There is something startling about a blank newspaper page. Newspapers are normally so densely packed with information that when we see empty space our kneejerk reaction is to think there must be some mistake—a major “production error,” most likely.1
Of course, it’s unlikely that such a glaringly botched print job would make it to the doorstep, the kiosk or the coin-operated box. And sure enough, when we look again, we learn that the newspaper has deliberately confounded our expectations for editorial purposes.
That was the case with Ukrainian newspapers in late 2012. I had come to Ukraine at the end of August to teach journalism and had the journalism scholar’s dual interest in the local media: I wanted to both pay attention to the news and pay attention to how the news was being reported.
The news about the news in Ukraine had not been good. Here are some snippets that I shared with my Ukrainian journalism students.
From Freedom House’s “A Report on Press Freedom in Ukraine,” April 20122:
- “Journalists are scared to report on news that is likely to impact negatively on public officials, authorities or those in the public sphere.”
- “There is a systematic and entrenched practice of politicians, businessmen and others in the public sphere making ‘envelope payments’, so-called ‘jeans’ [paid-for coverage], to journalists in return for positive news stories.”
From Ukrainian Week (August 31, 2012)3:
- “Two out of three TV channels with the biggest audience on a nationwide scale that are often the only ones available in much of rural Ukraine have long been under the government’s control. The administration of the First National channel has openly stated that its task is to promote the interests of the ruling party rather than those of the nation. Inter TV is owned by the current Vice Premier and is allegedly closely linked to a highly influential group in the current government that includes the President’s Chief of Staff Serhiy Liovochkin and oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Controlled by other oligarchs, the rest of the TV channels have been forced to implement self-censorship—more or less visible, yet growing—in issues that the Yanukovych regime finds sensitive.”
- “…The publication of specially ordered articles without the ‘advertisement’ sign or in the vernacular ‘plugola’…is essentially routine. Sometimes, prudent and democratically-oriented editors see no way out, other than printing a specially ordered article in their publication because they simply have no other sources of income. Some journalists get used to this practice and often write articles or programmes to order, thus confirming the general opinion that all journalists can be bought and sold. The final consequence of this distortion of priorities, is public distrust of the press as a whole, a sharp decline in social capital and a crisis of values, making it easier for governments and oligarchs to manipulate society.”
It all added up to Ukraine receiving a low ranking of 116 (out of 179 nations) in the 2012 edition of Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index (best: Finland and Norway; worst: Eritrea).4 Freedom House put Ukraine in 130th place on its latest list of 197 countries (best: Finland-Norway-Sweden; worst: North Korea).5 If you’re wondering where the United States stood in these rankings, Reporters Without Borders put the Land of the Free at 47th (tied with Romania). Freedom House had the USA at 22nd (tied with Estonia and Jamaica).
Both sets of rankings were published before the events of Summer and Fall 2012. In July, a member of Ukraine’s ruling Party of Regions put forward a bill in the Rada that would make defamation a criminal offense, just as it had been in the bad old days of the Soviet Union and in the early days of independent Ukraine. If the measure were to be enacted, anyone found guilty of spreading "deliberately untrustworthy information” about a person could face a maximum of five years in prison, plus suspension from the practice of journalism for up to three years.
Defenders of press freedom from around the world found the timing of the new legislation particularly ominous: Ukraine’s parliamentary elections were scheduled for October 28. The measure appeared specifically designed to stifle negative coverage of Party of Regions candidates, thereby increasing the likelihood that President Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies would retain their grip on power. Freedom House called the proposed law “a clear and concerted effort to restrict free expression and free coverage of the electoral campaign in Ukraine.”6
Nevertheless, in September, 2012, the bill passed its first reading with 244 votes in the 450-seat Rada. The September 28 issue of the Kyiv Post, an English-language paper published in the Ukrainian capital and distributed throughout the country (I picked up my copy in the city of Lviv, where I was living) looked like this: At the top of the front page in the “skyboxes,” was the usual array of advertisements. Below the ads was the flag. And below the flag was white space. Then, this explanation: “The Kyiv Post is joining other news organizations in publishing a blank front page to protest the attempt by pro-presidential lawmakers to silence journalists and other citizens with a draconian new libel law.”7 The rest of the statement announced that a demonstration against the law would be held on October 1st.
My students brought me some of the local papers that also had nearly blank front pages: Zik, the Lvivska Poshta and the Lvivska Gazeta.
Fortunately, the Ukrainian legislative process requires that a bill be voted on twice before it goes to the president to be signed into law. And the timing was very awkward for Yanukovych: He was visiting the UN in New York City. A press crackdown was not the sort of thing he wanted to answer for while trying to buff his country’s international reputation. Accordingly, the president declared the proposed law a mistake and prevailed on its sponsor to withdraw it from consideration before it could be put to a second vote.
