Sullivan: Dreadful truth must be told; it must be supported

Journalists reporting on Ukraine need the support of those who are relying on their work to know what’s happening.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

The on-the-ground reporting from Ukraine over the past three weeks has been stunning. It’s also been extraordinarily dangerous.

Take the Associated Press story that riveted readers this week with its firsthand observations from the southern seaport Mariupol, site of the horrifying maternity hospital bombing and a relentless days-long besiegement of shooting and shelling. It began:

“The bodies of the children all lie here, dumped into this narrow trench hastily dug into the frozen earth of Mariupol to the constant drumbeat of shelling.

“There’s 18-month-old Kirill, whose shrapnel wound to the head proved too much for his little toddler’s body. There’s 16-year-old Iliya, whose legs were blown up in an explosion during a soccer game at a school field. There’s the girl no older than 6 who wore the pajamas with cartoon unicorns, among the first of Mariupol’s children to die from a Russian shell.

They are stacked together with dozens of others in this mass grave on the outskirts of the city.”

Amid such horrors, many readers may not have noticed a sentence deeper in the story that, in its way, is nearly as shocking:

“In the nearly three weeks since Russia’s war began, two Associated Press journalists have been the only international media present in Mariupol, chronicling its fall into chaos and despair.”

It’s an awful illustration of just how demanding and difficult the journalistic task has become in Ukraine. Another tragic indication: the growing death and injury count for journalists. Two members of a Fox News crew, cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski, 55, and Ukrainian consultant Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, 24, were killed Monday when their vehicle came under fire; a colleague, correspondent Benjamin Hall, was seriously injured. A day earlier, freelance journalist Brent Renaud was killed while on assignment in Ukraine for Time Studios.

“If you stand back, this has the potential to be the biggest press-freedom crisis of CPJ’s 40-year history,” says Robert Mahoney, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Mahoney was not speaking lightly. He spent more than two decades as a correspondent for Reuters in many of the world’s most dangerous hot spots, including in the Middle East and Africa, and he’s mindful of the grim toll on reporters in Myanmar, in Syria, in Egypt and elsewhere in recent decades. Yet the scale and intensity of the Ukraine crisis may prove even more daunting.

“We’re going to have waves of journalists needing to leave Ukraine as it becomes untenable to stay,” he told me.

At particular risk are the freelance journalists who lack the support, experience and training that comes with working for a large international news organization. But there is also the plight of Russian journalists who have left their country in droves — some attempting to set up “newsrooms in exile,” as Mahoney puts it — to continue their essential work in the face of Vladimir Putin’s attempt to crack down and control the information Russian people receive. Under a new law, journalism that contradicts the Kremlin spin — just using accurate language such as “war” and “invasion” — can draw a punishment of 15 years in prison.

What can we do to help? I asked Mahoney what journalists in the field are telling CPJ that they need, and what CPJ is doing to assist them.

“Most of all, they are asking us for help with equipment; personal protective gear,” he said. Reporters working for smaller news organizations or as freelancers are also in immediate need of training for how to work in hostile situations.

As for Russian journalists who are fleeing the country, they need financial and moral support; and visas, in many cases.

“What Russian journalists are telling us is that they want a place to continue their work in relative safety, and we want this, too,” Mahoney said. “We do not want a huge informational black hole within a despotic superpower.”

If you’re concerned about preserving press freedom around the world and sustaining quality reporting from the Ukrainian crisis zone, you can start by subscribing to news outlets that are providing factual and rigorously vetted information or by donating to advocacy groups that are supporting journalists. CPJ, of course, is prominent among the latter.

But Mahoney has a few other requests. First, when it comes to the rampant misinformation and disinformation that is polluting our media environment, “you have a responsibility to not be part of the problem,” he said. “Don’t add to the noise.” This means using extreme caution when sharing videos and other information on social media.

Meanwhile, he hopes more than anything that all news consumers will remain mindful of what it can cost — including in human lives — to provide the news.

“Front-line reporting is not infotainment, and it’s not 12 people sitting around a table talking,” he said. “You are consuming a really precious commodity.”

Much of the Western world is united right now in its deep concern and outrage about Ukraine. That’s the rare bright spot in an extremely dark picture. And it’s a triumph for journalism — and a testimony to its importance — that the dreadful truth of this disaster is being told.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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