Media wars create information vacuum in Ukraine

By Muzaffar Suleymanov on April 27, 2015 11:01 AM ET

A masked pro-Russian protester poses for a photo inside a regional government building overtaken by his group in Donetsk, Ukraine, on April 25, 2014. (Reuters/Marko Djurica)

More than a year after the December 2013 mass attack against journalists at Kiev's Maidan Square, which coincided with the Ukrainian police's violent dispersal of protesters rallying against the policies of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, the press in the beleaguered nation continue the battle for survival. The biggest problem remains impunity in attacks against journalists.

At least 51 journalists who covered the early days of the protest movement in Ukraine were attacked by police and government-hired protesters during clashes in Kiev and other cities. The assault at Maidan Square took place as the Ukrainian capital was to host a high-level event: the Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an annual meeting of foreign ministers and heads of state representing 56 nations who were members of the Vienna-based human rights and democracy watchdog group.

The fact that the Ukrainian government did not bring the perpetrators to justice brought more violence against the press in 2014, research by CPJ and the Kiev-based Institute of Mass Information show. Throughout the year, scores of local and international journalists who covered the political crisis faced physical violence and obstruction to their work. Among the perpetrators were Russian authorities, pro-Russia separatists, and newly elected Ukrainian officials who took the helm during Ukraine's tumultuous year.

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At least seven journalists and media workers were killed with impunity in 2014 while covering the crisis; many more were abducted or detained by the separatists or Ukrainian military. Although the police investigated one murder, of journalist Vyacheslav Veremiy, and detained several suspects, judges released a key suspect into house arrest, from where he disappeared; a trial in the case was pending at the end of 2014. Independent Ukrainian broadcasters and news outlets were taken off air and blocked by rebels in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and newsrooms were subject to rebel raids and ultimatums demanding changes to their editorial policies.

The deteriorating media climate prompted CPJ to send me on a fact-finding mission to Ukraine in July 2014. During a brief interview in Kiev, Aleksei Matsuka, chief editor of the regional news website Novosti Donbassa (News of Donbass), told me that there were no independent Ukrainian journalists left in Donetsk, the contested city and region in the eastern part of the country. "They have fled the region since pro-Russia separatists started targeting and kidnapping reporters," he said.

Separatists--particularly those who were local residents--knew many regional reporters and threatened and targeted them in retaliation for their coverage of the conflict with Ukrainian forces, Matsuka said, adding that it was something he learned firsthand. One April night, he said, a security camera at his apartment building in Donetsk recorded an unidentified man approaching his car, pouring liquid on it, and torching it. Before that attack--which prompted Matsuka to flee Donetsk for Kiev--the journalist said, he received numerous death threats and experienced one attempt on his life in connection with his reporting.

As is usually the case with press freedom violations, the ultimate victim in Ukraine has been the public. CPJ research in Ukraine found that the ongoing attacks on journalists have resulted in a lack of reliable information, leaving people on the ground--especially in the conflict areas and Crimea--in the dark about developments, even those nearby. Those outside the conflict area received a distorted picture of the human toll and the critical needs of the affected population.

In eastern Ukraine, Matsuka told me, there were very few Ukrainian television or radio broadcasts, most of them having been shut down and replaced by Russian broadcasters after separatists wrested control of the regional broadcasting center in April 2014. Russian TV has been accused on numerous occasions of spreading lies about Ukraine, carrying Kremlin propaganda, and comparing Ukraine's government officials to Nazis. None of this had changed by year's end.

"They [the separatists] have thoroughly wiped clean the media--it was one of the first steps in the ongoing information war," Matsuka said.

Other journalists with whom I spoke in Kiev said much the same thing.

"Separatists see Ukrainian reporters as enemy number one," another local journalist told me. This journalist had been briefly detained by separatists while reporting in eastern Ukraine in early summer and, for security reasons, did not wish to be identified. He is one of more than a dozen journalists to be held by the separatists. Shortly before my trip to Kiev, journalist Anastasiya Stanko and cameraman Ilya Bezkorovainy, both with the Kiev-based online broadcaster Hromadske TV, were detained for two days in the eastern Lugansk region.

Speaking about the incident involving Stanko and Bezkororvainy, Mustafa Nayem, their now-former colleague at Hromadske TV who quit journalism to join the Ukrainian Parliament, told me in Kiev, "The separatists knew precisely who they were holding."

Although attacks and detentions limited reporting by Ukrainian media, international correspondents generally had access to both sides of the conflict, provided they obtained the required accreditation--routinely denied to Ukrainian journalists--from the self-styled information ministries of the self-declared people's republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, freelancers working for international outlets told CPJ. This unequal treatment of reporters became most visible after the crash of Malaysian Airlines MH17, when few Ukrainian journalists were able to visit the site where the plane was shot down by a suspected missile and, in most cases, those who did concealed their affiliation, local journalists told CPJ. On July 23, 2014, separatists in Donetsk banned journalists from the conflict area, including the MH17 crash site, and briefly held a CNN fixer, though international broadcasters were still reporting from Donetsk in the following days.

