In Ukraine, an Intensifying Information War Amid a Lull in Fighting

Kiev's blacklist of journalists has become an unintentional gift for Moscow, already an expert in curbing freedom of expression.

Amie Ferris-Rotman
Amie Ferris-Rotman
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A man takes pictures of an APC as he visits the exhibition “Weapon and Security” in Kiev on September 23, 2015.
A man takes pictures of an APC as he visits the exhibition “Weapon and Security” in Kiev on September 23, 2015.Credit: AFP
Amie Ferris-Rotman
Amie Ferris-Rotman

Kiev is glorious this time of year. Opera season is in full swing, the Dnieper’s banks throng with young people savoring the final whiff of summer, and near the golden domes of the St. Michael’s monastery, women cheerfully piece together camouflage nets for the front of a war that has become increasingly muted.

The third cease-fire, which began on September 1, is largely holding, according to international observers. Two previous attempts to end the fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces — signed in September 2014 and February 2015 — failed miserably: Nearly 9,000 people have been killed and at least 1.4 million are now displaced.

In Paris on October 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko, along with the leaders of Germany and France, to discuss ways to end the conflict that is now well into its second year.

But beneath the sheen of cautious optimism, a Ukrainian PR campaign is simmering, carrying with it potentially dangerous consequences. The stalwart support from Kiev’s Western backers could backfire, meaning Russia’s campaign to halt Ukraine’s westward shift may be dealt an unexpected victory.

The international community was stunned when on September 16 Poroshenko signed a decree preventing almost 400 people and entities from entering Ukraine. The grounds: They posed an “actual or potential threat to national interests, national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Most shocking was the singling out of 41 journalists and bloggers from 16 countries: Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, and Britain.

The global outcry prompted the Ukrainian government to remove from the list the BBC’s two British journalists and their Russian cameraman, one German reporter and two Spanish journalists, who, adding insult to injury, are missing and were most likely kidnapped in Syria in July. But the rest — including three journalists and one blogger from Israel — remain (two sets of Israeli lawyers and spin doctors are also on the list).

Dubious election

The main complaint against the media centered on their reporting of the controversial November 2014 elections in the rebel-held eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where senior separatist officials were chosen in a poll that Moscow recognized but Ukraine and Western governments deemed illegitimate.

Blacklisted Israeli journalist Alexander Ronkin, from Iton-TV, the country’s first Russian-language Internet channel, said the Ukrainian ban made Kiev “more like the very regimes it criticizes, moving further away from the norms of Western democracy with which it tries to conform,” he wrote on Facebook in Russian. He covered the disputed elections in Luhansk as an “independent journalist,” he added.

Nata Potyomkin, a Donetsk native and one of the banned Israeli journalists, says she wasn’t even in the country when the rebel elections were held. “This is a lie, and the border control at Ben-Gurion Airport can confirm this,” the 39-year-old said from Tel Aviv, her home for the past three years.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the ban “undermines Ukraine’s interests.” Its Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator, Nina Ognianova, called on Poroshenko’s government to remove from the list the rest of the journalists and “allow them to cover the region freely.”

Analysts have long described the conflict in Ukraine as information warfare. In the Russian media, Moscow’s intervention is seen as the heroic quashing of the sort of fascist behavior seen in World War II. In the Ukrainian media, Russia is portrayed as an aggressive invader.

Moscow has also taken to rewriting history, decrying the 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine from Russia as illegal — Moscow annexed the Black Sea peninsula in March last year. The Russians have even gone so far as to compare Nazi war crimes to the current events in Ukraine.

In an ironic twist, Ukraine’s blacklist became an unintentional gift for Russia, which, despite its widening crackdown on freedom of expression, called the ban “absolutely unacceptable.”

Ukrainian Culture Ministry exhibited winners of national 'patriotic poster' competition. September 24, 2015.Credit: Amie Ferris-Rotman

“As soon as Europe felt the bite of such an ill-considered, anti-democratic policy of pursuing people who have a different point of view, it understood that Ukraine is far from European standards,” said Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament.

Kiev counterattack

Freelance journalist Potyomkin believes the latest sanctions list “shows the face of contemporary Ukraine to the world.” Last winter, Potyomkin traveled to Donetsk, where she documented daily life in her three-and-a-half-hour film “War on My Knee.” Her self-published book “Fuckin’ Ukraine” followed in August.

Referring to Poroshenko’s team, which replaced the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, ousted after the Maidan revolution in February 2014, Potyomkin added: “For this system to work, at least temporarily, there is a need to completely remove risk factors such as democracy, freedom of expression and basic human dignity. This is what is happening now in Kiev.”

Col. Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, defended the blacklist earlier this month, telling a press briefing in Kiev that it was created “as a counterattack against the information war being waged against Ukraine. These journalists used their skills and materials against our territorial integrity.”

The Israeli Embassy in Kiev declined to comment on its banned citizens.

While Russia abounds with anti-Ukrainian sentiment, the perpetuation of a propaganda machine well-honed during the 70 years of Communism, Kiev is quickly catching up. Over the last year, Ukraine has banned 14 Russian artists, 38 Russia-published books and more than 100 Russian films.

A slew of senior Russian officials were on the recent blacklist, and international celebrities have also become personae non gratae. After visiting Crimea, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is now barred from Ukraine for at least three years; in July, French actor Gerard Depardieu, who has acquired Russian citizenship, was banned after he described Ukraine as being part of Russia.

Last week, Ukraine’s Culture Ministry exhibited the winners of its national “patriotic poster” competition. Over 60 stark images glared from bare white walls, many depicting a grotesque double-headed Russian eagle.

In one, a Russian flag is composed of bullets. In another, the black and orange St. George’s Ribbon, an insignia of the Russian military, has been transformed into hissing snakes. Others are more solemn; for example, the outline of a tank setting off to war, with the words “To Ukraine!” Underneath, three wheelchairs move in the opposite direction; below is written "From Ukraine."

The current Kyiv Biennial, the city’s second, is overtly political. Renowned Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan bears witness to wartime in several installations called “The Possessed Can Testify in Court.”

Walking up the tiered marble staircase of the National Historical Museum of Ukraine, one is confronted with mortar shells, shrapnel and rockets, suspended from the ceiling with wire rope. They are charred, twisted, burned and, chillingly, were used to kill and maim Kadan’s countrymen in eastern Ukraine. In another display, tributes to Donetsk and Crimea are encased in glass.

In an impressive oil painting by Darya Kuzmych, young men in the city of Kharkiv use tremendous force to tear down the statue of Lenin, who is engulfed in red flames and black smoke. Over 100 statues of the Soviet Union’s founder have been felled across the country since the conflict began, in acts of protest against Russia.

“Because of our Soviet past, we think of ideology as tyranny, but this is not the case,” Natalka Neshevets, a coordinator at the Biennial, told Haaretz in central Kiev. “We understand that propaganda is a tool, and perhaps the Biennial is a way of representing the political ideology of our time.”

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