Over the course of the last few months, RuNet Echo has interviewed and profiled 12 bloggers, citizen journalists, and social media users in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. They were asked about their views, their motivations, and their experiences covering the crisis that has been unfolding there for over a year now. With the exception of one blogger, who writes in English, all the subjects blog mostly in Russian, the primary language in these regions and overwhelmingly the language of Internet use in Ukraine. Interviews were carried out online, either by Skype, email, or chat services.
Twelve people agreed to be interviewed by RuNet Echo over the course of the series, although many more were contacted and were either too busy, declined, or were unresponsive. Six of the people interviewed were based in Crimea. Three were based in areas that have seen fighting in Luhansk Oblast. One was based in Slavyansk, a government-controlled town in Donetsk Oblast that had previously been held by separatists. Another was based in Odessa. Still another was based in Kharkiv. Four of those contacted are anonymous bloggers. The rest do not take any significant steps to disguise their identities.
The interviewees profiled all openly identified as either supporters or opponents of the new government in Kyiv. Though RuNet Echo attempted to find a balance between different views when contacting potential interviewees, eight of those profiled broadly identified as supporters of a united Ukraine, while four identified with Russia and (to a lesser extent in some cases) with the insurgency in the Donbas. These four are all based in Crimea. Anti-government bloggers from the contested areas of Luhansk and Donetsk were generally unresponsive to interview requests.
1) Politicization of bloggers
One of the consistent trends noted throughout the series is how Russia's annexation of Crimea politicized bloggers in the region and throughout Ukraine. Half (6) of the interviewees stated that they only started their blogs or began video-streaming, after the toppling of Yanukovych. A further four conceded that their output dramatically increased and became more political, as a result of Ukraine's revolution. The violent nature of the conflict in Ukraine can be said to have energized and politicized the blogosphere to a significant extent.
2) Polarization and mistrust
There was also an increased tendency for both sides to view the other with mistrust that at times bordered on ethnic hatred. One interviewee, when asked if he had anything he wished to impart to an English-speaking audience simply stated:
I would like people in Europe to distinguish between Russians and Ukrainians. We're completely different. But they mix us up. We want to get into Europe. We want to go forward. Russians just want to drink vodka.
This mistrust was especially pronounced in the attitudes of both sides to the professional media of the other. Pro-Kyiv interviewees often didn’t make distinctions between Russian journalists and Russian military forces (two even described them as “terrorists”), and considered the “propaganda” they produce to be simply another facet of the conflict underway. As one interviewer described them, “I wouldn’t even call them journalists, they’re just people carrying out orders.”
Similarly, Crimean bloggers who support Russia have a low opinion of the Ukrainian media, believing them to be simply fulfilling orders and attempting to distort the situation.
3) Dangers of blogging and online journalism
A significant number of bloggers report they have been targeted by government or irregular forces, either online or in real life, for their opinions or coverage of events.
Three of the interviewees were forced to flee their homes. One interviewee had to flee after being captured and tortured by insurgents in Luhansk. Another received information he was going to be arrested by insurgents and fled. One woman left Crimea after she was detained and her house searched by heavily armed Russian security forces, looking for “extremist” material. Another of the (pro-Kyiv) bloggers profiled has since permanently left Crimea for unknown reasons.
Two pro-Russian Crimean bloggers reported that the Ukrainian security services were attempting to charge them with separatism. Both of the pro-Ukrainian Crimean bloggers profiled in this series have since left the territory. One left when Russian security services searched their home. The other fled, after becoming uncomfortable publicly opposing Russia's annexation.
Censorship is also a concern. One of the pro-Ukrainian bloggers profiled has had their blog added to Russia’s infamous “Internet blacklist” for “extremism.”
Tellingly, four interviewees in this series blog anonymously. For two of the interviewees, this was a matter of obvious personal security, as they write critically about anti-Kyiv militia in areas that these forces controlled. One blogger profiled did not wish to de-anonymize himself even after the town he was living in was retaken by Ukrainian soldiers, noting “the war is not yet over,” saying he “doesn't want to harm those close to [him].”
4) Views on media
Interviewees that identified as pro-Ukrainian almost universally loathed Russian media. (One conceded that while “practically 90%” of Russian media is unprofessional, “there are honest journalists and writers in Russia who aren’t afraid to tell the truth. But there are fewer and fewer of them.”) Interviewees who identified as pro-Russian universally loathed Ukrainian media. Beyond this dichotomy, however, many of the interviewees profiled had skeptical and nuanced views of traditional media.
Both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian Crimean bloggers were willing to concede that media in “their own” country aren't always truthful or unbiased. One pro-Ukrainian interviewee told RuNet Echo:
Мне сложно говорить о СМИ в Украине, но, как мне кажется, украинские журналисты очень близко к сердцу приняли максиму об информационной войне и готовы выгораживать грехи украинской власти только по национальной (или этнической) принадлежности.
It's difficult for me to speak about the media in Ukraine, but it seems to me that Ukrainian journalists have taken the maxim of information war to heart and are prepared to gloss over the sins of the Ukrainian authorities solely out of national (or ethnic) solidarity.
Another blogger, who supported Russia's annexation of Crimea, admitted:
С российской стороны, в свою очередь, идет очень много пропаганды по поводу того, что Донбасс хочет в Россию. А реально Донбасс никуда не хочет, а на Донбассе воюют российские военные (которые приехали из России), а не местные ополченцы, как показывает российское телевидение.
From the Russian side, there's a lot of propaganda that Donbas wants to be part of Russia. Really, Donbas doesn't want to be part of anywhere and the Russian military (who came from Russia) are fighting there and not local militia, as they show on Russian television.
One pro-Russian blogger took a dim view of traditional media in general:
Я не верю в существование независимых СМИ – все они так или иначе зависимы от государства или от денег частных лиц, определяющих редакционную политику.
I don’t believe in the existence of independent media. They’re all in one way or another dependent on government or on private money, which defines the editorial line.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, bloggers on both sides of the “information war” tended to privilege new media, blogs, and streaming as sources of information.