Ukraine’s journalists are defying new wartime reporting restrictions and increased state control of the media

As the Russian invasion moves into its 15th month, Ukraine's journalists are grappling with the problem of how to protect press freedom while reporting on the brutal military campaign against their country.

The government has passed a number of new rules governing the work of the media during wartime. These include severe restrictions on journalists' access to frontline areas and a stronger role for state broadcasting, such as the United News Marathon, a 24/7 news show broadcast across most major TV channels.

These moves, officials argue, are necessary to combat Russian disinformation campaigns designed to sow confusion in Ukrainian society, as well as the need to align Ukraine's media legislation with the European Union - a requirement of the country's EU candidacy.

But many Ukrainian journalists are now refusing to accept these kinds of restrictions on their work, and increasingly declare (albeit mostly in private) the need for collective action against excessive state control.

End of consensus

"For some time, especially in the first months of the war, there really was a kind of consensus between society, journalists and the authorities regarding actions in the media," Serhiy Shturkhetskyi, head of the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine, told openDemocracy. "Ukrainian journalists passed this period with dignity."

"Now new rules are being laid down," Shturkhetskyi added, and "the situation is not developing in journalists' favour."

Since 20 March, Ukraine's frontline territories have been divided into different zones of access for journalists, depending on the severity of the fighting or the presence of sensitive military sites.

Access is determined by colour. 'Red' zones are completely out of bounds, while 'yellow' ones are only accessible if accredited journalists are accompanied by press officers from the defence ministry. 'Green' zones are open to every journalist who has special military accreditation, which can be a long-winded process.

Journalists also need to negotiate with individual military units far in advance. If the situation suddenly changes - which it frequently does in wartime - permits and agreements become invalid and have to be reapplied for.

Nastya Stanko, an experienced war reporter who currently works for the independent Hromadske website, was one of the first journalists to encounter the Ukrainian authorities' attempts to change the rules.

In November, Stanko and several other journalists, including reporters from CNN and Sky News, suddenly lost their military accreditation. This was because they had travelled to the southern city of Kherson just after it had been liberated from Russian occupation but before the Ukrainian military had permitted journalists to enter it - a breach of the rules governing journalists' work in combat zones.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, the Office of the President of Ukraine and leading Ukrainian journalists then agreed to hold talks - for the first time - over frontline access for the media. Senior presidential press adviser Mykhailo Podolyak and deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar were at the meeting, according to Stanko.

"We passed on our proposals, and it seemed that we were heard," Stanko said, noting that her accreditation was returned ten days later. But a few months later, she added, the Ukrainian military introduced the system of coloured access zones.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence said the latest restrictions have been dictated not only by military necessity, but are also a response to a "demand" for greater cooperation from journalists themselves, including at the November meeting.

Access zones are a "standard approach" and are reviewed on a weekly basis, according to defence officials. But in practice, it is difficult for journalists to determine which settlement or military unit they can visit, and which are closed, as communication of this information isn't always clear, says Stanko.

"Every time, you need to call them and find out if this or that place is in the 'red' zone," she said.

But what Stanko finds "really outrageous" is the fact that the red zones aren't actually closed to everyone.

"We hear from the military that some representatives of the United News Marathon are allowed into the red zones," she complained.

Against a background of criticism over preferential treatment, Ukraine's Ministry of Culture confirmed last month that it asked the defence ministry to give combat zone access to journalists working for the Marathon.

"Implementing a united information policy is a priority for national security," the Ministry of Culture said at the time.

Increased state control

Ukrainian journalists are also dealing with a new balance of power as a result of the Russian invasion. The state now has much more control over the country's media environment - from keeping certain channels off air to launching new ones.

The cornerstone of the government's media policy is the United News Marathon, launched on the very first day of the Russian invasion, 24 February 2022. The National Security and Defence Council decided it must be broadcast 24/7 on Ukrainian TV so the major channels take shifts, each showing it for six-hour stints throughout the day.

Over the past year, the Marathon's popularity has faded, though many still view it as a trustworthy source.

"This is a source of information that is, in part, [meant] to verify what is actually happening," culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said last month. "When people read unchecked information on Telegram, then the first thing they do is turn on the Marathon, to find out if it's true."

Other channels have been switched off from the main networks, though they still broadcast by satellite or online.

For example, three national TV channels - Channel 5, Direct and Espreso - were unexpectedly disconnected from the main digital TV network in April last year. Prior to the disconnection, the government had ordered them to co-operate with other television channels as part of the United News Marathon.

All three channels were associated with former president Petro Poroshenko, a long-standing opponent of the current president, Volodymyr Zelenskyi.

"Obviously, the authorities knew that they couldn't just call or send some recommendations on which topics can be covered and which not, which politicians to invite and which not," Anastasia Ravva, editor-in-chief of the Espreso channel, told openDemocracy. "Therefore someone in power decided to go the other way - just remove us."

Last month, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the Ukrainian authorities to restore the channels. "A year later, it is still impossible to establish who exactly, why and how this decision [to remove access] was made," RSF said in a statement.

Ravva acknowledged the shutdown feels like pressure on the channel, and said in a democratic country such an act would be "called political censorship". Still, she rejects the idea Espresso is an "opposition media".

"We are convinced that during wartime there is no [division] between government and opposition... There is no criticism of the authorities on Espreso," Ravva told openDemocracy.

Culture minister Tkachenko said a "compromise" with Espreso and the two other blocked channels had not been reached.

"When the channels of one, let's say, political group wanted to join the United Marathon, there was a discussion on how they could do this - given that the Marathon had already begun," Tkachenko said in October, rejecting the "need" for those channels to join the Marathon after the fact.

While suspicion about the political underpinning of the channels' blocking continues, others are concerned about how the government's response to the war is amplifying the role of the state in the media sphere, in contrast to a pre-war push for "denationalisation".

Viktoria Syumar, an ex-journalist and former MP in Poroshenko's political party, points to plans to launch a new state television channel, Army TV, controlled by the Ministry of Defence.

The existing portfolio of state-supported media includes the national public broadcaster Suspilne, international news channel Freedom and parliamentary channel Rada.

"Ukraine currently has at least three state TV channels. The appearance of a fourth signals the country's transition to a system of state-controlled television," Syumar told openDemocracy. "This cancels out the denationalisation policy [on media] that we have been pursuing since 2014 in accordance with European standards."

Kulikov believes the Ukrainian authorities will soon tighten their control over media they have not paid much attention to previously - radio, print, local media - and that journalists should not wait, but act ahead of the curve.

"People in power are trying to encourage society to develop a habit of following their policies, and are justifying their actions on the basis of wartime needs," Kulikov told openDemocracy. "Then, after the war, there will be a tendency in [Ukrainian] society to simply agree with everything, simply by virtue of inertia - including in the media."

The only way to "replace propaganda", he says, is to "create a conscious need in [Ukrainian] society for high-quality and useful information".

Local and foreign journalists complain

The state's control over Ukrainian media is frustrating for the country's journalists, according to recent polling.

The Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Ukrainian polling organisation, carried out a survey of 132 journalists in January. It found 62% of respondents consider the United News Marathon a form of "censorship" (18% disagreed). Only 11% are in favour of continuing with the Marathon, while 65% believe it should be stopped and broadcasters should return to their normal work.

The survey also suggested self-censorship by journalists is growing, as measured against similar polling from 2019.

The number of respondents who are ready to hide the truth about serious problems and offences if disclosure could harm the state has doubled from 12% in 2019 to 25%. Some 48% are undecided, and only 27% (compared to 35% in 2019) said they are ready to tell the truth in all instances.

The proportion of those who believe systemic censorship exists in Ukraine has also doubled from 12% in 2019 to 26%.

International journalists have their own challenges reporting in Ukraine. A survey of 55 foreign journalists, published in January, found common shortcomings of most state bodies include a tendency to communicate through indirect and unofficial channels; a long approval process for access to officials or locations under their control; unequal access to information; and a biased attitude towards the media.

The Commission on Journalistic Ethics spoke out last year in defence of the rights of journalists during wartime. "Armed forces and law enforcement agencies should maintain a reasonable balance between security and defence measures and the public's right to receive verified information from professional media," the commission said.

"It is unacceptable to give preference to certain media or journalists over others, to prohibit the work of some without explaining the reasons, and to allow others."

Dangers of self-censorship

Although Ukrainian journalists increasingly believe there needs to be a push for greater rights and access, it's unclear how this can be achieved.

"When I start talking about [censorship], everyone is supportive in private, but not when it comes to going public," Stanko told openDemocracy. "Some want to work quietly and therefore they self-censor."

Ukraine's media community has changed rapidly over the past year. Some reporters have joined the army, others have left the country. Some have started working for foreign media or have lost their jobs as a result of the economic downturn.

"Journalists' disunity allows the authorities to avoid being accountable to the public," said Serhiy Tomilenko, head of the country's largest journalism union, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU).

Tomilenko points out that many reputable Ukrainian media outlets and journalists draw on their relationships with foreign embassies and international organisations - often gained through grants and events - for their own protection.

However, these individually-focused tactics of some journalists do not help others who rely on trade unions, Tomilenko says.

As a result, Tomilenko argues, the Ukrainian government has already passed a new media law - which will see an enhanced role for state regulation, including shutting down media - without engaging journalists as stakeholders.

The NUJU held many meetings while the law was being drawn up, involving up to 5,000 journalists and editors as well as official government representatives, but the government ignored the union's comments.

Stanko believes some Ukrainian journalists are ready to give up their basic rights, because they think they need to protect society from bad news - and the authorities can take advantage of this.

"This creates a gap between civilians and the military. Then anonymous Telegram channels appear and people think that the truth is there now," she told openDemocracy.

Stanko said it hurts her that the Ukrainian military is increasingly turning to foreign journalists to tell their stories because her Ukrainian colleagues are either not interested in some topics or they cannot tell the whole truth.

"Many people believe that if journalists protest, this will help Russia, but I don't agree with this," she said. "If we do not solve these problems, [censorship will] help Russia even more."

"Freedom of speech is also part of the territorial integrity of Ukraine," Stanko said.

From openDemocracy

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