Two Associated Press staffers were the last western journalists in Mariupol, and, they write, "the Russians were hunting us down. They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in."
It is a harrowing tale that dramatizes not just the bravery of these and other journalists but also how crucial a role they have played in documenting the Kremlin atrocities that have appalled the civilized world. And with a free press under assault in Russia and even in Ukraine, the vanishing number of journalists to bear witness to Vladimir Putin’s brutal tactics is already leaving a substantial void.
Keep in mind that rather than addressing what can only be described as war crimes, Moscow yesterday told the U.S. ambassador that the two countries are on the verge of a rupture because President Biden is calling out Putin’s murderous tactics.
Since Putin’s forces will stop at nothing when it comes to slaughtering civilians, there is a tendency to wonder whether the latest outrage can really be true. When journalists can provide pictures or video or speak firsthand to witnesses, they are in many cases bearing witness to war crimes.
And in some cases–Brent Renaud, Fox’s Pierre Zakrzewski and Sasha Kuvshynova–they have paid with their lives.
Fox disclosed yesterday that our colleague, correspondent Benjamin Hall, was in "grave" condition when he was evacuated from Ukraine to Germany with help from the U.S., Polish and Ukrainian militaries and the group Save Our Allies.
AP photojournalist Mstyslav Chernov, in his piece, says he and his colleague Evgeniy Maloletka were hiding out in a hospital and doctors there gave them scrubs, so they would blend in.
When a dozen soldiers burst in and said "where are the journalists?", the two feared they were Russians in disguise, but they were in fact Ukrainians sent to rescue them.
Chernov, who grew up in Ukraine, said he "felt terrible" leaving behind the doctors who had harbored them and the pregnant women who had been shelled. But one soldier said, "If they catch you, they will get you on camera and they will make you say that everything you filmed is a lie. All your efforts and everything you have done in Mariupol will be in vain."
The journalists, who watched children dying, could only get a satellite connection at one location, out in the open, and it would take hours to upload their pictures.
When the maternity hospital was bombed, and Moscow called the AP photos fake, the two men had shown the world the sheer inhumanity of Putin’s forces.
Finally, they were put into a Hyundai with a family of three, passing 15 heavily-armed Russian checkpoints before escaping the country.
But now that Mariupol lawmakers are saying Kremlin soldiers have forcibly deported thousands from the area to remote regions of Russia, there are no pictures to substantiate that because journalists have left the city. There is, however, video of the bombing of a Kyiv shopping mall.
Major news outlets abandoned Russia after Putin embraced a law allowing 15-year prison terms for anyone who publishes information that strays one iota beyond official propaganda, such as that there is no war and civilians aren’t targeted. One reason that Volodymyr Zelenskyy has trounced Moscow in the info war, beyond his courage and media savvy, is that people generally believe his country’s declarations over Putin’s outlandish lying.
Which is why it pains me to say that Zelenskyy is committing a colossal error by undermining a free press at home. He just issued an order consolidating all national TV stations into one platform designed to combat Russian disinformation. That means the government will be controlling the television message–especially because Zelenskyy’s order suspends all privately-owned media outlets.
There will now be automatic suspicion that Zelenskyy’s office is at least shading the truth to aid the war effort, ceding the one asset–credibility–that can’t be replaced.
I understand the argument that Ukraine is fighting for survival and can’t afford the luxury of an independent press, that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. But it’s still a Putinesque move with costs that, in my view, outweigh the benefits.
One key outlet for ordinary Ukrainians posting images of Russia’s vicious attacks has been social media, especially TikTok. But the watchdog group NewsGuard says in a new report that TikTok is "feeding false and misleading content about the war in Ukraine to users within 40 minutes of their signing up to the app, regardless of whether they run any searches on the platform."
The lack of content labeling and effective moderation means that if you do search for such terms as "Ukraine" or "Donbas," TikTok will suggest multiple videos that contain disinformation in its top 20 results. That, of course, undermines the legitimate content posted by Ukrainians under siege.
We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to journalists who are covering Ukraine at great personal risk. But as indiscriminate violence has forced many to retreat, the fog of war is becoming thicker than ever.