In eastern Ukraine, an information vacuum - and a debate over journalistic standards

In five years of conflict in eastern Ukraine, a second demarcation line has emerged – over information.

Serhiy Guz
22 January 2020, 12.01am
Кадр из фильма Сергея Лозницы "Донбасс" (2018). Сцена прибытия немецкого журналиста на линию разграничения.
Scene from Sergey Loznitsa's 2019 film, Donbas

In Ukraine, it’s not that easy to find out what’s going on in Donetsk or Luhansk, how people live there and what they think - about December’s “Normandy Format” talks in Paris, for example.

Sometimes you can find information “from the other side” of the frontline on specialist internet sites - or a report by Hromadske TV. Central TV channels and major internet outlets have concentrated on countering Russian propaganda, fake news and disinformation. (Counter-) propaganda TV programmes such as “Civil Defence” on ICTV have also appeared. But it hasn’t been possible to set up a reliable channel of information from the areas outside Kyiv control.

This situation is a total information disaster for Ukraine. The Ministry of Information Policy, created under the previous government, has not solved the problem. It has also decided to concentrate on counteracting Russian propaganda and disinformation, as well as introducing tough restrictions on Russian media. And although no one in Ukraine would deny the importance of taking a hard stance on the “information war”, this policy has led to the isolation of occupied areas from the rest of Ukraine.

To figure out the objective and subjective reasons that have led to this situation, I spoke to Natalia Ligacheva, head of the Detector-Media organisation, which specialises in monitoring the work of journalists and media in Ukraine – it has often done its own research into the situation with media coverage of the conflict and the influence of Russian propaganda. Another expert in the area is Andriy Kulikov, who heads Ukraine’s Journalism Ethics Commission, which investigates press complaints and works on the development of professional standards of news coverage around the country. Kulikov has in fact tried to organise a dialogue in the separatist-controlled areas. I’ve also spoken to Serhiy Tomilenko, head of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, the country’s largest media workers’ organisation, with the greatest involvement in disagreements between the authorities and the press.

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The Iron Curtain of the information war

Research has shown that news of the conflict in Donbas in the Ukrainian media generally comes from official sources or politicians’ speeches. This information is often met with distrust, due to possible manipulation or over-censorship by the military, the lack of balance, as well as being subject to other influences (such as propaganda).

“I don’t know about political manipulation, but there’s not a lot of balance, if only because we rarely hear the opinions of the people on the other side of the demarcation line,” says Andriy Kulikov. “And the opinions of people living on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the frontline aren’t so well represented by the media. Especially people in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.”

Natalia Ligacheva echoes Kulikov’s concerns: “When you talk to the experts, you discover a lot of things you can’t find in our press.”

Ukraine’s regional media outlets – both TV and newspapers – have always been focused on local audiences. In Dnipropetrovsk, Lviv or Kharkhiv, for example, you can only find out about events in Donetsk from central newspapers or TV. And at the start of the conflict this affected both central Ukrainian and Russian media outlets equally.

However, as the conflict in Donbas spread, Ukraine blocked many Russian media outlets, accusing them of warmongering, propaganda and spreading disinformation. The popular VKontakte and Odnoklassniki websites were banned, as well as the sites of some newspapers working officially in the separatist-occupied areas. And at the same time, Ukraine’s media couldn’t compensate for this lack of information, for objective and subjective reasons that I’ll come back to later.

Slovyansk, 2019
Image: Igor Mitchnik

Propaganda and self-censorship issues

Over the last few years of monitoring, there have been regular reports of a fall in the amount of news coverage of the Donbas conflict. Only now, with the discussion of the “Steinmeier Formula” and the “Normandy Four” talks, has interest in the issue been rekindled. But as a monitoring report by Ukraine’s Institute of Mass Information last October has shown, in general we’re still talking about coverage of official positions and politicians’ opinions inside Ukraine.

The other side’s viewpoint is still not being represented, mainly because at the start of the conflict journalists consciously abandoned some of their professional standards, including balance of opinion.

“We’re obviously not going to give the separatists’ and insurgents’ point of view, so we shall only return to the standards that we uphold in peacetime when the situation has reached some kind of resolution,” says Natalia Ligacheva. “And that won’t mean the same kind of one-sided view that we have now.” Ligacheva believes that Ukraine’s media will only be able to return to its old news standards when they pay more attention to the real problems of people living in the non Kyiv-governed areas of Ukraine.

