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Has the state of freedom of speech in Ukraine deteriorated during the full-scale invasion? Op-ed by Zaborona’s Editor-in-Chief Katerina Sergatskova

Has the state of freedom of speech in Ukraine deteriorated during the full-scale invasion? Op-ed by Zaborona’s Editor-in-Chief Katerina Sergatskova

Katerina Sergatskova

On 6 June, Ukraine celebrates Journalist’s Day. In the op-ed, Zaborona’s Editor-in-Chief Katerina Sergatskova argues whether the state of freedom of speech in Ukraine has deteriorated since the beginning of the Russian invasion, why journalists are being stripped of their accreditation, and what is the relationship between the press and authorities in Ukraine.

During the full-scale invasion, journalism in Ukraine found itself in perhaps the most difficult situation since the Ukrainian independence. Hundreds of different newsrooms ceased to exist, 12 Ukrainian journalists were killed on duty, many media professionals joined the Armed Forces and many evacuated abroad. The country is under martial law, military censorship has been introduced, and all state-owned information resources broadcast mainly the official positions. But there are even worse problems that journalists face. And it’s not just censorship.

A marathon of propaganda

In a recent broadcast of the United News Marathon, the host asked Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for the Southern Operational Command, whether a counter-offensive had begun. Instead of answering, she showed a gesture from the Soviet poster “Don’t chat!” — the same one used in the recent promotional video released by the Ministry of Defence. Deputy Minister Hanna Malyar posted this video with the caption: “Plans like silence.”

Other officials also “explained” what was happening or not happening on the front line, putting journalists, as well as audiences in different countries, in a “guess what” position. For some reason, the hosts of the Marathon reacted to this gesture by the spokesperson for the OK “South” with a smile and did not ask further. And such things happen all the time.

When the full-scale invasion began, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a decree on the implementation of a unified information policy under martial law. According to the decree, the key national TV channels — the three oligarchic media holdings 1+1 Media, Starlight Media and Inter Media Group, as well as the Suspilne (Public Broadcasting Company) and the Rada TV channel — should work on a single telethon. The decree called information policy a “national security issue” and the marathon a “single information platform for strategic communication.” In other words, the marathon became, according to the state, a means of conducting information warfare, and journalists became its officers.

However, while at the beginning of the war the united marathon really worked in the interests of citizens when the Russian army was trying to seize Kyiv, a lot has changed in a year. The marathon has turned into a parade of official addresses and symbolic discussions that do not answer most of the questions that citizens ask on a daily basis.

Everything to international media, nothing to local media

At the recent major conference of the International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna, the audience — which included representatives of major international donors, Editors-in-Chief and directors of major newsrooms — was interested in, among other things, the relationship between journalists and the government in a country at war. I spoke at the Ukrainian editors panel along with Sevgil Musayeva, Editor-in-Chief at Ukrayinska Pravda, and Olga Rudenko, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder at Kyiv Independent. They both highlighted that during the full-scale invasion, President Zelensky did not give an interview to any Ukrainian media outlet, despite constant requests. There were only a few small press conferences with limited access and a collective interview with several news outlets.

This is not a coincidence. Since the beginning of the invasion, most of Ukraine’s top officials have preferred to communicate with audiences in Europe, the United States, Canada or other countries rather than in their own country. The reason is simple: successful communication with these countries influences supporting Ukraine with weapons, humanitarian aid, military training, money for reconstruction projects, support for refugees, and much more.

However, the authorities do not just favour the foreign press — they do not pay attention to the national or local press at all, as if it were not important. Meanwhile, millions of Ukrainians have more and more questions about corrupt officials, collaborators, mobilisation (and demobilisation) and the country’s leadership’s plans for the future. And the population’s natural discontent is growing.

When Zelenskyy just became president, he said that he did not see the point in talking to the media, but that he would speak to the people “directly”, ignoring the institution of the press as such. In practice, this means that the people can be manipulated through state resources. Thus, new TV channels and media projects have been created with Ukrainian tax money, which are not engaged in journalism but in information warfare and reproduce the decree on “strategic communications.” Who do they serve in the end? In my opinion, this approach allows the state to monopolise the right to information, instrumentalize and weaponize it. The press, as a representative of public opinion, loses its agency, while socially important issues are replaced by “strategic communications.”

Accreditation manipulations

Since the beginning of the invasion, the Ministry of Defence has issued about 15,000 accreditations to the press workers from around the world. However, after the Ukrainian armed forces de-occupied Kherson in October 2022, the situation has changed dramatically: an open conflict broke out between the military command and journalists. Several journalists had their accreditations revoked, allegedly for being in the liberated Kherson “illegally” the very next day after the army entered the city. Since then, negotiations have begun between the Presidential Office, the Armed Forces command, the Ministry of Defence and the press on the need to change the rules for getting accreditation.

