The battle between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebel groups in eastern Ukraine is being fought by diverse means. The conflict is clouded by a propaganda war and the distribution of misleading and fake information. With the truth being one of the conflict's first casualties, it is difficult to know who or what to believe when it comes to Ukraine. In order to gain some perspective on the issue, DW Akademie recently organized a panel discussion together with the ARD studio in Berlin.
DW Akademie's deputy director Ute Schaeffer moderated the discussion held last Friday (July 3, 2015). Schaeffer said the event, part of the "Medien International" series, was an ideal opportunity to closely explore the situation for journalists in Ukraine, free from the influence of political interests. Reliable information in short supply
Eastern Europe correspondent Sabine Adler, who reported on the Euromaidan protests in 2014 in Ukraine
Journalists and media consumers need to be aware of the lack of independent information coming from the war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine, warned Sabine Adler, Eastern Europe correspondent for the German public radio, Deutschlandradio. It is simply too dangerous for war correspondents to work in the region, she said.
DW's Ukraine correspondent, Frank Hofmann, talked of experiencing these dangers first hand. He was on assignment in the embattled village of Shirokino in eastern Ukraine when fighting escalated. "We were under heavy fire," he said. "I advise avoiding the area all together." Ukrainian journalists are heeding the same advice, said Nataliia Fiebrig, Berlin correspondent for the Ukrainian TV station, 1+1. Fiebrig noted that she is forced to rely on second-hand information from informal sources from the embattled regions, as it is impossible for her to go there herself. "Even if I delete all my accounts with social media beforehand, I still run the real danger of becoming a target of the secret services," she said.
Kyryl Savin, DW Akademie country coordinator for Ukraine
Panelists regarded the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) as the last hope for accessing independent information about the ongoing conflict. Moderator Ute Schaeffer, however, noted that there is some doubt about how informative the SMM reports really are. Kyryl Savin, who is currently the DW Akademie country coordinator for Ukraine and formerly managed the Heinrich Böll Stiftung office in Kiev for many years, said he uses the information provided by the OSCE and finds it reliable. It has certain limitations though, Savin said, as OSCE observers "can't monitor everything because they are not allowed into the occupied areas."
Tough job with little training
The conflict took journalists in Ukraine by complete surprise, said Nataliia Fiebrig, something she views as particularly disastrous for the press situation in the region."[Journalists] were completely unprepared and made many mistakes," Fiebrig said. She gave the example of roadblocks having to be taken down because they had been filmed in such detail that their locations were clearly identifiable.
Fiebrig included herself in her critique – she had also put herself in dangerous situations, and believed reports that turned out to be false. "Over time you learn to take a cautious approach," she said. "It's still not easy though, even now." DW Akademie’s Kyryl Savin said he felt human rights defenders and other activists are the only ones currently conducting independent research and reporting in Ukraine, although these activists often don't have proper training, he said.
Nataliia Fiebrig (left), Berlin correspondent for the Ukrainian TV station, 1+1, with Ute Schaeffer, Head of Media Development at DW Akademie, who was responsible for the development of DW's Ukrainian programming
"What I miss are good journalists who investigate from every angle," Savin said, adding that for this reason, supporting journalists in Ukraine needs be about more than improving reporting skills. "We don't have to reinvent journalism," he said. "We have to create it in the first place." In Ukraine today, there is a lack of awareness that journalists work for the good of society by providing impartial, independent and objective reporting, Savin said. "Society accepts that journalists work for stations owned by oligarchs," he criticized. The rule is that those who hold the purse strings, control the journalists, he said.
Puppets for the powerful?
Nataliia Fiebrig's employer, 1+1, is owned by Ukrainian oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky. As such, the audience in the ARD Haupstadtstudio was extremely interested in hearing how she dealt with possible censorship. "There are no written rules but there are certainly attempts to exert influence," Fiebrig acknowledged. Journalists have to fight for their right to report freely, she said, adding that this becomes particularly challenging when conflict erupts between diverse oligarchs who then use their own stations to wage an information battle. "As a rule, influence differs from station to station," Fiebrig said.
DW correspondent Frank Hofmann explained how Ukrainians had developed their own way of navigating this media landscape dominated by special interests. "People watch the different channels owned by the different oligarchs," he said. "And then on the basis of overlapping information, they can more or less assess what the facts are, or might be."
Sabine Adler took a similar view criticizing Oligarch filtered Ukrainian broadcasting, though she felt the rigid self-censorship practiced by journalists was far more damaging. "Part of the problem is that journalists have internalized these restrictions," she said. "They feel they need to suppress any reports that cast their country in a negative light." Adler attributed this behavior to "a false concept of patriotism."
As the event drew to a close, Kyryl Savin provided a glimmer of hope for the Ukrainian media landscape – a public-service television station is in the works for Ukraine. The goal of the project, which is being by DW Akademie, is to create an independent media organization free from dictates from the top defining what can, and what cannot, be said.