OSCE on reporter safety: Deaf ear for Russians in Ukraine

Journalists near the building of the airport of Donetsk which was destroyed by shelling. (RIA Novosti/Mikhail Voskresenskiy)
Working as a journalist for more than 20 years, I have learned to ignore fear and embrace uncertainty. It almost becomes a habit to go against your survival instincts protesting your every move and decision.

With time, the darker side of the profession also breeds a degree of cynicism.

Reporting from conflict zones where the only certainty is the volatile nature of the environment, one remains wary even with everyone you meet – this is to be expected in regions dehumanized by violence, savagery and continuous conflict. Yet it is very discouraging, and shocking, to encounter the same savage and cynical treatment at the hands of fellow journalists.

With unprecedented numbers of journalists being killed on the job – Reporters Without Borders documented 66 journalists’ deaths last year – it’s very encouraging the OSCE is taking the issue of journalist protection seriously enough to dedicate to it a two-day conference: “Protection of Safety and Integrity of Journalists in the OSCE region”. One of the purposes of the OSCE is to erase division and encourage cooperation between journalists. Thus, one would expect an exclusivist ideology to be off the table, to make room for sincere dialogue void of wider political interests. Unfortunately, my experience as a participant at the event, held in late March in Belgrade, disavowed me of those expectations.

The first session I attended was about the safety of female journalists on the web. I gave several examples of what I believe to be a form of ‘organized trolling’ against me online, ranging from vulgar insults to explicit threats of extreme violence. Some of my pieces relating to Ukraine have been manipulated. Most of my so-called online detractors are not focusing their criticisms on my work, but instead resort to personal attacks, most of them harshly misogynistic in nature.

Most of the participants consented that such provocations are unacceptable and revolting and agreed with my assertion that the safety of journalists needed to be guaranteed regardless of which network one worked for.

But naturally, you didn’t need to look far to come across pre-conceived notions about Russia-affiliated correspondents. Two Ukrainian representatives enthused that for them “RT is a propaganda channel reporting lies.” That was their rebuttal to justify the vicious insults and death threats directed at me online, as if the trolls were entitled to spew such hatred simply because of my employer. One of the two representatives tried to distance herself from anti-Russian bias by stating she “has no problem with Russian journalists as long as they are objective.” This just raises further questions about objectivity. Let’s not forget that one person’s truth is another person’s lie; when it comes to Ukraine, people in the east of the country feel they are not being heard and what I do as a journalist when I report from there is tell their truth, which might not be Kiev’s truth. But my obligation as a journalist is to tell the facts as I see them on the ground. The word “propaganda” is convenient shorthand used to besmirch those of us who’ve chosen to work with Russian, or other “unsuitable” outlets.

A question was raised why journalists don’t work with one another to counter threats against the journalist community. I wholeheartedly support the idea, and after the session approached the Ukrainian contingent to discuss it. They ignored me.

The second session I attended had to do with the legal protection and integrity of journalists. A former member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Andriy Shevchenko, who is currently the President of the Centre for Public Media in the Ukraine, used the stage to voice more anti-Russian sentiment. It’s worth pointing out that he was a speaker alongside representatives from Turkey, Bosnia and Slovenia. No Russian delegate was given a platform as a speaker to rebut the accusations.

As a member of the OSCE, Russian journalists are entitled to the same protection and validation as all the others. I pointed out the numerous Russian journalists kidnapped, tortured and even murdered in Ukraine last year. I stated what I thought was the obvious - “It’s about protecting everyone’s rights,” not just a select few. But Mr. Shevchenko disagreed with me. He warned that “terrorists” were pretending to be journalists working for Russian networks and in turn were ‘invading’ Ukraine and even threatening ‘freedom of speech.’ I pointed out that over 115 mass media outlets were refused accreditation in Ukraine simply because of Russian affiliation. When Mr. Shevchenko said that the “special status of journalist has become very attractive to people who are not journalists,” I realized I reached a dead end. There is no point in arguing against a flawed rhetoric, which in its essence holds bivalent opinions of morality, ethics and the reality in the region. Such arguments from the very start exclude any other opinion that even slightly challenges pre-determined understandings (or labels) of the Ukrainian crisis.

What Mr. Shevchenko didn't seem to understand is that there is no advantage to being a journalist in Ukraine today, especially in light of several reports pointing to Ukrainian military deliberately targeting journalists in the Donbass region – the latest incident was at the end of March when Kiev forces opened fire on the car that Ren TV journalists were travelling in. What’s more, from my personal experience, when I wore the word “press” on my bulletproof vest on the frontline in Eastern Ukraine, I was advised by the anti-Kiev fighters I was with to take it off as they were certain I would be sought out by the Ukrainian army.

But by far the most frustrating response I received from participants was a plea to stop focusing on the Ukraine/Russian confrontation. What better real life scenario to address the safety of journalists than to shine light on this conflict? It's all very well to lax lyrical about the fact that journalists need to be protected - what I want to know is that if I fly into Ukraine, I won't be arrested or detained (or worse) by the Kiev security forces simply for doing my job.

I arrived at the conference with serious issues to address, with my own experiences as proof of the dangers faced by war correspondents in the region. I clearly said: “I want to know I will be protected as a journalist in your country.” Nothing more, nothing less, no special treatment or privilege. I reminded participants that journalism is about presenting all sides of the story, giving everyone a voice, not just a select few repeating pre-established arguments. I believe the human element should outweigh wider political interests and ideological games. But in the end, I remained an idealist while my critics repeated the same almost colonial-sounding arguments, drawing clear lines between good and bad, victims and oppressors, journalists and terrorists. I choose to stand by the RT motto: Question More.

Paula Slier, RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.