10th March 2016
By Stefanie Chernow

Journalists at war, from Crimean War to Ukraine Crisis

Ricardo Gutierrez

All wars are dirty. But wars, for journalists, are fascinating. War is action. Power. Flesh, blood and guts.

War reporting is also a democratic requirement. Nothing is worse than a conflict covered far from the battlefield, such as some of the war reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Covering a war is always challenging for journalists because of the the risk to be manipulated by the military or politicians and the risk of violating ethical rules.

Two years ago the European Federation of Journalists launched a dialogue between the Ukrainian and Russian journalists’ unions. The process is still going on under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

A recent report from the OSCE, “Propaganda and Freedom of the Media” raises the question of the erosion of journalists’ integrity both in Russia and the West. This is a warning signal. Sometimes, propaganda is a free choice for journalists. The choice to oversimplify, to manipulate the facts, to fuel fear, hatred and violence. Journalists must be aware these choices, be they anti-Western or anti-Russian, might lead to grave consequences.

The Crimean War and the Birth of Journalistic War Reporting

Before the Crimean War, a hundred and sixty years ago, newspapers mostly used missives sent from the battlefield by officers who did not care about the rules of journalistic writing, ethical standards and unbiased reporting.

The first journalistic war reports date back in the Crimean War, in which Russia faced a coalition of the Ottoman Empire, France, the UK and the Kingdom of Sardinia.

The conflict gave rise to genuine journalistic coverage in the modern sense, facilitated by two elements, according to Professor Marie-Eve Thérenthy of Montpellier III University:

1. The development of railways and the telegraph, which allowed the journalist to react faster to current events;

2.“A tacit compromise with the imperial power (she’s speaking about Napoleon III), which had everything to gain from seeing journalists turn into war correspondents”

Acting as a witness

Billy Russel’s epitaph in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London simply declares Russell to be “the first and greatest” war correspondent. Russell’s war reporting set the standard for generations of war correspondents that followed him.

Billy Russell acted as a witness. He did not hesitate to challenge the government’s operations and the top British commanders in Crimea. Consequently, he was blacklisted by British commanders and accused of having undermined the security of the troops.

There is a clear tension between the journalist, serving his readers’ interests, as a watchdog of democracy, and those in power, who have no interest in sharing the whole truth, especially in a war context.

The French historian Marc Martin reminds us that during the French Second Empire, “War Information was produced by the central government and the commanders. At the time of the Crimean War (…) the army also had its own spokesmen and its own media, “The Army Monitor” and “The Navy Monitor”. Most of the newspapers, even the most prestigious ones, used to copy and relay the articles of “The Army Monitor” and “The Navy Monitor”.”

Franco-Prussian War

Government control over war reporting increased during the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870: the French press correspondents had the obligation to obtain an accreditation from the official “advertisement” office (that’s the official name: “bureau de publicité”). The doors of the office were opened from 8am to midnight…

The correspondent of the French daily Le Siècle was moved by these regulations: “We are properly excommunicated. They don’t want journalists in the camp. (…) The audience has the right to expect that the information (…) would not be limited to the Army official bulletin. Nothing less popular and more suspect than an official bulletin. (…) The big argument is the need to keep some information secret. (…) Wrong reason. Journalists are not men of war; they do not seek to penetrate the secret military operations they don’t understand, most of the time. Journalists simply tell the facts, and it is never dangerous.”

Ironically, while claiming loudly the values of media freedom, the French war correspondents were producing strongly biased content, – propaganda. French war correspondents did not hesitate to slip into fiction when it came to induce the pride of the reader by enumerating the exploits of the French or Italian soldiers, while damning the Prussians.

So how much have changed in the coverage of Crimea 160 years after after the invention of modern war reporting.


During the events of Maidan Square in Kiev, a journalist was killed and 167 others were injured. Most of them were targeted by the police and thugs of the regime of ousted President Yanukovich.

The EFJ led an international mission to Kiev in mid-February 2014 which focused on journalists’ safety and to ensure that crimes against journalists do not remain unpunished. But the mission quickly pointed to the role of propaganda in the conflict.

Journalists Must “Write and Speak Truth” About Ukraine

The Russian Union of Journalists itself called on journalists to respect ethical rules. Including the major one: respect for the truth.

For the IFJ, ethical journalism is a cornerstone. Our code of ethics, the Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists, adopted by 1954, has become the guiding principle for journalists and their unions to enforce ethics and quality in journalism.

For over 60 years, 600,000 journalists represented by the IFJ worldwide are called to respect the truth and to protect the independence of the media.

