the announcement that, in a move that can only be considered a move against democracy – the administration had shut down the public broadcaster ERT, calling it a “haven of waste”.

2,700 people will lose their jobs as a result of the closure. ERT will be reopened again in September under new regulations, with new rules and new staff.

Not to be deterred, using a combination of company-owned and personal equipment, the staff who have just lost their jobs are now producing interviews and debate from their studios and broadcasting them via sattelitte streaming, giving Europe’s public service media access to latest developments.

“This closure, without any prior notice, without consulting the unions, without debate in Parliament, on the orders of the Troika, is yet another symbol of the anti-democratic and authoritarian ways of the European institutions and the Greek government. It is a new attack on employment. Above all it is an unqualified attack against freedom of information and creativity in Greece. Some people believe that through this it will be possible to reduce or eliminate any criticism or protest against the iron fist of austerity policy being applied to the Greek people” – statement from the European United Left/Nordic Green Left

As I finish this post, rapidly I might add for I am already late to join the other students, the sounds of whistles and chanting can be heard outside the window. In Chile today, the community once again marches for it´s right to free education. No doubt it will, as always, end in tear gas; afterall, police brutality looks pretty much the same wherever you are.

So, from Katy Perry´s former bit of stuff to Greece and back again, I leave you with a quote from Alice Walker:

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don´t have any”

 

Insider Report: Three Turkish Hospitals Provide Records Of Extreme State Force

Status Update On Patients Being Treated As A Result Of Gas Bombing And Disproportionate Use Of State Force Between The Dates Of May 31st and June 1st in Istanbul, Turkey.

The following information was obtained from the Istanbul Chamber of Medical Professionals staff.

OKMEYDANI EDUCATION-RESEARCH HOSPITAL:

“Reporting many complaints from Friday and Saturday due to gas exposure.   The complaints are different from gas exposure related symptoms we have seen to date.  55 patients were  treated for head, arm and leg trauma. A 22 year old male has lost his left eye due to a plastic bullet.  A 19 year old male is being watched closely with a subdural hematoma resulting from the impact of a gas capsule. A 22 year old male patient has taken a blow to the front of the head and suffered a fractured skull and is under close watch due to acute hematoma dagnosis.”

TAKSIM FIRST AID EDUCATION AND RESEARCH HOSPITAL:

“Received hundreds of patients during the first two days due to central location.  Majority were respiratory cases, eye irritation due to exposure to gas… Of the three patients with head injury, a 34 year old female received emergency surgery due to brain hemorrhage and compression fracture.  The same patient was also operated on the next day due to subdural hematoma.  She is under surveillance and in a critical condition. A 24 year old male was admitted to surgery with a compression fracture and is being treated as an inpatient.
Another patient, age unknown, suffers compression fracture and is being treated without surgery.”

SISLI ETFAL EDUCATION ANDRESEARCH HOSPITAL:

“Over 100 injured patients were treated during this period.   Of these, nine suffered a form of significant trauma and five were admitted for surgery.  Of these, one person suffered trauma to the testicle, one ponson subdural hematoma and two people trauma to the left eye.  One was operated on and has lost all eye sight.  The other eye patient is being watched with the diagnosis of eye perforation. Of those still to be operated on, two suffer from maxillo facial trauma, one with a broken left arm and another with multi fracture of the collarbone.”

Power To The Protesters Of Istanbul And Taksmin Square

 

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“We are not leaving the square until the government resigns,” my friend writes to me from Taksim square.

She is a brave lady and her believe she will stay as long as she can. She is in Istanbul where, for the past few days, police have been engaged in a brutal crackdown against protesters after what started as a peaceful sit-in against further urban development in the city was violently dispersed by state forces.

Empty tear gas canisters litter the streets, these streets already soaked with water from the canons deployed by armored police as they rushed against those campaigning for a greener home.  Thousands have so far been injured in the clashes according to the Turkish Doctors Association, while the image of a woman allegedly killed yesterday when a tear gas canister hit her on the side of the head is being shared online.

For many of those demonstrating, such an aggressive reaction to their discontent now makes this an issue that goes far beyond public concern for a development project. This is about Erdogan and his administration which, over the past ten years of rule, has become increasingly authoritarian.

Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas during a protest in central Istanbul

Concerns have also been growing in relation to press freedom. Earlier this month Foreign Policy magazine released an article positioning Turkey as one of the worst places in the world to be a reporter, while revealing it to be the world’s leading jailer of journalists.

Indeed, there remains an almost overwhelming silence from the Turkish media in relation to these current events. A silence which is being broken across social media sites as Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo and YouTube vibrate with a cacophony of voices and images from a place that appears under siege from it’s own government.

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Meanwhile, throughout the night, reports from former colleagues the press association indicate the city is anything but defeated. From the European to the Asian sound, residents have taken to their balconies hitting pots and pans, singing, shouting words of support for those in the streets below and beyond.

As sales of gas masks boom and the chaos threatens to spread, this morning Erdogan indicated that his government would maintain a heavy hand against dissidents and said planned transformation of historical Taksim into a mall would go ahead, “whatever they do.”

For those in Turkey, and Istanbul especially, keep posting your pictures and your stories. If the official media won’t spread the message, then it is for you the people to be the voice and power.

 

 

 

Chilean Student Meets Force Of The Chilean State During Education Demo

Chilean Student Meets Force Of The Chilean State During Education Demo

Photo by Marianne Fuentealba

Chile has one of the most highly privatized – and criticized – education systems in the world. Last week, between 150,000 and 200,000 people took to the streets of Santiago de Chile to demonstrate for education reform.

