The Media Today

Three months of press threats in Ukraine

May 23, 2022
The Azovstal steelworks, where Ukrainian forces are still holding out viewed from the Russian and pro-Russian territory in Mariupol. The battle between Russian / Pro Russian forces and the defencing Ukrainian forces lead by Azov battalion continues in the port city of Mariupol. (Photo by Maximilian Clarke / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Three months ago tomorrow, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Ihor Hudenko, a Ukrainian photojournalist, posted photos and footage to his Facebook page showing abandoned Russian tanks near the eastern city of Kharkiv, where he lived. According to the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, Hudenko had bicycled out to a ring road to shoot the images, which eerily juxtaposed the threat of violence with a calm surrounding scene under a cloud-scuffed blue sky. Everyday items—clothes, books, what looked like lotions—were strewn on the ground.

Two days later, Hudenko died in Kharkiv. Word of his death didn’t initially get out; indeed, it wasn’t until earlier this month that Ukraine’s NUJ posted an alert about Hudenko, and that was only to report him missing. The Committee to Protect Journalists amplified the message, appealing for information as to Hudenko’s whereabouts. On Friday, CPJ finally reported that Hudenko died back in February, citing his colleague Oleg Peregon, who in turn had learned of Hudenko’s death from a local environmental group whose activism Hudenko used to cover and which coordinated a search party that eventually located Hudenko’s grave. Peregon said that Hudenko died while filming on the outskirts of Kharkiv, which was being shelled at the time, though CPJ was unable to confirm the exact circumstances of his death.

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Given the early date of his death and the long delay in its being reported, Hudenko is both the latest journalist whose death has been confirmed since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the first known to have died post-invasion. Not including Hudenko, CPJ has recorded the deaths of thirteen journalists in the conflict to date, though the group has so far only confirmed that seven of them—the Ukrainian camera operator Yevhenii Sakun, who was thought to be the first journalist killed in the war; the Russian reporter Oksana Baulina; the US filmmaker Brent Renaud; the Fox News staffers Pierre Zakrzewski and Oleksandra Kuvshynova; the Lithuanian photojournalist Mantas Kvedaravičius; and the Ukrainian photojournalist Maks Levin, who, like Hudenko, was initially reported missing—were killed on assignment or otherwise in connection with their work. CPJ is still investigating the deaths of the other six journalists—Oksana Haidar, Roman Nezhyborets, Viktor Dedov, Yevhenii Bal, Zoreslav Zamoysky, and Vira Hyrych—though at least three of them, including Hyrych, a journalist with the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, appear to have been killed in shelling attacks on their homes. Early last month, I wrote that Kvedaravičius—who was reportedly shot by Russian forces in Mariupol—was, by my count, the first journalist killed while working outside of the Kyiv area. The Hudenko news might dislodge that first, too.

In the same article last month, I wrote that the distinction between journalists being targeted at work and being killed in broader attacks on civilians, while factually important to establish, was a fine one since journalists are civilians. Here, too, though, it’s increasingly clear that the lines are blurry. As I reported in March, some of the earliest Ukrainian journalists to be killed after the invasion died in combat, after taking up arms to defend their country. Last week, Ann Cooper reported, also for CPJ, that at least ten journalists have now died in military action. (CPJ does not otherwise track such deaths, so they’re not reflected in the data above.) “There’s no official estimate of how many Ukrainian journalists have joined the military since February, a move that seemingly contradicts the journalistic norm of impartiality,” Cooper wrote. “But for some who have made that move, the decision was crystal clear.” Stanyslav Aseyev, formerly a reporter at RFE/RL, told her that “had Ukraine disappeared, journalism would have been meaningless.”

When I wrote early last month, Russia’s army was in the process of finalizing a withdrawal from the area around Kyiv, and the scale of the devastation it left behind was starting to become clear. (Levin’s body was found around that time in the Vyshhorod area; the bodies of Nezhyborets and Zamoysky were later discovered in Yahidne and Bucha, respectively.) Russia has subsequently concentrated its efforts in the south and east of Ukraine, and, according to a list maintained by Reporters Without Borders, press-freedom violations have increasingly been concentrated in these broad areas, too. On April 4, Russian shelling near the city of Mykolaiv hit two vehicles belonging to a crew from CNN, destroying one of them; two weeks after that, further rocket fire in Mykolaiv damaged the local offices of a Ukrainian public broadcaster. Foreign journalists have since reported coming under fire near Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and in the Donetsk region, where one Ukrainian crew came under attack by cluster bombs. Throughout the war, meanwhile, Russia has detained journalists in various parts of Ukraine. On April 29, Irina Danilovich, a journalist and nurse, was abducted in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. She remains in detention, having been charged with handling explosives, which she denies. Her lawyer, who was only able to locate her two weeks into her detention, alleges that she has been interrogated, mistreated, and threatened with being taken “into the woods”—or to Mariupol.

