As air raids commenced and armored convoys began to roll across Ukraine last week, I reached out to an NPR colleague huddled in an Odessa bomb shelter. I pathetically wrote to him, “Stay safe.”
He replied, “I hope this is not a ‘Naked in Baghdad’ moment,” a reference to my stay in Iraq reporting for NPR during the 2003 U.S. shock and awe bombing campaign.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine is way more dangerous for journalists and citizens alike. In 2003 the U.S. bombers knew where journalists had been corralled at the Palestine Hotel, and we were not a target. While it was not entirely safe on the ground in the aftermath, it was nothing compared to the chaotic combat wrought by Russian military forces — and Putin’s own aims.
In this war, journalists along with others Moscow has trained its sites on are likely to be silenced. They will either be rounded up and executed or censored by the pro-Russian government Putin plans to install. This isn’t hyperbole. In February, The New York Times reported that the U.S. government sent a letter to the United Nations, warning that there is “credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation.”
How Putin will do this is not clear. He has said that he has no intention of occupying more Ukrainian territory, but Putin has also vowed that what he calls “neo-Nazis” — read loyal Ukrainians — will be targeted. He apparently wants to get rid of President Volodymyr Zelensky, put a stooge in his place, and terrorize the population into subjugation.
Stephen Kotkin, a Princeton history professor and Russia expert, suggests another option could be to “turn a country off” by assaulting the electric grid and the water supply. Other options are more terrifying still, with Russian troops eventually flattening everything in their path as they once did in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Whatever the end game, Putin wishes to eliminate all those who dissent as he has tried to do at home.
While we can’t predict the future, we can look to see how Putin has treated the media and press freedoms in his own country. Just last month, Vladyslav Yesypenko, a Radio Free Europe correspondent covering Crimea, was sentenced to six years in prison for possessing and transporting explosives. Yesypenko testified that he had been tortured to force a confession. Journalists like Roman Anin, founder of investigative site iStories.Media, have been subjected to interrogations and raids on their homes, and their equipment has been confiscated. In 2017, Russia passed a law that allowed authorities to deem journalists and news outlets foreign agents, a designation that requires strict financial reporting and disclaimers on any stories — including posts on social media.
Ukrainians, whatever their first language and ethnicity, have so far proved much more united than Moscow probably anticipated. As Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian author and journalist wrote, “The whole idea behind Putin’s invasion is to deprive the Ukrainian people of our right to choose — our government, our allies, our media, our future. He has not succeeded.”
The media, both outlets controlled by the country’s oligarchs and the small but vibrant independents, has largely spoken out bravely in their opposition to war. TV stations, mostly owned by oligarchs and not known for their incisive reporting, have remained on air, eliminating commercials to provide constant updates and important information. The leading independent news organization, Ukrainska Pravda, is working around the clock to document the attacks on Ukrainian civilians. The journalists of the Kyiv Independent set up a liveblog with constant updates for Ukrainians and others. They have moved from their offices, finding safe havens elsewhere. For now, the internet continues to work, though the fear is Moscow will bring it down, making it much more difficult to get information out to the people of Ukraine and the rest of the world.
Access for most foreign reporters is still possible. The borders with Poland and other East European countries remain largely open, but foreign journalists now in Ukraine are already finding it hard to find people willing to be translators, as Ukrainians fear being one day labeled a spy if Ukraine falls.
Gas is in short supply, as well as accommodations and, increasingly, food. Foreigners will be lucky to be expelled, if caught, while those Ukrainians working with them will likely face much worse. And while it’s still relatively easy to get in, the waiting line to get out of the country is now 30 hours long.
Putin has not yet silenced Ukrainian voices, but he has recently increased censorship and penalties at home in the wake of the attacks on Ukraine. To ensure people hear only Putin’s version of events, Russian media outlets are now forbidden from reporting anything beyond what’s been released by the Kremlin. News outlets are not allowed to use the word “war” to describe Putin’s invasion; instead, they must use “special military operation.” Reports of civilian and military casualties are banned. Violations are punishable by huge fines or arrest.
Last week Google, Facebook, Apple, and others were warned they must comply with a new law that requires them to set up local offices and create a user complaint system, which make them more vulnerable to the Kremlin’s growing censorship. Russia’s internet is still surprisingly open, but the new law allows Russian authorities to interrupt information from being disseminated by some of the world’s biggest tech companies, which had until the end of February to comply.
What happens to journalism in Ukraine matters both for those trying to survive this war and those trying to understand it. In just the last few days, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been donated through GoFundMe accounts for media outlets across Ukraine. The outpouring of support may not be enough to stop Putin from squeezing the independent press, but it does show that people around the world are behind the brave women and men dedicated to reporting on the truth.
Anne Garrels was NPR’s senior foreign correspondent for 25 years, many of them spent in Russia and the former Soviet republics. She is the author two books: “Naked in Baghdad” and “Putin Country, A Journey into the Real Russia.”