In the end, the Party of Regions retained its majority in the Rada in the election on October 28, as expected, and the election was roundly criticized by the international community, less for any irregularities at the polls on Election Day (though there were some) than for pre-election tampering, including interference in news coverage of the campaign.
The episode led me to wonder when else newspapers had deployed blank front pages. An Internet search revealed that the practice is common, and that the purposes extend beyond protests of press censorship. A closer look at some recent instances (in no particular order):
Slovakia: Newspapers went with blank front pages in 1997 to protest a huge increase (from 6 to 23%) in the value-added tax (VAT) on newspapers.8
Hungary: Newspapers published blank front pages in 2010 to protest a bill that would allow a government-appointed media council to fine media organizations for coverage the council deemed unbalanced or unsavory.9
Bolivia: Newspapers ran blank fronts in 2010 to protest a bill aimed at stifling expressions of racism. The media protested out of concern that reporting the racist views of those they interviewed could make them subject to fines or imprisonment. The only words on the front pages were: “There is no democracy without freedom of expression.”10 The new law took effect in January 2011—minus the provision that could have punished journalists for disseminating the racist views of third parties.
Estonia: Blank front pages were a response to a 2010 bill that would require investigative journalists to reveal the names of their sources.11
Ecuador: The country’s largest paper used a blank front page in 2011 to protest a libel judgment stemming from a column that criticized President Rafael Correia. Three El Universo executives and a former editor were jailed over the column.12
Belgium: In 2011, the Gazet van Antwerpen mailed a blank newspaper to ex-subscribers to show them that the paper could not publish without their support. The front page featured only a hand-written note from the editor that said, “Without you, it's empty around here.” The appeal worked: More than 11% of the former subscribers renewed. Earlier efforts to regain lost subscribers had topped out with 3% renewing.13
Argentina: The Clarin newspaper used a blank front page in 2011 to protest a blockade by former employees that prevented distribution of the paper. The paper, which had been critical of President Cristina Fernandez, claimed the government was behind the blockade. The editor called the blank page a "symbol of forced silence," of censorship imposed by other means, and a metaphor of what journalism can become if the spaces of freedom continue being restricted.” The government said the blockade stemmed from the paper’s bad relations with the labor union to which former employees belonged.14
Israel: In 2012, the newspaper Ma’ariv used a blank front page to protest sale of the paper to a company that planned to eliminate 600 jobs and reduce salaries. “In this place,” the paper wrote, “one thousand words are not enough and no picture will be able to tell the story. Perhaps one white blank page will succeed in sending the message: We want to continue to be Ma'ariv."15
Italy:La Repubblica explained its June 2012 blank front page on a faux “Post-it” note as an objection to a bill that would restrict the use of police wiretaps and allow newspapers to be fined for publishing transcripts of material obtained via wiretaps. The paper’s editor wrote that the law would take away “the freedom to find evidence of crimes through the procedures of all civilised countries. The gagging law decides for us, and decides according to the wishes of the government, what we should know, what we can write.”16
Closer to home in the United States, the blank front page is frequently used by student newspapers to call attention to school administration interference with their editorial freedom. The Student Press Law Center tracks four such cases on its Web site (www.splc.org).
- Students at Auburn University used a blank front to shame a university trustee who refused to talk to the paper about his role in the firing of the school’s football coach in 1999.
- In 1996, students at Washington State University published a mostly blank issue to protest the suspension of an adviser over publication of a story about the university’s search for a new provost.
- In 2009, students at Thunderbird High School in Arizona, left their front page blank to protest administrators’ quashing a story about student testing that was “critical of a decision made by school officials,” according to the SPLC.
Perhaps the prize for the ultimate blank page protest should go to Stevensville High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. In 2009, Stevensville students were going to use a blank front to protest administrators’ quashing of stories about substance-abuse contracts, shoplifting and teen pregnancy. When administrators wouldn't let the paper be published with the blank pages, the staff pretended to pass out imaginary newspapers to their fellow students.
Doubtless there have been many other instances of blank page protests that I was not able to locate. Florence Pichon writes approvingly of the practice on the Web site of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers: “Censorship is a tricky issue to draw attention to because readers cannot physically see it. Publishing a blank page pushes the issue to the forefront of news. Journalists are denied press freedoms, and then in turn deny the public the news it expects.”17
The concern is that overuse or gratuitous use of this device will dull its impact, make it less protest than gimmick.18 Still, the examples cited here are stark reminders of how many different ways and in how many different places governments and others in power continue to chip away at press freedoms and harass journalists.
