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Journalism in a time of war

Jan 18, 2023 | Featured, The View From Here - Walter Kish

There is an old adage to the effect that truth is the first casualty of war. When the bullets start flying, governments since the dawn of civilization have resorted to manipulating news and information for propaganda purposes to either justify their going to war, or to minimize the general population’s knowledge of the ensuing death and destruction that are the inevitable consequence of armed conflict.
The current war in Ukraine is certainly no exception to this, and the Russians are accomplished masters in the art of lies and disinformation. Just yesterday, Russia’s representative at the UN accused Ukraine of being the aggressor country in the war, and put forth the absurd claim that Ukraine had been planning to attack Moscow, forcing Russia to take pre-emptive action.

Throughout the course of the war, both the Russian and Ukrainian governments have been issuing conflicting numbers and narratives about both the nature of the war, as well as the number of casualties suffered by each side. The Ukrainian military publishes daily statistics on the number of Russian soldiers it has killed as well as number of tanks, armoured vehicles, planes, helicopters, drones and other military equipment it has destroyed. The Russians, understandably deny the accuracy of these statistics with their own version which are usually but a small fraction of those claimed by the Ukrainian side. Outside experts agree that both sides are distorting the true numbers, though there is consensus that the Ukrainian version of the “facts” are far closer to the truth than the Russian one.

One should note that the Ukrainian government and military have deliberately kept their casualty numbers a secret, and we have no officially published numbers on their losses. The Russians have taken it a step further and have enacted regulations and laws that make accurate reporting of what is happening in the war a criminal act with severe punishments. They have even gone to the ridiculous extent of making it illegal for anyone to characterize what is happening in Ukraine as a “war”.

Of course, this is nothing new. In most of the major wars in the past century, the governments involved have consistently sought to muzzle press and media reporting on the details of the conduct of the war. In 1914, subsequent to the outbreak of World War I, the Canadian government passed the War Measures Act, giving itself extraordinary powers to manage and control all aspects of day to day life. This resulted shortly thereafter in 1915 in the creation of the office of Chief Press Censor. In this way, the Canadian public, similar to that of other Allied countries, were kept in the dark about the almost incomprehensible brutality of the war in the trenches, and to the senseless waste of millions upon millions of soldiers lives due to the obsolete and incompetent tactics employed by the military in the waging the war.

It was only after the war ended that the true casualty numbers were published spurring much debate in media circles about whether much of the death and destruction could have been avoided had the public been made aware of what was really going on, and been able to hold their governments and military more accountable for the monumental number of deaths that ensued.

Most people essentially understand and agree with the basic principle that a free and independent press is vital to the existence and strength of any democracy. Yet, when a war comes along, most people also tend to accept certain restrictions to their rights and freedoms in the interest of winning that war. The real challenge then becomes where to draw the line between fully open reporting and some degree of restraint in the interests of morale and keeping hope and spirits up.

As a journalist of sorts involved in reporting and analysing this war, I am often in a quandary as to where I too should draw that line between full transparency and some degree of self censorship. Obviously, being a Ukrainian-Canadian with a long history of activism in Ukrainian nationalistic organizations, I am undoubtedly somewhat biased in the way I view this war. However, at the same time, I am committed to a high degree of journalistic integrity and support for a free and independent press. Unlike what passes for journalism in Russia, I try very hard to avoid being a propaganda tool in the service of any government or military interests.

Personally, I think that the Ukrainian government should be more open and transparent about its war reporting. By this, I do not mean publishing information about troop movements, tactics or operational data that might prove useful to the enemy, but by the same token, creating an almost total vacuum of information on certain aspects of the conduct of this war such as the true number of Ukrainian military casualties is neither fair to the Ukrainian public nor constructive in the long run.

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Nadia Prokopiw
Federal Provincial Child Care
Serving Ukrainian New Comers in Toronto

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