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The Occupied: How Journalists in the Captured Territories Take russia's Blow

The Occupied: How Journalists in the Captured Territories Take russia's Blow © depositphotos/kaninstudio
During the second stage of the russian aggression, 33 journalists were killed, 15 media people went missing.

The putin regime perceives the media and journalists as little cogs in a “TV box” that replaces the refrigerator for russians. With all the imperfections of the national media environment, Ukrainian society still finds it important to have the right to know the truth and the possibility to freely give publicity to it. Ukrainian journalists were the first to face the clash of these two worlds during the war, and they have their own terrible loss meter. Representatives of local media are in a particularly dangerous situation. They are risking not only the danger during the coverage of hostilities but also the prospect of becoming a russian exchange fund in the occupied territories. Or, they may just fall prey to the occupiers in dark and cold cellars that no one may ever learn about.

In addition to human tragedies, Ukrainian media, especially local ones, are experiencing severe financial and infrastructural blows, that would hardly be recoverable without external support. A great many of local journalists were forced to withdraw from their home editorial offices and relocate to other regions, without any vision of how to survive, professionally or personally. Survival strategies for the media look particularly vague in the context of drastic drops in the advertising market.

Despite all the challenges, we can already state that the Ukrainian media and journalists have withstood the blow from the russian federation. russians, as in the case of local governments, unexpectedly learned that journalists and media in Ukraine do not perceive themselves as the servants of the master of the situation. And they are not ready to fall under the propaganda gun of the russian occupiers in the occupied territories. The occupiers have to build their information machine on TOTs with the help of people hardly related to the media (and also hardly smart), in the settings of a total lack of staff. These circumstances are unlikely to stop the spread of russian dope in the occupied territories but they offer many opportunities to be proud of Ukrainian journalists. But in addition to pride in Ukrainian journalists, it is important to help them through difficult times.

Death Meter of Ukrainian Media

According to the Institute of Mass Media, 33 journalists died during the second stage of the russian aggression. Eight of them were killed in the line of duty. 25 journalists were killed by russian shells, other than in the course of their professional duties or other than in combat. According to IMI estimates, 14 Ukrainian and foreign journalists were injured and at least 15 journalists went missing. Most missing journalists come from Mariupol, and their situation remains unknown.

Thanks to Western intelligence, even before the beginning of the large-scale aggression, it became clear that russians had prepared lists of activists, journalists and local politicians as their priority targets. The testimonies of Associated Press video journalist, Mstislav Chernov, about the occupiers hunting for journalists in Mariupol became known all over the world. "The russians hunted us. They had a list of names, including ours, and they were getting closer to us. We were the only international journalists left in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, and we documented the siege of the city by russian troops for two weeks,"Chernov shared about the tactics of the occupiers, back in March. The journalist surviving the hunt explained the objectives of the russians very clearly. By cutting off access to the media, they have the opportunity to destroy Ukrainian cities without being punished and without witnesses, and the lack of reliable information causes panic and chaos among local residents, contributing to the seizure of territory.

The lists of journalists to be attacked prepared in advance were also reported by the representative of the NUJU, Lina Kushch. According to her, immediately after the seizure of Severodonetsk, the occupiers published the personal data of all journalists, and her colleagues from other regions also spoke of the occupiers preparing lists of journalists in advance. The abduction and torture of journalists exposed not only the non-public “servants” of the putin regime but also their “best of the best.” The Kherson Oblast Prosecutor's Office indicted in absentia the so-called head of the Nova Kakhovka Military and Civil Administration, created by the russians, and the adviser to the "Chairman of the DPR" for abduction and ill-treatment of a journalist of the oblast newspaper "New Day".

All the facts imply that we are not dealing with chaotic crimes of russia but with a well-thought and pre-designed policy of destroying free media in the territories seized by brute force.

Now, it is impossible to determine exactly what the lethal count of the "execution" lists of russians have in the newly captured territories, but they remain a real threat to Ukrainian journalists. The russians practice illegal arrests of Ukrainian journalists in the temporarily occupied territories. A Kherson journalist, Oleh Baturin, who was in captivity from March 12 to 20, never heard from the occupiers what they accused him of. “They are just sadists, they are not people. I have no idea what they had in their heads. Did they want to scare me? Yes, it certainly was scary. They wanted to somehow let me know how to behave, how to sit quietly, how stay low..", Baturin shared his impressions of being in captivity after leaving his hometown. But what the journalist calls the theatre of absurdity still has a specific purpose.

russians are well aware that their strategy of seizing territories does not tolerate objective information. The outflow of the information about the real picture in destroyed or captured cities is a threat not so much to the stability of the occupation administrations as to the tranquillity of russian society. russians, who still believe that their soldiers carry candy to Ukrainian lands, rather than shells, cannot be disturbed by the realism of the occupied territories. It is unacceptable that they should see the ruins of Rubizhne or understand the true meaning of russian filtration in civilian camps and prisons. That is why, immediately after the start of the "special operation," the kremlin totally cleaned up their own media; they introduced laws on "fakes" in their territory and in the TOTs of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and persecute journalists in the occupied territories.

