Information war leaves Ukrainians trapped and searching for truth
The freshly minted ceasefire in Ukraine, implemented at midnight on Saturday, offers a hopeful but fragile resolution to the hostilities in the region.
In the early days of the ceasefire, more than 900,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) will begin to determine whether it is safe to return home. They also need to understand what might, or might not, be left of “home”.
To make such decisions, they will need to rely on myriad sources of information – from word of mouth to social media, from TV to the internet.
However, the context in which IDPs obtain their information in a post-conflict setting is always complex. For IDPs in Ukraine, who are living in the midst of a sophisticated and prolonged information war, the situation is even more precarious.
Print and radio are largely a thing of the past. Today, around 80% of people in Ukraine get their news from television. In the east, where the IDPs are concentrated, TV is dominated by two warring media factions: Russian television, with its glossy and attractive production values, and Ukrainian channels that are largely owned by national oligarchs with their own political and economic agendas. In such a context, trust in the media is at best low.
In the aftermath of any conflict, timely, accurate and neutral information about entitlements, rights, legal assistance, eligibility criteria and available aid are vital in enabling IDPs to make informed decisions. This information is essential to providing a degree of autonomy and self-respect for a traumatised population, many of whom fled their homes, leaving even their winter clothing behind.
IDPs need reliable sources of information to help them understand why the future may be different to today; after months of fighting, why and whom should they believe that it is safe to go home?
As the rapid response report issued on Tuesday by Internews indicates, access to basic humanitarian information in eastern Ukraine has been extremely limited.
This constrained information environment has added to the misery of the those who have been displaced, many of whom have now exhausted their financial resources in paying for essentials.
Largely scattered throughout the region adjoining the conflict zone, the IDP population is confused, mistrustful and vulnerable to rising tensions with their host populations.
Many turn to their mobile phones for information – most have internet access. Although they know there is information on Facebook, the social network is still unfamiliar terrain for most. Out of 45 million people living in Ukraine, only 2 million are on Facebook. The dominant social media platform is the Russian offering, Vkontakte. Joining and navigating Facebook for the first time in the midst of an emergency is proving a significant challenge for many IDPs.
It is worth reminding ourselves that it was only a year ago that the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Yanakovich left in the wake of the uprising on the Maidan in Kiev. The reforms that have been put in motion since then are real, but fragile.
The ongoing information war is not only a threat to eventual resettlement of IDPs, but to Ukraine’s critical transition to a truely democratic
state. This transition relies on the same remedy that will help the IDP populations: the existence of strong, sustainable and trusted media.
In Ukraine, the independent media sector is small, but growing. Internet news channels have emerged, such as Hromadske.tv, which was first on the ground at the Maidan. Today, Hromadske.tv is one of the lone voices reporting from the east from the point of view of people on the ground.
Its work has offered a credible, moderate view on the situation, free of propaganda. Another powerful example comes from the work of the investigative reporting programme, Slidstvo.info. which offers well-researched exposés on corruption throughout Ukraine, in government and private industry.
Whether or not the ceasefire holds, Ukraine’s displaced people face a raft of difficult decisions about where to go and what to do. Supporting the ability of credible independent media outlets to provide the local population with reliable news is one of the best ways to enable the Ukrainian media to build the trust they need to support the reforms that have been set in motion.
Banner photo: Semenovka, a village near Slovyansk in the Donetsk region, badly damaged during fighting between May and July 2014. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ICRC: CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / M. DONDYUK.
(Daniel Bruce, CEO for Internews Europe, wrote this article in The Guardian about the information needs of displaced Ukrainians.)