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Ukraine's information war

Michael Hartlep / ccJune 11, 2014

The first casualty of war is said to be truth, and this certainly seems to be the case in Ukraine. With government and separatists fighting an information war, unbiased reporting is extremely hard to come by.

JUNE 1, 2014. The UDAR Party's leader Vitali Klitschko (C), the new Mayor of Kyiv, talks to reporters at a people's gathering in Kyiv's Independence Square. (Photo ITAR-TASS / Maxim Nikitin)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk shards of metal lie scattered around the park. Rebel leader Vasily Nikitin and a journalist are staring at the ground, examining them. The shards were found right beside a blood-stained car, says Nikitin. For him, that's evidence that the Ukrainian army is deploying cluster bombs in its war against the separatists. Eight men were killed, he says.

The national television channels report a different version of events. They say that the separatists fired a rocket at a Ukrainian plane and accidentally hit the regional administrative building - which was in rebel hands. So: an accident.

Rodion Miroshnik, a journalist in Luhansk who has reported for the regional channel Luhansk Oblast TV for 25 years, says that's pure propaganda. "It was a lie!" he says, outraged. "But that's normal in Ukraine these days."

A Ukrainian tank and a soldier at a burned-out separatist barricade in Slavyansk, 02.05.2014. (Photo (c) dpa - Bildfunk)
Reporting of the conflict on both sides appears to be heavily biasedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Private TV channels

It has certainly become very difficult to obtain definitive information in this conflict. The biggest news broadcaster, 5 Kanal TV, belongs to the billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who was recently elected president. Other national broadcasters are also in private hands.

Miroshnik says that the reporting on many of these channels is biased, complaining that the rebels are never given a voice. He also says that his bosses in Kyiv try to influence reporting. "They tell us how we're supposed to report on events in Ukraine," he says. "We have to call the fighters in our area 'separatists' or 'terrorists.' Not 'freedom fighters.'"

Nonetheless, he says he doesn't receive negative feedback from local people about his reporting - unlike the correspondents for the national broadcasters. "People yell at them, and hit them too, sometimes," he says, adding that as a result some channels have even had to pull out their correspondents: "That's not right, of course, but it's a result of the propaganda they broadcast. People see that it's not true."

What is true, and what isn't? Liydia Huzhva has a different answer to this question. Huzhva is actually a director, but since the revolution she's been reporting as a "streamer:" from the Maidan, from Crimea, and from eastern Ukraine. She films on a small camera, and the footage is streamed live and uncut directly via the Internet. She's doing this on a voluntary basis, unpaid.

Donbass militia checkpoint near the village of Semyonovka outside Slavyansk. (Photo: Andrey Stenin/RIA Novosti)
Separatists, terrorists, rebels, or freedom fighters? It depends which channel you're watchingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Journalist activists

At the moment Huzhva is accompanying a Ukrainian army unit, reporting live on skirmishes and exchanges of fire. It's very dangerous, she says, but stresses that she's serving her fatherland.

"I feel as if I have to do something for my country," she explains. "And I'm not brave enough to shoot. I'm not a doctor, either. So I'm doing what I know how to do best: writing and reporting."

Huzhva has no reservations about siding with the government in Kyiv. "We're like Fox News," she says. "I have my opinion, and I state it. I don't claim that it's the truth."

She argues that the propaganda is mostly to be found in the Russian media. Recently, she says, they showed a photo of a dead boy who was supposedly the victim of an attack by the governmental forces, when in fact the photo was from Syria, from two years ago.

A woman reading a newspaper on Independence Square in Kyiv. (Photo: Vitaliy Belousov/RIA Novosti)
It's hard for people to get a clear picture of what's really Happening in UkraineImage: picture-alliance/dpa


According to Huzhva, it was a similar story with the photo of the Crimean Tatars whom Russian media portrayed lining up outside polling stations, waiting to vote in the referendum about the status of Crimea. Pure propaganda, she says: "I was there, reporting. There was a group of 30 Tatars. They were sent from one polling station to the next, to show that the Tatars supported the election."

Huzhva says that, since the revolution on the Maidan, reporting is more truthful than before. But what exactly does that mean in a divided country like Ukraine? When interpreting events, reporters are walking a fine line between legitimizing or discrediting the different viewpoints. Ukrainian journalists on both sides of the fence have become foot soldiers in the information war.