Blunt instruments: Media repression in the Ukraine crisis
The sentencing of journalists for doing their jobs in Egypt has prompted an international outcry. But what happens when journalists are prevented from doing their jobs freely? Nicholas Williams reports
25 Jun 14

Wrestling for the rights to define the Ukrainian conflict, both Russia and Ukraine have utilised a range of tactics to control and limit media coverage in the region. This, alongside, the constant to and fro between media freedom and the skewed official lines has politicised the role of the media and manipulated perceptions of the conflict, further distancing coverage from reality.

Every fact is a battle to be fought and won. Who made up the Ukrainian protest movement? Activists and other members of civil society, or thugs, neo-Nazis or far-right extremists?  What are Russia’s motivations? Geo-political revisionism, a nationalistic desire to rebuild empire or for the protection of a persecuted minority? There is not one answer to questions like these; indeed the answers appear to changes depending on where they come from.

A sure-fire tactic to control the number of answers on offer is to limit the number of journalists able to cover the story. There have been a number of cases across the region where journalists have either been detained or refused entry to key areas of the conflict. In May, it was reported that three journalists, including a writer for Russia Today, had been detained by Ukraine’s Security Services (SBU), with a further three refused entry at the border. With no clarification of the grounds for their detention, as well as refusing them access to legal representation, the legality of such acts is dubious at best; as Human Rights Watch (HRW) states: “Failure to provide information on the whereabouts and fate of anyone deprived of their liberty by agents of the state, or those acting with its acquiescence, may constitute an enforced disappearance.”

This however, is not a tactic employed exclusively by Ukraine. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Russian authorities and pro-Russian separatists detained five journalists in Crimea and mainland Ukraine. On 2 June in Donetsk, unidentified armed men in camouflage raided the offices of regional newspapers Donbass and Vecherny Donetsk, detaining senior editorial staff, and accusing the publications of “incorrect reporting”. It is reported that the captor’s demands included the stipulations that the editors, “change the papers’ editorial policy”.

This proved to be effective. The deputy editor of Donbass stated that both his paper and Vecherny Donetsk were “discussing the separatists’ demands and were considering shutting down the outlets for fear of future retaliation”.

Beyond limiting the freedom of journalists covering the conflict, state-led censorship and propaganda is creating media vacuums in key areas, promoting narrow and strictly controlled interpretations of the conflict.

Attacks on the media in Russia have ramped up significantly following Putin’s return to the presidency and have taken on a distinct urgency with the continuation of the Ukraine conflict. One example is the legislation pushed through the Duma banning the publication of negative information about the Russian government and military. This positions Russian activities in Ukraine at the heart of controlling perceptions of Russia in the media. Quoting the official explanatory note to the legislation, HRW reports: “’The event in Ukraine in late 2013-early 2014 evidenced…an information war’, and demonstrated the necessity to protect the younger generation from ‘forming a negative opinion of [their] Fatherland.’”

Another key piece of legislation at play in this context is the “Lugovoi Law”, which allows Roskomnadzor, the Russia state body for media oversight, to block online sources without any court approval. One publication that was blocked was Grani.Ru due in part to its criticism of the state’s handling of the Bolotnaya Square protests. Grani.Ru have unsuccessfully appealed the ruling, but Yulia Berezovskaya, director-general of Grani-Ru is not surprised.

Roskomnadzor has not lost a single case against the media. The Office of the Prosecutor General and Roskomnadzor refused to indicate the “offensive” materials that should have been removed from the website so that access could be restored.

Berezovskaya continues to see this as part of a larger shift in the state’s relationship to the media in the light of the Ukrainian crisis: “The Ukrainian crisis is a major part of Russian TV news while domestic issues are not covered.”

Rolling out robust limitations against opposition or independent media outlets in Russia, at times irrespective of the events in Ukraine, guarantees in a large part the allegiances of media bodies covering the crisis. Indeed with many voices absent from the debate, the state can be confident the official line is being towed, at times, irrespective of fact.

The manipulation of fact has come to define a large part of pro-Russia content. Moscow Times reports “when Vesti.Ru described clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Kiev protesters in Simferopol…it showed footage of earlier protests in Kiev, which were more violent.” Channel One, when alleging that violence in Ukraine has sent a flood of refugees heading for Russia’s Belgorod region, used footage, not of the Ukrainian-Russian border, but of the Ukrainian-Polish border.

By restricting who can report on the Ukrainian crisis through access or censorship, the state can identify which untruths should be accepted as “truth” and which truths should not be seen. But as the conflict endures, the battle to shape perceptions, both home and abroad will continue. As it does, how can we identify the true actions, motivations and responsibilities, before untruths take hold and become something more, something resembling and assumed to be fact?

This article was published on 25 June 2014 at

By Nik Williams

Nik is a media freedom advocate based in Glasgow. At the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, he coordinated the inaugural year of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, which responds to violations of media freedom in Europe. Previously, Nik led Scottish PEN’s campaigning and advocacy, focusing on anti-SLAPP, free expression, digital rights and surveillance policy. Nik is also a reader director of the investigative journalism co-op, The Ferret and a journalist protection advisor at The Coalition For Women In Journalism.