Before Russia's second invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine enjoyed a high degree of media freedom and a vibrant diversity of media outlets. What is the situation today after over 20 months of war, destruction and some cases, the killing of journalists?
Global Voices spoke to Jeanne Cavelier, Head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to find out about support projects to journalists and RSF's own assessment of media freedom today. The interview took place over email and is edited for style and brevity.
Filip Noubel (FN): What is the rationale behind the building of and support to Press Freedom Centers across Ukraine?
Jeanne Cavelier (JC): Reporters Without Borders (RSF) defends the right of every human being to have access to free and reliable information. Journalists are at the frontline of the Russian war in Ukraine, which is also a war against information. By taking hostages, bombing TV towers and shooting at cars marked ‘Press,’ the Russian authorities are demonstrating their determination to censor all reporting that contradicts their military propaganda. Since 24 February 2022, 11 reporters have been killed and 29 injured, only because they were doing their job. They risk their lives to inform people around the world. RSF’s aim is that they can do their work as safely as possible. That’s why we decided to act very quickly after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, by opening Press Freedom Centers. We were the first organization to provide bulletproof jackets and helmets to the press on the ground, that allow them to work more securely.
FN: Where are they, and how are they used?
JC: Right after the invasion on February 24, 2022, RSF opened a Press Freedom Center on March 10 in Lviv, a Ukrainian city very close to Poland that became a hub for the entry and exit of journalists in Ukraine. When the situation in Kyiv allowed it, we opened a second center there on May 17. The aim of these two centers is simple: support journalists, whether Ukrainian or foreign, who cover the war by providing them with the protective equipment, assistance and resources they need to pursue their journalistic work as safely as possible. Ukraine has become a hub for journalists; 12,000 Ukrainian and foreign journalists were accredited during the first year of the war, and they all face risks to their safety and their lives.
From March 2022 to February 2023, the two Press Freedom Centers have provided support to almost 1,300 journalists and media outlets, 80 percent of whom are Ukrainian. These two centers operate non-stop and are run by two Ukrainian colleagues who spend time talking to all the journalists who pass through them, showing them how to use the helmets and bullet-proof jackets, as well as first-aid kits. RSF has a long-term partnership with a local Ukrainian organization, the Institute of Mass Information (IMI). Thanks to this organization, we are also able to reach a larger number of local journalists in other regions.
Our centers conduct several activities. Apart from the free loan of personal protective equipment, we distributed for instance energy-related equipment. Ukraine has been experiencing a major energy crisis with the systematic bombing of energy infrastructure by Russia in the winter of 2022–2023. This has impacted on the media, as they've been left without electricity and internet. We provided nearly one hundred media outlets across the country with equipment such as generators, solar charging stations, and solar power banks. Also, through the Press Freedom Centers, RSF regularly organizes digital, physical, psychological safety training and capacity building. Finally, journalists working in Ukraine and local media can also receive psychological support and financial assistance.
FN: Is Taiwan among the sponsors of those centers? And if so, to what extent are journalists and citizens in Ukraine aware of support from Taiwan?
JC: In 2022, the two Press Freedom Centers benefited from the support of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which donated EUR 450,000 euros [USD 476,000] to support RSF's work to promote journalism in Ukraine. That’s great, this donation has made it possible to strengthen the activities of the Press Freedom Centers. The logo of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is therefore displayed in the two centers. Ukrainian and international journalists who visit our centers are bound to see it. Taiwan's support in Ukraine is visible and is known in different aspects, here to support press freedom.
For more on Taiwan-Ukraine relations, read Understanding the link between Ukraine and Taiwan
FN: Russia’s invasion has lasted over 600 days by now. What is your assessment of Ukraine’s media freedom?
JC: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shaken the Ukrainian media landscape. On the one hand, it faces many challenges, such as disorganization and a shortage of human resources. Ukraine has five million internally displaced people, six million refugees and hundreds of thousands of people in the army. This has had an impact on Ukrainian newsrooms, which are finding it hard to find qualified journalists.
Also, the security situation is unprecedented for journalists, who became overnight war reporters. As we approach the two-year anniversary of the invasion, 11 journalists have died in connection with their work, at least 29 have been injured and 42 have come under fire. RSF filed 17 complaints to the International Criminal Court and the Ukrainian prosecutor related to these war crimes. Ukrainian journalists in the occupied territories are being systematically hunted down by the Russian occupying forces and are in great danger. The economic sector has been weakened with the closure of more than 230 media outlets since the start of the full-scale war, according to our partner IMI. The media's main source of revenue, advertising, collapsed by 63 percent in 2022. Finally, the information war continues. Kremlin propaganda is extremely active in the occupied territories and in various platforms such as Telegram or Facebook, spreading a false war narrative.
On the other hand, the Ukrainian media landscape itself has evolved and remained a pluralistic space. The war and the spirit of national unity have reduced the oligarchs’ hold on the media and the pressures that were due to divisions. In 2023, Ukraine ranked 79th out of 180 countries in RSF's press freedom index despite the fact the country’s safety score, one of our 5 indicators, is the second to last. A lot of the independent media have benefited from international and national support via grants and crowdfunding. They are alert on many situations, for instance, corruption. But the audience habits have changed. The traditional media have lost some of their influence to social networks, particularly Telegram, which have become the primary source of information for almost 78 percent of the population.
Last but not least, the state has established itself as a major player in the Ukrainian media landscape, managing the telemarathon that has lasted since the start of the war. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion, the main Ukrainian television channels came together to form an “information front,” broadcasting only news and fighting the Russian information war. By sharing time slots, they broadcast the same programmes. The government was quick to regulate the telemarathon. While the initiative was welcomed at the start of the war, it is now causing problems of diversity. The opposition channels are not represented, and the guests are often the same coming from the majority. This telemarathon is no longer appropriate and we must remain vigilant about attempts to control information. We are also vigilant to accreditation restrictions. As a democratic country, Ukraine must continue to set an example despite the war.