Liberty and democracy. Two words that signify humankind’s inherent freedom.
Two words that also encapsulate what Ukraine is fighting for, both on behalf of its citizens and for the world at large.
Included in the notion of what freedom represents is the idea of free speech, free thought, and as a clear extension of both in a democracy, freedom of the press.
Recently, beginning with an intensified curfew and full lockdown in some areas which coincided with multiple celebrations in the city, including the nation’s independence day, media access in frontline areas has been curtailed across the country.
This new reality was especially impactful in Kharkiv, the frontline city of Ukraine, as members of the vetted media were used to unfettered access to the people and weapons making up Ukraine’s formidable military, and curtailed at least one trip by a major legacy outlet to the zero line.
The decision to cut access, made after extensive conversations by multiple branches of government, seemed abrupt but in fact, had been under discussion for several weeks.
While appearing draconian in nature, and prompting significant derision from reporters across social media, multiple events recently in the Kharkiv region back up the government’s forceful, albeit temporary, decision.
It is no secret to anyone that has followed my time in Ukraine that I have developed close and comfortable relationships to branches of the civilian government, multiple parts of the armed forces, and the independent Kharkiv Media Hub.
Due to this positioning, I’ve often been asked by different entities and units to accompany journalists to areas in and around the city of Kharkiv and the border region with Russia.
The vast majority of the time, I’m interacting with well-briefed, well-vetted individuals and organizations.
Twice though in the last month, however, individuals appeared in Kharkiv with national accreditations, one of which was shown to have been achieved through fabrication, the other relying on a questionable backstory. While disaster was averted each time, questions lingered.
In the first case, I received a call from a military unit PIO in Kyiv, asking if I could show someone who was coming to Kharkiv around the area. As this was a common-place request, I accepted it without much thought.
The first red flag came when after meeting the person in person they immediately asked to go to the front. While this is a normal desire on the part of most war correspondents, the individual had no plan, no story, and no pitch. They only wanted the opportunity to experience war.
After this exchange, I rerouted the visitor to the Media Hub, which is in a secured location, where they underwent a secondary interview process. As we sat around and they answered questions, it came out that the initial accreditation they had acquired came about due to a letter from a friend who had a blog in the states, and attested to the fact that the person wrote for them.
This person brazenly admitted to not being a journalist and didn’t pretend to be one, except to get accreditation to visit the front, to “see and feel war,” as they put it.
Access was denied to almost everything in Kharkiv, and eventually, they left the city.
The next case was significantly more worrisome and illegal.
A person arrived with credentials and claimed to be a historian. Once in Kharkiv, they put in for a visit to see an M-777 in action, again a common ask, although one not granted often, and never without significant in-person vetting. They were denied.
Later after vehemently protesting to me and others, and having their appeal denied, the individual approached me with a shockingly brazen plan.
Having seen the massive amount of money and aid flowing into frontline positions, the person asked to be introduced to commanders of units in order to offer cut rates prices to them on the “kinetic equipment,” necessary to win the war.
While doubtful at first as to the veracity of their claims, over hours of communication that I personally partook in and was witnessed by other interested persons, this person who came as a journalist described in full their “start-up style,” dreams to profit off the heroes of Ukraine.
Those two examples of people lying about being journalists while inside the frontline city of Ukraine, in order to partake in war tourism and war profiteering, took place during the same period of time that a major television station put out a story that was used by Russians for propaganda purposes.
A story that was based on lies, while also including revealing details of operational security that imperiled Ukrainian troops, and medical personnel.
In the middle of August, the video came to me. Broadcast by a major french television station, it included footage of presumed Americans making outlandish claims. The station also identified the non-Ukrainians as members of the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine.
I immediately contacted Legion headquarters and asked if these were their guys, as the statements, in addition to being incredibly inflammatory, ran afoul of the Legion’s press policy.
When told with certainty that these were not Legionaires, unmasking who they became a priority.
Because of, at best sloppy and at worse malicious, editing, some identifying features were left up as to the possible location. Putting out a crowdsourcing call to NAFO Fellas on social media, I had the exact address within 45 minutes. An address that traced back to a strictly off-limits medical location. Within the afternoon, we had the name of the specific unit these soldiers belonged to.
They weren’t Legion, and their stories could not be substantiated, but the damage done was significant.
When reached for comment about what had taken place, the accredited station denied responsibility and blamed another outlet.
The situation is still developing.
Kharkiv saw prior tragedy due to media. In April, during a massive counter-offensive to retake the oblast, a Ukrainian reporter celebrated prematurely, posting information he wasn’t allowed to, and over two dozen soldiers were killed. Now with the city becoming a hub for fake reporters and shoddy reporting, questions were asked and choices were made.
And the choice was stark in its clarity.
Even in a democracy, especially in a democracy being invaded by fascist war criminals, the lives of the residents and soldiers around the city had to come first. If not there would no longer be a democracy to report from or liberty to champion.