The move away from professional standards while covering news stories about the conflict is having other negative consequences as well. Back in 2015 a monitoring report by the Telekritika internet newspaper (now renamed as Detektor Media) noted that “Ukraine’s TV channels heroise their country’s armed forces while demonising the LNR and DNR [separatist] fighters, hushing up the problems of people who have been displaced and practically forgetting about volunteers. Central TV channels’ talk shows are full of hate speech. This creates a situation where there is a clear division of people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, the good and the bad. Monitoring has revealed that these shows have been cultivating hate and other negative emotions towards the other side.”

Even two years after the beginning of the Donbas conflict, the issue was still acute. Research at the Journalism School of the Catholic University of Ukraine, published in March 2016, stated that “For regional media, the main source of information is still the stream of official documents, which have a strong shade of propaganda. However, some of the material we analysed shows an increase in attempts at critical and rounded coverage of conflict issues, designed to understand their background and circumstances and seek ways to resolve it.”

Andriy Kulikov has a suggestion for journalists: “To change the media’s mood or attitude, you need to make the following a rule: if you haven’t been there, don’t write about it; if you haven’t been behind the demarcation line, don’t write about it; if you haven’t been in the grey zone, don’t write about it; if you haven’t been in Kramatorsk or Mariupol, don’t write about it. Go there, take a look, listen to both unpleasant and positive stories and talk to people: after all that you’ll have something to write about.”

The dangers behind the front line

In any case, travelling to the other side of the frontline and reporting from it is incredibly risky these days. And, as far as Ukrainian journalists are concerned, less because of the fighting than of the risk of being arrested.

This issue was debated recently in Ukraine’s parliament during hearings on journalists’ safety. “Today we are talking about the lack of reliable information about the lives of Ukrainians living in the occupied areas,” explains Serhiy Tomilenko, head of the National Union of Journalists.

Tomilenko says that Ukrainian journalists and media workers can’t work in the occupied territories because of safety risks. He reminds me of the case of Stanislav Aseev, the journalist who was arrested in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) in 2017. Aseev was later sentenced to 15 years in prison on espionage charges. He was released via prisoner exchange in December 2019. “A lack of journalists in the occupied territories means a lack of information from them,” Tomilenko points out.”

The problem also lies partially in the fact that many journalists have openly expressed their political views and extremely negative attitudes to people who have refused to recognise the results of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan revolution, and have announced their support for the unrecognised republics and a desire to unite with Russia. And bearing in mind the fact that pro-Russian insurgents follow social media, there’s a real risk that Ukrainian journalists will not only be denied accreditation, but be arrested in the occupied territories.

Problems for foreign media

The situation could be partially resolved by republishing articles from western newspapers, which enjoy more trust in Ukraine than Russian media. But there are serious problems here as well. Natalia Ligacheva feels that this is the result of a number of problems for western journalists themselves.

“We know that western media generally have offices in Russia, and very often they have more ‘pro-Russian’ than ‘pro-Ukrainian’ views,” she says. “This also means that we put less trust in this information – it’s another aspect of the issue that might have far-reaching consequences.”

On the other hand, western journalists have problems travelling to the occupied territories. First, they can only enter the area through special checkpoints in Ukraine. Using any other route – through Russia, for example – would be seen as a legal violation and the journalists could be barred from entering Ukraine.

Second, they need accreditation from special agencies inside the unrecognised republics. But if you receive this accreditation, you can wind up on the “Peacekeeper” (Mirotvorets) website, which publishes every accessible personal detail of journalists who cooperate with the unrecognised government of the occupied territories. Accreditation is also seen as a form of cooperation.

The Mirotvorets website has frequently enraged journalists, including at the international level. It has, however, had no influence on the politics of the website, which people believe is linked to Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko. In other words, according to Serhiy Tomilenko, serious western media try to avoid sending their journalists to the occupied territories.

The pressure of self-censorship and radicals

According to data from a report last June by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, about 48% of surveyed journalists have admitted to practising self-censorship when working in the Ukrainian media, and almost 65% believe that the war in the east of the country has increased incidences of self-censorship.

Andriy Kulikov is one of the few journalists who four years ago visited the demarcation line and experienced pressure from the radical section of Ukrainian society as a result. “My enthusiasm probably wavered slightly as a result of the attacks aimed at me,” Kulikov tells me. “We can see that visits not just by journalists, but by others as well, are opposed by part of the Ukrainian public.

