A year of Putin’s war against Ukraine and the free press

The world is preparing to take measure of the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine next week, with no end in sight to the fighting and mounting fears that Russia is in fact plunging into a new offensive.

It was Feb. 24th last year when the world woke up to the news that Russian President Vladimir Putin had begun to try to fulfill his oft-stated fantasy to invade and occupy Ukraine and in his own delusional way to try to restore the “greatness” of the Russian empire and the conquests of the former Soviet Union. And in keeping with that history, Putin has targeted a free press and orchestrated a campaign of misinformation and disinformation that is straight out of Stalin’s playbook.

In a report published this week, the International Press Institute (IPI) revealed that it tracked more than 900 instances of press freedom violations in Russia and Ukraine since the start of the war, most of them by Russia. As the report puts it “Putin’s war against Ukraine is also a war against the press.”

The free press in Ukraine was under attack long before the first tanks rolled into the country. As part of Russia’s strategy to weaken Ukraine’s institutions, its disinformation machine bought, co-opted or drove local media out of business in the regions that were later invaded, effectively controlling the flow of information and shaping it to fit their narrative.

Once the war started, things got worse. IPI recorded more than 100 cases of physical attacks and threats to journalists’ safety while covering the conflict, not counting the 10 journalists who have lost their lives while reporting on the war, the 160 journalists arrested in Russia or the dismantling of the last remnants of its independent press for daring to report on the war.

The remaining independent press in Ukraine has risen to the challenge and has courageously continued its labor of documenting the barbarity of the war and cutting through propaganda from both sides to inform their audience. Among them, our partner Ukrainska Pravda, which through our Report for the World program now has a reporter covering the impact of war on the environment, a topic that usually is not covered during conflict, but that has deep implications for the future of the country after the fighting ends.

I’ll be speaking about these and other issues next week on Friday as the world marks the somber, one-year anniversary of a war that keeps marching on. I will be doing a live interview with GBH at the Boston Public Library on February 24th, and the public is invited.

I hope you can join me if you’re in Boston or watch it from home by finding the link at wgbh.org. We’ll be pondering the lessons that we as an industry can learn from this conflict and what else we can do to support those on the ground trying to get at the truth