oDR: Opinion

Ukraine is fighting for freedom. That means protecting independent journalism

Our Kyiv correspondent reflects on a year covering Russia’s war against Ukraine – and her own role in the fight

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Kateryna Semchuk
15 December 2022, 11.17am

Weeks of Russian attacks on key infrastructure sites have left Ukrainians without power and heat

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(c) REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

When Oleksandra and Angelika contacted me, they were facing a dilemma. They wanted journalists to draw attention to the fate of their loved ones: Oleksandra’s husband and Angelika’s brother were both Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russia.

But Ukrainian state officials were claiming that any public statements – or protests – could end up harming the secretive negotiations with Russia over prisoner exchanges. The women’s requests for information about their relatives had been met with stony silence. And journalists, taking the government’s lead for the most part, were reluctant to tell their story.

Having spent most of 2022 reporting on the consequences of Russia’s invasion, this was not a new problem for me. Earlier this year, when I spoke to Kostiantyn and Anna, two former prisoners from Russia’s infamous POW camp at Olenivka, I found out how they had set up a Telegram group to pool information about men and women seen in the camp. The reason: they were frustrated at the lack of official communication.

As we spoke, I saw that Kostiantyn and Anna were dealing with the same dilemma as Oleksandra and Angelika: whether or not to go along with the state’s call to trust it, obey it and wait patiently, rather than trying to influence the prisoner exchange process from outside.

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This, for me, shows why it’s so important to keep independent journalism alive during wartime.

In both cases, my sources felt the need for outside help to make their relationship with the state more equal. In order to seek justice, they needed to bring public scrutiny to bear on officials.

At the beginning of the invasion, Ukrainian society made a choice. It chose country-wide unity against the Russian military onslaught, delegating all power to the authorities – and its full support for the armed forces. Criticising officials, many said, could harm Ukraine’s very struggle to survive. In doing so, they were giving up – if only temporarily – a hard-won tradition of holding power to account.

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Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine has been hit hard by constant Russian attacks - and residents are struggling to make ends meet

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Image: Kateryna Semchuk

Ten months on, Ukrainians have come to understand that scrutinising people in power (and even individual military personnel) is necessary in order to win – alongside the vital task of documenting the horror of Russia’s war crimes against Ukrainians.

Today, there is a strong desire for a society where everyone in Ukraine – politicians, military, volunteers, journalists – is publicly accountable if they misuse their power.

Indeed, none of the problems that we saw in Ukraine before February 2022 have disappeared. Nor has Ukrainians’ desire to live in a country where the state protects them and ensures a basic standard of living. These are things I saw first-hand at my previous job, as a co-editor at Political Critique, an activist media outlet that sought to focus on Ukrainians’ everyday problems.

Ukrainian society had been dealing with a lot of changes prior to February. These included far-reaching reforms of government and state institutions, demands to end ongoing high-level corruption, neoliberal economic reforms and cuts to the welfare state that Ukraine had inherited from the Soviet Union.

At Political Critique we covered the rights and conditions of working people – to counterbalance the popular narrative, promoted by the country’s mainstream media, that everyone could be a “self-made, successful Ukrainian”.

We aimed to give an alternative, critical appraisal of reforms to healthcare, and to local and state administration, as well as identity politics and the growth of right-wing nationalism.

If there is a time for our journalism to reflect the needs of Ukrainians, it is now

As new political forces brought changes to Ukraine after 2014, people came to favour economic freedom and a rejection of the communist past – but Ukrainians still expected that the state would give people basic social support and guarantee a safe, secure life.

Russia’s war might have put those sentiments on hold for a brief moment, but the movement of society has not been halted. Though it should be said that the state, particularly at a local level, has tried hard to respond to the invasion.

Critical coverage of Ukraine’s internal politics – like my work for openDemocracy – should not be used to delegitimise Ukraine’s struggle for freedom, or to argue against international support.

At the same time, the wartime state, which has high levels of public trust, is a potential breeding ground for authoritarian policies. Vital debates about our future risk being shut down on the pretext that Russia could exploit them. Ukraine cannot give up its freedoms. And it’s not necessary to give them up in order to assure the integrity of the Ukrainian state.

I learned some valuable lessons about objectivity at Political Critique. One of them is that objectivity – a concept highly respected in journalism – goes best with being honest about where your values lie.

When you are a Ukrainian reporting on war, it is impossible to separate yourself from it. War is a collective, disastrous experience that you are going through alongside millions of people. I want to tell the stories of Ukrainians with that shared experience in mind – as well as what I see as their best interests, and those of the country.

What critical stories tell us is that the social and volunteer movements inside the country also deserve our solidarity, if not direct support. These are the organisations that help guarantee Ukraine’s freedom on the front lines and deep behind them – just like the support group for relatives of POWs organised by Kostiantyn and Anna.

Last week, I was scrolling through Facebook when I found out that Oleksandra’s husband had been released from Russian captivity via another prisoner exchange. Angelika’s brother is still there, but she is hopeful he will return soon.

If there is a time for our journalism to reflect the needs of Ukrainians, it is now.

You can support our team in Ukraine by making a donation here.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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