By Bryce Greene / Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
France-based press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF) recently released its scores and rankings for international press freedom. In 2022, RSF gave Ukraine a score of 55.76 out of 100, placing it 106th out of 180 countries surveyed. In the most recent report, issued after over a year of war, Ukraine shot to 79th out of 180, with a new score of 61.19. This despite wartime measures that banned opposition parties, consolidated media under state control, and saw journalists’ speech chilled by unprecedented intimidation.
Wartime measures in any country often result in a loss of press freedom. To say that such restrictions are typical, however, does not mean that they are therefore not really happening. For RSF to change the standards it applies to Ukraine, as it apparently has, because the country has been invaded is to endorse the idea that freedom of the press ought to be limited in times of danger—an odd position, to say the least, for a group dedicated to protecting the rights of journalists to take.
By ordinary standards, the position of the press in Ukraine has not improved in the past year, but dramatically worsened. In an exhaustive article, Branko Marcetic (Jacobin, 2/25/23) thoroughly outlined how democratic institutions have deteriorated in Ukraine as a result of the war. Ivan Katchanovski, a Ukrainian political scientist at the University of Ottawa, told Marcetic:
[President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy used the Russian invasion and the war as a pretext to eliminate most of the political opposition and potential rivals for power, and to consolidate his largely undemocratic rule.
This continues a trend since before the war. In 2021, Zelenskyy had banned the most popular news website in the country, then banned media outlets affiliated with one of the most popular parties in the country. In a case that elicited international condemnation, Vasyl Muravitsky was forced to flee to Finland after being accused of “treason” and allegedly disseminating “anti-Ukrainian” materials. His prosecution began before the war, but has continued in absentia during the invasion.
The trial is happening against a backdrop of wider political repression. Among other wartime measures, Zelenskyy suspended, then banned, 11 opposition parties due to their alleged links with Russia. One of these parties had even held 10% of the seats in the Ukrainian parliament before the move. Journalists and anyone else with a political opinion are well aware of the consequences of speaking out, and the pressures have only intensified.
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One Ukrainian scholar told Marcetic:
All Ukrainian journalists and bloggers who did not want to promote Zelenskyy’s version of “truth” had to either shut up (voluntarily or under duress) or, if possible, emigrate.
In July, Zelenskyy consolidated television organizations into a single, government-controlled channel. In a widely criticized move, Zelenskyy signed a law that expanded the ability of the state regulator, controlled by Zelenskyy and his party, to issue fines, revoke licenses and prevent publication for media organizations.
The top Ukrainian journalists’ unions opposed the law. The head of one union warned that
government officials will declare those who disagree with their vision to be enemies of the country or foreign agents. This perspective of state and political regulation of the media is in total contradiction with the desire of Ukrainian civil society for European integration.
The International Federation of Journalists called on the European Commission and Council of Europe to review the measure. The Committee to Protect Journalists repeatedly called on the Ukrainian government to drop the bill, warning that it “imperils press freedom in the country by tightening government control over information.”
Unlike other international journalism-centered NGOs, Reporters Without Borders offered praise for the bill. In a blog post titled “RSF Hails Ukraine’s Adoption of New Media Law, Despite War with Russia” (1/11/23), it wrote that the law was “generally welcomed by Ukrainian journalists.” This praise was based on minor provisions that were required for Ukrainian admission to the European Union, as it “harmonize[d] Ukrainian legislation with European law.”
This was acknowledged as a positive move by the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU), one of the unions opposed to the bill. But as NUJU made clear, journalists objected to the enormous control given to the state media regulators, not these less important provisions.
RSF acknowledged these measures, but euphemistically described them as “co-regulatory mechanisms that facilitate a dialogue between the media regulator and the media”; it wrote that the provisions “expand[ed] the media regulator’s powers,” but offered only muted criticism, suggesting that “to guarantee the regulator’s full independence…the process for its appointing members needs to be changed.” While it noted that this could be done by “amend[ing] the constitution,” it tellingly acknowledged that these changes were “impossible as long as martial law…is still in effect.”
Banning media—with improvement
RSF’s obfuscation and whitewashing of the law carried into its 2023 Press Freedom Index report for Ukraine, which merely says of the law, “A new media law that was adopted in late 2022 after years of preparation is designed to bring Ukraine in line with European media legislation.”
In the report, RSF acknowledged some repression:
Media regarded as pro-Kremlin were banned by presidential decree, and access to Russian social media was restricted. This has intensified since the start of Russia’s invasion. Media carrying Russian propaganda have been blocked.
RSF even acknowledged that “the application of martial law sometimes results in reporting restrictions for journalists.” To RSF, however, this increase in censorship does not overshadow the improvements in Ukraine’s media environment, as embodied by the EU-compliant regulations, so it gave the country a higher score than last year.
Looking at previous years of RSF index reports, the language hasn’t changed much since the 2021 index, which reads:
Ukraine has a diversified media landscape…. Much more is needed to loosen the oligarchs’ tight grip on the media, encourage editorial independence and combat impunity for crimes of violence against journalists.
In the 2022 report, this changed to “Ukraine’s media landscape is diverse, but remains largely in the grip of oligarchs who own all of the national TV channels.” The report criticized the Russian invasion for replacing the media in occupied areas with Kremlin propaganda. There was no criticism of the government’s consolidation of control, or the deteriorating political situation.
‘Front line of resistance’
The latest RSF report downgraded Russia’s already low standing, from 155th to 164th place (38.82 to 34.77). Its report on Russia began, appropriately, by noting what the Russian government had done to the press:
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, almost all independent media have been banned, blocked and/or declared “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations.”
The report on Ukraine, by contrast, began by talking about Russia:
The war launched by Russia on 24 February 2022 threatens the survival of the Ukrainian media. In this “information war,” Ukraine stands at the front line of resistance against the expansion of the Kremlin’s propaganda system.
This framing allows RSF to present the banning of “media regarded as pro-Kremlin” as an act of “resistance” rather than repression.
Rising score ‘a joke’
Political scientist Gerald Sussman called Ukraine’s rising score “a joke,” especially when the “US ranking dropped to No. 45 (from 42).” (RSF cited states’ efforts to restrict reporters’ access to public spaces, among other issues.) Sussman has extensively studied the role of seemingly independent international NGOs in pushing US-centric, market-oriented values around the world. He connected RSF’s Press Freedom score to other “Freedom” indexes, like Freedom House’s “democracy score,” which often judges “democracy” according to market standards. “Groups with the name ‘freedom’ in their title are almost always conservative,” Sussman stated in a statement to FAIR.
Freedom House has yet to release its 2023 democracy scores, though its 2022 report criticized Ukraine for pre-war repression, citing “imposition of sanctions on several domestic journalists and outlets on national security grounds, leading to three TV channels being taken off the air.” As we noted, RSF had no such critique.
Reporters Without Borders is a prestigious international institution, respected by many in the world of media and human rights. Unfortunately, like many in the media, it appears to have taken on the role of cheerleader for Ukraine in the proxy war, abandoning the pretense of being an objective monitor.
In Ukraine, the past year has been devastating for a country already struggling with media repression. RSF’s denial of reality does nothing to actually help Ukraine, but downplaying these problems will only further imperil press freedoms.
Bryce Greene is a writer based in Indiana.