What is the meaning of journalism in Ukraine today?


Ukraine’s journalists are often told we need to react in kind to information warfare. But let’s not forget what we can do to de-intensify this conflict.


Aleksey Matsuka
9 August 2017
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Donbass Media Forum, Svyatohirsk, 2017. Source: DMF. More details on the forum here. When armed conflict broke out in Ukraine’s Donbass in spring 2014, many Donetsk journalists found themselves on the frontline by chance. Some of the city’s editorial offices changed their addresses, while others had to close down their operations entirely. Other editors and journalists have stayed in their profession, but are now bound by the demands made by the new rulers of Donetsk and Luhansk. Since the beginning of the “Russian Spring,” the new authorities’ main rule of thumb has been to suppress independent media. Indeed, there are no local journalists in the Donbas whose fates did not change after April 2014. In order to figure out what’s become of our profession in the region — and to retain our ties — we’ve been holding the Donbass Media Forum for several years now.

Facing aggression from the authorities of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” the editorial staff of the News of Donbas left Donetsk in small groups. Our first reaction to this situation was: we need to tell the truth about what’s happening in Donetsk, and the truth about those people who had suddenly declared a republic in our region. In our broadcasts for Donbas Public Television, we shed light on the “DNR” and its leaders, in order to inform as many people as possible about the situation.

At some point, I started receiving invitations to appear on every TV programme imaginable, as an “expert on the Donbas”. On air, I’d hear the same information which I’d published elsewhere. It seemed as though some media outlets weren’t interested in my knowledge of the current situation, but instead my interpretation of information which I’d been collecting since 2006, and my status as a witness in a criminal case into the activities of the “Donetsk Republic” organisation, which was banned in 2007.

That’s when I decided to conduct an experiment of my own. When I was invited to speak on Ukrainian television channels, I started asking uncomfortable questions on topics which are often considered taboo in our media. For example, why do Ukrainian newsmakers have a critical attitude to any peace process (if there were people clearly antagonistic toward this idea in the studio) or how they view the realisation of the Minsk Agreements (if there were people calling for peaceful reintegration on air). That is, I changed the tone of the debate from the affirmative (transmitting new facts about the “DNR” and my interpretation of the situation in Donetsk) to the interrogative. Because that’s a journalist’s job. After all, if I’m already sitting beside the country’s VIPs, when why shouldn’t I use them just as other journalists have used me in their own talk shows?

Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.I started asking even more questions and, every time, I observed how the reactions of the guest speakers and hosts changed towards me. As a result, one of the presenters declared me to be “working for Viktor Medvedchuk”. She continued that my interest in “such issues” as Minsk or even worse, the peace process, amounted to clear evidence for my close ties to “strange circles” and apparent desire for the “capitulation of Ukraine” to Russia. This TV presenter, whom I know well, later took me to one side and told me that since it was “so clear” why “we” don’t need Minsk, there was simply no point discussing them on the air. That is to say, as it seemed so “clear” to her, she believed it must be the same for everybody else.

Well, as a journalist, I always have my doubts. Doubt courses through my entire life. Perhaps that’s the reason why I decided to become a journalist in the first place, rather than a political analyst, a course which was always open to me given my Master’s degree in political science.

Was it right for our editors to insist on calling those on the “DNR” side “terrorists”? Was it right to react to the conflict solely with excessive patriotism that flooded our newsfeeds?

I also had my doubts in 2014. Was it right for our editors to insist on calling those on the “DNR” side “terrorists”? Was it right to react to the conflict solely with excessive patriotism that flooded our newsfeeds? What will actually change from the media’s employing the terminology used by Ukrainian military commanders, soldiers or simply online haters? Will the war really grind to a halt if some strive to make their insults twice as potent as their opponents?

In 2016, a wonderful book fell into my hands, published by the OSCE and freely accessible on their website. It concerns conflict-sensitive journalism, and I still read it once a week, whenever I look back over the content produced for News of Donbas. I almost remember it by heart. That very year at the Donbas Media Forum in Mariupol, one of the speakers called on journalists working in the conflict zone not to “make things worse than they already are.” That phrase, and the OSCE’s book, allowed me to answer those questions I raised earlier.

By following its recommendations, as well as the experience of journalists from other countries who lived through other events, I like to think that I’m helping the media outlets I work for to become more balanced and produce work of a higher quality. This in turn opens them up to wider audiences on both sides of the frontline, which after all is at the very heart of the goal which the Donetsk Institute of Information has set for itself. The institute, which administers News of Donbas and Donbas Public Television, promotes the establishment of democratic, humanistic values across Ukraine through the dissemination of fact-checked news and quality analysis.


Scenes from Maryinka, a town just east of Donetsk which is under Ukrainian state control. Source: "Lives on the Line" film by Iryna Solomko / Center for Civilians in Conflict

.The result of all the discussions, debates and, of course, arguments we’ve held over the past three years has drawn me to the following question: is it possible for journalists to dial down the toxicity of their work? If my hypothesis is correct, this could lead to a dialling down in the aggression which has swept society — an aggression which divides society ever more with each passing year, along various “lines of discord”.

The longer this war drags on, the deeper the sense of frustration and alienation. This can be easily seen in discussions in social media and among journalists themselves. My colleagues even receive threats simply because they, as journalists, permit themselves to consider and pose uncomfortable questions, to put journalistic ethics into practice and perfect what they produce, which is becoming more and more critical.

For some reason, many now appear to feel that media has a duty to serve a certain position on current affairs. That is to say, their position. “I’ll only trust sources which view things as I do.” Why, then, can’t media outlets become trusted for every audience? They don’t even have to be trusted 100% — the doubting reader is the most valuable kind of reader. How can a media outlet become the kind of resource that provokes confidence in its readers (even if they may disagree with some of its materials), one which does not countenance distortions and sticks to standards and dedication to balanced reporting? That is to say, a truly mass media organisation? Only journalists themselves can answer this question, by producing high-quality materials, generating and maintaining an impeccable reputation.

The key question that must be asked regarding the last three years of war in the Donbas is this: what can the media do to de-intensify this conflict that has engulfed our country?

We’re often told that this war was “unleashed by the media,” that the media’s role in this conflict is greater than ever before, and that we “must react” to the wave of “information aggression” before us. But to my mind, the key question that must be asked regarding the last three years of war in the Donbas is this: what can the media do to de-intensify this conflict that has engulfed our country?

I ask myself this question every day, and my search for a compelling answer continues. All I can repeat to myself in response is this: “Don’t make the situation worse than it already is.”

This article originally appeared at News of Donbas. 

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