The Good Guys Do Propaganda, Too
Ukraine is heavily censoring foreign media.
Semafor’s Ben Smith takes us “Inside the high-stakes clash for control of Ukraine’s story.”
Journalists covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine are engaged in a running, low-grade conflict with the Ukrainian government, which many believe uses access and accreditation to shape their stories.
Articles and broadcasts from outlets including NBC News, The New York Times, CNN, The New Yorker, and the Ukrainian digital broadcaster Hromadske have led to journalists having their credentials threatened, revoked, or denied over charges they’ve broken rules imposed by Ukrainian minders.
The largely unreported conflict spilled briefly into public in late May when the well-known Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk complained on Instagram that the military press office was threatening to revoke his accreditation after his haunting images appeared in a New Yorker article portraying the trench life of Ukrainian draftees on the front line..
“The authorities only allow press tours with press officers, where they show off in front of the camera and are afraid to show the real situation,” Dondyuk wrote in furious posts to Instagram, which he subsequently deleted, adding that Ukrainian authorities were threatening to strip his accreditation. “Are you ready to read only stupid propaganda?”
The New Yorker blowup is the latest in a running series of conflicts between the media covering the war and the Ukrainian authorities, which have had to ramp up a massive press operation as they fight for their country’s life against an invader four times their size. Their military press office vets journalists and issues passes which allow them to travel to certain areas, often with press handlers, and to interview officials, after signing a document stating that journalists will abide by rules outlined by the military.
One particular target of official Ukrainian ire has been the New York Times reporter Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a former U.S. Marine who covers the Ukrainian military closely, and who drew particular anger when he reported that the Ukrainians were using banned cluster munitions. He has had his credentials revoked and his renewal denied in separate incidents, a Times spokesperson said, though they were ultimately re-issued.
Another tense incident began this February, when an NBC News crew rode the train from Moscow to Crimea.
“This is our land,” a pro-Russian resident of Sevastopol told correspondent Keir Simmons for the February 28 broadcast. And her words “echoed those of most people NBC News spoke to in Crimea this week,” the network reported. The segment, conducted amid the Russian occupation, was a rare public relations coup for the Russian side.
In response to the broadcast, the Ukrainian government revoked NBC’s credentials, effectively confining their local team to a Kyiv hotel.
The Crimea visit was “a violation of Ukrainian legislation and we don’t want other Western media companies doing the same,” a foreign ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, told me Friday.
This strikes me as incredibly short-sighted but it’s not really surprising. The Ukrainian government naturally wants to present the best possible picture of their war effort. They’re trying to sustain morale among the troops, hope on the home front, and support from the West.
Even the United States government tries to limit press access during wartime, doing its best to stage-manage what reporters can see and how they present their coverage. And Ukraine doesn’t have anything like our culture of free expression.
The heated clashes have remained largely behind the scenes because the credentials are vital to report from the country, and journalists worry that a public conflict might further threaten their access. Most of the journalists from Western and Ukrainian news organizations who have clashed with their handlers spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One told me bluntly he didn’t want to be quoted in this story because “there’s very little upside and some chance that they might snatch my press credential.”
Ukrainian journalists face more intense pressure than foreign correspondents to present an optimistic view of a conflict their friends and family are dying in, noted Nastya Stanko, a correspondent for Hromadske. She was among a number of journalists, including from CNN, who had their credentials temporarily suspended after broadcasting from Kherson after the Ukrainian government had retaken it but before they had permission.
“It’s more important to have journalists who can honestly show what happens on the front lines, and I’m not sure it’s clear to everyone in the army,” she said.
Again, that’s not even the view of the American armed forces. In World War II, American reporters wore Army uniforms. In Vietnam, they were independent but widely seen by the brass as effectively supporting the enemy. Starting with the Gulf War, we have gone back to the practice of embedding journalists with units—ostensibly to ensure their protection but absolutely with the intention of building rapport and the sense that we’re all on the same team.
Smith seems to agree:
Information has always been a weapon of war, and the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been virtuosic at telling the country’s story. The Western media’s skirmishes with Ukrainian handlers reflect the underlying reality that most Western news outlets treat Ukrainian soldiers as, at some level, “our boys.” The fights over access are familiar to U.S. reporters from American wars. And Ukraine’s restrictions do not approach those imposed on the US press in the 20th Century by its own government; the Ohio State historian Christopher Nichols noted in an interview: During the First World War, almost 100 US journalists lost “‘mailing privileges” when censors ruled they were undermining the war effort.
The journalistic tensions do reflect a deeper friction: American, French, or British journalists write for publics who are largely sympathetic to Ukraine — but whose interests aren’t identical. The subjects most likely to draw ire from Kyiv include morale, casualties, and the role of fighters with far right ties in the war effort, a favorite Russian propaganda topic.
Crimea is also high on the list. Ukrainian officials have promised to liberate the occupied territory. But they may face pressure from the West for a settlement that would leave Crimea in Russian hands.
Truth may not exactly have been the first casualty in a war that has been broadcast on social media with unprecedented clarity. But the behind-the-scenes fight for access shapes some of what Western readers see and read.
Precisely because most of us are supportive of the Ukrainian cause, we naturally take Ukrainian propaganda at face value while discounting everything that seems to be from the Russian perspective. We should obviously be more skeptical of any wartime reporting. Even absent active censorship, it’s simply hard to see the whole picture from any vantage point open to reporters.