“White noise” in liberated citiesHow Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, and Mariupol withstand information attacks
Although some Donbas cities have long been liberated and dealing with peacetime issues, like rebuilding infrastructure and helping refugees, there have been no attempts to bridge the information divide. Journalist refugees have been moving to new cities, sometimes as whole teams or parts of them, and trying to work remotely for their old audiences. So, Luhansk IRTA TV channel, forced by the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) to stop working at the end of May, has moved to Sievierodonetsk. Vecherniy Lugansk newspaper aimed to resume publication as well in the first week of September. Some employees of Promin broadcaster have moved to Kyiv, but only three journalists are still working for it there. Three Donetsk channels have actually been seized by the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Many newspapers have ceased publication in Donetsk and support only news feeds on their websites. However, media are trying to recover in the liberated cities. For example, Kostiantynivka newspaper Provintsia is appearing on schedule again.
The undeclared war has changed the information landscape of the Donbas, and hoaxes are forcing the region’s media industry to look for new approaches to its job. The Day questioned media workers from three liberated, but still uneasy cities – Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, and Mariupol – about how the cities’ residents were getting information, what sources they trusted, how inclined they were to panic, and how the information environment had to be remade to prevent similar situations in the future.
Andrii ROMANENKO, editor of Novosti Kramatorska newspaper:
“First of all, we need to block the Russian propaganda by any means necessary, for as long as it will fill ears of our people, no information policy will change anything. Secondly, we must give a definite shape to the state’s stance on the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) coverage, for the official spokespersons we have now have been somewhat discredited, because they do not always tell the truth. Another issue is lots and lots of unofficial spokespersons and experts, who, often not seeing the whole picture, sow outright panic. The national media’s coverage of the ATO has become limited to two lines: a live broadcast from a liberated city and a hero funeral. We must present more accurate and detailed information to reassure people that Kharkiv will not fall tomorrow, and the DNR will not return to Kramatorsk the day after tomorrow. I understand that there are military secrets and some plans may not be disclosed, but reassurances are needed.
“Speaking of the print media of Kramatorsk, they do not engage in panic mongering to any large extent. All of them have focused on the themes of rebuilding of the city, refugees, and everyday issues. The war, which is waged very close to the city, gets little space in the newspapers. In addition, there is no normal communication between the military and the local media in these cities. For example, we have a garrison in the city and a major training ground nearby, where the military hold exercises at some intervals. As they exercise, the city hears sounds about the same as heard in the days of the DNR forces shelling us, and it causes panic attacks. I agree that 99 percent of the information should be held secret during the war, because it affects the lives of thousands, both civilians and soldiers, but some minimum flow of information should be maintained at the local level. It is very important because it is clear that the attitude to the Ukrainian army and Ukraine in general has changed to the better, and patriotism is on the increase. I also do not understand why, for example, soldiers did not visit schools on September 1 (the first day of school). The country spends millions on popularization and promoting positive image of the army, even though many practical issues often can be solved by such simple expedients.
“Quite a large proportion of Kramatorsk’s population believe the rumors, because they look pretty and appear fast. For example, in just five minutes after the first explosion occurred at a Ukrainian military exercises, the whole city starts to discuss the rumor that a battle involving about 1,000 enemy militants is taking place nearby. After all, it is prettier and much more interesting than a Ukrainian military exercises held in a quarry. Unfortunately, rumors are the preferred information source for many people, while those who disinclined to panic visit the websites of local newspapers or watch national media.”
Pavlo PALAHUTA, journalist of Delovoy Slavyansk newspaper:
“Fighting fakes is a hopeless endeavor, because there is a worldwide network called the Internet, where hoaxes come up regularly, and there is nothing one can do to stop it. It seems to me, though, that it would do no harm to provide more timely and accurate information from the headquarters of the ATO and agencies (military investigators, the Security Service of Ukraine, etc.) which are involved in the investigation of crimes committed in Sloviansk during its occupation. These investigations have to be showier and more open to public.
“In general, the situation in Sloviansk is quite complicated. We had five print media here, but only two of them have resumed in print so far. Websites of some publications, including our own, never stopped updating. Sloviansk had also two TV channels, but they are off-air now, broadcasting only on the Internet, because the infrastructure has been damaged, and the television tower, in particular, has been destroyed. Therefore, two months after the liberation, people are getting local news from weekly newspapers, which have also been reduced in size. Most journalists have come back to the city, and the job market is quite full in this sector. People are working, they know their business and convey to the audience what is happening in the city. Sloviansk’s media are focused on goings on in the city, like infrastructure rehabilitation and refugee assistance, rather than on scary news.
“However, people still get most information from social networks. The media have somewhat lost the public’s trust, as both the Russian and the Ukrainian sides engaged in hoaxes. Mentally, people are still divided, as there are people who are actively pro-Ukrainian in their political activities as well as those who still sympathize with the DNR. Depending on their views and beliefs, people look for some information to confirm that they are right. It is necessary to establish a dialog, for people need to communicate. The quality of the media also influences how people will approach information. I think that people need a gentle and non-aggressive approach, as they should make their own stance on where they live, to realize it and reconcile with this thought.”
Ivan SYNEPALOV, Hromadske [Public] TV of the Azov Coast:
“Mariupol information environment is in a very poor condition. We have totally lost the information war. Apart from many provocateurs who are directly involved in spreading fakes on the street, there are also lots of Internet trolls who are engaged in the same work on social networks and other virtual platforms. It reached the stage when the city’s largest news website 0629.com.ua has had to close comments due to excessive numbers of paid-for ‘commenters’ using aggressive pro-Russian vocabulary. To avoid a repeat of this situation in the future, we need a strong doctrine of information security. For example, we should ban all newspapers similar to Ya Khochu v SSSR, which was shut down only recently.
“The traditional local media ignore the ATO outright, and this is the main problem. Even during violent events of May 9, we learned about them from the national media and from the famous separatist ‘Vlad the Streamer.’
“Social networks are a dangerous weapon in the hands of the Kremlin, because most Mariupol residents actively get information there. A single questionable posting ‘Russian tanks in Mariupol’ is enough to guarantee this city a few sleepless nights. In general, the country has stopped recognizing shades of grey, as only the black and the white have been left. The Mariupol audience is no different, as there are pro-Russian ‘vatniks’ who believe LieNews [a pun on the Russian propaganda TV channel LifeNews. – Ed.], and then there are ‘Banderites’ who trust TSN and other Ukrainian news products. The ratio of the two categories is very difficult to establish, and the situation is worse than we would like, but better than the enemy hopes for. Hromadske TV of the Azov Coast has its own audience, and it is generally similar to that of the national Hromadske TV. It includes active patriots aged 25 to 50, mostly men.”