Calls for adherence to journalistic ethics while reporting from Ukraine are increasing amid multiple potential instances of attacks on civilian and military targets following the publication of data relating to the targets in various media reports, but the Ukrainian authorities are struggling to find a balance.
Reporters Without Borders has called on Ukrainian officials to lift restrictions on accessing certain areas of the country, and there have been reports of journalists being detained in some cases.
“Restrictions linked to national security are legitimate but must be proportionate. In view of the interference observed in the field, we urge the Ukrainian government to issue clear directives on reporting conditions and to ensure that they are respected by all the forces involved,” RSF said in a statement.
There are estimated to be some 9000 locally accredited reporters in Ukraine who are expected to follow specific rules such as not revealing unit names, their location, filming military institutions, or waiting several hours before reporting missile strikes or bombardments, amongst others.
At the end of June, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on journalists to be responsible when reporting from the country, pointing to “enormous risks. He said that the Russian armed forces could use the information published by the media to formulate attacks.
TF1 under fire
On 20 June, two Polish journalists accused the French channel TF1 of having revealed the position of the Ukrainian army in the Donbas, causing one death.
On 17 June, TF1 broadcast a report entitled “Donbas: drones against Russian tanks” shot the previous week in a Ukrainian air reconnaissance unit. French journalists filmed Ukrainian forward positions and Russian tanks in the middle of the colza fields of the Donbas, as well as a command post of the Ukrainian drone unit, in which an annotated topographical map is filmed but not blurred on the screen.
“We have already destroyed two tanks, here and here. My positions are here, you were here earlier. And this is where my drones usually take off from,” one of the soldiers explained to the camera crew, pointing with his pencil.
Earlier in the report, the French audience is also introduced to “Kek”, who flew the reconnaissance drones in the field. He was killed on 18 June amid heavy bombardment, 24 hours after the images were broadcast.
“He died under Russian fire after French journalists […] revealed Ukrainian positions,” saidPolish journalist Mateusz Lachowski on his Twitter account.
“French journalists […] promised they would blur or not show footage that could reveal [Kek’s] positions […] Unfortunately, they did not keep their word,” he then added on Facebook.
A second journalist, who, together with Lachowski, met the French film crew on location, confirmed these accusations in an op-ed published on Onet the same day.
“After their broadcast, Russian missiles fell on the soldiers’ positions. One of my soldier friends died, the other is in hospital”, wrote Marcin Wyrwał.
Libération‘s fact-checking team, Checknews, was able to confirm the death of the Ukrainian soldier, whom they identified as Yuri “Kek” Kopchak.
“He was killed at the position where the French journalists filmed,” Mateusz Lachowski told Checknews.
Two different versions
TF1 denies any responsibility and said the place where Kek died was 35km from the filmed location.
Deputy Editor-in-Chief Guillaume Debré also denied the Polish journalists’ accusations that the channel had broadcasted sensitive material without blurring. “There was no request from the Ukrainian army to view the subject [before broadcast],” he said.
Checknews pointed out, however, that this was likely not to be true.
Contacted by Checknews, the Ukrainian embassy in France recalled that there are clear instructions not to film anything that could indicate the location of the country’s military sites, including maps, and called for “collective responsibility”.
But this was not the first incident of this type.
On 15 June, a Russian missile hit Kyiv with the help of online investigators. An armoured factor plant in the east of the city was hit with precision missiles, and at least three civilians were killed.
The attack occurred after a Ukrainian news channel broadcasted a report on how the factor was converting captured Russian equipment for use by the Ukrainian army. Days later, the plant was destroyed.
While these risks seem to have caused Ukrainian authorities to crack down on journalistic activity, RSF says they must act with restraint.
“In a democratic country, war is no reason to hamper the work of journalists,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
RSF highlighted multiple reports from journalists who were not allowed into the field, were detained at checkpoints and pressured into portraying and publishing propaganda.
Veronique de Viguerie, a French photojournalist, told RSF she always felt pressured to present Ukrainian soldiers as victims, not attackers.
“The Ukrainian authorities see foreign journalists as influence relays rather than information vehicles,” another reporter said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I was detained for several hours by local militias and then interrogated by the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] over harmless photos, although my accreditation was in order.”
While recognising the sensitive nature of war reporting, RSF noted that reporters were also risking their lives and condemned the abuses, noting that the Ukrainian authorities should eliminate unnecessary obstacles for the media.