The media war
Different realities in media coverage of the conflict in Ukraine 2014
The air was thick with tension in the main hall of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna on 1 December 2014. Three people were sitting on the panel to discuss precisely why there was such incredible tension in this round: one thing was certain – it was impossible to trust one another.
Next to the moderator Christian Ultsch (head of the foreign desk of the Austrian daily Die Presse) sat Oksana Boyko, host of the biweekly geopolitical show Worlds Apart on RT (formerly Russia Today). On his other side sat Katya Gorchinskaya, deputy chief editor of the English-language newspaper Kyiv Post and host of the Ukrainian TV programme Free People, as well as Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the Kyiv Mohyla School of Journalism, where he also works as a professor, and co-founder of StopFake.org, an initiative founded in March 2014.
The first edition of the new series of talks, “The European Match – Controversies and Encounters”, which ERSTE Foundation initiated in cooperation with the daily newspaper Die Presse, examined the media war sparked by the conflict in Ukraine, which is trying to steer public opinion in Russia, Ukraine and the states observing events with completely different depictions of the situation in the conflict areas.
It is a known fact and a global phenomenon that the media do not report on international conflicts from a neutral viewpoint, and this phenomenon is by no means new. Instead, they frequently adopt a patriotic position and do not even shy away from using propaganda to the point of manipulating their audiences with false reporting. Nevertheless, with regard to current relations between Russia and Ukraine, all sides are criticising the use of misinformation to manipulate public opinion in a particularly unethical manner.
The recent events in Crimea and the Donbass have been visible abroad only through journalistic coverage – through television images of the besiegers and besieged, through commentary, interviews and background reports. In some cases, the media representing the various parties to the conflict have portrayed completely different realities. The battle on the streets has, in fact, become a war between the media, which intentionally stir up their audience’s emotions with the antagonistic stance: “It’s us against them”.
The clash of ideologies has been replaced by the conflict of realities (spread by the media).
Discussion of this topic provided an excellent point to kick off “The European Match” series. This series will seek answers to the fundamental question of why, 25 years after the major social upheavals in Europe, the continent is still dominated by the great powers and ideologies and the separation of East and West; why old and new divisions keep emerging. Europe is still not a unified continent. Economic instability, social inequality and cultural reorientation raise questions concerning social cohesion. The series of talks, “The European Match”, therefore aims to bring together experts and actors from eastern and western Europe to learn from the process of exchanging arguments and to give their adversaries the opportunity to air views that can at times spark very lively debate.
In his introductory speech, Filip Radunovic, who planned the series, pinpointed a core problem of 21st-century political discord when he explained that the clash of ideologies had been replaced by the much fiercer conflict of realities (spread by the media). The purpose of this event was to examine this issue.
Oksana Boyko is a moderator of the bi-weekly geopolitical show “Worlds Apart” on RT.
Yevhen Fedchenko is cofounder of the StopFake.org initiative and director and journalism professor at the Mohyla Academy in Kyiv.
Katya Gorchinskaya was deputy editor-in-chief of the English newspaper Kyiv Post until 2015 and is the CEO of Hromadske TV.
The discussion, however, initially digressed somewhat from the actual topic – the media war – and focussed on the events of the past year. The panellists acted out their parts as expected: Ms Boyko pointed to foreign interests and national extremists that had played a role in the insurrections on Kyiv’s Maidan Square in late 2013 and early 2014, while Ms Gorchinskaya repeatedly emphasised that it had been the Ukrainian people who had got rid of its corrupt, Moscow-dependent government in a legitimate, revolutionary act and had subsequently elected a new government by democratic means. As a result, during the first half of the evening, the audience witnessed the media war live on stage rather than a theoretical analysis of the phenomenon by a panel of experts.
However, it was very enlightening to observe how you can win or lose an argument depending on how you present it, and the debate provided a reflection on the mechanisms of media representation. Oksana Boyko is an anchorwoman at a large TV broadcaster. For years, she worked as a political correspondent and reported on conflicts in Chechnya, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. She made several references to her personal experiences from that period, even though they were not always applicable to the topic in hand. Her flawless English, which she owes to a Master’s in Mass Communication from the U.S., and her exceptionally skilful rhetoric lent a certain credibility to her statements, which was further underpinned by her professional flair and discursive skill.
Ms Boyko repeatedly conceded that Russian activities had not always conformed to international law, that truth had not always been spoken, that both Russia’s leadership and its population had sometimes acted and reacted out of irrational fear, and that Vladimir Putin was only human after all. She went on to say that Russia’s democracy was certainly not yet as developed as it was in the West and that accomplishing this goal was certainly desirable. However, she claimed that the major powers in the West did not act any differently; they also violated international agreements and applied double standards.
While the two Ukrainian journalists had far less stage presence, they had the moral weight of those whose country had been attacked on their side. Katya Gorchinskaya particularly radiated an air of control that made her petite figure appear tense. It was obvious that she was making an effort to retain her composure and dignity. Ms Gorchinskaya has been analysing the political and ethical state of her country for some years now. In 2008 she became a regional editor for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting project, a non-profit network of investigative journalism centres, and regularly writes for the Wall Street Journal. Her work is widely cited in Western media. She is also a sought-after commentator at international conferences or on TV programmes examining Ukraine’s current political situation.
During the discussion, she certainly did not shy away from criticising her own new government, which was still a long way from implementing everything people had demanded when they took to the streets in spring. With regard to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, she acknowledged that the Ukrainian army had also been involved in abusive activities. While Oksana Boyko conveyed her message in an overall professional and sophisticated manner, which involved methodically weighing up the different perspectives and arguments and ultimately making a seemingly rational decision in favour of one truth from several possible options (for example, viewing the annexation of Crimea as justified in geostrategic terms), Katya Gorchinskaya spoke with the authenticity of someone who has actually been involved. The way she described her reality illustrated how people were struggling to solve existential questions in an acutely political situation which had evolved over a long period of time. Their conclusions were, therefore, very much based on their own experiences.
The evening also saw discussions on media manipulation, with both sides giving examples of one-sided accounts. Yevhen Fedchenko did not do himself any favours by citing a single polemic user comment on the RT’s community website as evidence of the political position of the broadcaster and of the Russian public in general. And Oksana Boyko actually kept a straight face when she claimed that Moscow had accepted Ukraine’s wish to join the EU from the outset, that the Russian media landscape was truly versatile and that RT was, without a doubt, an independent broadcaster.
The European Match. Controversies and Encounters
1989 was the year of the great transition in Europe. After nearly four decades of global tensions, the era of the Great Powers and ideologies and the separation of East and West seemed over. Today, 25 years later, Europe is still no unified continent. Old and new trenches break up again. Economic instability, social inequality, and a cultural scene reorienting itself raise questions about social cohesion. There is much at stake. In the talk series The European Match we want to bring together experts and actors from East and West: to learn from a match of arguments, to give matches the opportunity for exciting controversy, and to search for those topics that can match the different needs, interests and quirks of this so diverse and therefore so rich continent.
The full debate as video and podcast