Ukraine's pro-Russia rebels target media in propaganda war
DONETSK, Ukraine - Agence France-Presse
Two people walk past a newspaper stand in Donetsk on August 31, 2015. Yana Agafonova, a media official in the pro-Russian rebel government in eastern Ukraine, says critical publications are not welcome in the separatist region, which is locked in a vicious propaganda war with Kyiv. AFP photoYana Agafonova, a media official in the pro-Russian rebel government in eastern Ukraine, says critical publications are not welcome in the separatist region, which is locked in a vicious propaganda war with Kyiv.
Her office in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) is authorised to crack down on information access, she said, "like a mother protects her children from horror movies and pornography" because of the "dirt" circulated in Ukrainian media.
Since pro-Russian rebels took over swathes of the ex-Soviet republic last year, the local media has been tamed and many Ukrainian news sites and television channels blocked.
Pro-Ukrainian media outlets, pressured to tow Kyiv's line, have been booted out of the rebel-controlled region and are barred from covering the local elections next month.
"Hostile media outlets don't come to us," Agafonova said. "They understand that they should not be filming here and drag us through the mud."
The Ukrainian government and the pro-Moscow rebels have accused each other of fuelling vitriolic propaganda vehemently denouncing the other side.
Both sides have routinely detained journalists and hampered the work of media outlets deemed to be hostile in their coverage of the conflict, which has claimed nearly 8,000 lives since last April.
Ukraine ranks 129th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2015 world press freedom index. Eight media workers have been killed -- some in crossfire and some apparently targeted -- since the start of the unrest.
RSF has deplored delays in the creation of an independent public broadcaster in Ukraine and says Kyiv's newly-created information ministry shows that the government is "tempted to use media control in response to security challenges."
Some outlets have been accused of self-censorship to toe the government line while others have come under pressure for airing Russian pop concerts featuring stars who backed Moscow's annexation of Crimea.
While pro-Moscow media depict the conflict as the Russian-speaking population's legitimate fight against a "fascist" Ukrainian government, Kiev claims it is battling Russian-backed "terrorists."
Confronted with these diametrically opposed positions, Agafonova stands by the DNR's decision to block Ukrainian television channels and about a dozen news sites.
"You always have the choice," she said. "Those who have a satellite dish have access to everything, as well as those who have Internet access."
Blocked websites in the DNR can be accessed on mobile phones or through specialised software, but these are not within everyone's reach.
The rebels have also targeted the print media, emptying kiosks of Ukrainian publications, sparing only apolitical women's glossy magazines.
"I haven't received Ukrainian publications like [weekly magazine] Korrespondent for a long time," said kiosk vendor Antonina Yakovleva.
"We have even stopped requesting them. People now mostly buy [Russian daily] Komsomolskaya Pravda and Donetsk Republic [newspaper]."
Ukrainian media outlets are unable to fight for viewers, listeners and readers in areas controlled by rebels, according to journalist Vitaly Sizov of the Donetsk Institute of Information.
"Dozens of my Donetsk colleagues have been imprisoned and tortured, and hundreds have fled the [rebel] occupied territories because they couldn't work," Sizov said, admitting he had also been forced to leave after receiving threats.
Twenty-four news sites, 135 newspapers, 11 television channels and six radio stations are registered with the DNR and are accessible in the region, its authorities claim, adding that registration procedures for media outlets are free.
But even Russian media outlets, which are generally well-received in the region, have faced hurdles.
"Unofficial advisors to [DNR 'president'] Alexander Zakharchenko have ordered that no newspapers be printed unless they have been registered with the DNR," Dmitry Durnev, the editor of the local branch of Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, told AFP.
"Offenders can face imprisonment or their equipment can be damaged," he said.
Foreign reporters have also been treated with increasing suspicion, with many being denied accreditation to cover events in rebel-controlled territory.
"Truth is the first victim of war," said 87-year-old Donetsk resident Vladislav Sergeevich, adding he no longer reads "political newspapers" as he glanced at a newsstand.