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16 May, 2016

The high cost of news

In mid-week, Ukraine’s media was rocked by yet another scandal. Myrotvorets or Peacemaker, a site known for publishing information about those who have collaborated with terrorists, published a list of journalists who have been accredited by the “Donetsk People’s Republic”

The published list contained more than 4,000 names, some of which were repeated here and there, cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and the dates they were accredited by the self-declared DPR. Less than a day after the list was made public, some journalists announced that they had begun receiving threats by phone, while the nationalistic element in Ukrainian society was quick to denounce as guilty just about all of the accredited individuals, calling them “accomplices of terrorists” and “traitors.”

The reasoning of the hackers was a bit strange. For instance, they wondered why “many non-Russian media like CNN, BBC or AFP had journalists with Russian names and surnames.” True, they explained that they understood that these were the media’s locally-based correspondents. Or why “for some reason, many foreign journalists have contact numbers that belong to Ukrainian operators.” The impression is that after getting these lists, no one seemed to think it necessary to even try to analyze the information and to understand how the press works—never mind in conflict zones. After all, journalists have not just the right, but even the duty, to try to provide the most objective information possible about events that are taking place. If this means going into occupied territory, that’s what they have to do.

Still, it seems that neither Myrotvorets nor a good chunk of Ukrainian society realizes this. “What good could they have done there? Why go there in the first place? We aren’t interested in what’s going on there,” readers began tossing at the journalists. And absolutely ignored the right and duty of a journalist to gather objective information—even if it means cutting deals with terrorists in order to do so.

RELATED ARTICLE: The status and political views of the pro-Ukrainian people who fled the Donbas after the war broke out

The scandal also tore Ukraine’s media environment into two camps. The first group is mostly reporters who have worked in conflict zones at one time or another. Some of the journalists even published photographs of their own press passes, which, honestly, looked at the beginning like pieces of paper with stamps and signatures. Ironically, some colleagues say that, in summer 2014, this kind of “permit” offered far more access in DNR than accreditation from the SBU or the Defense Ministry does on Ukrainian territory.

The camp of those who are against accreditation includes other media professionals and a slew of public and high-profile individuals in Ukraine. For instance, journalist and political analyst Vitaliy Portnikov stated that Ukraine’s press has no moral right to cooperate with terrorists, as they are firstly citizens of Ukraine and only then, journalists. He gave the Gaza Sector as an example, where, Portnikov says, Israeli media don’t operate, as it would be “hard to even imagine.” However, he ended up with mud on his face: it turns out that HAMAS, a terrorist organization, has accredited journalists since 2007, according to Freedom House. And Israeli media does operate in the Palestinian territories.

VR deputy and advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs Anton Gerashchenko, who is known for his controversial views and is linked to the Myrotvorets site, went even further, writing on his Facebook page that he proposed instituting control over press content. It turns out that this MP is not against reinstating censorship in Ukraine, arguing that this is a popular move in Ukraine “because we have a war!”

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Ukrainian and foreign media folks, meanwhile, turned to Myrotvorets with a demand that they withdraw open access to the database of accredited journalists. Of course, this wouldn’t change much because once something is online, it’s there forever. Still, such a considerate move to reconcile the two camps might help calm down Ukrainian society somewhat. Instead, the hackers decided to respond differently and announced that they were shutting down the site because of the response to the publication, the endless “worry and concern” expressed by the European Union, and what they referred to as anti-Ukrainian journalists in Ukraine itself.  But they did not offer any apologies or admit that they had made a mistake.

Meanwhile, the launch of a criminal investigation for the publication of the data only poured oil on the fire. The Prosecutor’s Office called the original act “interference in the legitimate professional work of journalists.”

Objectively, a list without contact information has interesting enough information: the number of Russian propaganda outlets operating on the territory of DNR, and which Ukrainian journalists were accredited with Russian media like RIA Novosti. There is more than enough material there for actual in-depth analysis—but Ukrainian society doesn’t quite seem ready for yet.

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