(Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут.)
On the second day of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, a female newscaster addressed the nation from the capital Kyiv as the city was being attacked. Cool and composed, she said, “We are here doing our journalistic job for you, and I shall continue reporting the news for as long as I am physically able to do so.”
She and other Ukrainian journalists have kept that promise at a tremendous cost. The nonprofit Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information says that at least seven journalists have been killed and nine wounded in Ukraine since Feb. 24, and that number is likely to grow as Russian forces continue to target journalists and media infrastructure in contravention of international law. The International Press Institute, in a March 7 meeting of organizations working in the media sector, reported that it estimates as many as 5,000 journalists and 20,000 of their family members have had to flee the fighting.
Despite such threats, Ukrainian journalists have provided a bulwark against Russian efforts to delude and dispirit Ukrainians with disinformation and propaganda. Ukraine’s public service broadcaster, UA:PBC (which includes Suspilne, its television branch) and the 104-year-old state news agency Ukrinform have risen to the moment with high quality news and conflict reporting. Former broadcasting competitors, public and private, are collaborating to keep the news flowing 24/7, while local radio stations continue to broadcast defiantly into areas temporarily controlled by the Russian troops. Online outlets such as Liga.net, Hromadske, Ukrainska Pravda, Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, Kyiv Post, and Kyiv Independent are attracting new followers by the millions.
But Ukraine’s news sector should not be taken for granted, as if it were immutable, like the country’s iconic grassy steppes. This frontline defense in the information war has been built over many years, and it is in need of urgent support to continue its crucial role in the resistance and the reconstruction to come.
Right now, journalists in Ukraine need physical safety equipment like bulletproof vests and helmets, digital-security support to protect against cyberattacks and hacks from Russia, support for evacuation, safe places to stay and work inside and outside the country, and perhaps above all else, money for salaries. Many regional and hyper-local news outlets were already operating month-to-month before the war. Most of them are now running out of money after relocating staff. Rental costs are skyrocketing in western Ukraine, where many journalists have sought safe haven.
Ukrainian media support groups are doing everything they can. The Institute of Mass Information and Lviv Media Forum are two Ukrainian organizations leading the effort to provide essential equipment and immediate support to journalists and media to sustain news coverage of the war. But more funding is needed. Among the fundraising campaigns that most directly benefit Ukrainian journalists is one run by Jakub Parusinski, chair of the Kyiv-based Media Development Foundation. The Global Forum for Media Development has compiled a list of organizations providing emergency funding and, specifically, crowdfunding efforts and other fundraisers intended to benefit journalists and news media in Ukraine, including Parusinski’s.
The international community can also do more to support journalism in Ukraine and elsewhere. With support from abroad, including from the United States (including the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, which supports the Center for International Media Assistance, CIMA, where one of us, Nick, works), as well as European donors such as Sweden and Germany, Ukrainian reformers and journalists made significant progress in reshaping the country’s media sector between 2014 and 2019, in the immediate aftermath of the Euromaidan protest victory. State-owned print media were privatized, public service broadcasting was established and professionally developed, legal frameworks on access to information were strengthened, and laws governing transparency of media ownership were put in place. According to an analysis by CIMA, foreign donors provided almost $150 million to support development of Ukraine’s media sector between 2010 and 2019.
That may seem generous, but international aid benefiting the media sector from donors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the European Union, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the World Bank, and others accounts for a paltry 0.3 percent of all official development assistance worldwide. That number should be increased to 1 percent. Sweden has already led the way by dedicating 1.4 percent of its aid budget to the media sector.
Finally, the international community needs to work much harder to put the interests of a free press at the heart of policy conversations about how to effectively govern social-media platforms. These discussions should aim to reshape the current freedom-of-expression paradigm that emphasizes free and unrestricted online speech and results in disinformation flourishing while making few concessions that would support or encourage quality professional journalism. Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine is evidence that massive well-coordinated campaigns of disinformation — even ones without a direct call to violence – should be viewed as an act of aggression and a prelude to violence. Collectively, the world remains unprepared to confront this threat.
The practice of independent journalism in Ukraine is an act of democratic patriotism — a commitment to the democratic ideals that have fostered Ukraine’s national identity through the 2004 Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan protests of 2013 and 2014, and now during the staggering resistance to the Russian aggression. In expressing solidarity with Ukrainian journalists, the world has an opportunity to reaffirm the value of a free and independent media everywhere.