The destruction of any conditions for the functioning of free media allows the regime to maintain an atmosphere of ambiguity or offers a life-saving vest for the brainwashed voters. "It's not all cut and dried" in the reaction of an average russian person to the atrocities of their troops is, to a large extent, the result of the destruction of primary sources in the captured territories.

Pursuing an information "dehydration" strategy, russians do not plan to stop after the establishment of a relatively stable control over the captured territories. More recently, Kherson blogger and new media coach, Yurii Antoshchuk, released a video from his home video surveillance cameras about how the occupiers broke into his apartment. Broken doors, sub-machine guns, all of the possible gear on, as if they were storming the combat positions of the "collective West", and the stolen things. The hunt for media outlets continues and it will be dangerous for Ukrainian journalists to stay there until the territories are liberated.

Everyone has their own human story and their own circumstances that may make them stay in the territories seized by the occupiers. But it is the duty of the Ukrainian state and society to send a signal that no one expects "information underground resistance" and self-sacrifice from journalists in the occupied territories. They are waiting in the free territories of Ukraine, providing support with resettlement and restoration of professional activity. Preserving people and professionals is a priority that will allow journalists to continue to inform about life in their communities and later restore local media in the de-occupied territories.

How the russians hoped for the love of journalists under duress

Attacks on Ukrainian journalists, their arrests, detentions and interrogations have become the carte-de-visite of russian occupiers since the seizure of Crimea. Since the onset of putin's “special operation”, the russian federation has been actively using technologies aimed at demoralizing and intimidating employees of free media. In a number of presently occupied cities, even before the entry of russian troops, journalists received threats of violence, and their personal data were published by the “fake news media” of the occupiers. Journalists received from the occupiers the demands to quit and stop their professional activities, and the refusal to fulfill them, according to the aggressors, would lead to terrible personal consequences.

Such "good-luck chain letters" were received not only by local media close to the front line, but also by individual national editorial offices. In addition to personal threats, journalists received official demands from Roskomnadzor. In particular, it is known about the pain in the neck of the russian state monster in the field of mass communications regarding the coverage by the local publication "Tribune" of the facts of shelling of Popasna and Rubizhne by the troops of the russian federation. Probably, there is only one organization in the world, Roskomnadzor, that could write directly that the purpose of their existence was to conceal war crimes.

Most journalists were philosophical about threats and notifications about revenge by the occupiers, and some even humorously sent them to the well-known direction. But we should not diminish the significance of russian threats. They count on the demoralization and fear of journalists, primarily of local ones and those close to the front, which will lead to self-censorship. The occupiers are also waiting for the collaboration of mediators with the occupation administrations in the territories over which Ukraine has temporarily lost control.

russians have already been trained by the experience of 2014, when, as a result of the mass departure of professional journalists from Donetsk and Luhansk, their information machinery was forced to ride on the shoulders of incompetent "media workers". Those were the "boys" and "girls" who had a dream to become famous "presenters and journalists," and the dream could only come true in the context of a catastrophic shortage of staff. The focus on "forced love", in contrast to 2014, was reinforced by the total restriction of movement between free areas and the occupied territories.

At the moment, the occupiers’ hopes have not come true. Valentina Troyan, a representative of the Mass Media Institute, states that there are no facts of cooperation of some Ukrainian journalists or mass media in general with the occupiers in the newly captured territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. "I checked this information with the Security Service of Ukraine in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, whether they recorded the facts of collaboration between media or individual journalists after February 24 – they have not. There have been no such cases so far,” says Valentina Troyan.

But the war for Ukraine continues, and the safety of journalists and media outlets should remain in the definitive focus of law enforcement agencies. Journalists in territories that are still under threat of occupation should feel that they will not be left alone to face the russian army and the FSB. "I know people I worked with in Luhansk in 2014, they did not hide and they continue to say that they are pro-Ukrainian, they are not pro-russian, but they worked on the captured TV channel. They went to work because of the money. I suppose that such cases can be found in the territories that the russians seized after February, 24,” Ms Troyan compares the current situation with the previous experiences. Another part of the efficient anti-russian strategy is also to timely tell professional journalists in the occupied territories that they have a way out.

Blessing in Disguise

The total failure of russia's hopes that local residents would collaborate with them, including journalists, was certainly boosted by the civic stance, courage, and resilience of Ukrainian citizens. But the awareness of the previous experience of russian aggression also helped to prepare for the worst-case scenario. The editorial offices of the media outlets in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were especially prepared, since it was not their first time to see the policy of the occupiers in practice. Some editorial offices were able to evacuate their employees and equipment to safe areas on time, and avoid reprisals from the occupiers. The preparation of journalists in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts for the worst also relied on the fact that they were not engulfed in any illusions about free media being able to function in the occupied territories. Editorial offices of less “smart” media were blasted and robbed by the russian military.

But all of them, prepared or not, are now facing the same challenges. Currently, there are no media outlets physically operating in the occupied territories, as it is deadly dangerous and doesn't make any sense. The challenge for local media outlets comes from the dispersion of their staff throughout Ukraine and the need to become a single professional team again. Often, a critical problem is to help their colleagues who have not been able to leave the occupied territories and can get into the web of a large-scale system of the occupiers who “filter” the unreliable persons.

