Last week, a young mayor in the Ukrainian town of Kopychyntsi sought out journalists in America. He knew that telling his town’s story, his country’s story, was as vital as taking up arms to defend it. The Independent’s Paul Benson was one reporter who interviewed Mayor Bogdan Kelichavyi, thanks to a network of friends that connected him to the Outer Cape. Kelichavyi still believes that democracy has a future.
Meanwhile, in the two weeks since Vladimir V. Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, one of the assaults we’ve watched with alarm here has been the one Russia has waged against the few independent news organizations that had managed to survive there.
“The first casualty when war comes is truth,” said U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson of California in 1929, “and whenever there is a war, and whenever an individual nation seeks to coerce by force of arms another, it always acts and always insists that it acts under self-defense.”
In a move reminiscent of one of Donald Trump’s favorite insults, the Russian Parliament has passed a law punishing reporters of “fake news” about the war with up to 15 years in prison. Among the crimes covered by this law are the use of the word “war” itself in describing what’s happening in Ukraine. In Putin’s lexicon, it’s a “special military operation.”
The war in Ukraine clearly shows the relationship between tyranny and principled journalism: the former cannot tolerate the latter.
Novaya Gazeta, whose editor, Dmitry Muratov, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” has ceased coverage of the war out of fear for the safety of its staff, Reuters reported. “Everything that’s not propaganda is being eliminated,” Muratov was quoted saying in the New York Times.
“Echo of Moscow, the freewheeling radio station founded by Soviet dissidents in 1990 and that symbolized Russia’s new freedoms, was ‘liquidated’ by its board,” the Times reported.
After interviewing Ukrainian journalists who gave first-hand accounts of the Russian invasion, the station was taken off the air. “We came under the steamroller of military censorship,” its editor said. “The authorities see a threat in us.”
TV Rain, where aspiring Russian journalists launched careers, broadcast a full report of the war on Feb. 24, then abruptly went off the air. For a few moments, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake appeared on the screen, a reference to what happened on Soviet state television during a 1991 attempt by the military to overthrow Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
In Putin’s worldview, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is a “drug-addled Nazi.” Never mind that Zelensky is Jewish and that members of his family were murdered in the Holocaust. The constant repetition of lies in the state-controlled media appears to have persuaded most Russians of this slander.
We have not yet heard from Mayor Kelichavyi this week, but we will not forget him, and we will not forget the lessons of these world-changing few days.