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This is not to say, of course, that press threats don’t persist across Ukraine—they do, and they take varied forms. Many are economic. A recent report from the Kyiv-based Media Development Foundation, which Gabby Miller covered for CJR and the Tow Center, found high levels of concern about financial viability across Ukraine’s local newsrooms, with advertising revenue drying up and many bosses worrying that the lights might soon go out; the report also found that around 80 percent of local newsrooms have applied for international aid since the conflict began, far higher than the percentage that asked their readers to donate. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal last week, Efim Marmer, the editor in chief of the weekly Ukrayina-Tsentr, argued that international funders aren’t doing enough to help Ukrainian media survive: their attitude, he wrote, “seems to be that it’s good that we are still writing, but no big deal if we are forced to stop, that there will be no barrier to reopening papers when the war is over.” Even distributing the paper, Marmer wrote, is a logistical “mess” right now, with the cost of newsprint soaring. He, too, fears that his paper might start to fold at the end of this month—and that’s his “optimistic” estimate.

Local media, of course, has been hit especially hard in the places that have been the hardest hit militarily, not least Mariupol, which Russia now claims to fully control after Ukraine ended its combat mission at a holdout steelworks last week. In an in-depth feature published on Friday, Mark MacKinnon, an international correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail, noted that a “feisty independent news media” had taken hold in the city in recent years as it became more of a cultural and intellectual hub, in particular after Russia-backed forces occupied the nearby Donetsk region in 2014 and local elites, including some media workers, moved to Mariupol. Kostyantyn Batozsky, a political adviser who was among those to make the move, told MacKinnon that Mariupol had developed “a deep resistance to the Russian narrative.”

As Russia besieged the city—and pushed more of its deeply distorted narratives about what it was doing there—getting the truth out proved difficult; Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, of the Associated Press, documented the first weeks of the war there, before being evacuated by Ukrainian soldiers who feared that Russian forces would capture the journalists and make them recant their reporting. As they fled, one of them carried with them a data card, hidden in a tampon, that contained body-camera footage shot by Yuliia Paievska, a local medic who recorded her team’s efforts to save people. (Paievska is also known as Taira, after her World of Warcraft nickname.) The AP published the footage last week. Paievska is now in Russian captivity, along with various local journalists. The line between her work and theirs, too, is blurry.

As the Ukrainian fighters in the steelworks surrendered, journalists from Agence France-Presse entered Mariupol as part of a press tour organized by the Russian army. The journalists present were not permitted to go near the steelworks, AFP reported. But they were taken “to a local zoo where animals including bears and lions were kept in cages but appeared healthy.”

Below, more on the war:

  • Breaking this morning: Earlier today, a court in Kyiv convicted Vadim Shishimarin, a Russian soldier, of shooting a civilian in Sumy in the early days of the war—the first guilty war-crimes verdict of the conflict. As the decision was handed down, Shishimarin “sat in a glass cage, wearing the same blue-and-gray hoodie he has worn for every trial appearance, his head bowed as an interpreter whispered to him in Russian through an opening in the glass,” Valerie Hopkins reports for the New York Times. “After the verdict, as the court emptied of the hundreds of local and foreign journalists who gathered to hear the sentencing, the sergeant paced back and forth in the cell.”
  • Updates from RSF: Earlier in the war, Reporters Without Borders opened a Press Freedom Centre in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that has been spared the worst of the war and became something of a hub for the world’s media. Last week, RSF opened a similar center in Kyiv, from which it will distribute protective equipment and provide journalists on the ground with training and support. (The Institute of Mass Information and Ukraine’s NUJ have partnered with RSF on the centers.) Late last month, the foreign ministry of Taiwan gave RSF half a million US dollars to support its work in Ukraine.
  • Meanwhile, in Italy: According to Politico’s Hannah Roberts, a committee in the Italian Parliament is probing the reach of Russian disinformation in the country amid concerns that mainstream outlets are platforming propagandists in the name of balance. “Russian guests, whether journalists or officials, see Italian media as their platform of choice when it comes to projecting the views of the state apparatus,” Roberts writes, noting that Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was appearing on an Italian TV channel owned by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi when he infamously said that Hitler had “Jewish blood.” Per Roberts, “pro-Kremlin views are also spread by apparently independent voices—including some respected Italian journalists and professors.”
  • An important reminder: NBC’s Patrick Galey reports on “growing fears that other humanitarian crises—such as those gripping Afghanistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa—will worsen without drastic intervention” as the Western world and its media focuses on Ukraine. “Media don’t cover stasis well,” Susan D. Moeller, a professor of media and international affairs at the University of Maryland, told Galey. “Things that have just broken that we would consider an immediate crisis, whether it’s an earthquake or an assassination, news jumps to cover it. By month five or year five in an ongoing conflict, it typically disappears.” (I wrote about a similar dynamic earlier in the war.)

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Smears, opacity, and the implosion of a government disinformation board

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.