A war correspondent reflects on disturbing changes to journalistic practices on the ground.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stretches into its seventh month, journalists are grappling with how to report on a war Ukraine’s government and military are filtering through an increasingly controlled and censored lens.
Recently, Ukraine’s Military Administration provided “recommendations” for journalists covering the conflict. On the week of August 28, authorities issued the following rules, meant to be the “new standard” going forward:
In general: Refrain from conclusions and do not evaluate the actions of the Ukrainian army and Ukraine’s defense forces.
Military leaders are the sole authorized bodies for providing information on progress of battles.
Alternative interpretations of frontline operational situations are unacceptable.
Do not attempt to independently predict situations.
Main rule: The Ukrainian army reports on military operations, their direction, consequences and results.
“How are we meant to interpret this and keep on covering the war?” a journalist posed on a public forum. No one answered.
Officially, ‘press officers’ are tasked with directing and controlling Ukraine’s military message and facilitating relevant military position access to journalists. But journalists are routinely barred from access to relevant military activity, and are forced to face-off against these ‘press officers’ who effectively act as media censors. They ban filming in public spaces, ban filming strike aftermaths, even ban the filming of entire cities, including of civilians, hospitals, physicians, soldiers, and villages not under Russian occupation and not being used as Ukraine military positions. The list goes on and on and at times seems to be dictated by the whims of military personnel appointed to their positions since February 24, the day of Russia’s violent onslaught.
Military accreditation critical to media access and coverage in Ukraine is vetted by Ukraine’s SBU intelligence wing. Applicants sign an agreement stating they will not disclose military activity or strike locations, air or post images of artillery strikes or artillery launches within three hours of an event and will not disclose names of soldiers (unless authorized), their regiments, battalions or locations. Fair enough and somewhat routine.
But on a recent organized “press tour” of Nikopol City—20 kilometers across the Dnipro River from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, journalists were scurried from carefully vetted location to carefully vetted location by these “press officers” advising: “No shooting hospitals, preparations for a nuclear disaster, or the nuclear plant.” In fact, the plant is in plain view from Nikopol and has been filmed countless times by numerous other journalists since Russia took control of it in March. The press officer did add, “you can talk to civilians we’ve arranged and interview the mayor who we’ve arranged.”
A regional press officer challenged over the exhaustive “no-access” list threatened to revoke press credentials of the journalists asking “how are we supposed to do what we came here to do?” The officer cited “security concerns” around those journalists.
Ukraine’s goal of keeping billions of dollars in fiscal and military support flowing in its direction means questions or dissent can lead to threats.
Long cited as one of Europe’s most corrupt countries, the war has not changed that status for Ukraine. Sporadic reports have touched on, for instance, U.S. weapons shipments siphoned off to Ukraine’s black market. Officials in Kyiv have dismissed these concerns as “artificial,” but CBS News reported only 30 to 40-percent of weapons shipped to Ukraine were actually getting to the front—the rest were landing in the hands of arms dealers. That original report has since been updated to reflect an “improved” situation.
During recent work in Eastern Ukraine, a fixer—the local person journalists rely on for logistics, production, translations and story set-ups—lamented: “The reporter I worked with from (company name withheld) wanted me to find out about illegal arms deals. Can you believe that?”
As a matter of fact, yes. The journalist wanting to report on backroom weapons sales comes from a country at war; he knows exactly what happens behind-the-scenes during war. Beyond that, he’s a journalist. It’s his job.
Ukraine’s control of access—and the message—is problematic at best. Increasing numbers of journalists are giving up and going home in frustration after being told “This is war. It’s dangerous. We can’t let you go there/film that/have access.”
Yes, we know. We didn’t stumble across the border by accident. We’re here to cover the war.
JENNIFER CARMON is a Tel Aviv-based journalist covering conflict and political news in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. For 20 years, she has filed stories from Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, the DRC, and Mali. Her reporting can be found in Haaretz, Reuters, the BBC, Euronews, The Jerusalem Report, PBS, and others.