Is this rule being respected in Russia and Ukraine?

Alan Yuhas, a reporter for The Guardian, perfectly described how the Russian government has gone to win the “war of information” in the context of the annexation of Crimea.

First step: muzzle the press

In December 2013, President Putin ordered the reorganisation of the state-owned but rather independent RIA Novosti, liquidating most of the outlet, merging its remains with Russia Today and installing as editor-in-chief Dmitry Kiselyov, a TV presenter well-known for his homophobic comments.

RIA was just the first. Others followed. In February 2014, Russia’s last independent TV channel,TV Dozhd, was forced off the air when it was dropped from the schedules of Russian cable TV services. This was a strong attack to media pluralism denounced again by the Russian Union of Journalists.

Then the radio station Echoes of Moscow had its director replaced by its owner, the state-controlled energy company Gazprom.

In March 2014, the editor-in-chief of Lenta, a highly respected, independent news site, was suddenly replaced with a pro-Kremlin editor. The protests of the 69 employees of Lenta was to no avail.

In early March 2014, Russia Today news anchor Liz Wahl resigned live on air over the Ukraine crisis. She said she could not work for a network that ‘whitewashed’ the actions of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Second step: rebrand the Maidan revolution

A constant theme spouting from the Russian sources described by Alan Yuhas has been the Ukrainian revolution’s alliance with “fascists”: anti-Semites, terrorists, anarchists and so on.

The fact is there were far-right nationalists among Kiev’s protesters and in the new interim government. But the Russian press has focused on this particular segment, constantly showing the worst attitudes of the far-right activists.

Third step: classical propaganda – manipulation of facts, oversimplification, defamation, fake news…

The US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in Geneva on 17th April 2014 about worrying reports of religious intolerance in Eastern Ukraine: “In the last couple of days, Kerry said, notices were sent to Jews in one city indicating that they had to identify themselves as Jews (…). This is not just intolerable; it’s grotesque.”

On the same day, quoting an Israeli media, USA Today reported that Jews emerging from a synagogue in Donetsk were handed pamphlets asking them to “register” with pro-Russian militants. The problem is that this so-called information was simply wrong. Nobody ever proposed the registration of Jews in Donetsk.

Stopping fake news

Faced with mass propaganda, Ukrainian civil society mobilised: Journalists, editors and journalism students created in March 2014 the website StopFake.org. Hundreds of people through social media shared their observation skills, critical thinking, to find and exposed publicly any manipulation of facts in the media.

On 26 of June 2014, RIA Novosti published an article about the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine with a direct quote from pro-Russian activists alleging that 180 members of Ukraine’s National Guard were found with their stomachs split open and 300 more bodies were located nearby, with all of their internal organs missing. RIA Novosti illustrated the article with a picture that in reality had nothing to do with Ukraine. It was in fact a picture showing war atrocities in Chechnya. Anyway, this fake “news” of alleged organ harvesting in Ukraine continues to spread all over the Internet.

“Soldiers of the information war”

During the first sessions of dialogue the EFJ organised with Russian and Ukrainian journalists, some Ukrainian participants described themselves as “soldiers of the information war”.

Moscow-based political analyst Mikhail Troitskiy argues that the very concept of an “information war” is a sort of virtual myth used to avoid well-balanced and responsible reporting. Very useful for propagandists.

French geographer Michel Foucher, founder of the European Geopolitical Observatory, explains Russian authorities’ strategy to “suggest that Ukraine is a failed state and that its nationals are corrupt. They shape the Russian public opinion and Western journalists’ opinion. They use Russia Today TV network, Voice of Russia radio network, broadcasting in 38 languages, or Ria Novosti, the Russian news agency, producing news in 9 languages. This is what used to be called Russian state propaganda, years ago. Nothing has changed. They just painted the Russian state media with the colours of CNN and the BBC. “

Professor Aude Merlin, a Russia specialist at the Free University of Brussels, explains that “the annexation of Crimea has galvanized the patriotic spirit in Russia. The idea of “Crimea coming back home”, while historically Crimea is a Tatar-Turkish land (…), is fed by Russian propaganda. This is really striking. (…) 50% of the Russian population has access to the internet. But the Russian TV is a strong propaganda tool. All Ukrainians are presented as Nazis, Ukraine is presented as a country on fire. Russian TV only shows the extremist fractions as representing the whole Ukrainian population “.