The march on Thursday 11th April was the biggest in the city since the student mobilizations of 2011.

The demonstration remained peaceful almost until its completion. Unfortunately, a few pockets of isolated violence prompted a forceful response from the country’s notoriously aggressive police force.

A photographer colleague of mine, Marianne Fuentealba, snapped this shot after the violence broke out. It is almost an exact replica of the photo that inspired me to start this blog.

The Responsibility Of A Photojournalist: An Interview With Omar Havana

Omar at demonstration celebrating 15M anniversary movement in Granada, Spain ©Koldo Larrea

Omar at demonstration celebrating 15M anniversary movement in Granada, Spain ©Koldo Larrea

Omar Havana is a Spanish photojournalist currently based in Cambodia. His work documents what he calls “forgotten realities”, those worlds which so often remain on the peripheries of mainstream Western consciousness. His photos and articles have featured widely across national and international media, including Foreign Policy magazine, Aljazeera and ABC news.

Armed with his camera and sense that he is fighting for what he believes, Omar’s quest to tell of the untold has taken him all over the globe, from Japan to Uganda, from Asia to the Middle-East. He has covered uprising in Spain, the Priar Vihear conflict and Red Shirts Revolution in Thailand,  the plight of Amazigh Tribe of Libya’s Nafusa mountains and the second revolution in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. I spoke to Omar about what it means to be a photojournalist, about the demands of an increasingly blood-thirsty media and whether he feels he has a responsibility to expose the truth as he perceives it.

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You talk a lot about documenting “forgotten realities,” what exactly do you mean by this? 

I always like to quote a great photographer Walter Astrada in order to answer this question. He more or less said: “If we, photojournalists, show a few times a day a photograph of death or war or injustice, people roll their eyes and complain about the limits of photojournalism. But if we see a thousand times a day the same goal from Messi or Ronaldo people do not say anything.”

If a story is not told, that story does not exist. We have the responsibility to tell those stories.

So you see photojournalism as playing an important role?

I will say journalism in general is the maximum expression of our freedom of speech, or at least it should be. I now often honestly question the media for actually being more politicized than ever and telling the truth depending on which side the funding comes from, or the advertisers. This turns the view to vulgar realities, to whom cheats on who, and at the same time silencing the reality of many people suffering injustice caused by our “democratic” governments.

Do you think it is important for a photojournalist to have a particular moral stance?

Photojournalist are people also, please do not forget that, and we feel, we cry, we laugh and we have a moral position like anyone else. I would even say that our awareness of morals is heightened, as we are the ones facing one after another those realities that people normally observe sitting comfortably in their sofas enjoying a cappuccino.

Another thing, the media demands more and more blood and death, and in order to make a living, we have to cross our limits many times. Trust me, we pay a price for that, and normally no one talks about that when they [the media] put us in the line of fire for a photo that shows what is happening in front of our eyes.

You have covered a lot of political conflict and social revolution. Of all of the protests and activities you have covered, which has been the most powerful in terms of representing a united human desire to change the way things are?

This is a good question that has a difficult answer. All of them in themselves were powerful, from the Red Shirts in Bangkok where three million people succeeded in changing a corrupt government, to the people of Tahrir where children, women and men risked their lives in search of a piece of bread.

Spain is a bit different, probably because it was what we considered a “stable country.” It is hard to me to make a comment on the situation in my country as here my hearts speak louder than my brain. But I will say that it is time for justice, it is time for the people to have their rights and it is time for a change in a system ruled by economics and not by people.

It does not matter where the protests are, at the end all of them have something in common; people are tired of corruption, injustice, hunger, and lies by those who are choses to represents us yet in reality only represent the interests of those economics giant firms around the world. I hope that actually more and more countries start to take the streets and raise their voices to ask for we deserve: freedom and justice.

Union Protest in Siem Reap ©Omar Havana

Union Protest in Siem Reap ©Omar Havana

Is there a person or an image that stands out for you from these acts of protest? Maybe a photograph that you took during one of these activisms that really touched you? 

Not a particular person, more a general message. All the photos are important in telling the stories and it would be unfair to all of those that appeared in my lens to choose one. They each want to  give their testimony, to say, “I exist, I am here, I am fighting for what I believe.” I cannot choose a moment or a person. Normally the most special people during our work are those that never will be in the photograph: our fixer, the family that gave you a cup of coffee every morning, normal people trying to make a living every day. Those are the ones that I remember.

As a freelancer, you sell your photos to a wide variety of media outlets and agencies. Have you ever felt that one of your photos was used in a way that misrepresented what the story was really about?

Many times, this is part of the job. I have to say that the [official] media has never disappointed me  and always respects the story, but social networks are bad for doing this. To be honest I used to be bothered about this, but not anymore. I know what my intention was when I shot the photo, that is enough for me.

Could you explain a little bit more about the work you have done providing photos for educational purposes and what the purpose of that was? 

I was contacted by Editorial Edebe [a publisher specialising in literature for learning] a couple of years ago, and they were interested in some of my photos taken in the Libyan refugee camps and Cambodia to represent the issue of human rights in some educational books. Education is for me the key to the development a country and, more importantly, education is the key to freedom. That was an honor for me, but I have to say that I have still not received a copy of the book, and I will love to have it!

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*Omar kindly donated the photos above free of charge. To see a wider selection of his images, you can visit his website: omarhavana.photoshelter.com