Strategic Partners: Situation in the National Media of Ukraine (4)

Natalya Belitser,
expert, Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy
exclusively for the BlackSeaNews

Part 1. The Information Dimension of Strategic Partnerships
Part 2. Azerbaijan in Ukraines Information Space
Part 3. Ukraine's Strategic Partners: Situation in the National Media: Azerbaijan Compared to Ukraine (3)

In the 2022 Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, Ukraine ranked 106th out of 180, losing 9 positions over the course of the year, but still remaining way ahead of Azerbaijan. The main reason for the drop in the ranking has certainly been Russia's full-scale military aggression, that has had a detrimental effect on all fields of life, including the information space.

Interestingly though, in the latest May 3, 2023 Index, Ukraine made a real leap, rising to the 79th place.

Also, a thorough sociological study Challenges to Freedom of Speech and Journalists in Times of War”, conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in cooperation with the ZMINA Human Rights Center in December 2022 (three focus groups with eleven participants in each) and January 2023 (expert survey of 132 representatives of various media) found out that

despite all the difficulties and restrictions, reflected in the respective criticism, Ukrainian media professionals assess the situation at 6.4 on a 10-point scale, i.e. mostly positive.

The research was presented in Kyiv on May 3, 2023, on World Press Freedom Day.

In fact, Ukrainian media experts who constantly monitor the country’s information space, noted numerous problems with freedom of speech and funding of media resources even before the start of the large-scale Russian invasion. In particular, in 2021 the Institute of Mass Information (IMI) counted 197 cases of such violations.

However, the situation has become much more complicated after the Russian destructive attack and the introduction of martial law. In 2022, IMI recorded 567 violations of freedom of speech, 470 of which were committed by Russia. As a result of the “big war”, the media suffered shocking losses in one year. As of February 24, 2023, 48 media workers were killed, 8 of them in the course of their journalistic activities, 27 as combatants, and 13 as a result of Russian shelling or torture.

Based on these facts, the police opened 56 criminal cases; the SBU also conducts a pre-trial investigation. In total, in connection with Russia's armed aggression, law enforcement bodies are investigating more than 100 cases of death and injury, torture, abduction and hostage-taking of journalists. In the course of the ongoing bloody war, the martyrdom of dead journalists is growing. According to the IMI data, which are constantly updated, as of April 25, 2023, there were 53 of them.

Among other things, in the course of the information war and IPSO, the Russians are resorting to new methods of misleading readers, primarily those who have not developed critical thinking skills. For example, fake news allegedly from Ukrinform, are being spread on social networks and telegram channels, while a number of popular Ukrainian Internet resources, such as Ukrayinska Pravda, RBC-Ukraine and Obozrevatel asked the SBU and cyber police to take appropriate measures to neutralize fake sites that imitate their design and publish articles on behalf of well-known authors. A case in point is a number of treacherous articles supposedly attributed to well-known journalist Pavlo Kazarin, who has since publicly explaining how to distinguish that fake from the authentic UP website.

Martial law and the introduction of censorship has not only made the work of journalists extremely difficult, but have also caused numerous misunderstandings and even scandals. Without going into details, let's recall just a few high-profile cases. One of them concerns three opposition TV channels — Espreso, Channel 5 and Pryamyi.

Without explanation, on April 4, 2022, they were excluded from digital terrestrial television (DTT) by the Concern for Radio, Radio and Television Broadcasting. The media regulator, the DTT provider and the state-owned infrastructure company deny any responsibility, pointing instead at each other.

On May 9, the State Service for Special Communications reported that the reason for the shutdown was the implementation of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) decision to broadcast a joint round-the-clock marathon, while the NSDC stated that its decision contained nothing on the shutdown. Moreover, in its decision of March 18, 2022, the NSDC obliged all national news channels to join the telethon, something the three mentioned above had been unsuccessfully trying to do for a year. The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy noted that it had no authority to remove channels from the digital airwaves, but in an interview with Radio Liberty Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said that he "sees no need" for Pryamyi, Espreso and Channel 5 to join the telethon.

As the legal uncertainty lasted for a year, Reporters Without Borders appealed to the Ukrainian authorities on the sad anniversary, urging them to address the issue and resolve the situation as soon as possible.

The second case concerns the revocation of accreditation of Ukrainian and foreign journalists who came to cover the events related to the liberation of Kherson on November 11, 2022. A number of media scandals were also caused by interviews about real problems in the Ukrainian army, given to the media by the servicemen who were subsequently demoted or transferred to other posts.

In addition, in March 2023, new, even stricter restrictions on journalists' activities in combat zones and frontline border areas were introduced. The media community was outraged by the fact that only those media outlets participating in the United News telethon, received permits. In this context, it should be noted that in the above-mentioned sociological study, a significant number of respondents believed the telethon to be a form of censorship that should be either essentially modified or stopped altogether.

Processes similar to those in Azerbaijan are taking place in the legislative sphere. Of course, a number of laws related to the information space are very outdated and need to be updated, primarily in accordance with EU requirements. First and foremost, it concerns the new law on media, the epic with the preparation of which was analyzed by Serhiy Sydorenko, the editor of the “European Pravda” (EP). Characterizing the process, he named his article «The media sphere: one step forward and one step back».

The draft law 2693-d that passed the first reading in the Verkhovna Rada and was adopted as a basis on August 30, 2022, was criticized by the pro-European opposition and received mostly negative conclusions from the European Commission published on the Facebook page of the co-chair of the European Solidarity faction Iryna Gerashchenko.

