An open letter to my fellow journalists at the Kyiv Independent
Truth need not be the first casualty of war
The first thing you need to know as the war approaches Kyiv, is that the free world is overwhelmingly on your side. This must now abundantly clear to you.
As darkness falls over Ukraine, leaders and ordinary people across the globe understand that your fight is their fight. People are glued to their TVs. The heart-wrenching stories of refugees flooding across borders into Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Romania are moving many to tears and generating a flood of aid. In them we see us.
The values of freedom and democracy, the right of a sovereign people to choose how they live, are universal. The free world understands that.
Disbelief at the sheer recklessness of this aggression is being replaced by rage. Hesitancy by politicians is being supplanted by increasing political resolve to defeat Vladimir Putin’s adventure. Your war is the free world’s war.
Putin has managed to unite Europe and a fractious West. The past two weeks have seen a remarkable unity of purpose and coordination between Europe and the US and a sea-change in the EU’s and especially Germany’s stance as military powers.
It is a war of ideas and principles that every democracy in the world holds to be fundamental to its survival. It is, already in a sense, a war without borders even if NATO is not putting boots on the ground or enforcing a no-fly zone although that must be painful to accept as bombs rain down on your homes.
But this is a war we cannot afford to lose. That realisation is dawning on the free world even as it emerges from a bruising pandemic and an already challenging economic climate.
The clarion call now in the war of sanctions and military supplies is “Whatever it takes” as Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission told the European Parliament.
A key part of this conflict is the war of information. You at the Kyiv Independent are its soldiers on the front line. Truth, the old cliché goes, is the first casualty of war. If Putin had his way truth - the truth - would be cast aside like old rags and replaced by his truth.
Citizen journalism is not enough
Fact-based and balanced news out of this, or any other war for that matter, is crucial. The world needs to know what is happening if it is to respond appropriately. Journalists in the theatre of war are the outside world’s eyes and ears. The work you do matters.
Citizen journalism is important of course. Often it provides the most vivid accounts of the unfolding drama. It played a decisive role in the Arab Spring, the Orange or Maidan Square revolution and, of course, Tienanmen Square in 1989. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube are weapons on the modern battlefield. But they are not enough.
Great and complex fast-moving stories, like the aggression against Ukraine, need to be put in context as they develop, day by day, week by week by experienced journalists working for news sources that people can believe in and trust.
We are defined by the stories we tell each other. These in turn play a part in influencing events. I was one of the first journalists to fly into Kabul in 1979 to witness and confirm the Russian invasion. These are small but not insignificant footnotes to history.
In contrast the fiction coming out of Moscow in an age of the smartphone and the citizen journalist, is frankly bizarre. Watching Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s poker-faced foreign minister, flipping the increasingly savage invasion into a sinister fairy tale about western provocation is a throwback to the darkest Soviet times. Not Pravda.
Putin’s propaganda – his barefaced lies – are meant for domestic consumption of course. But they also point to a deeper impulse in the dictator’s mind.
One of the reasons for his land grab is the fear that the pluralism, the freedom of ideas and the free speech that characterises Ukraine today, will spill over into Russia. He was shaken by the Orange revolution. Totalitarianism and truth make uncomfortable bedfellows.
Putin targets journalists with impunity because he fears them. He pursues them relentlessly. His obsession with alternative facts flows from his days as a KGB man when controlling the narrative was possible. I fear you will be in his sights. Stay safe.
Putin targets journalists because he fears them
Reporters Without Borders says: “With draconian laws, website-blocking, internet cuts and leading news outlets reined in or throttled out of existence, the pressure on independent media (in Russia) has grown steadily since the big anti-government protests in 2011 and 2012.”
We should remember this too - and if this is an affront to many well-meaning Russians who yearn for democracy and free speech I apologise. Russia, with the exception of the perestroika years, has never been a democracy. It was founded as a princely state and later as a monarchy. Reborn as a communist state it now exists as an imperial presidency.
The moving heroism of ordinary Ukrainians who have chosen to stay and resist this brutal act of aggression has galvanised support in my country (the UK) and around Europe and the US.
The fight being put up by the Ukrainian armed forces in the face of overwhelming forces is extraordinary.
Your role in this historic drama is equally important. Truth does not come from the barrel of a gun. It comes from hearts and minds of news outlets like the Kyiv Independent and we are deeply grateful for that.