In eastern Ukraine, an information vacuum – and a debate over journalistic standards

Propaganda and self-censorship issues

Over the last few years of monitoring, there have been regular reports of a fall in the amount of news coverage of the Donbas conflict. Only now, with the discussion of the “Steinmeier Formula” and the “Normandy Four” talks, has interest in the issue been rekindled. But as a monitoring report by Ukraine’s Institute of Mass Information last October has shown, in general we’re still talking about coverage of official positions and politicians’ opinions inside Ukraine.

The other side’s viewpoint is still not being represented, mainly because at the start of the conflict journalists consciously abandoned some of their professional standards, including balance of opinion.

“We’re obviously not going to give the separatists’ and insurgents’ point of view, so we shall only return to the standards that we uphold in peacetime when the situation has reached some kind of resolution,” says Natalia Ligacheva. “And that won’t mean the same kind of one-sided view that we have now.” Ligacheva believes that Ukraine’s media will only be able to return to its old news standards when they pay more attention to the real problems of people living in the non Kyiv-governed areas of Ukraine.

The move away from professional standards while covering news stories about the conflict is having other negative consequences as well. Back in 2015 a monitoring report by the Telekritika internet newspaper (now renamed as Detektor Media) noted that “Ukraine’s TV channels heroise their country’s armed forces while demonising the LNR and DNR [separatist] fighters, hushing up the problems of people who have been displaced and practically forgetting about volunteers. Central TV channels’ talk shows are full of hate speech. This creates a situation where there is a clear division of people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, the good and the bad. Monitoring has revealed that these shows have been cultivating hate and other negative emotions towards the other side.”

Even two years after the beginning of the Donbas conflict, the issue was still acute. Research at the Journalism School of the Catholic University of Ukraine, published in March 2016, stated that “For regional media, the main source of information is still the stream of official documents, which have a strong shade of propaganda. However, some of the material we analysed shows an increase in attempts at critical and rounded coverage of conflict issues, designed to understand their background and circumstances and seek ways to resolve it.”

Andriy Kulikov has a suggestion for journalists: “To change the media’s mood or attitude, you need to make the following a rule: if you haven’t been there, don’t write about it; if you haven’t been behind the demarcation line, don’t write about it; if you haven’t been in the grey zone, don’t write about it; if you haven’t been in Kramatorsk or Mariupol, don’t write about it. Go there, take a look, listen to both unpleasant and positive stories and talk to people: after all that you’ll have something to write about.”

The dangers behind the front line

In any case, travelling to the other side of the frontline and reporting from it is incredibly risky these days. And, as far as Ukrainian journalists are concerned, less because of the fighting than of the risk of being arrested.

This issue was debated recently in Ukraine’s parliament during hearings on journalists’ safety. “Today we are talking about the lack of reliable information about the lives of Ukrainians living in the occupied areas,” explains Serhiy Tomilenko, head of the National Union of Journalists.

Tomilenko says that Ukrainian journalists and media workers can’t work in the occupied territories because of safety risks. He reminds me of the case of Stanislav Aseev, the journalist who was arrested in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) in 2017. Aseev was later sentenced to 15 years in prison on espionage charges. He was released via prisoner exchange in December 2019. “A lack of journalists in the occupied territories means a lack of information from them,” Tomilenko points out.”


The problem also lies partially in the fact that many journalists have openly expressed their political views and extremely negative attitudes to people who have refused to recognise the results of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan revolution, and have announced their support for the unrecognised republics and a desire to unite with Russia. And bearing in mind the fact that pro-Russian insurgents follow social media, there’s a real risk that Ukrainian journalists will not only be denied accreditation, but be arrested in the occupied territories.

Problems for foreign media

The situation could be partially resolved by republishing articles from western newspapers, which enjoy more trust in Ukraine than Russian media. But there are serious problems here as well. Natalia Ligacheva feels that this is the result of a number of problems for western journalists themselves.

“We know that western media generally have offices in Russia, and very often they have more ‘pro-Russian’ than ‘pro-Ukrainian’ views,” she says. “This also means that we put less trust in this information – it’s another aspect of the issue that might have far-reaching consequences.”

On the other hand, western journalists have problems travelling to the occupied territories. First, they can only enter the area through special checkpoints in Ukraine. Using any other route – through Russia, for example – would be seen as a legal violation and the journalists could be barred from entering Ukraine.

Second, they need accreditation from special agencies inside the unrecognised republics. But if you receive this accreditation, you can wind up on the “Peacekeeper” (Mirotvorets) website, which publishes every accessible personal detail of journalists who cooperate with the unrecognised government of the occupied territories. Accreditation is also seen as a form of cooperation.

The Mirotvorets website has frequently enraged journalists, including at the international level. It has, however, had no influence on the politics of the website, which people believe is linked to Deputy Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko. In other words, according to Serhiy Tomilenko, serious western media try to avoid sending their journalists to the occupied territories.

The pressure of self-censorship and radicals

According to data from a report last June by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, about 48% of surveyed journalists have admitted to practising self-censorship when working in the Ukrainian media, and almost 65% believe that the war in the east of the country has increased incidences of self-censorship.

Andriy Kulikov is one of the few journalists who four years ago visited the demarcation line and experienced pressure from the radical section of Ukrainian society as a result. “My enthusiasm probably wavered slightly as a result of the attacks aimed at me,” Kulikov tells me. “We can see that visits not just by journalists, but by others as well, are opposed by part of the Ukrainian public.

“Three people from Luhansk recently decided to visit their home city after a five year gap. But they didn’t follow it through because they were swamped by a wave of disapproval. I know a few journalists who have spent a long time on the other side of the demarcation line and written about it on their return. But it’s not easy, to put it mildly, to publish that kind of material. I have a friend who works on both sides of the line and tries to present an objective picture in both areas, not to mention the ‘grey zone’ [the territory between the demarcation lines].”

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