International journalists who spoke with me said that American journalists were being watched closely. In April 2014, Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter with the New York-based website VICE News, was detained by separatists for two days in the eastern city of Sloviansk. After his release, Ostrovsky told CPJ that during his detention at an improvised separatist checkpoint he saw a leaflet with his photograph on it.

Ukrainian authorities have also detained journalists, CPJ research shows, and have erected such bureaucratic hurdles as requiring journalists to seek accreditation with security services before entering the conflict zone and to travel only with a military escort. Both local and foreign correspondents have publicly decried the demands.

Though press freedom was being restricted by both sides, reporters and rights activists told CPJ that at least it was obvious which state official to contact in regard to detentions or demands issued by Ukrainian authorities. There was no such clarity when dealing with separatists. Another journalist who traveled to eastern Ukraine described conditions in the ranks of the separatists as having descended into anarchy, with armed men behaving unpredictably, according to their mood.

Ukrainian authorities meanwhile received little praise for their response to abductions by the separatists. Both local and foreign journalists told CPJ that the government did not seem to have any strategy for dealing with such cases, and no agency took responsibility. According to various accounts, including official statements, by mid-2014 separatists held close to 400 hostages from among local residents, including several journalists. In December 2014, Valentin Nalivaychenko, head of Ukraine's national security service, told local press that separatists held 684 hostages, including four journalists, but did not reveal the reporters' names or affiliation.

During my trip to Kiev, journalists said that there was little understanding of what was being done to free the hostages, though it was hoped that the situation would improve after Ukrainian authorities and the rebels negotiated a ceasefire agreement during their September meeting in Minsk, capital of neighboring Belarus. Exchange of hostages and prisoners of war was one of the points in the agreement.

Separatists in the eastern Lugansk region initially held two journalists: Roman Cheremskoy, who was detained on August 15, 2014, and Sergey Sakadynskiy, detained on August 2, 2014. On December 27, 2014, regional and Ukrainian media reported that Cheremskoy had been released during a mass prisoner exchange that day. On December 29, Ukrainian media quoted Sakadynskiy's wife, Mariya Gavak, saying that he was still in the Lugansk region but that separatists had changed his status from prisoner of war to "victim in an illegal detention case." Gavak was quoted saying that the so-called interior ministry established by Lugansk separatists was investigating her husband's unsanctioned detention and imprisonment by one of their combat groups but that separatists had not told her when they might let him go. Then, on January 5, 2015, Ukrainian media reported that Sakadynskiy had been released in Lugansk.

Sergei Lefter, a Ukrainian reporter with the Warsaw-based Open Dialogue Foundation, spent 17 days in the separatists' custody in Sloviansk. He told me that to his knowledge the Ukrainian government played little role in winning his release, that it appeared to have been made possible by activists. Neither did the authorities rush to take his statement after he was released. Security services eventually got in touch with Lefter, he said, but, to his surprise, asked him only about the fate of other detainees, not his own case. He also encountered Ukrainian bureaucracy when trying to restore his passport, which had been confiscated by the separatists. He said that the government's corruption had survived the regime change: "Generals were removed from power, but the system they built is still there."

Threats and obstruction pushed some reporters to favor pragmatism over journalistic ethics and openly side with the authorities under the banner of war and add their own thoughts and patriotic sentiments to reporting of developments in the east. The Institute of Mass Information and the news website Telekritika, both of which have been monitoring Ukrainian media, highlighted the problem of partiality during our meetings. So did activists with StopFake, a website run by journalists who volunteer their time to expose falsehoods spread by Russian and Ukrainian media about developments in the country. Beyond discussing the professional ethics and standards of local reporters, the activists said that they lacked the reach and power to counter the well-funded, far-reaching propaganda machine of Russia, where independent media has been all but obliterated by the Kremlin.

During my stay in Kiev, Russian state-funded broadcaster Perviy Kanal (Channel One) aired a highly dubious story, still available on its website, featuring what they called a "refugee from Sloviansk." The woman allegedly told Russian journalists that after Ukrainian soldiers recaptured Sloviansk from separatists she saw the soldiers crucify a 3-year-old boy and kill his mother by tying her to a tank and dragging her through the city's main square. The soldiers had forced Sloviansk residents to the square to witness the crime, the woman allegedly told Channel One. The Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent newspapers in Russia, sent a correspondent to interview Sloviansk residents on camera, but the correspondent found no evidence or testimony to back up the woman's supposed claims. Though the newspaper discounted the report, its circulation is 231,700 and its online reach 12,437,491 visits per month; by contrast, Channel One claims an audience of 250 million people worldwide.

