Category: Europe, Russia, Ukraine, IPI Blog
By: IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser Steven M. Ellis

The media role in the Crimea crisis

Russian journalist, IPI board chair Galina Sidorova shares her thoughts


Women talk as they take a walk with a child in a pram while armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, follow them outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, on March 14, 2014. A Russian warship unloaded trucks, troops and at least one armoured personnel carrier at a bay near Sevastopol in Crimea on Friday morning, as Moscow continued to build up its forces on the Ukrainian peninsula. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

By: IPI Senior Press Freedom Adviser Steven M. Ellis

VIENNA, March 14, 2014 – As Crimea readies for a referendum on its status set for Sunday and the world nervously waits to see whether a “shooting war” will break out between Ukraine and Russia, a “media war” has already erupted in the region.

Like all wars, as the saying goes, the first casualty appears to be the truth.

Journalists reporting from Crimea have faced violence, harassment and intimidation, and authorities and cable providers in the region have blocked or dropped the signals of Ukrainian broadcasters.

Meanwhile, authorities and cable providers in Ukraine have similarly blocked the programming of state-controlled media outlets from Russia – which themselves face accusations of broadcasting outright falsehoods, war propaganda and hate speech – and independent media outlets in Russia face growing pressure from their own government.

The International Press Institute (IPI) spoke with Russian journalist Galina Sidorova – the chairperson of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism - Foundation 19/29, Russia, as well as the chairperson of IPI’s Executive Board – to hear her thoughts on the situation.

IPI: What is your opinion of the way that Russian media has covered the situation and how does that compare with the way that Ukrainian media has done so?

Sidorova: It is unacceptable – I’m applying this to the Russian media. I can imagine the existence of controversial views and rumours being spread by some Ukrainian media outlets with regard to Russians, which does not help objective reporting, of course. It is impossible to avoid such things in times of dramatic change, such as Ukraine is currently experiencing, and considering the diversity of the political forces that the Ukrainian revolution has brought to active politics. I’m sure examples of biased information and unethical reporting do exist, as claimed by some colleagues here. And this does not help to draw an objective picture of what is happening. But ...

I’d like to make clear: it is Russia – or rather its present regime, acting as the aggressor and interfering with the affairs of the neighbouring state – that bears responsibility [for the current situation]. And this interference complicates the situation and provokes outbreaks of civil unrest in Ukraine. And unfortunately, the Russian media plays a very unhelpful, not to say felonious, role in these developments.

I wouldn’t even call what the major Russian media are doing “journalism”. Because it is propaganda – the worst wartime type of it. I’m speaking of all the federal media entities, especially the federal TV channels. Ethical and professional norms seem to be no more. Not only do [these media entities] provide the audience with opinions masked as news, these opinions are one-sided, biased and heaped with hate speech.

I simply can’t call “news coverage” the story from Kiev in which a correspondent labels all of the acting political leaders [in Ukraine] “fascists”, “anti-Russians”, “anti-Semites” and “hand of West”, or where the only phrase used to describe events is “fascist coup”.  No discussions. Not even doubts. The extensive use by the Russian media of such strong claims, which until recently seemed to have been buried in cold war times, contributes to the division of the two neighbouring Slavic states and peoples – the Russians and the Ukrainians. It also plays into the painful split inside of the Russian society itself.

IPI: Are there any media – print, broadcast or online – that you think have done a particularly good job in their reporting?

Sidorova: Just a few. I would point to Dozhd (Rain) TV Channel, Echo of Moscow Radio, the website Svoboda.org (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Russia), Lenta.ru, Novaya Gazeta.

Some of them have already been “rewarded” for their fair reporting.

Russia’s major cable TV providers have recently dropped the broadcasts of Dozhd – an independent, privately owned television channel – from its packages “because of its editorial policy”, [a move] breaching all of the existing contracts.

The latest example: [Opens external link in new windowon Wednesday] Galina Timchenko, the long time editor-in-chief of the popular Internet news agency Lenta.ru, was fired by its owner Mr. [Alexander] Mamut after the agency published a report by its Crimea correspondent that included a link to an interview with Mr. [Dmytro] Yarosh, leader of the “Right Sector” political group (Ukrainian nationalists).

Russian authorities in Moscow, pointing to Yarosh’s “anti-Russian extremist activities”, have obtained a warrant for his arrest “in absentia” – clearly, since Mr. Yarosh is a Ukrainian citizen and lives in Ukraine! The story on the Lenta.ru website was considered to be dissemination of extremist information and provocation to terrorist activity, which under the new Russian laws is a crime and may lead to the closure of the media entity.

IPI: Given the historically close ties between Russia and Ukraine, why do you think we are seeing this type of coverage?

Sidorova: First, we are witnessing the results of the continuous efforts of the Putin regime to seize control over major media entities – be it state or private - and to turn them into its propaganda weapon. And that is what the press freedom - or rather its absence – and situation with independent media is about in Russia.

