In Ukrainian media, an uncivil war of words

Local media increasingly use the word "terrorist" to describe Eastern rebels

KIEV—It’s too early to call the Ukrainian conflict a civil war, but fierce verbal fighting has already started between newsrooms all over the country. Amid newfound post-revolutionary freedoms, local journalists are struggling to find a balance between being “patriotic” and unbiased.

Should the Ukrainian government revoke visas of all foreign journalists refusing to use the word ‘terrorist’ in their Eastern Ukraine coverage? That’s the view of a group of 10 local journalists, including a couple of high-profile names, like Natalka Zubar, editor in chief of the “Maidan” website and a well-known civil rights campaigner, who made the request of officials in a recent public letter, published on Facebook and Maidanua.org. It generally reflects a larger and contentious debate journalists and their audience are now having on a daily basis now in Ukraine.

The use of the word “terrorist” is the hottest of the hot buttons. Amid a so-called “anti-terrorism operation” in Eastern Ukraine, local officials have used the word a lot to describe pro-Russia rebels and their supporters. “I call on the security bodies to resume and carry out successful anti-terrorist measures aimed at defending Ukrainian citizens living in the east of Ukraine against terrorists,” Ukrainian interim president Turchynov said in a recent statement. “The Russian Federation has a new product for export. Besides of oil and gas exports, Russia has begun to export terrorism to Ukraine,” the Prime Minister of Ukraine said of the Government secession in describing the unfolding conflict in Eastern Ukraine back in April. These statements ignore the reality that the Eastern Ukrainian rebellion also has some support from the general, unarmed population.

Mainstream media got on board with government authorities very quickly and early and began to describe Eastern Ukraine rebels as “terrorists.” All popular media outlets in Ukraine, from websites to evening news shows, now commonly use the “t-word” in their headlines and scripts.

Predictably, the hot-button word has generated pushback, particularly among audiences in rebellious Eastern Ukraine. The other day I witnessed a feisty debate on Ukraine’s most popular news-radio show about what to call rebels and their supporters. Its anchorwoman, Marta Molfar, made a live on-air confession: “Sometimes our listeners would write to me saying, ‘Why are you calling those people separatists or terrorists?’ So I’ve switched to other, more neutral words, but then got a lot of different messages with demands to put ‘separatist/terrorist’ words back,” she said. She added: “I’m confused now.”

One of the show’s guests, Ukrainian journalist Dmytriy Lytvyn, fired back: “Peaceful people sit at home. If those unarmed people joined terrorists in helping them out they are no longer ‘peaceful,’ they become a part of those terrorist groups.”

And in a public video appeal to Ukrainian journalists, Tetyana Kotyuzhynska, a top lawyer from the Ukrainian National Union of Journalists, insisted that colleagues must use “terrorist” when describing rebels in Eastern Ukraine. “Let’s be honest, what is happening in Donbass is terrorism. That’s not our assumption; those actions fit the description of terrorism given by Ukrainian law.” She goes so far as to warn that local reporters could themselves be prosecuted by Ukrainian authorities for giving “terrorists” an opportunity to speak. “When you let terrorists publicly voice their position, you become a terrorist too, and there is a punishment for that in Ukrainian law,” she said, adding that local journalists must be aware and comprehend the fact that in times of war and national-security and public-safety threats, freedom of speech and press freedoms can lawfully be limited. And this from the lawyer whose job is to protect freedoms of Ukrainian journalists.

Because Ukrainian anti-terrorist legislation was basically cut-and-pasted from a Russian Federation analogue years ago, journalists covering Ukraine now face a dilemma similar to that of their Russian counterparts while covering the Chechen Wars of the 1990s. In a defining moment for local journalism, President Putin used the coverage of Chechen rebels as a pretext for his crackdown on “unpatriotic” media, forcing local independent journalists to choose between covering the conflict in line with Kremlin position and losing their job or, in some cases, even risking violent reprisals. First, the crackdown related to Chechen war coverage; eventually it extended to virtually every other aspect of Russian life.