The plethora of Russian news outlets available in Ukraine and other countries, including the United States through Internet and cable networks, has ensured a wide reach for such stories since the protests in Kiev began in November 2013. After my visit, in November 2014, Channel One produced a report saying that Ukrainian authorities had promised to reward each soldier participating in the conflict with a piece of land and two slaves. A week later, the channel's primetime show reported new "evidence" in the MH17 tragedy: a photograph, allegedly taken by a satellite, showing a Ukrainian jet fighter launching a rocket in the direction of the Malaysian Boeing 777. The anchorman claimed that a U.S.-based airspace expert interested in probing the tragedy had obtained the image and sent it to the Russian Union of Engineers, who allegedly confirmed that it was not a fake. The report was quickly picked up by a score of Russian news outlets.

Both reports were publicly questioned and in some cases ridiculed by Ukrainian media, Russian bloggers, and press freedom watchdogs, including the OSCE freedom of the media representative, to no avail.

By the end of 2014, Ukrainian authorities had decided to create an information ministry to, among other things, counter Russian propaganda, but neither local reporters nor press freedom groups liked the idea: Protests were held nationwide by reporters against what they called an Orwellian "Ministry of Truth."

Oksana Romanyuk, director of the Institute of Mass Information, told CPJ that the press was shocked that authorities had not publicly discussed the idea to create another public agency, which would pose an added burden to the already decrepit state budget, and had not sought advice on how to deal with propaganda. Romanyuk's view--shared by many of her colleagues who joined the Stop Censorship campaign and signed a petition to be submitted to the government--was that authorities needed to focus on introducing reforms such as countering corruption, developing the media market, and creating a public broadcaster. As for countering propaganda, Romanyuk said, Ukraine already has institutions to deal with it, from national courts and security services to journalists who want to do their work without obstruction.

Meanwhile, in Crimea, which was under the de facto control of Russian authorities, the situation for journalists was getting worse, Romanyuk said. As a result of raids and attacks on local journalists and broadcasters, documented by CPJ, many reporters had fled the region, often leaving relatives and belongings behind. Staff members of Chernomorskaya Teleradiokompaniya (Black Sea TV), a popular independent broadcaster that aired programming throughout the Crimean conflict from its newsroom in the regional capital, Simferopol, were forced to pack and leave for Kiev after pro-Russia authorities issued shutdown orders in early March 2014, one of the journalists who fled told CPJ in Kiev.

Soon after our meeting with regional reporters in Kiev, another local journalist, Elizaveta Bogutskaya, was forced to leave the region overnight after masked and armed police agents stormed into her house early one September morning and took her in for an hours-long interrogation. She told CPJ that authorities said during the raid they had been tipped off that she was storing illegals guns, drugs, and extremist literature. However, she said, the interrogation was focused not on those allegations but on her reporting on the region's annexation by Russia. Fearing for her safety, Bogutskaya--a contributor to the Crimean service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty--fled Crimea.

Ukrainian TV channels in Crimea experienced a similar fate: The new authorities shut down their broadcasts and allocated the airwaves to Russian state TV. Seeing no prospects for doing business under a Russian government, many Ukrainian cable operators closed their local offices and stopped serving the region. The few left behind, including ATR, a broadcaster owned by Crimean Tatars, and a handful of newspapers have been necessarily cautious in their reporting, journalists told CPJ.

Even self-censorship did not spare those remaining outlets from repression. In mid-September, regional anti-extremism authorities--the same ones who had interrogated Bogutskaya--accused the TV channel of inciting extremism and demanded that the management submit documents, including its registration and licenses and staff names and schedules, according to Ukrainian and regional media. ATR denied the accusations and said in a statement that a witch hunt unleashed by pro-Russia authorities could effectively shut down the newsroom and leave Crimean Tatars without access to news in their native language, IMI reported.

Another news outlet, Avdet--an official newspaper of the Tatars' parliament--was forced to leave its newsroom after authorities evicted the lawmakers from the building that they shared with reporters.

According to Romanyuk and others who spoke to CPJ, selective measures against regional journalists and news outlets were part of a human rights and press freedom crisis in Crimea. The draconian laws adopted by the Kremlin since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012 were slated to take effect in Crimea on January 1, 2015. (In late September, regional authorities announced that by the end of 2014 all regional news outlets would have to seek registration with Roskomnadzor, the Russian state media regulator.) Such laws, journalists told CPJ, would choke the remaining media and civil society groups.

"There is a need to monitor violations of all types of civil rights, not only press freedom, in Crimea, and the international community must do so on the ground," another journalist exiled from the region told CPJ.

Muzaffar Suleymanov, research associate for CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program, has a master's degree in international peace studies from the U.N. University for Peace in San José, Costa Rica.

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