Written by Tarja Laaninen.
‘The war on Ukraine is also a war on information’, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF). On 16 June 2022, the Committee on Culture and Education (CULT), together with the Civil Liberties (LIBE) and Foreign Interference (INGE) committees, held an exchange of views on ‘Media freedom, protection of journalists and the fight against disinformation in the context of the war in Ukraine’. Speakers from journalists’ organisations, media professionals in exile and Commission representatives outlined their views on recent events in the light of their impacts on journalism and media freedom.
Four months since the brutal invasion of Ukraine began, Russian armed forces are deliberately targeting and killing journalists and bombing broadcasting equipment. ‘In 2022, 13 journalists in Europe alone lost their lives when on duty, 12 of them while reporting the war’, Renate Schröder from European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) told the audience. In parallel, Kremlin crackdowns mean that Russians have been left with no access to domestic sources of independent information covering the events in Ukraine. A recently-adopted law threatens anyone spreading ‘false information’ – which includes using the word ‘war’ – with up to 15 years in prison.
‘In the beginning of the war, we did not have equipment, we didn’t even find helmets; nobody was prepared for the war’, the panellists told the event. A good protective kit costs at least €1 000. With the help of UNESCO and various journalist organisations, safety equipment such as helmets and bulletproof vests, satellite phones, solar batteries and first aid kits were gathered and sent in. The most important thing, according to the experts, is to support continued journalism in Ukraine: to help local journalists so that they can keep on reporting on what is happening on the ground. ‘For this, money is needed’, said Oliver Money-Kirely from the International Press Institute (IPI): ‘The priority is to keep [the] Ukrainian media running, pay salaries, help displaced journalists’. The structure for solidarity is already in place on both the European and Ukrainian sides, he said, with bi-monthly meetings taking place. RSF has set up two Press Freedom Centres in Ukraine – in Lviv and Kyiv – to support journalists by distributing equipment, giving physical and online safety training and offering psychological support.
In the new emergency support programme for Ukraine, €15 million has been earmarked for measures to strengthen the media in Ukraine. Ukrainian journalists based in Ukraine or in the candidate countries to the EU can also benefit from support from the EU-funded Media Freedom Rapid Response project, which provides for grants of up to €5 000, and can cover needs such as medical assistance, subsistence, relocation costs and psychological support. The Journalists-in-Residence programme is already offering temporary shelter to a number of journalists in Leipzig and Milan.
In Russia, it is essential to help the few remaining independent journalists. For the journalists who have left the country, it is important to enable them to work from abroad: they need help with equipment, with setting up digital newsrooms, and with digital security and other ways of ensuring that information can still get into Russia. The hundreds of journalists in exile from Russia are in a precarious situation, many with very short residence permits – often only for six months, depending on the country – and their credit cards blocked. Nevertheless, many of them are determined to keep working to inform the Russian public. There are plans to create a community of journalists in exile from Russia who are in need of financial and technical help, and to set up offices for international cooperation in Paris, Riga and Amsterdam.
RSF has used ‘mirror site’ technology to unblock access to Meduza, the most popular Russian independent news website. With technical assistance from hackers, ICT specialists and engineers in several European countries, RSF is able to quickly create an exact copy or ‘mirror of a censored site and place it on content delivery networks that also host many other services and therefore cannot be easily blocked.
Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU adopted sanctions against state-owned outlets Russia Today and Sputnik. Their broadcasting in or directed at the EU is now suspended. With the recently adopted sixth package of sanctions, which comes into force on 25 June, the ban will extend to three more Russian media outlets. These are exceptional measures and target the core of the Kremlin disinformation and war propaganda machine in the EU. Some EU countries have also taken measures against additional Russian channels, which is possible under the Audiovisual Media Services Directive.
On disinformation, the Commission is in close dialogue with the signatories of the new Code of Practice on Disinformation, signed on 16 June, in order to receive weekly updates on how they are monitoring and limiting disinformation linked to the Russian invasion, for instance closing accounts and stepping up cooperation with fact-checkers. The European External Action Service’s EUvsDisinfo websites are continuing to expose disinformation – originating in pro-Kremlin media – that is spread across the EU and Eastern Partnership countries. On 21 June, the Council approved conclusions on the protection and safety of journalists and media professionals, pointing to a Council of Europe report that the number of alerts about serious threats to the safety of journalists and media freedom in Europe has almost doubled since 2016.
However, complex interactions between the media and audiences also pose challenges in the EU: a sobering report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, published in June 2022, shows that a significant portion of the European population does not trust the media. There are big differences between countries: whereas in Finland, overall trust in traditional news is 69 %; in Germany, the figure is 50 %, in Poland 42 %, in Spain 32 % and in France only 29 %. Worryingly, a growing proportion of Europeans are avoiding the news altogether, for various reasons. In Denmark, 20 % of the people asked said they actively avoided the news, while in Sweden this was the case for 32 % of respondents, and in Romania 40 %. According to the report, selective news avoidance has also increased – most likely as a result of the difficult and depressing nature of the coverage.