She writes: «Unfortunately, instead of an important media code, we may get a censorship law with unlimited rights of the National Council that is completely dependent on Bankova [the Office of the President of Ukraine]. It is hypocritical that the leadership of the Verkhovna Rada is pushing this draft law as one of the 7 points of Ukraine's obligations as an EU candidate country. But in fact, the draft law has received critical feedback from both the European Commission and the Council of Europe. ...It's a shame that under the banner of European integration, Ukraine is being pulled back to the times of censorship and «temniks.» (See also such opposition MPs articles as: «The Updated Draft Law «On Media» is an Attempt of pro-Russian Revenge» and «The pro-Russian Law on Media Throws us Away from the EU Membership»). The allegedly «almost reached» understanding on amendments at an inter-factional meeting in the presence of government representatives and European diplomats was violated due to the interference of an «extra-parliamentary force,» and a version of the draft law with a number of «anti-European» provisions was submitted for the second reading.

In this regard, on December 12, 2022, European Solidarity issued a statement where paragraph 2 reads: «The draft law stipulates that Ukrainian online media can be promptly blocked by a decision of the National Council of Ukraine on Television and Radio Broadcasting, which has long since lost its independence. We believe that such an innovation will lead to the restriction of the rights of online media and the use of the blocking tool to censor the Ukrainian Internet space and restrict the rights of journalists…» The National Association of Ukrainian Media also stated that the draft law had to be withdrawn from consideration by the Verkhovna Rada, as it restricted freedom of speech and did not meet EU requirements.

The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine expressed concern, too; according to its statement, no journalists or other media workers who rightly criticized the draft law were invited to any of the meetings. The meetings themselves were held in a non-transparent manner, without public broadcasting. The new version of the law had not been made public in advance, nor had gone through any discussions with key stakeholders or the general public. Furthermore, the draft law has not only been opposed by the Internet Association of Ukraine, but criticized even by the parliament lawyers. Ultimately, the opposition managed to reach certain compromises, as a result of which 299 MPs, including 18 from the European Solidarity, voted in favor on December 13, 2022, and the law was signed by President Zelenskyy on December 29, 2022.

A detailed analysis of the new media law was conducted by the Committee on Journalistic Ethics (CJE).

In January 2023, within the framework of the CJE Ethics and Standards Hotline, Maksym Dvorovyi, a media lawyer at the Digital Security Lab and CJE and a member of the working group that drafted the Media Law, answered numerous questions from journalists, explaining many of the legislative innovations contained in it. On January 24, he held an online lecture for all interested Ukrainian media professionals explaining the new legislation.

On March 15, a meeting of the Human Rights Club was held in Kyiv to discuss the topic “Law on media: what expect Ukrainian mass media?”; it was organized by the Center for Civil Liberties, a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders, as well as representatives of the executive power and law enforcement agencies took part in the expert discussion of the document's advantages and disadvantages. Meanwhile, several more documents are currently being prepared to complete the media reform; in particular, two controversial draft laws — #7033-d and #8359 — are pending consideration. As the laws provide for the unjustified restrictions of the right to information, dozens of civil society organizations issued a statement and collected signatures, appealing to the Verkhovna Rada to reject those. So, now isn’t yet the time to relax.

As can be seen, the Ukrainian media community and civil society activists are making a considerable effort to preserve freedom of speech as one of the most important democratic values in the face of a bloody war and martial law. Therefore, it is reasonable to hope that in the future, Ukrainian legislation will be amended accordingly to bring it into line with European standards and eliminate those norms that still do not meet them. To recognize what the adoption of the unrevised media legislation in Ukraine could lead to, one should regard the relevant processes in Azerbaijan and their outcomes.

By all means, the reaction of the Ukrainian public to the alarming signals of the attempted attacks on freedom of speech and critical opinion is largely conditioned by the specifics of martial law and the unwillingness to «rock the boat» in the most difficult and pivotal period of modern Ukrainian history, unlike the Azerbaijani case, where similar processes continue to develop in the postwar period.

However, according to the “Chesno" civic movement that monitors the work of the Verkhovna Rada, «The closed nature of the committees’ functioning and the lack of information about their activities pose a serious risk: key reforms [bills] can be adopted by MPs without being made public and without public discussion.»

The most egregious situation is in the Committee on Freedom of Speech, which is still headed by the odious Nestor Shufrych from the banned OPFL, who has also been included by “Chesno” into the register of state traitors. The committee that currently consists of only 3 (!) people, actually does not function: the last record of its activities is dated February 23, 2002, so it did not participate in parliamentary discussions and attempts to remove the worst provisions of the draft law.

The Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy performs the functions of a specialized committee; it was this committee, after processing 2,500 amendments to the draft law, that recommended its adoption in the second reading and as a whole on December 7, 2022.

Thus, the rhetorical to a certain extent question of whether all the troubles in the Ukrainian information space can be «attributed to the war» is still awaiting answer. That answer depends on the activity of civil society and a deep, comprehensive analysis that would take into account both our own realities and the positive and negative experience of other countries, including Azerbaijan.

To summarize, despite all the differences in the media situation in Azerbaijan and Ukraine, they share many common features and challenges. Therefore, establishing more extensive horizontal ties between the media entities of two countries could be not only mutually interesting, but also useful, providing the opportunity to exchange experience, analyze the reasons for failures, and strengthen positions in the joint struggle for freedom of speech and the press on the path to improvement and democratization of the information space.