Friday, March 13, 2015

Ukraine's Media War

KIEV, Ukraine -- In late 2013, early in the Maidan demonstrations, Savik Shuster, one of Ukraine's most influential television hosts, made the mistake of inviting opposition leaders onto his talk show.


A Russian propaganda video (left) and the Ukrainian response video (right).

Mr Shuster's network, whose owners were aligned with Viktor Yanukovych, then the president, promptly dropped Mr Shuster's programme "Savik Live".

It was picked up by Channel 5, a station owned by a western-leaning oligarch named Petro Poroshenko.

Last month, Mr Shuster again found himself under pressure—this time, he says, from Mr Poroshenko, who is now Ukraine's president. 

Mr Shuster's offence was to invite on air a Russian journalist who criticised the Ukrainian government for killing civilians in a "fratricidal war".

Ukraine’s National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting issued him a warning for violating a law against war propaganda and incitement of hatred.

In today's atmosphere, Mr Shuster says, his attempt at bringing balance to the discussion proved a step too far:

"There are now people who shouldn't be on the air, and things that shouldn't be discussed.”

As one of his other guests, a deputy from Mr Poroshenko’s party, remarked later in the show:

“Today, an information war is being waged against Ukraine…Our task is to be united, to comment as one.”

Information warfare, like the shooting kind, is a new art for Ukraine, and the learning curve is steep.

Faced with a finely-tuned and well-funded Russian propaganda machine, truth and openness ought to be Ukraine’s most powerful weapons.

But truth-telling is slow and painful work, and Kiev often opts for misinformation of its own instead.

The Ukrainian authorities gloss over military losses, so much so that domestic observers now interpret the government's daily situation briefings as a euphemistic code:

"14 [killed] means there was lots of fighting, two means it was a relatively quiet day," says Vitaly Sych, editor of Novoe Vremya, a weekly.

Ukraine’s leaders consistently and implausibly deny any responsibility for civilian deaths, further undermining trust, especially among the population in separatist-held territory.

Criticism of the government is dismissed as mudslinging by Kremlin agents.

Last month authorities jailed Ruslan Kotsaba, a western Ukrainian blogger who had spoken out against mobilisation.

Ukrainian authorities accused him of working in Russia’s interests; Amnesty International labeled him a prisoner of conscience.

"We're becoming just like them," one senior Ukrainian official laments.

Tasked with bringing order to the information front is the newly-created Ministry of Information Politics, led by Yuriy Stets, a former producer at Channel 5 and a close personal friend of Mr Poroshenko.

Journalists and civil-society activists derided the ministry's creation, dubbing it the “Ministry of Truth”.

Mr Stets says his critics "read Orwell but not Churchill," and compares his information ministry to the one Britain operated during the second world war.

Mr Stets aims to fix poor coordination between often contradictory government agencies and develop tools for resisting Russian information warfare.

“We must teach the authorities to tell the truth,” he insists, promising not to engage in propaganda or censorship.

Heavy censorship in Ukraine is, indeed, unlikely—not least because the media remains in the hands of powerful oligarchs.

Yet the ministry’s first steps suggest it may be unwisely trying to imitate the better-funded, more professional Russians.

“They see what Russia does and think they can bring it to Ukraine,” says Oksana Romaniuk of Kiev's Institute of Mass Information.

“We’re battling propaganda with propaganda.”

The ministry has announced plans to create a worldwide television channel to counter Moscow's Russia Today network; it will be called Ukraine Tomorrow.

Mr Stets has also launched the "Ukrainian Information Army", a volunteer force of internet commenters tasked with spreading government-approved content and combatting Russian trolls.

A recent mission asked the troops to post a propagandistic Ukrainian response to a Russian-made propaganda video.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian journalists have been struggling with how to carry themselves in a war where the media plays an outsize role.

Inside the newsroom of 1+1, one of Ukraine's top television stations, Ukrainian flags signed by soldiers hang on the walls.

Spent shells rest on bookshelves, and on the floor lie fragments of the ruined Donetsk airport.

Next to a target-practice mannequin dressed in a separatist uniform and labeled "Putin", a donation box calls out: "Help Protect Ukraine".

Aleksander Tkachenko, chief executive of 1+1 Media, says journalists have found themselves "participants in a war.

Not physically, but a new type of war." Journalists constantly debate whether they can help Ukraine without contradicting their professional standards.

"Ukrainian journalism is undergoing a crisis of values," says Olga Chervakova, a television journalist turned politician, who now sits on the parliamentary Committee for Freedom of Speech and Information.

Threats to Ukrainian journalists from separatist forces have made traveling to Donetsk and Luhansk too dangerous for most.

As a result, news reports are often one-sided, sometimes lumping together all residents of rebel-held areas as “terrorists”.

Such generalisations prevent Ukrainians from truly understanding the crisis, writes Nataliya Humenyuk of Hromadske TV, one of the few Ukrainian journalists who travels to separatist-held territory.

Covering a conflict in one’s own country raises complex moral dilemmas.

"When you are being attacked, there is a natural human instinct to defend oneself," says Olexandr Martynenko, director of Interfax-Ukraine, the country’s leading news wire.

More often than not, Mr Martynenko notes, Ukrainian journalists are choosing patriotism over professional standards.

For many, including Andrei Tsaplienko, a war correspondent at 1+1, remaining above the fray is close to impossible.

Before the war, when Mr Tsaplienko covered conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, he witnessed human suffering but could do nothing about it.

In Ukraine, parallel with his journalism, he has begun collecting and delivering aid to the front:

“Here, I understand that I can help.”

At one point Mr Tsaplienko considered joining the army, but was dissuaded when soldiers told him he could do more good as a journalist.

How much Ukraine's journalists are aiding its cause by forgoing impartiality is debatable.

Source: The Economist