In July 2014, I went to Donetsk, a separatist-controlled region in eastern Ukraine, to cover the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. It was a dangerous place at the time. The Ukrainian military and the rebels were shelling each other, and temperamental men with Kalashnikovs who had been known to kidnap journalists were everywhere.
Like many foreign reporters, I was there to relay what was happening to the remains of the downed flight’s 298 passengers and crew members. Before I went to the crash site, I obtained accreditation from the separatists. This did not guarantee that I would be safe, but it was the only way to get past the armed checkpoints.
Now Ukraine has labeled me an accomplice in terrorism.
On May 7, the website Mirotvorets (“Peacemaker”), courtesy of anonymous hackers, published part of the separatists’ accreditation records. My name, email address and phone number were among those of more than 4,000 journalists, including freelancers like me, as well as correspondents from this newspaper, Reuters, the BBC and other outlets. We were collectively labeled “terrorist collaborators” for gaining accreditation from the separatists. The list’s publishers claimed not to know what the consequences would be of releasing this information, but it seemed clear that the intent was to encourage people to take action against the journalists on their own.
Anton Gerashchenko, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament and an adviser to the Ministry of Interior, praised the publication of the list and called for journalists to assist Ukraine in its “information war” with Russia. Condemnation of the list followed from organizations including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Ukraine’s ombudsman called for the website to be blocked. As criticism built, the people running Mirotvorets said they would take their website offline and the Kiev prosecutor’s office began an investigation into whether or not those running the site had committed a crime.
In response, the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, declared his support for Mirotvorets and accused those who criticized the publication of the list of harboring separatist sympathies. His Facebook post received over 3,000 likes, and the publication of the list is strongly supported by the public. After an official from the Ministry of Information Policy said on TV that the list threatened the lives of journalists her boss, Yuriy Stets, posted an apology on social media, saying that the official did not represent the ministry’s position.
Emboldened by the support, the website is now back online and has posted additional journalists’ contact information. The editors stated that they would not listen to the “whimpering” about “freedom of speech.” An adviser to the head of the Ukrainian Security Service announced that the journalists on the lists were being investigated as potential spies.
These lists are nominally about who has interacted with the separatist rebels, but they create a wider — and more dangerous — precedent. The website and its supporters in government are suggesting that journalists can be divided into two camps: those who support the state and those who are against it, with the implication that journalists who criticize the government should be silenced.
This is dangerous in any society, but especially in Ukraine right now, where critical journalism is especially necessary. Few reforms have gone fully into effect and the country has recently taken a hard turn back toward cronyism. President Petro O. Poroshenko installed a close ally as prime minister, breaking the division of legislative and executive power established after the Maidan Square protests in 2014 that led to the ouster of his predecessor. He also named a crony with no law degree as general prosecutor. As corruption and nepotism threaten the hope of Ukraine’s revolution, journalists are being told that they are helping the enemy just by doing their jobs.
Ukraine has long felt outgunned by Russia’s propaganda machine. Moscow’s state-sponsored TV channels and Internet trolls have tried to divide Ukraine and turn global sentiment against it. Kiev lacks the budget to match those propaganda projects, but many Ukrainian publications and journalists avoid reporting news that looks bad for their country or could serve Russian propaganda. Ukrainian officials recognized this reluctance as a useful political tool. They now seek to explain away any criticism as Russian “hybrid warfare.” That is how Mr. Poroshenko dismissed a New York Times editorial criticizing his failure to tackle corruption.
In trying to encourage “patriotic” journalism, in which the state always receives the benefit of the doubt, Ukrainian officials are actually fostering a journalism culture similar to Russia’s. Russia, too, chastises reporters and publications that publish stories critical of the government for not being patriotic. And that’s why not many do so anymore. Recently, the editorial staff of one of the few remaining independent news organizations in Russia, RBC, was dismissed following government pressure. There are also darker chapters of silencing critical journalists, including accusations of murder.
Most senior Ukrainian officials have avoided commenting on the release of journalists’ names and information. But they should now act in accordance with the Western values that they claim to believe, and condemn the defamation of journalists just for working in separatist-controlled areas. They must also ensure that the offending website is shut down and that the investigation into who published the list results in criminal charges. This alone will not ensure that the country’s news media is free and fair, but it will help set the right tone. Ukraine must not sacrifice press freedom in its struggle to survive war.
Ian Bateson is working on a book about Ukrainian identity after the Maidan revolution.