Press freedom and the Ukraine War

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh 26 August 2022

It is a cliché now to say that the first casualty of war is the truth, but it happens to be correct.  But the truth is not a casualty on its own.  Journalists who try to reveal the truth or give an alternative view, which may or may not be true, are also casualties of war.  This is evidently the case with the war in Ukraine.

German journalist Alina Lipp reports from Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

Anyone listening to the major news channels around the world or reading the mainstream newspapers, cannot help but be impacted by the one-sidedness of the reporting and commentary, but also by the lack of any attempt at concealing the propagandistic nature of it.  It seems the media have gone for overkill to get its pro NATO message across rather than subtlety.  The media has not reflected on its own role nor the contradictions in its reports and comments.

At the start of the war, the media called for sanctions against Russia including the refusal to buy Russian oil and gas.  When Russia began to cut supplies, the same media without blushing declared that Putin was using oil and gas as a weapon.  This is as much the case as it was with the West threatening to blockade energy exports, but only in one case is it considered a cynical war related move.  On the state-owned radio in Ireland (RTE) a well-known presenter suggested that NATO should impose a no fly zone, when a former military officer and current academic told her that this would mean total war with Russia, including the possibility of nuclear war, she basically said “if that is what it takes” though in a slightly softer tone and language.  This is much is clear to most observers.  However, what has happened to journalists on the ground who try to report on the reality of war?

The short answer is that they are not allowed to do so.  All of the media report on Russian war crimes.  There is no doubt that Russia has committed war crimes, it would be the first war without them, if this were not the case.  But some of the examples given are less than satisfactory.  Examples of mass graves in areas taken over by Russia are not necessarily a sign of the war crime of mass executions, but rather of an occupying army doing what it has to do in an area it aims to hold on to i.e. taking the sanitary precaution of rapidly burying the dead.  How those civilians came to be killed is another matter.  The shelling of civilians is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions as is using civilians as human shields.  Recently RTE showed footage of a civilian area being shelled by the Russians and accidentally showed Ukrainian troops in amongst the civilians. (1) It did not comment on this violation of the rules of war by both Russia and Ukraine.  The idea that Ukraine might also engage in war crimes is discounted by the media.  In August, Amnesty International published a report titled Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians. (2)  Amongst its findings were that Ukraine has launched attacks from within the civilian population.  The backlash was such that AI apologised for having stated the obvious.  The OSCE has been bombarded with complaints about a 2016 report on war crimes committed by the Ukrainian armed forces in Donbass.  So far it has resisted calls to take down the document and it could hardly be considered some left-wing pressure group.

So those journalists who defy the current blackout on dissenting voices face serious consequences.  The Basque journalist Pablo González, who holds Spanish and Russian nationality was arrested by the Polish government at the start of the conflict.  It was said that he was acting as a spy for the Russian government.  He was arrested on February 28th and to date no formal charge has been presented, though his detention was recently extended for another three months.  He has had little in the way of support from the Spanish consular authorities and limited contact with his own lawyer.   In an attempt to copper fasten any possible conviction, the British intelligence services weighed in on the issue.  Richard Moore the head of MI6 stated at the Aspen Security Forum that Pablo González was indeed a spy, part of Russia’s destabilising efforts in the region. (3)  This statement was made in order to guarantee his conviction and also to send a message to dissenting journalists that there are no lengths NATO will not go to in order to suppress the freedom of the press.

Other nations have rowed in and made similar statements about their own journalists.  One such case is that of German journalist Alina Lipp.  She reports from Donetsk and amongst her reporting are details of shellings of hospitals, food stocks amongst other war crimes, similar war crimes to ones that Russia has been accused of.  She faces three years in jail if she ever returns to Germany.  Her crime? Reporting on the conflict.  Her and her parents’ bank accounts have been frozen and she was not allowed to attend the trial to defend herself.(4)  She has a view on the conflict, she uses terms like Special Operation, but as she states herself, she reported the opinions of locals in Donetsk and reported on the Russian government’s views of the conflict.  Whether she sympathises with the Russian position is beside the point.  No journalist has been prosecuted for supporting the official NATO position.  What is more dangerous for the German government is that she reports from the area on the ground and covers issues that are not covered in the Western media.

Eva Bartlett is a Canadian journalist who travelled to the region to cover the war.  She has been vilified by the mainstream media for her coverage of Ukraine and her criticisms of the White Helmets in Syria.  She also reports on the ground, covering the bombing of a funeral in Donbass and also the bombing of a hotel where journalists were housed.(5)  The bomb fell short, so it is not clear whether the hotel itself was the target, but as with many war crimes, intentionality is only part of the accusation, as the warring parties have a duty not to place civilians and other categories like journalists and medical personnel in danger.  So far eight journalists have been killed in the war, all allegedly by Russia, and over 100 attacks have occurred, though there is no break down on these. (6)  Though a number of these attacks have happened in regions in which there has never been any Russian presence.

The number is significant but so far this year, a total of 34 journalists and two media workers have been killed around the world and a further 490 journalists and 18 media workers are currently in prison.  Mexico has the highest murder rate at 10 journalists and the highest number of journalists imprisoned are to be found in China (111), Burma (85) and Vietnam (42).  Between 2016 and 2019 two journalists were murdered in Ukraine and two more in Russia with four imprisoned in Ukraine and 46 in Russia.  Neither of these countries has a great record in the matter, though Russia’s is obviously worse.

The hounding of the journalists mentioned here should be seen in the context of Julian Assange still being held in jail, awaiting extradition to the US, for exposing US war crimes, which included the murder of two Reuters journalists.

The National Union of Journalists in Great Britain and Ireland has had little to say about the issue.  It did support Assange, but took their time in getting round to it and it is not the case that their efforts have been significant, though in the case of Ukraine, they have organised protests outside Russian embassies, sometimes with Ambassadors whose countries have a disgraceful record on press freedom and ignoring that before the war, Ukraine was 97th on the Index of Press Freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

The journalists concerned may or may not have Russian sympathies.  It doesn’t matter.  What is at stake is the monolithic hold the pro war discourse has in Western media, which is why first they took Russian media off the air and now go after journalists whose real crime is reporting what they would rather not have covered from a perspective that does not match NATO’s.


(1) Breatnach, D. (14/07/2022) A Different Picture Slips Through the Propaganda

(2) AI (2022) Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians

(3) Artola, I. (22/07/2022) El jefe del MI6 apoya la acusación de espionaje de Polonia al periodista español Pablo González

(4) Daily Telegraph NZ (04/07/2022) German Authorities to Prosecute Journalist Alina Lipp for Reporting from Donbass

(5) Bartlett, E. (04/08/2022) Today, Ukraine bombed a Donetsk hotel full of journalists – here’s what it felt like to be there

(6) RSF (22/08/2022) Six months of war in Ukraine, eight journalists killed