“Three people from Luhansk recently decided to visit their home city after a five year gap. But they didn’t follow it through because they were swamped by a wave of disapproval. I know a few journalists who have spent a long time on the other side of the demarcation line and written about it on their return. But it’s not easy, to put it mildly, to publish that kind of material. I have a friend who works on both sides of the line and tries to present an objective picture in both areas, not to mention the ‘grey zone’ [the territory between the demarcation lines]."

Andriy Kulikov
Image: Tatiana Kosianchuk

“The thing is that on the one hand, we have a lack of sources of information and on the other we say that this subject and content is a grey area for media managers and outlets,” says Serhiy Tomilenko. “It is a grey area in the sense of responsibility and risks. In terms of publication, a journalist or media outlet could find themselves in trouble from governmental agencies, media regulators or radicals. Publishing news from occupied Donetsk could be seen as either sucking up to the separatists or enemy propaganda. Some radical citizens and organisations could see it as undesirable content and harass, threaten or attack the journalist or media outlet. There have been precedents for such conflicts.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with this vision of the situation. One journalist who works on both sides of the frontline agreed to an interview on condition of confidentiality. He believes that the pressure from radical groups has been very much exaggerated, and the lack of publications from behind the frontline can be put down to perfectly objective reasons: a lack of media interest in this subject and the real threat of arrest for Ukrainian journalists in the occupied territories.

He believes that no journalist with a Ukrainian passport and official registration anywhere outside the Donetsk or Luhansk regions could possibly cross the demarcation line without preliminary agreement from the insurgents on their future travel plans, publication and intentions. And to go there without any guarantees of their safety and support from their editor and government would be simply dangerous.

And indeed, the fate of the freelance Radio Liberty reporter Stanislav Aseev, who spent two and a half years in prison for his journalistic activities, shows that the Ukrainian government cannot provide any effective protection for reporters.

Ukrainian media outlets have been shown up as unready to work in such conditions, and without journalists who can legally work in the occupied territories there is no way to cover events there objectively.

In search of a way out

Today very few Ukrainian journalists still have any doubts that we have become participants - or hostages – in a hybrid information war. This situation has had many consequences, such as military censorship, self-censorship, abandonment of professional standards and excessive pressure on the media from the public or the government.

And if, far from the conflict these consequences are only noticeable in the drop in media interest and the prevalence of official language and statements, then on the other side of the demarcation line, the occupied territories, people are massively distrustful of Ukraine’s media world.

In November 2019, the Dzerkalo tizhnia newspaper published the results of a public opinion survey in the occupied territories. More than 80% of those surveyed were shown as distrustful of Ukrainian TV channels, believing that they distort the truth to a greater or lesser extent. Almost as many (of those that read them) also distrust Ukraine’s online media. And Ukrainian newspapers are rarely seen in the occupied territories. It’s natural that in this situation, people prefer to follow Russian media.

In the context of resumption of negotiations on the settlement of the conflict, and the situation with the lack of trust in the media, it’s natural to talk about a change in the prevailing rhetoric used by Ukrainian journalists when covering events in Donbas. But perhaps it’s still too early for this.

“As for those fighting and killing there, the rhetoric shouldn’t, of course change. It’s another matter that there are some pro-Ukrainian people living there,” says Natalia Ligacheva. “We need to pay more attention to the return [of citizens and territory – ed.] – a campaign for their support. But this is really difficult, because Russian propaganda is everywhere and the Ukrainian media are less prominent.”

“There is a discussion going on about these things, but we can’t expect any quick changes,” says Andriy Kulikov. “Because we have thousands of fatalities, half a million internal displaced persons and people who have just left and millions who truly recognise all this – some happily and some not. Many people feel hurt. It’s really important now not even to start, but to continue to think about what there will be in the occupied territories after they have ceased to be occupied. But at this point no one, probably, has any idea when that will happen. There is both a big advantage and a big disadvantage in this situation. The preparation for the changes can be so successful that when they happen, Ukrainians will return ready for any hardship. Everyone needs to be ready for this, and go there, and it is equally important to be open to all, to allow everyone to take part in every sphere of life: politics, culture and so on.”

The latest news from the corridors of power is also ambiguous. The government intends to tighten up on media responsibility for disinformation, starting with disinformation linked to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Many journalists, as well as public and international organisations are afraid that under the pretence of fighting disinformation and propaganda, our government might acquire even more control of the press than it has now. And a tightening up of media control leaves an ever smaller space for discussion of both the settlement of the Donbas conflict and discussion of the media’s role in that process.

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