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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Upholding Truth in the Crossfire: Challenges Faced by Ukrainian Journalists

Article by: Anna Grytsenko & Madison Kim

This article was written by two 2024 Rohatyn Global Fellows as part of a collaboration with the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs at Middlebury College

Upholding Truth in the Crossfire: Challenges Faced by Ukrainian Journalists

Amidst Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian journalists bear an ongoing significant responsibility. The press continues to exert diverse influence over diplomatic, judicial, military, economic, and investigative processes. In conversation with Sevgil Musayeva, editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda, and Yulia Samaieva, editor of the economic department at ZN.UA, this article discusses their journalistic experiences during the Russo-Ukrainian war.  Working in offices with diesel generators and Starlink, journalists do not only need to dodge Russian rockets, but accusations of treason, while fighting for the freedom of the press.

Protecting Press Freedom During Wartime?  

Wartime restrictions imposed by the Ukrainian government have sparked controversy among journalists and wider society, largely due to concerns that strict regulations on media and news limit  freedom of speech. This contentious nature of reporting during wartime considers the need to protect and save lives as well as the need to uphold journalistic ethics. As a result of the ongoing international conflict, certain topics are restricted due to “military necessity” or to prevent the Russian government from obtaining information that could threaten Ukraine’s defenses. Yuliia Samaieva shared her perspective with us, stating that initially, she expected more imposing constraints on the work of the media. She underlined that the Ukrainian people were not solely concerned about population loss and lost territory, but also about the significance of upholding their democratic values during the war. Samaieva stressed that values such as maintaining freedom of speech are crucial for strengthening relations with Western partners. In 2019, Zelensky’s government signed a bill that would allow for the government to exert more oversight and regulation over media outlets. The intention behind this was to help Ukraine meet the European Union’s standards for membership. However, many criticized this control of the media going too far. Samaieva emphasized that, “If Ukraine loses, dictatorships prove that they are stronger.” This outcome, she argues, could lead to control over “the world order” and a “disregard for international law”, posing a “direct risk to the political systems of Western democracies.”  

National Security and Self-Censorship

Sevgil Musayeva pointed to the outlet she oversees, Ukrainska Pravda, as an example of a media outlet that chooses not to publish any unofficial information regarding Ukrainian activists or politicians who have been abducted by Russian forces, since media intervention could harm these hostages. Some journalists choose not to report the deaths of famous persons before the news reaches their relatives. Musayeva also underlined the absence of live videos in conflict zones where shelling is taking place. Much of this secrecy is not only aligned with the standards for ethical journalism but has also been crucial for protecting Ukrainian soldiers and hiding their air defense systems from Russian intelligence. Moreover, withholding the extent of Ukrainian civilian and armed forces casualties preserves national morale, both among Ukrainians and foreign aid partners. She argued that broadcasting the true nature of war casualties could detrimentally influence both national and international morale, thereby compromising Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s aggression.

Beyond National Security 

According to Musayeva, alleged government censorship exists beyond protecting national security, and has served to shield those in positions of power. She pointed to media coverage critiquing the Ukrainian government that has been condemned and denied by high political figures or ministries. These media outlets have been accused of spreading Kremlin narratives, despite verification by high-level sources, exacerbating tension. Musayeva underlined that the Soviet Iron Curtain strategy was not possible as the world could no longer “lock down” information. As the world becomes more interconnected, domestic issues are no longer hidden from journalists, and publications by Ukrainian investigative journalists increasingly reach the Western world. Much like the global propagation of Ukrainian media, government action is also increasingly scrutinized by international political experts. Musayeva stated that “even the rules introduced by the state must be checked with the involvement of foreign partners or experts from outside the government.” Media restrictions during wartime have thereby served multiple purposes, engendering discussion on how a balance should be maintained between safeguarding national security, journalistic freedom, accountability, and transparency. 

What Undermines National Unity? Corruption, or its Coverage by the Press? 

Zelensky’s triumphant pre-war parliamentary and presidential victories were followed by a wave of hope for young politicians, which partly diverted a large number of the Ukrainian population from hasty criticism of the government. As a full-scale war unfolded, authorities emphasized the importance of national unity against a common external enemy, fostering trust among Ukrainians in dire times. For a long time since the beginning of the war, some Ukrainians did not want to hear any negative or compromising news about the Ukrainian authorities, believing that they would demotivate the population and bring destruction. Musayeva stated: “Journalists were under moral pressure from their audiences.” The publication of any negative news was repeatedly criticized for being harmful to national security. However, Musayeva underlined that “a lot of the backlash could have been coming from governmental bots”; fake accounts that would spread politicians’ agendas.

Changing Editorial Policies

Musayeva elaborated on this issue, noting that “the reprinted translation pieces of eminent Western media caused great backlash, especially texts about a possible split between the military and Ukraine’s political leadership”. Some Ukrainians believed there should be more severe censorship. For example, media that revealed any internal political issues was regarded as Russian propaganda aimed to undermine Ukrainian unity.  The press therefore changed their editorial policies, publishing fewer political investigations. In May 2023, Ukrainian journalists identified self-censorship as the primary constraint on freedom of speech. They quickly returned to reporting domestic issues after it became clear that failure to address these meant that journalism’s mission as a social institution would be unfulfilled. Musayeva emphasized that the editorial policy began to place greater importance not just on the disclosure of pressing problems but also on effective ways to solve them: “The task of responsible journalism is to understand the importance of the emphasis on the solutions to these problems.”  Ukrainians soon began to better perceive negative news, realizing the importance of raising awareness regarding internal corruption and calling for change.

The Constant Balancing Act

By addressing domestic challenges during wartime, the media can endanger financial and military aid from Western partners. But by silencing such issues, including corruption, journalists might sow distrust among their readers and the wider population. Ukrainian journalists have been playing a balancing act for almost a decade, risking their careers and their lives, and every day they ask themselves the question where to draw the line.

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