Ukraine Journalists Fight for Standards Against War Propaganda and Media Bias

Aidan White

Sergey Goos is the editor in chief of a newspaper in Kamyanske, a medium-sized town linked to Ukraine’s fourth largest city, the industrial centre of Dnipro, a political melting pot which launched the careers of recent political leaders including Leonid Kuchma, Pavli Lazarenko and Yulia Timoshenko.

Goos understands the complex nature of politics in Ukraine and its toxic relations with media. He is a well-known journalist and a former leader of the independent trade union for journalists. He has been an outspoken defender of journalists and their rights and his journalism has put him in the crosshairs. In recent months, his car was firebombed and he has received online death threats.

Aidan White speaking at an event to support self-regulation in Ukraine. Photo: Комісія з журналістської етики

It’s no surprise to find him sitting around the table as a member of the board of the Ukraine National Commission for Journalism Ethics which this week met with the Ethical Journalism Network to discuss the relaunch of a national campaign to promote quality journalism.

Nor, sadly, is it a surprise to learn, during the meeting, that Sergey is again under pressure. A phone call from home informs him that rumours are circulating that a criminal group are on his tail. He leaves the meeting to alert his security guards.

Three years on from the devastation of invasion and war in the southern and eastern part of the country the Ukraine media landscape remains in shock. Information war fuelled by Russian propaganda, counter-information from Kiev and a deeply-compromised media landscape has led to a catastrophic collapse in standards of journalism.

Journalists in territories occupied by Russian-supported separatists struggle for editorial independence in an environment where ethical journalism is swamped by political bias driven by appeals to patriotism and national interest.

Elsewhere, media are dominated by oligarchs. In newsrooms, where core media ethics are routinely ignored, awkward journalists who report freely and honestly face ferocious pressure to remain silent. Journalists themselves are divided.

Now the journalism and media community is preparing to fight back with the relaunch of a new ethical journalism programme to unify the divided media community and to build public trust.

My visit to Kiev took place this week where, at the invitation of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the EJN met with the national ethics commission to help plan its relaunch its work in the coming months.

The Commission discussed a programme to strengthen respect for journalism and core ethical standards. The focus of work will be

  1. Supporting training on core standards of accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity and transparency inside newsrooms across the country;
  2. Reaching out to media across all information and communications platforms to unite around a single code of ethics;
  3. Building links with civil and political society to strengthen and support journalism as a counterweight to propaganda and as a bulwark of responsible public communications.

Some practical ideas on the table are the launch of a journalists’ and audience hotline to report threats to journalism as well as fake news and propaganda; the launch of an agreed national press identity card; and a programme of outreach to raise awareness on the need for responsible public communications.

The Commission faces a daunting task. Journalism is at a historic low-point with public trust in journalism shredded due to war propaganda, political bias and corrupt editorial practices. It will take some time to get media back on an ethical track.

But the process of self-regulation is winning fresh support. Associations of print editors, broadcasters and the national journalists’ union around the table have given their backing to the country’s ethics commission, which is relaunching after a troubled period when internal disputes last year led to a change of leadership and the adoption of new internal rules to strengthen its independence.

However, the next 12 months will be critical. Rebuilding trust in self-regulation of media will not be achieved without a unified approach and fresh commitment from inside journalism.

Ukraine has been a major hub for media development over the past three years. Millions of dollars have been invested in trying to strengthen the media including helping to relaunch the national broadcasting system, but the situation of journalists both in their social and professional lives remains precarious.

The media market is weak and journalists continue to be undervalued and poorly-paid. If the situation is to change there will need to be clear and unambiguous commitment to media standards and transparency, both inside newsrooms and in the way media are owned and managed.

This newly-reformed ethics commission is a courageous effort to reignite professional solidarity in a broken media system. It provides an opportunity for all sides of Ukraine media to demonstrate their support for free speech, responsible journalism and democracy. We wish it well. At stake is the future of journalism and, not least, the security and welfare of journalists like Sergey Goos.

EJN has agreed to continue to play a supporting role and will further advise the Ethics Commission on how to develop its work during the coming year.