KIEV, Ukraine — Making a brief escape to this heartland of the old Soviet Union, I find myself more inspired by the people’s striving for liberty here than by the petty nastiness of the American presidential campaign. For over a year, Republican candidates and tea party activists have been emoting about the doom that awaits if the president is reelected, as if four more years of Barack Obama is a dire threat to our freedom.
If you want to see a genuine threat to freedom, come to Kiev.
Two decades after Ukraine escaped from the suffocating embrace of Russia and eight years after the Orange Revolution promised a truly democratic society, the country is slipping back into the Russian orbit and the government of President Viktor Yanukovych is undermining the independent media that bravely call him to account.
As in Russia, rich businessmen — many allied with Yanukovych — are building monopolies in all sectors of the economy, including the media. As these “oligarchs” gain control of major media outlets, they stifle aggressive, critical reporting and leave little of the advertising market for independent newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.
Responding to sharp criticism from Europe and the U.S., Yanukovych insists that he supports free speech and a robust, free media, but his actions tell a different story. Currently, his government is trying to get a law through parliament that would make it a crime for journalists to defame government officials and politicians. With the definition of defamation in the hands of the government, this would stop all but the most courageous journalists from investigating and exposing corruption and abuse of power among government leaders.
I am here as a guest of the U.S. State Department. Every day for a week, I have been talking to groups of students, journalists, artists, librarians and others. I tell them about my work at the Los Angeles Times. I show them my cartoons. I teach kids how to draw caricatures and share with university students how I got my start in journalism. The underlying theme in every presentation is that the cornerstone of my career is the United States Constitution.
Several times I have been asked if I am ever censored or get in trouble for the brash opinions I publish day after day. I answer no, I have not been censored, sanctioned or made to suffer for my exercise of free speech because, in the United States, the law is on my side. The 1st Amendment is stronger than any government.
I have met many bright-eyed, enthusiastic students who want to be journalists. I have met teachers and reporters who are intent on keeping liberty alive in this country. I have also talked with a cartoonist, a librarian and several others who look wistful and defeated. They fear that a great opportunity was squandered when the Orange Revolution became mired in incompetence and finally ceded power to men who take Russia’s Vladimir Putin as their role model.
It seems presumptuous of me to tell these people to keep up the struggle. My freedoms were won for me by Americans of past generations. I have never had to take any risk greater than opening myself up to rude comments from readers. But, I tell them anyway: Don’t give up; you still have a chance to turn this around. I hope I am right.
The younger generation of Ukrainians reminds me of my children and their friends. They speak English. Some have studied in the U.S. If they walked down a street in any American town, they would blend in easily. On weekends and in the evenings, they gather in Independence Square under a tall column at whose top stands a huge female figure clothed like a Greek goddess and trimmed in gold. She is the symbol of free Ukraine.
At the far end of the square is a McDonald’s restaurant. I stood on the steps there one night, watching the young Ukrainians, admiring their energy and innocence. Across the street, a massive modern building loomed. Across its face was a huge video screen. It played the same campaign ad over and over — Ukraine’s parliamentary elections are a month away. The towering face of Yanukovych lit up the night again and again; Ukraine’s strongman asking for votes, asking to be entrusted with these young people’s future.