The flexibility of international donors, who are ready to support new locations and new activity areas of journalists from temporarily captured territories, contributes to overcoming these challenges by individual editorial offices. However, isolated success stories should not obscure the scale of necessary assistance for local media that have fled from the occupied territories and are actually starting from scratch for their own communities and for Ukraine.

Old problems on a new scale: what happens to citizen access to Ukrainian television and radio broadcasting?

From 2014 to February 2022, the government tried to solve the problem of Ukrainian broadcasting coverage of the frontline territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the occupied communities of TOTs in Donetsk and Luhansk regions and in Crimea. Hardly has Ukraine managed to tackle the problems in the previously occupied territories, when new large-scale challenges came in the field of citizens' access to the national media. During the temporary occupation, 14 regional and 53 local TV companies, 18 regional and 47 local radio stations, as well as 46 providers ceased broadcasting. According to the estimates of the member of the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting, Maksym Onoprienko, 15% of all the country's broadcasters are not functioning. It is important not to lose sight of the problem behind the seemingly small number. For most of the occupied territories, Ukrainian TV and radio channels are available only on the Internet, if they are not blocked there or when users can bypass the occupiers' blocks.

As a result of the russian strikes, the equipment of the Concern of Radio Broadcasting, Radio Communication and Television and the operator "Zeonbud" was destroyed; the television towers are either destroyed or used by the occupiers. In the captured territories, russians have already deployed their own multiplex with propaganda TV and radio stations. Broadcasters of the russian federation, for example, are trying to reach with their signal out to the free part of Zaporizhzhya region and even to some districts of Zaporizhzhya.

Information policy of the aggressor in the captured territories is still opposed by the state through attempts to mute the aggressor's signal and reinforce their own equipment, focusing on satellite television, Internet channels of the national media, and the "Diia" app. “ Since the beginning of the war, the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting has appealed to all national broadcasters to decode TV channels to make the signal available to everyone; and it is available. Unfortunately, we do not have the opportunity to have any specific statistics. In other words, the alternative ways are available, but we cannot check how much they watch and listen over there," says Maksym Onoprienko.

Broadcasting was also tremendously affected in the de-occupied territories, as well as throughout the country. Chernihiv oblast, Sumy oblast, and Kharkiv oblast are the regions that urgently need to have the broadcasting infrastructure restored after the battles and missile strikes of russians.

Ukraine already has success stories in resuming broadcasting. Despite the barbaric attack on the TV tower in Rivne, with great loss of life, the government managed to restore the signal within two days. On the other hand, it goes without questions that the scope of tasks in the field of broadcasting is unprecedented. The government should audit losses, assess its capabilities and, if necessary, not to delay and ask for assistance from foreign partners. It is important to avoid the same experience of a slow solution to the problem in the frontline territories of 2014-2022. As a result, a significant part of Ukrainian citizens consumed russian poison on a daily basis. We are well aware what this consumption brings.

In addition to direct russian strikes, Ukrainian broadcasters and the media in general suffer financial losses due to aggression. There is virtually no advertising market in the country, not to mention the the local level. Broadcasting channels and other media are being shut down due to financial difficulties, not just as a result of being under occupation. If we are serious about Ukraine's recovery program, then support of the media and their infrastructure must be its integral part.

Assisting journalists from the TOTs in moving to free territories and supporting their new initiatives, programs to compensate the media for financial losses, restoring broadcasting infrastructure, countering russian propaganda and investigating crimes of the rf against the media are part of a package of urgent and simultaneous tasks. Which does not look easy. But we ought to, with our allies backing up, to deal with. In addition, do not forget about the full-fledged media reform, which relevance increased after Ukraine became a candidate for the EU,

How will Russia answer for crimes against the media?

A global response to the question of russian responsibility requires the victory of Ukraine, the de-occupation of its territories, the effectiveness of international and national mechanisms for investigating crimes and for bringing perpetrators to justice. But even today, there is still a lot to be done. Member of the National Council on Television and Radio, Maksym Onoprienko, reminds us about the continuing effort of the russian propaganda channels in the media space of the civilized world.  “From day one, we've been working to get them disconnected in Europe and the world. The most common example is the prohibition of "Russia Today" and "Sputnik" right away, in the first days of the war. But we need to understand that there are about 20 of those TV channels, while the effort only affected two of them. And now, after 4 months of war, 3 more TV channels have been added to the sixth sanctions package," Maksym Onoprienko describes the real situation in countering russian disinformation in the world.

The dry figures from the Ukrainian official disguise a real strange situation. Ukrainian journalists in Kherson and Rubizhne are offered cellars and interrogations from the FSB, russian propagandists are guaranteed the "measure thy cloth ten times" principle and long discussions about freedom of media in the modern democratic world. Why do pseudo-journalists from the russian federation, who often personally and directly legitimize war crimes, deserve such respect? The determination to counter russian disinformation by the civilized world is a small but integral part of bringing the aggressor to justice.

Read this article by Oleksandr Kliuzhev in russian and Ukrainian.

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