Second, tensions between Russians and Ukrainians historically exist in Ukraine, especially in Crimea and in western Ukraine, but they have always been resolved by means of dialogue; people there have always ultimately found ways to live together.

Third, the [Putin] regime is playing on the worst imperial aspirations on the part of the Russian society still having a distorted picture of today’s world and of the place of the post-soviet Russia in it – dreaming of revenge for the “defeat in the cold war”.

IPI: Two weeks ago, a group of broadcast media heads in Ukraine Opens external link in new windowsent an open letter to their counterparts in Russia, urging them to ensure that they engaged in “open, balanced and objective coverage of events taking place today in Ukraine”. How was that letter received?

Sidorova: Coolly. Russian major TV broadcasters don’t seem to have taken it seriously.

 “We know each other for a long time”, our Ukrainian colleagues stressed in their letter. “We are united by collaborative project, similar world views and all of us are madly in love with television. We believe and know that you also do not want war between two brotherly nations — Russians and Ukrainians. Each of us is a patriot of our countries and on each of us lays particular responsibility at this challenging and volatile (dangerously explosive) moment.”

The Russian guys reacted in Opens external link in new windowtheir own open letter: “Regarding objectivity and responsibility, we would like to make a similar appeal to you. Let’s be objective and responsible. Let’s weigh our words and keep a lid on emotions. Let’s not do this apart, as has become the tradition in recent years, but together. It will certainly give an objective picture of reality which, for now, is the most important thing”.

The Russians then accused the new government in Kiev of targeting Russian journalists operating in the country, rhetorically asking the Ukrainian media chiefs: “Does anyone [in] Russia threaten your reporters with physical violence for what they [have] aired and reported that, in their opinion, is happening there? No offence, but if you ask us a similar question, the answer will be disappointing.”

In this context I wonder how Russian authorities would treat Ukrainian journalists if, say, Ukrainian soldiers were ready to invade Russia?

Anyway, since this exchange of letters the tone of reports and talk shows on Russian federal channels hasn’t changed a bit. Major Russian channels have been stopped from broadcasting in most of Ukrainian regions “due to their perceived bias”, as a local cable TV company and Internet provider put it. As for Crimea, after its Parliament voted in favour of joining Russia, the Ukrainian TV channel 1+1 was taken off the air. At the moment, the frequency is occupied by the Russian state channel Rossiya. It seems that by now, all Ukrainian TV channels in Crimea (broadcasting from Kiev) have been “successfully replaced” by their Moscow “colleagues”.

IPI: IPI was founded in the wake of the Second World War on the hope that a free and independent media would lead to better reporting that promotes dialogue and avoids inciting conflict. One of its founders, Lester Markel of The New York Times said: “We should strive to correct the distortions and to dispel the fogs that cloud the relations among countries.” Do you think the current situation represents the type of situation IPI’s founders sought to prevent and, if so, what needs to be done?

Sidorova: I would say that for the first time in 25 years we are experiencing the worst example of the real war of words between two neighbouring countries in the heart of Europe with historic ties, common culture and close languages, or rather, of one country against the other. We see how this propaganda bacchanalia is reinforcing military and political tension.

Furthermore, in the Crimea region we are witnessing real “combat operations” against journalists and freedom of opinion. Covering the crisis in Crimea has become a difficult and sometimes dangerous task for journalists, whether they are Ukrainian, Russian or from other countries. A video posted online and broadcast by a Ukrainian TV channel show a man in military uniform, his face covered, running after a Bulgarian journalist, throwing him to the ground before putting a Opens external link in new windowpistol to his head.

Three reporters from the Norwegian broadcasting corporation NRK – Jan Espen Kruse, Kristian Elster and Bengt Kristiansen – were detained by armed and masked men at a control post in Crimea. They were harassed and threatened, and forced to hand over most of their equipment and some of their personal protective gear. They couldn’t find someone responsible for the incident. Reporters from the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and the Danish Politiken have also been subject to harassment and threatening behaviour while doing their job. Reports of threats and violence multiply.

I don’t think that in this case any exchange of letters will work. It is necessary to bear in mind that on one side of the conflict we have the authoritarian regime and on the other the country seeking its own way to democracy. The Kremlin propagandists stopped being journalists the day they agreed to take over this job – it is useless to talk to them.

There are some journalists in Russia who do believe that the government is doing good for the Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who they see as oppressed in some Ukrainian regions. And there are, of course, those Russian colleagues who consider the present Kremlin policy a crime against both Ukraine and Russia. Among Ukrainian colleagues we also witness controversial approaches.

But journalists honestly doing their work on both sides can be united by the idea that reporting should be fair and professional, and journalists should have the equal chance to do the job without being harassed. Providing support from the IPI journalist family for a round table discussion on best practices (coverage) might be of help, lead to better understanding and put additional pressure on the present Kremlin regime. At least that is something worth trying.