RSF urges the Ukrainian authorities to lift arbitrary restrictions on reporters in the field
As well as risking their lives at the front line, some 9,000 or so reporters covering the war in Ukraine have difficulties gaining access to certain places and difficulties filming or taking photos, and even are occasionally detained. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns these abuses and calls on the Ukrainian authorities to eliminate these obstacles for the media.
“In a democratic country, war is no reason to hamper the work of journalists,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Restrictions linked to national security are legitimate but must be proportionate. In view of the interference observed in the field, we urge the Ukrainian government to issue clear directives on reporting conditions and to ensure that they are respected by all the forces involved.”
The approximately 9,000 local and foreign journalists who are accredited as war reporters with the Ukrainian authorities must undertake to follow certain rules. These rules include not revealing the names of units or their location, not filming military installations, waiting several hours before reporting a missile strike or bombardment, and coordinating their movements in combat zones with the armed forces, etc.
In a Telegram post on 28 June, an adviser to President Zelensky referred to “enormous risks” linked to media reporting, called for “responsibility” and stressed the need for “self-regulation.” The Russian armed forces are able to use information published by the media to carry out targeted attacks, as an investigation by the Centre for Information Resilience has shown. But, although national security requires the protection of strategic information, unjustified obstacles to the production of reliable and objective reporting persist in the field.
“When it came to taking photos on the front line, there was always a NO that arrived from nowhere,” RSF was told by Véronique de Viguerie, a French photojournalist and war reporter who spent several weeks covering the war in Ukraine. She also said she felt under pressure to always present Ukrainian soldiers as victims and not as attackers.
“The Ukrainian authorities see foreign journalists as influence relays rather than information vehicles,” another reporter said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I was detained for several hours by local militias and then interrogated by the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] over harmless photos, although my accreditation was in order.”
Sometimes journalists are just not allowed into the field. This was the case in Kharkiv for a while. Journalists were forbidden to leave the city, regardless of where they wanted to go, the photographer Oleksandr Brams told the Institute for Mass Information (IMI), RSF’s partner. This is an obstacle they often encounter, especially “at times when the fighting intensifies.”
In such circumstances, the only way to work is to accompany the Ukrainian armed forces. But journalists who agree to be “embedded” are liable to find Ukrainian military press officers adopting a confusing selective approach, arbitrarily deciding to take a local blogger to visit a strategic location while refusing to take reporters from international news agencies.
Furthermore, not all of the members of the Ukrainian security forces are aware of the rights of accredited journalists. After a missile attack on a shopping mall in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia on 26 May, the police prevented several media outlets – including the local news site 061.ua and the 24-hour news channel 5 Kanal – from filming long after the three-hour delay established by government decree. The ban was only lifted after an appeal to the regional military administration’s spokesperson.
Guillaume Ptack, a reporter for the French daily Les Echos, has been detained several times at checkpoints by territorial defence volunteers who are unaware that the media are allowed to work despite the curfew. A vague fear of being arrested deters most journalists from photographing and filming when passing through checkpoints.
The ”self-regulation” cited by the presidential adviser sometimes becomes self-censorship – which can endanger objective coverage of events. Vadym Karpiak, a presenter on the national commercial TV channel ICTV, says he accepts this moral prohibition as “a requirement linked to the war.” Even if he gets a lot of information from other sources, he only reports information that has been confirmed by the authorities. And there is a lot of pressure. Although her staff respected all the legal restrictions, Zhitomir.info news website editor Tamara Koval is facing charges of having revealed the Ukrainian army’s positions.
At the end of May, RSF also condemned parliamentarian Mariana Bezuhla’s comments about Yuri Butusov, a war reporter whom she accused of “playing along with Russia.” In some cases, such comments constitute online harassment of the kind condemned in a statement on 16 June by the Ukrainian Commission on Journalistic Ethics, which also deplored attempts by “certain politicians” to pressure journalists covering the war.