What challenges have media faced in covering the Ukraine conflict, and what opportunities have opened up? Who is Russian propaganda really aimed at? Belarus in Focus caught up with Danish media expert Michael Andersen, director of the Kyiv-based MYMEDIA, and Brian Bonner, chief editor of the Kyiv Post, at the 2014 Lviv Media Forum.
It’s been a year since the turbulent events in Ukraine started. Looking at how international media has covered this period, what trends are there?
MA: It’s a pity that there were no foreign media around in the first week of the revolution, when it was about a choice between Putin or a civilized Europe. I was on the Euromaidan very late at night on November 30th  and joked with a friend that this wouldn’t turn into another revolution because the police were already going home. What we didn’t know is that two hours after the normal police had gone home, the security police would come in and smash everything up. If they hadn’t done that, I doubt that anything would have happened. So it was a shame there was no coverage of that first week when there was an interesting discussion underway about if Ukraine should modernise, or not. The international media only turned up once the violence had started, and the demonstrations had grown, and by that time they had also been taken over by the political parties.
Contrary to other people, I am not impressed by the western media’s coverage of the situation in Ukraine, it’s been quite primitive. I’ve noticed various mistakes, for example, everyone was writing about Lviv, and the fascists, and the banderovtsi, until some academics pointed out that this was nonsense. While there are people of neo-nazi orientation amongst the groups which kicked out Yanukovich, they are a small minority - they do not have much support at elections as we have just seen and while they may use and enjoy “nazi” symbols, when you talk to them you realise that they mainly just call themselves “nazi”. In fact,they don’t really understand what Nazism was.
Also, Western media - and politicians - have ignored Ukraine for so long that it was simply unprepared. It was typical to see a double byline – a Western journalist writing with a Ukrainian journalist, but at least it meant that you got some historical facts, as well as phrases such as “the Ukraine” weeded out.
BB: I think international media coverage got better as they started sending correspondents, and teaming them up with journalists on the ground. For example, at the Kyiv Post [ed. a Kyiv-based newspaper that covers Ukraine for an English-speaking readership], we have staff freelancing for The Guardian, US Today, New York Times, and we’ve had staff get hired by Mashable, Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times. These connections have worked out well because both sides get something out of it – international media get informed about Ukraine, and our staff gets experience with the big international outlets.
What challenges did local media, such as the Kyiv Post, face when Ukraine was catapulted into the world media spotlight?
BB: We certainly weren’t prepared to cover a revolution or a war, and this one was a lot longer, more violent, and more cataclysmic than the Orange Revolution. It was part of the nation’s advancement to independence, democracy, and it all happened a kilometre away from our office. We had to learn a lot about personal safety all sides of the struggle, despite our personal preferences, and fortunately we stayed safe. We didn’t get a break because five days after Yanukovich fled, Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea, and then he started the war in the eastern part of Ukraine and so we had to learn a whole new set of skills - going to war, how to stay safe, how to approach checkpoints, how to get registered, how to cover both sides despite our personal biases. We had to buy equipment, we had no travel money, we were fortunate to get grants and supports, so we’ve been able to stay at the warfront both in Crimea and in the east since March. And the war still goes on. But I think it’s very challenging for the Kyiv Post to work in this environment because we don’t have the resources that many of the big media have.
One of the issues discussed during the Lviv Media Forum was the influence of Russian propaganda in Western media coverage. What kind of influence have you noticed?
BB: It’s been very Moscow-centric because that’s where the bureaus are, and I think that’s why you’ve seen them tying themselves up in knots trying to describe what’s going on – we call it Russia’s war against Ukraine, Russia doesn’t call it that, Ukraine hasn’t declared an official state of war, the West certainly doesn’t call it that – and they do it all for their own reasons, but this is Russia’s war against Ukraine. I think that Russian propaganda helped cloud it, but lately I’m starting to think that it’s overrated, the West understands what’s going on, understands that Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is the victim. I think a different question is does the West care enough about Ukraine now, does it see the implications that this is not just an assault on Ukraine, but on international law, and the post-world-war-two order by a nuclear-armed dictator. But the longer the Russian propaganda goes on, the less effective it is.
So Russian propaganda is perhaps less effective in the West - how about in East Ukraine and Russia?
MA: Even when it looks like Russian propaganda is directed at the west, I think that Putin is directing it at young people in Russia. But who really believes Russian propaganda? We don’t believe that people in Western Ukraine believe it. What is between the lines is that we think that people in Eastern Ukraine are so stupid that they believe it, when they’re not. They don’t get anything out of believing in it. People in Russia aren’t stupid either, but people who are secure in their jobs get something out of believing in Putin.
The average person in Russia has little alternative in terms of information, we could compare this with the situation in Belarus …
MA: If we’re talking about Lukashenko’s propaganda in Belarus, many people don’t believe that either, but they are overwhelmed. Whatever channel you put on, it’s Lukashenko. As there’s no alternative, you kind of give up and opt out. People aren’t that stupid.
Would you say that Ukrainian media have developed their own methods and standards to counteract Russian propaganda?
MA: I don’t think that the answer to Putin’s propaganda is counter-propaganda from Kyiv. Some of the media coverage I see is very one-sided and primitive, and Ukrainians see through it. These are intelligent people, and so they ignore Putin propaganda and Kyiv propaganda. The problem is that you will leave them with no interest in politics whatsoever. As for Ukrainian media standards, I’m not a big fan of the media here, I’m a fan of some particular journalists and initiatives, I’m talking about some local bloggers, young people who do very courageous and intelligent things, but when it comes to the so-called “superstars” of the Ukrainian media, I’m amazed that people bother to turn on their computers or TVs to watch them, I don’t see the attraction at all. There is a lot of self promotion in Ukrainian media, people who have their own shows on their own TV channels, and a lot of selective coverage of issues. On the one hand, it looks like there’s a vibrant civil society, on the other hand, everyone wants to be king.
So what do you think about the idea that various groups are discussing about creating a Russian-speaking TV for the region?
MA: I think it’s a primitive idea, what’s that going to do? Who are we directing it at? The information is out there, it’s just not delivered in the most elegant and effective way. We’ve done it once with the cold war stuff, for me it has no perspective whatsoever.
Finally, as jury members for this year’s Belarus in Focus 2014 journalism competition, what stories would you like to read among the competition entries?
MA: I would like to know why there won’t be a Maidan in Belarus, and why we in the west don’t pay attention to what’s happening.
BB: Since I haven’t been to Belarus for fourteen years, any stories about Belarus will be a revelation. Right now, I don’t see a lot of journalism coming out of there.
For more about Belarus in Focus 2014: International Journalism Competition: http://www.competition2014.belarusinfocus.info