Intimidating journalists

The president of one of the Ukrainian journalists’ unions, Yuriy Lukanov, told me that “some Russian journalists are deliberately involved in propaganda. They lie for months, about Ukraine, depicted as a Nazi state, which violates the rights of its ethnic minorities. We feel like in the days of the Soviet Union. Russian media is not informing but misinforming and manipulating. “

For saying that, Yuriy Lukanov is now considered a spy, an anti-Russian agent. An appeal was launched by pro-Russian separatist militants on VK, the Russian version of Facebook: Yuriy is described as a spy close to far-right sectors. The VK comments indicate that Yuriy is rather easy to find in Sloviansk in Eastern Ukraine. This is pure intimidation.

The Russian website predatel.net showed a gallery of 15 alleged “traitors to the nation”. Among them, journalist Valeriya Novodvorskaya and blogger Oleg Kozyrev. Predatel means Traitor in Russian. The launch of this website, in March 2014, was announced on President Putin’s Facebook profile. Two weeks after the website launch, President Putin explicitly evoked in a public speech the existence of a “fifth column” and “traitors to the nation”. The predatel.net/ website is no longer functioning but other examples of intimidation include; the dozens of journalists who have been arrested – or even kidnapped – in the regions controlled by separatists; the arrest of Pro-Maidan Ukrainian journalist Irma Krat in Slavyansk under charges of “war crimes”; the kidnapping of VICE News reporter Simon Ostrovsky in Sloviansk.

Killings of journalists

Worse than arrests and kidnappings have been the killings of journalists. In 2014, 8 journalists were killed in Ukraine: 5 Russian journalists, 2 Ukrainian journalists and an Italian journalist. Ukraine became the world’s fifth deadliest country for journalists just behind Pakistan, Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan.

In 2015, two other journalists were killed in Eastern Ukraine: a Ukrainian photographer died of wounds after an artillery attack near Donetsk and a pro-Russian journalist was shot near his house.

So what has changed in 160 years?

In this region of the world, to work as a journalist is clearly no easier today than it was 160 years ago.

What has changed, for the worse, compared with the nineteenth century, is the power of dissemination of hate speech and fear, through social networks. For example in April 2014, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, whose Twitter account is followed by 160,000 followers, published a tweet that says “RIP Ukraine”, rest in peace Ukraine.

What has changed, in a better way, compared to the nineteenth century, is the ethical framework that oversees the profession. Many ethics’ guardians are now promoting quality journalism: journalists’ unions, journalists’ associations, national and international professional organisations, press councils, NGOs, and a series of intergovernmental actors such as Unesco, the OSCE and the Council of Europe.

The IFJ and the EFJ denounced the takeover of RIA Novosti, Russian and Ukrainian propaganda, as well as repeated attacks on journalists, from both sides. Facing the Russian television propaganda, Ukraine’s interim government banned the broadcasting of these Russian channels on the territory of Ukraine.

Censorship is never the right answer to propaganda

In September 2014, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) banned 35 Russian journalists from covering events in the country. Again the, EFJ strongly condemned this ban. One year later, in September 2015, the EFJ also strongly condemned Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s decision to ban 38 international journalists and bloggers from the country for one year.

The Western press also crosses the line, sometimes, pouring petrol on the fire. “War against Europe”, says the front cover of the French daily newspaper Libération, on the 3rd September 2014. This kind of headline fuels fears about a future possible war. It might create a very tense context not helping to find peaceful solutions, or even triggering conflicts.

Goodbye Lenin

Another relevant case is about the monumental statue of Lenin torn down by protesters in Kharkiv, on the 28th of September 2014.

Few media have questioned the nature of the perpetrators.

The French daily “Le Monde” described authors as “nationalists opposed to Moscow’s influence.”

The French daily “Le Parisien” mentioned “pro-European activists”.

Those “pro-European activists” were in fact led by members of the neo-nazi Azov battalion. The fact is confirmed by a report from the OSCE, issued the day after the protest. Most Western journalists have not corrected the information.

Some might think that our determination to denounce the propaganda, wherever it comes from, is in vain. Some might think that it’s useless to recall the good journalistic practices, the ethical rules, or to promote a dialogue between Russian and Ukrainian journalists.

As a professional organisation, the EFJ has a duty to promote the standards and stress the need for journalists to tell the truth. There are reasons to hope. Despite a context of extreme tension, despite the risks, despite the threats, thousands of journalists in Ukraine and Russia, continue to exercise their profession with commitment, challenging censors, manipulators and propagandists.

This blog is based on a presentation given by Ricardo Gutierrez General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists at the University of London, 1st March 2016, as part of ‘Journalists & Commanders. Reporting in times of war, tensions and crises’. Ricardo is also a member of Conseil de déontologie journalistique (CDJ) and a senior lecturer at Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB).