Protecting independent media

Ukraine war_safety of journalists

In spite of the ongoing invasion, Ukraine manages to hold up its internet resilience which makes the digital sphere the main source of information and facilitates the work of journalists on the ground. However, independent media in Ukraine face numerous obstacles including financial instability, direct threats against journalists and intensified attempts to impede their coverage on military operations. In Russia, state media control the narrative and spread propaganda about the war, while very few independent outlets are either blocked or censor themselves. 

Since their own country is being assaulted, Ukrainian journalists not just cover the story – they live through it. That causes a lot of emotional distress and professional dilemmas revolving around how to keep news outlets operating under shelling. Some journalists were forced to leave their homes and flee Ukraine in order to set up new reporting bases somewhere safer. Several outlets in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, have already offered to host fleeing journalists in their newsrooms. 

Most journalists still remain in Ukraine and while reporting about the situation and the suffering on the ground, they constantly face a dilemma of whether staying in dangerous areas or leaving is the better decision.

While reporting on the ground, independent media struggle with lack of straightforward protocols and attempts to impede their work. While security concerns are justified, the army must respect journalists’ right to report and not treat them like intruders. The officials should be careful not to incite hostility against the press.  Ukrainian journalists and media organisations called on president Volodymyr Zelensky to end harassment against journalists and establish transparent guidelines and rules for the coverage of shelling. 

In addition, reporting in a time of war coupled with widespread false news and propaganda has made verifying information very challenging. Their work and the existence of independent outlets are of crucial importance to the world, in particular since disinformation is increasingly becoming a war tactic. Journalists and media outlets need financial support and other types of assistance to keep operating freely and be able to continue informing the public about the atrocities of the war. 

Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities have intensified its long tightening crackdown on journalists, independent media, activists, and dissenting voices. Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor ordered news outlets to only refer to state-approved sources and information. Independent media outlets and radio stations are either blocked or shut down, those which decide to carry on face a precarious financial situation and encounter a dilemma whether to obey the rules and amend their coverage or keep telling the truth and risk repression. 

Russian parliament passed new censorship legislations that make spreading “fake news” about Russian military and criticising state agencies abroad a crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail. Independent journalists and media outlets are being accused of “spreading false information”, which includes coverage on the military’s shelling of Ukrainian cities, reporting on the deaths of civilians and using terms such as “an attack,” “invasion,” or “declaration of war.” 

Following the introduction of the law, Novaya Gazeta made the decision to remove content about the war from its website. Many foreign media outlets, including the BBC, have made a decision to suspend their operations in Russia. Many journalists have already fled Russia fearing for their safety, others are facing charges, being detained and are forced into self-censorship. This increasing climate of hostility is a blatant violation of the Russian public’s right to independent information and further contributes to the spread of propaganda and misinformation, designed to obscure the reality of the war. 

In addition, Russian authorities continue to use notorious “foreign agents” legislation to suppress journalists who work for outlets that dare to criticise the Kremlin. A “foreign agent” label entails various onerous obligations, including indication of ‘foreign agent’ status in publications, meticulous reporting on financial situation, and restrictions on the activities they may undertake. If they fail to comply, journalists may face criminal prosecution.