Finally, on 27 February, Order No. 73 of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on interaction with the media was amended. According to it, the areas where the fighting was taking place were divided into three zones — red, yellow and green. They define where journalists can work (green), where they cannot (red), and where they can only work if accompanied by a press officer (yellow). At the same time, information about the localisation of the zones disappeared from public access quite quickly, and to find out whether it is possible to work in a particular city, a journalist has to contact press officers or military commanders. In fact, the new rules introduced manual control over the work with the press, which can be considered a new lever of control over the work of journalists.

On 18 April, the Presidential Office hosted a meeting attended by representatives of the Ministry of Defence (Oleksiy Reznikov’s deputy, Hanna Malyar), representatives of the Security Service of Ukraine, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, director of the Institute of Mass Information Oksana Romaniuk, and several representatives of foreign media (CNN, Reuters, AP among others). They discussed the problems that have arisen since the introduction of zoning. According to the information I received from three sources who attended the meeting, Podoliak acknowledged that the Presidential Office could not change the decision, but suggested that difficulties with access to certain locations could be solved “manually”.

This did not solve the problem. On 1 May, the Armed Forces of Ukraine terminated all previously issued accreditations, and now everyone had to go apply again every six months.

There have already been several cases where journalistic accreditation had been refused or revoked, citing publications by a journalist as a reason. For example, it became known that the world-famous photographer and member of Magnum photo agency Antoine D’Agata had his accreditation revoked after the New York Times Magazine published his series of portraits of military personnel being treated for mental trauma in a specialised hospital. Ukrainian photographer Maksym Dondyuk said that he was threatened with the revocation of his accreditation if The New Yorker, one of the largest publications in the world, did not remove a story about the Ukrainian military that contained his photographs.

I am aware of several other cases where the Presidential Office or the Ministry of Defence tried to influence different international media, but the journalists are not ready to talk about this publicly because it jeopardises their work in Ukraine.

Interviews at the SBU

For several weeks now, some Ukrainian journalists, mostly those working for international media, have been summoned for “interviews” at the Security Service of Ukraine building. The ‘interviews’ — as the SBU officers call them to avoid using the word ‘interrogation’ — are related to security checks that have been launched, as far as I know, in the ‘T’ department, which specialises in national security issues and is supposed to deal with collaborators, separatists and terrorists. This department also inherited from the KGB the function of “supervising” various areas of science, culture and the media.

What does the Security Service want from journalists? Formally, it is related to accreditations for working in the war zone. I know from my colleagues that during the ‘interviews’ they were asked about their contacts in the occupied territories and in Russia, why and when they went to certain places. Some were persistently asked to take a lie detector test. Some managed to refuse and received renewed accreditation, others did not.

Manipulations with accreditations, interrogations of journalists and the introduction of zoning and manual control have already led to an outflow of foreign reporters from Ukraine and a critical decrease in publications about the war in the international press. Creating problems for the press has never helped to improve the information field.

Freedom is the first casualty of war

Has the state of freedom of speech in Ukraine deteriorated during the full-scale invasion? Freedom of speech is a basic value that cannot be neglected, and I can say this without exaggeration, because I created Zaborona Media precisely to speak frankly about difficult things and to defend the freedoms that are the first to be targeted (especially during wars and conflicts). Freedom of speech is one of the things on this hit list, no matter how much it may bother those who make sure that no critical article about Ukraine’s internal problems leaks to the international press. Yes, freedom of speech in Ukraine is under significant threat.

Ukraine has been fighting two wars for a long time. One is against Russia and Russian colonialism. The second is the war for democracy, which began with independence and has been facing major challenges ever since. Many people are sabotaging this war for democracy. This is particularly evident in the relationship between the government and the media.

Journalism is going through a difficult time because the authorities are trying to reduce the work of the press to “messages” that should reach certain politicians, certain groups of society or certain countries. This is why, for example, the new media outlet The Gaze was created, whose key audience, according to the Ministry of Digital Transformation, “should coincide with the list of countries that provide Ukraine with the greatest support during the war and have a great interest in Ukraine. First of all, these are the United States, the United Kingdom, the EU and Canada.” For the state and many politicians, journalism has been reduced to a function, to pleasing someone in order to get something in return.

But in such a relationship, the press ceases to serve society, and in response, society moves into a parallel reality, where mass summonses, lack of rotation, corruption and many difficult processes that are almost not represented in the media are discussed. In attempts to control public opinion and the “information front” to win the war, the state has a chance to lose society.

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