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Ukraine tightens rules on frontline reporting

Igor Burdyga
April 21, 2023

Journalists covering Russia's war on Ukraine must now observe stricter rules. Media outlets say the changes violate press freedom.

A person wearing a press helmet and protective gear points at a column of smoke
Ukraine wants to limit frontline reportingImage: Mstyslav Chernov/AP/picture alliance

The Operational Commands (OC) East and South were the first in the Ukrainian army to declare the entire front line, as well as Ukraine's border a "red zone." New rules now govern the work of war reporters in these territories. They may only report freely in "green zones." "Red zones" are off limits to journalists. In "yellow zones" they are allowed to carry out their work when accompanied by an army press officer.

The exact situation in these zones is classified as "protected information" and only disclosed on a need-to-know basis. Furthermore, Ukraine wants to review all of the media accreditations it has issued over the past year. In the future, journalists who want to report on Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine will have to renew their credentials every six months.

Reporters warned about violations

The new rules were not put in place to hinder journalists, says Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine's southern operational command. She says they were updated to ensure "proper work with respect to the security situation and the army's needs." Ukraine's army has promised to review zone status weekly, weighing the intensity of fighting and the media's desire to report on the situation on the ground. 

Ilya Yevlash, head of press service for the Ukrainian army's "Khortytsia" troops — who are responsible for a large stretch of the front in Donbas — told DW that reporting from Bakhmut, for instance, is prohibited at the moment. In Kostiantynivka, some 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) away, journalists can operate, but must be accompanied by a military representative. For that reason, Yevlash says he would advise journalists to find out which cities fall into which zones.  

When rules are violated the military can revoke media accreditation. That's what it did to journalists from international outlets CNN and Sky News, as well as the Ukrainian outlets Suspilne and Hromadske last November. They had all reported from Kherson just after it was liberated, but did so without permission from the army's OC South. Their accreditation was later restored after foreign and domestic media organizations spoke up in protest.

A bird's-eye view of blocks of burned-out buildings in the Donbas city of Bakhmut
The Donbas city of Bakhmut has been largely destroyed as Russia and Ukraine vie for controlImage: Adam Tactic Group/Handout/REUTERS

Criticism against new media rules at home and abroad

Ukraine's military emphasizes that media suggestions were taken into consideration when the new zone rules were drafted, and argues the new framework will "improve communication."

Still, Mediarukh (Media Movement), an association of Ukrainian and foreign news organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), thinks the army's zoning concept is "too limiting" and has called on the military to "immediately normalize access for war coverage." Ukraine's National Union of Journalists (IFJ) as well as the international Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have also called on Ukrainian authorities to rethink the new rules.

The NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was also critical. "We find the rules exaggerated," explained RSF Germany's executive director, Christian Mihr. "They make it practically impossible to report from the front." RSF is demanding the Ukrainian government ensure journalists can continue to report on Russia's war against Ukraine firsthand.

Can Ukraine's new media rules be implemented?

A Ukrainian military source who spoke to DW on the condition of anonymity said it was unclear if the rules could even be implemented. In the yellow zones in Kherson and Mykolaiv the army did not have enough press officers to accompany journalists, said the source, so reporters have continued to work as usual there.

Spokeswoman Humeniuk emphasized that journalists in southern Ukraine could still access and report from the red zone. Yevlash, too, claimed that journalists in areas controlled by the Khortytsia troops were continuing to operate "largely as before."

War, conflict and crises put a strain on free media — at a time when they are needed most

But media representatives say that only applies to a limited number of news outlets. Now, 14 Ukrainian journalists writing for online publications and television teams on the front lines have published a statement. In it, they write that just days after learning about the plan to divide the area into different zones, they also got wind of a list of media outlets that authorities would continue to allow to report from the red zone.

Is Ukraine trying to control information?

Press liaisons from several Ukrainian army units told DW that the new media rules came from the president's office. The office, they said, wants to control communication between the military and media, especially when it comes to foreign journalists.  

For its part, Ukraine's Ministry of Defense has asked domestic journalists to practice restraint. "Strategic military planning and studies may only be published by three people: the president, the minister of defense and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Others may only quote them. Publicly discussing the army's military plans is strictly forbidden," as Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar told Ukrainian media representatives.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy facing soldiers
The new rules came from the president's office and are an attempt to control the flow of information between the military and mediaImage: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service via REUTERS

Those who don't abide by the rules should be prepared to pay the consequences, as was the case for Anatoly Kosel. In an interview with the Washington Post, the Ukrainian battalion commander had bemoaned high death counts in his regiment and said that inexperience among recruits and lack of weapons had given him doubts in possible a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Kosel was swiftly transferred to an army training center after the article was published. The reason: He was not supposed to talk to journalists. "We are under martial law, and theoretically there should be a censor at every media outlet. The same goes for military personnel on the battlefield," said Minister for Culture and Information Policy Oleksandr Tkachenko. 

DW reached out to the presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak for a statement on the Ukrainian army's communication policy. The request remains unanswered.

This article was originally written in Ukrainian