Deaths of journalists in Ukraine and the fragility of a free press

For journalists who choose to report on war, the risks are well known going in. And sadly, we are all reminded of the dangers as each day seems to bring new accounts of journalists being killed or wounded at the hands of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

Four journalists have been killed on assignment in this unprovoked invasion, which is proving uniquely perilous for reporters on the ground amid Russia’s indiscriminate missile strikes on civilian areas, rapidly shifting front lines, unexploded ordinance, and a grinding conventional war that is showing no signs of letting up.

While journalists are caught in the crossfire, Ukraine’s minister of defense put it well when he commented on the attacks this week: “The truth is the target.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has indeed taken careful aim at the truth from the very start of the invasion. He has tightened his grip on all information coming out of national news organizations, and effectively forced the shutdown of the last remnant of an independent press. He imposed a censorship law that threatens punishment of up to 15 years in prison for deviating from the Kremlin’s propaganda line, including any journalist who dares to call the savage invasion and the Ukrainian resistance to it a war. The assigned euphemism is: “a special military operation.” So, as the old axiom goes, the first casualty of this war was the truth.

And the next casualty among the press corps was award-winning independent documentarian Brent Renaud. He was killed on Sunday when he came under fire along with his colleague Juan Arredondo, who was wounded but survived.

Two members of a Fox News crew were killed in fighting Tuesday near the capital, Kyiv. They were Pierre Zakrzewski, a veteran Fox News videographer and Irish citizen, and Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, a 24-year-old Ukrainian journalist. Fox News correspondent Benjamin Hall was seriously wounded in the attack. Ukrainian journalist and cameraman Evgeny Sakun reportedly died in a strike on a Kyiv television tower.

These journalists were all committed in their reporting and knowledgeable of the dangers they were facing. They understood that the balance of the equation was to answer a calling, to serve as eyewitnesses to the barbarity of war and to give voice to those caught up in it.

They died doing what they believed in. Their gift for storytelling will be their legacies. And while we pause to reflect on their lives and work, the death of journalists in the field also deserves our collective focus.

Reporting alongside Renaud was Arredondo. The two colleagues became friends during a Nieman Fellowship year at Harvard, in 2019. They were covering an area of fierce fighting in Irpin on March 13 when they came under fire near a checkpoint. A veteran journalist who is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Arredondo is recovering from a bullet that entered his lower back. He and Renaud were documenting the experience of refugees fleeing the invasion.

Arredondo worked with us at The GroundTruth Project, reporting on a series titled “Democracy Undone,” which chronicled the rise of authoritarianism around the world. He documented the hopes of the peace process between Colombia’s government and the FARC rebels — and the repercussions of its setbacks. So these attacks on journalists hit close to home for us at GroundTruth, a nonprofit journalism organization that serves as home to Report for America and Report for the World. And now the “Democracy Undone” series feels hauntingly prescient in highlighting the playbook that authoritarian regimes in countries such as Brazil, India, and, most pointedly, Russia employ to intimidate, bully, and often attack a free press and thereby undermine liberal democracies.

This tragic attack on the free press is a clear example of Russia’s indiscriminate killing of civilians and its history of attacking journalists on many fronts. We stand with all journalists — local reporters as well as foreign correspondents — covering the war in Ukraine, and we call on world leaders to support and protect these essential workers on the front lines.

GroundTruth launched in 2014 following the kidnapping and brutal murders of freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria. Their deaths marked a turning point, and, we are proud to have worked with the Associated Press, the Dart Center, the Overseas Press Club, the International Press Institute, the Frontline Freelance Register, and Reuters to draft the Freelance Journalist Safety Principles. These principles eventually gave shape to an organization called A Culture of Safety, aimed at news organizations and freelancers, which outlines a set of safety standards that both parties should undertake and expect as a standard work environment, including insurance for reporters in the field as well as careful risk assessments for correspondents covering conflict, whether they are staff members or freelancers working on a contract.

Those of us who care about a free press as the cornerstone of a functioning democracy must continue to rebuild local news ecosystems and support a new generation of journalists who, like Renaud, Zakrzewski, Kuvshynova, Sakun, Arredondo, and so many others courageously facing the risks of covering this war, feel compelled to serve as a witness to those caught in the shadow of tyranny.

A version of this story appeared on THE BOSTON GLOBE on March 18, 2022