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.