A report out today highlights how independent media will be as critical as funding for Ukraine’s postwar recovery.
For more than 30 years, journalists in Ukraine have been in the front line of the struggle to make the country a viable democracy in the post-Soviet world. Over time they have had to endure the dead hand of government interference, targeting killings of dissident journalists and the suffocating embrace of home-grown oligarchs who converted the media into their own business and political sphere.
The war with Russia has transformed the media landscape. But journalists and news media striving for independence—even in the midst of the defence of their homeland—remain focused on the demand that, when peace comes, it brings not only the return of lost territories but also a renewed commitment to open democracy and press freedom.
Cornerstone of democracy
Their vision of an information-and-communication landscape buttressed by professional and independent journalism is set out in a new report, Ukraine Media: Defiance and Truth-telling, published by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN). Sketching the current media terrain, in a series of essays it sets out the challenges facing media organisations. Independent media are essential, the report concludes, not just to counter ‘the constant drumbeat of propaganda and the presence of disinformation which pose deadly threats to media freedom’, but as a cornerstone of the country’s democratic future.
The message from journalists on the ground and media employers could not be clearer: the international community needs to make support for independent journalism a priority if Ukraine is to secure its place in the European family of democratic nations. The report’s key recommendations include:
- a radical overhaul of journalism education across the country to modernise teaching of reporting and editing skills, particularly related to use of information technology, embedding principles of ethical reporting and strengthening the capacity for investigative journalism;
- more support for local media, including funds to sustain local news outlets threatened with closure and fresh initiatives to counter propaganda, disinformation and the turmoil caused by war and the transformation of the media landscape;
- swift action to find and bring to justice those responsible for the targeting and killing of journalists, so that they can be brought to trial and held to account;
- restrictions on journalists’ access to conflict zones to be lifted;
- new dialogues between the government and media-support groups to strengthen the independence of journalism and create an enabling environment for safe regulation of media, and
- more unified action within media to strengthen rules on transparency, ownership and journalistic independence.
The report, prepared with the assistance of the Evens Foundation, traces the development of Ukraine’s media in recent years and their role in the current conflict. It is a story of courage and resilience, which has won international recognition. Awarding the Pulitzer Prize to Ukrainian journalists last year, the Pulitzer board wrote: ‘Despite bombardment, abductions, occupation, and even deaths in their ranks, they have persisted in their effort to provide an accurate picture of a terrible reality, doing honour to Ukraine and to journalists around the world.’
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Unlike Russia, where dissident media voices have been brutally suppressed through draconian laws and where independent journalists have been forced into exile in neighbouring countries, Ukrainian journalism still functions in generally free conditions. But not all is well. The report criticises the government over restrictions on media access to frontline positions and supports some Ukrainian journalists and international press-freedom groups who have expressed concern over a flawed new media law.
While reporters and editors support the war effort, they wrestle with their consciences when there is a conflict with the core values of journalism. Yuriy Nikolov, for example, was leaked evidence that army food-procurement contracts had been inflated in January this year. Conscious of not wanting to harm the war effort, he went to great lengths not to publish this. But he changed his mind when he approached defence officials with the findings and found their response ‘not what it should be’. He sensed that the matter was not going to be pursued officially and decided he had to run the story.
Publication forced the government to investigate and reform military procurement and triggered the resignation of top officials. The story illustrates how Ukraine remains locked in an internal war, with powerful figures inside the country’s leading institutions having enjoyed impunity for corrupt behaviour.
The scale of the problem was revealed in early May when anti-corruption authorities in Kyiv arrested Vsevolod Kniaziev, head of the country’s Supreme Court, as part of a $2.7 million bribery investigation, the biggest in Ukraine’s history. The case offers welcome evidence of the determination of the authorities to crack down on graft at all levels—a prerequisite for membership of the European Union—but also reveals how corruption remains a fact of life within Ukrainian society.
Almost a quarter of Ukrainians paid a bribe when using public services last year. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International—a leading barometer of bribery and corruption—Ukraine was ranked 116 out of 180 countries last year, a little better than Russia (137th) but well below the global average.
A culture of internal secrecy, weak institutions and poor law enforcement allows corruption to flourish and exposing malpractice in centres of power can be a dangerous and difficult task. But it should not be left to government fraud squads alone: independent investigative journalism, as Nikolov demonstrates, also has a critical role to play.
The challenges facing Ukraine’s journalists are, therefore, not just those associated with fighting and winning a military struggle but include creating the space for a responsible journalism that will encourage independent scrutiny of political power and hold to account those in charge of the country’s money. This becomes particularly important with eye-watering sums suddenly being shifted around to support urgent reconstruction projects.
According to the Washington-based Brooking Institute, the full cost of rebuilding Ukraine in the aftermath of war will be anything up to $750 billion. That is a few hundred billion more than the World Bank estimates but either way it will be a huge sum.
The institute warns that unless anti-corruption measures are given priority and put in place, there could be ‘sprawling corruption and, in turn, wasted money, disenfranchised citizens, and fertile ground for continued conflict’. Anyone who has followed closely how reconstruction was pursued in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Iraq knows that recovery from a devastating war requires not just adequate funding but also systems to combat corruption in how money is spent and accounted for.
With this in mind, Brookings proposes using a small fraction of reconstruction funding to support investigative journalism and anti-corruption efforts. It could be money well spent given that it estimates—on the basis of relevant reconstruction precedents—that corruption can siphon off as much as 30 per cent of investment.
As the EJN report concludes, Ukraine’s leaders have nothing to fear from the investigative instincts of good journalists. Ethical and professional reporters and a genuinely independent media system are critical friends. They can contribute to an anti-corruption ecosystem that will promote good governance throughout Ukraine’s war—and strengthen democracy in the reconstruction to follow.