In an enterprise fraught with potential conflicts of interest, here we see the starkest conflict of all: situations where journalists must risk their freedom, even their lives, to inform the public. I was attending an orientation session for Fulbright Scholars at the American embassy in Kyiv on the day of the press protest against Ukraine’s proposed defamation law. In response to my question, the embassy’s press officer characterized press coverage of the proposed law, including the blank front pages, as bold, but not dangerous: After all, with all the pre-election scrutiny of Ukraine, it was not the time to harm or harass journalists.
Perhaps, but now that the election is over and the ruling party has held onto its majority, might the administration remember who was naughty and who was nice? With two more years to go before the next presidential election, my Ukrainian friends fear a hard rain’s gonna fall. Reporters Without Borders dropped Ukraine another 10 places in its 2013 rankings—to 126th out of 179.
1. Josh Crutchmer includes that response in his critique of the New York Times’ use of blank space on its sports section front to highlight the fact that nobody got elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013 (see note 18 below). “Drawing a Blank: Two Sides of the NYT White Space Coin,” Society for News Design, January 10, 2013 (accessed January 30, 2013)
2. “A Report on Press Freedom in Ukraine,” April 1-3, 2012 (accessed September 21, 2012)
3. Samijlo Vors, “Sleeping Beauty and Bread Crumbs,” Ukrainian Week, August 31, 2012 (accessed September 21, 2012)
4. Reporters Without Borders, “Press Freedom Index 2011-12” (accessed October 4, 2012)
5. Freedom House, “Freedom of the Press 2012” (accessed October 4, 2012)
6. “Freedom House Calls on Ukraine to Put Stop to Criminal Defamation Bill,” N.D. (accessed October 4, 2012)
7. “Say No to the Libel Law”, Kyiv Post, September 27, 2012 (accessed October 4, 2012)
8. Jana Dorotkova, “Protesting Sweeping VAT Hike, Newspapers Blank Front Pages,” Slovak Spectator, November 20, 1997 (accessed January 23, 2013)
9. BBC News Europe, "Hungary Sees Blank Page Protest over Media Bill,” December 2, 2010 (accessed January 23, 2013)
10. Maira Magro, “Bolivian Journalists Criticize Anti-Racism Bill,” Journalism in the Americas Blog, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, September 13, 2010 (accessed January 23, 2013)
11. Baltic Media News, “Äripäev Publishes Blank Frontpage in Protest,” March 19, 2010 (accessed January 23, 2013)
12. Naomi Mapstone, “Ecuador’s leading newspaper in mute protest,” July 22, 2011, FT.com (accessed January 23, 2013)
13. “Gazet van Antwerpen—The Empty Newspaper,” November 16, 2011 (accessed January 23, 2013)
14. Ingrid Bachmann, “Argentine daily publishes blank front page to protest blockade of its distribution,” Journalism in the Americas Blog, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, N.D., (accessed January 23, 2013)
15. Annie Lubin, “In Last Minute Appeal to Readers, Ma'ariv Front Cover Left Blank,” October 23, 2012, Arut Sheva 7, (accessed January 23, 2013)
16. Agence France Presse, “Italian Daily Runs Blank Front Page to Protest `Gagging` Law,” June 11, 2010, Dawn.com (accessed January 23, 2013)
17. Florence Pichon, “When Silence Speaks Loudest: The Power of the Blank Front Page,” Editors Weblog, World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, July 25, 2011 (accessed January 23, 2013)
18. In addition to blank front pages, I ran across these other editorial uses of white space:
- In 2011, Georgian papers printed their front pages without photos to protest the arrests of three photojournalists accused of spying for Russia. (Tom Parfitt, “Georgian Papers Go Blank in Protest Against Photographer 'Spies' Arrest,” The Guardian, July 18, 2011) (accessed January 23, 2013)
- In 2012, Egyptian columnists left their columns blank to protest the government’s choice of editors for 50 state-run publications. (Al Arabiya with the Associated Press, “Blank columns: Egyptian Writers Protest Editorial Appointments,” Al Arabiya News, August 9, 2012) (accessed January 23, 2013)
- At the beginning of 2013, The New York Times sports section used a blank section front to call attention to the unusual results of the year’s Baseball Hall of Fame balloting: Not a single player had been elected to the Hall. The headline: “And the inductees are….” (“And the Inductees Are…,” The New York Times, January 10, 2013)
19. Reporters Without Borders, “Press Freedom Index 2013” (accessed January 30, 2013)