Back then, Russian journalist Ksenia Turkova was working at TV-6 , an independent Moscow TV channel owned by Boris Berezovsky (a Russian oligarch who fell afoul of his former protege, Putin, and later sought exile in Britain)—until it became one of the first opposition channels shuttered by the Russian government. She fled to Ukraine to continue covering events in neighboring Russia independently, and today she works as an anchor for Kiev News-Radio. She has recently faced a wave of insults, even death threats, from both sides of the conflict. Ukrainian nationalists are unhappy simply because she is a Russian citizen working as a journalist in Ukraine. Russian far-rightists, meanwhile, call her a ‘traitor’ and ‘fascist’ for her largely balanced coverage of the Ukrainian revolution. In an interview, Turkova says nasty verbal assaults against her are part of the wider problem of aggressive, increasingly uncontrolled rhetoric now engulfing both Russia and Ukraine, albeit for different reasons. “If Russia’s problem lies in [journalists] pressing state propaganda line and state censorship,” she tells me, “Ukraine faces the opposite dilemma—an unexpected outburst of freedoms, particularly in choosing of terms by professional journalists.”

For years the Ukraine media market was dominated by oligarchs, and news coverage generally reflected their political and economic interests. The situation deteriorated even further after Viktor Yanukovych’s election as president in 2010. Ukraine’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index fell from 89th place in 2008 to 127th this year due to what the organization described as “significant erosion of the freedom of information won in the Orange Revolution” with frequent violence against journalists becoming a norm. But right after the revolution, local media moguls visibly softened their control over newsrooms. With the fate of many pro-Yanukovych media-empires in flux, local journalists now enjoy unprecedented editorial freedoms. And these days, there’s only one acceptable political position: To be “patriotic” is a must, even at the cost of objectivity.

“In Russia, they force journalists to use words like ‘banderovtsy’ or ‘junta’ in Ukraine coverage,” Turkova says. “[By contrast], for Ukrainian journalists, the use of popular word like ‘terrorists’ is a personal choice.” She says rhetoric in Ukrainian newsrooms became so radicalized that even attempts to do moderately balanced and unbiased reporting on both sides of the conflict can meet aggressive pushback from her colleagues.

Simon Ostrovsky, an American journalist and reporter for Vice who was held hostage for three days by pro-Russia rebels in Slovyansk, says that among his captors’ primary complaints was what they described as the widespread use of words like “terrorist” and “separatist” in the media: “How come we are being called terrorists?” he says they asked him.

In a telephone interview with me after his release, Ostrovsky says, “It was one of the things that was brought against me when I was interrogated. They were asking me, ‘Why do you call us separatists, why do you accuse us of separatism?’ And I told them that I didn’t. And they’d look at my reports and they would see that that’s not the term I used.” Some Eastern Ukraine fighters may indeed fit the description of “separatists,” or even “terrorists,” at least as defined by Ukrainian law as someone involved in killing civilians, taking hostages, fighting a guerrilla war against Kyiv government, or advocating secession. Even so, Ostrovsky says he declines to use such words in his coverage, because very often it depends on a context: One person’s terrorists might be another person’s freedom fighter.

“With so many various different groups and people involved in what’s going in Eastern Ukraine, to use blanket terms that have such negative connotation is damaging for relationship between pro-Russia supporters and supporters of Ukrainian unity,” Ostrovsky says. For him it is the moral equivalent of pro-Russia people calling all Euromaidan (the Ukrainian revolution that resulted in President Yanukovych’s ouster) supporters ‘fascists’ or ‘benderovtsy’: “That’s just unjustified.”

The majority of local journalists I spoke to on the matter justify harsh rhetoric in Eastern Ukraine coverage as a response to, and result of, growing frustration with Russia’s media propaganda machine. They were also unaware that Western news organizations place strict limitations on such terms.

As rhetoric heats up, the death toll in Eastern and Southern Ukraine is also rising in what seems like the worst outburst of violence since the February massacre in Kiev this year. Natalie Gumenyuk, a well-known Ukrainian journalist, fears that her country is close to the point of no return and could be sucked up in endless circle of vindictive violence. She has covered a series of recent revolutions in the Middle East, and recently she has started to see some gruesome similarities.

“Couple of months ago I was rejecting any parallels between Syria and Ukraine. Now I see how Russia uses similar tactics as Assad did at the start of Syrian revolution. Back then, he would pump up an informational attack by portraying it as a religious conflict, rather than a pro-democracy uprising. In eight months it transformed in religious conflict indeed,” Gumenyuk says: “If you instigate and talk about possible civil war, sooner or later it happens if no one is pushing back against such rhetoric”

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Maxim Eristavi is a freelance writer based in Kiev. He's been covering 2014 Ukrainian revolution since the very first day and previously worked as executive producer for the Voice of Russia and journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.