Ukrainian journalism in the war: Whom can one believe? - photo Mstyslav Chernov (A Russia-backed rebel armored fighting vehicles convoy near Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, May 30, 2015)

SPECIAL: Ukrainian journalism in the war: Whom can one believe?

by Kira Kirschbach, translation Michelle Trimborn
Dubious information during the war undermine trust in Ukrainian media as much as the Russian propaganda.

The Ukraine is undergoing hard times. The Ukrainian government displays corruption,  helplessness and the inability to implement reforms. But there are bigger problems, like the ongoing armed conflict in the East of the country. This violent conflict is a serious challenge for press freedom in Ukraine – and provokes some questions to discuss:

Is it possible to report objectively and balanced about a war? Are restrictions to media freedom during war times a necessary protection of the national security or is this abused by the state? How difficult is it to provide the public with credible and reliable information? Do journalists have to be part of the conflicting parties?

To discuss these questions, ECPMF talked to two Ukrainian media experts who analyse the situation of Ukrainian media in in the peaceful part of the country which is ruled by the Ukrainian government. (Read the full interview with Valery Ivanov and Oleksandr Chekmyshev)

No Ukrainian media in the rebel-held territory

Armed conflicts are an obstacle to the work of journalists all over the world. When the war broke out in Ukraine in 2014, the country suddenly was put in line by Reporters without Borders with the most dangerous countries for journalists like Syria and Iraq. Most of the tragic events that happened to journalists – eviction, threats, prosecution, detention – occurred in the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine. As consequence of the intimidation by rebel troops, all Ukrainian media left this part of the country which is called the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic. It is not possible to receive Ukrainian programmes anymore. Instead, new media came into being: news agencies, newspapers, radio and TV-stations which only support the separatists’ view. The government in Kyiv perceives this as pro-Russian propaganda.

Oligarchs: owners control Kyiv’s media policy

Currently, journalists based in the peaceful part of the Ukraine which is ruled by the Ukrainian government, feel much more free than before, under president Yanukovych: they can now criticize the president and the government. But while the administrative pressure has been reduced, the influence of oligarchs which now own the media is growing. Among them is also President Petro Poroshenko, who – despite his political position – did not split up with his businesses, for example TV-station Channel 5.

Latest developments in press freedom rankings saw the Ukraine on the rise again as pressure and violence against journalists is in recession and some long overdue reforms have been implemented. However, the media landscape still suffers from the overwhelming power of the oligarchs and the ongoing information war with Russia. 

This is the view of international experts – and Ukrainian experts and journalists agree. But they emphasize that the military conflict in Ukraine oppresses the freedom of expression. “Impartiality does not function in war reporting. The journalists either ignore the war or promote one of the sides”, says a Ukrainian journalist, who wants to remain anonymous, to ECPMF.

Factbox: Euromaidan

The citizen protests in Kyiv from 21 November 2013 to 26 February 2014 were called “Euromaidan” because of the topic which set of the demonstrations (Europe) and the place where the crowd gathered, the public place Maidan. The protests were triggered by the surprising announcement of (back then) President Yanukovych to refuse for the time being to sign the association agreement with the European Union. In addition, Ukraine should join the customs union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The participants of the Maidan-Revolution did not only protest for an agreement and a future of the Ukraine within the EU, but also against the corrupt regime of Yanukovych and early presidential elections.

As consequence of the protests, Yanukovych and many of his affiliates fled to Russia. The government changed and the strong confrontation with Russia led to the annexation of the Crimea peninsula and the war in Eastern Ukraine.

The pro-Russian forces in the Donbass region fight for the separation of two self-proclaimed People’s Republics from the Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk. It is first and foremost the civil society which suffers from this exchange of fire between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian troops. On 12 February 2015, a treaty was signed in Minsk (Belarus) to deescalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine. It was coordinated on high level with politicians from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine – but the peace process did not advance yet.

Patriotism or pleasing the power

Critical or oppositional voices are impossible to find in the rebel-held media landscape. In other parts of the country, the media are closer to democratic standards – but also there the war reinforces negative trends of distortion, manipulation and hiding of facts. This can be seen as a patriotic consideration for the benefit of the current government – a wrong form of patriotism. Those tendencies include appeals not to criticize the Ukrainian government in the media during war times and to remain silent about the violence which the voluntary battalions (voluntary Ukrainian troops which were founded to oppose the pro-Russian separatists in the country’s East, partly supported by nationalist politicians and with controversial political right-wing positions) used against peaceful civilians. Journalists simply tried to hide information which could possibly cast a damning light on the country or its military forces.

"Loyalty journalism"

Valery Ivanov, president of the Academy of the Ukrainian Press and professor at the National University in Kyiv calls this position loyalty journalism: “Loyalty journalism has many supporters. Its supporters think that they do not have a right to criticize their country and government during war or allow publications which can weaken the fighting spirit.” But not all journalists follow this form of reporting: “In contrast to such a propagandistic direction, a number of journalists continue to consider it obligatory to fulfill professional standards, including the reliability of information, its balance, completeness and accuracy.” Ivanov describes loyalty journalism as “a particular kind of propaganda” which distorts the audience’s understanding of the reality as it does not receive correct and complete information.

“Journalistic standards are often abandoned during war times to support patriotic tendencies”, agrees Oleksandr Chekmyshev, Doctor of Science in Social Communication, head of the Equal Access Committee and chief of the monitoring projects at the “Common Space” Association. “Our studies show problems in reporting such as imbalance, incorrect terminology and hate speech, commissioned articles or the copying of other articles”, he explains. The consequence is a lack of trust in Ukrainian media.