ARCHIVES Danyliw Seminar 2017
Freelance Journalist, Kyïv, Ukraine
Stéphane Siohan is a French journalist who has specialized in the countries of Eastern Europe since 2003. Since 2013, he has served as a permanent correspondent in Kiev for daily newspapers Le Figaro (France), Le Temps (Switzerland), Le Soir (Belgium) and he has covered Ukraine as well as neighbouring countries. He has also reported on the Maidan Revolution and the war in Donbass for Radio Canada (CBC Radio). Stéphane is a director and producer of documentary films.
Journalism and War
by Ainslie Pierrynowski
What does it mean to be a journalist amid the conflict in Ukraine? During the Danyliw Seminar’s panel on Journalism and War, reporters Stéphane Siohan and Oksana Grytsenko delved into their work, roles, and challenges on the ground in post-Maidan Ukraine. Both journalists attested to their commitment to illuminating truth. Yet, as the panel discussion progressed, it became clear that in this war, the truth is often elusive—and much more complex than one might anticipate.
When Mr. Siohan arrived in Ukraine on November 24th, 2013, he was supposed to stay in the country for a week as part of a reporting assignment. Soon after the Maidan protests erupted, however, Mr. Siohan’s excursion in Ukraine turned into a long-term commitment to covering Maidan and the ensuing war. From the beginning, however, Stéphane Siohan grappled with how to explain Ukraine’s “political constellation” as conflict unfolded around him, especially when he started to face pressures to apply a binary view to this convoluted situation. He recalls being asked by commentators “who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Is it a conflict between Western Ukraine and Eastern Ukraine? Where is the political left and where is the political right?” In search of a way to ground his coverage of the conflict, Mr. Siohan was struck by the nature of the Maidan protests, noting that it was the first instance in his reporting career where he had seen people reject the authority of the state. Accordingly, Mr. Siohan’s writings on Ukraine emphasized individuals’ and particular groups’ viewpoints, actions, and stories throughout the protests and the subsequent, ongoing war.
Mr. Siohan noted that his difficulties as a journalist did not end there. An article commissioned by Elle magazine, for which Mr. Siohan interviewed an 18-year-old female combatant, took on a seemingly problematic tone when that combatant was revealed to be a member of the far right. Indeed, in Ukraine Mr. Siohan was confronted with battalions whose members seemingly came from all parts of Ukrainian society—members of the radical far right alongside leftists, not to mention individuals from across regional and religious lines. Moreover, what Mr. Siohan terms the “information war,” a battle of words and propaganda, further threatened to blur the reality of events on the ground in Ukraine. For instance, Mr. Siohan relates his jarring experience covering the crisis in Crimea, witnessing Russian paratroopers pass by while other reporters far from the warzone emphatically denied the presence of Russian troops in Crimea.
Therefore, the role of a journalist, as Mr. Siohan’s words attest, involves shining a light on the truth—despite seemingly contradictory realities, the challenge of discerning interviewees’ identities and allegiances, the lure of simple, binary narratives, and the power of propaganda. Mr. Siohan also stressed the centrality of fairness to the journalist’s task. In his own words, when talking to those on the separatist side “the more you understand that they are people…have similar problems…and threats” the better one can paint an accurate image of the conflict. In fact, ordinary people are a key part of Mr. Siohan’s work. During the panel discussion, he emphasized the importance of spending time in villages interacting with civilians, as by doing otherwise one risks becoming lost in the war of information.
Oksana Grytsenko likewise described her journalistic duty in terms of exposing the truth. A reporter with the Kiev Post whose work has taken her to Georgia in the midst of war and, more recently, to the battlegrounds of eastern Ukraine, Ms. Grytsenko has found that article deadlines, coupled with the complexity and rapid unfolding of events in the warzone, make reporting on this conflict particularly challenging. Ms. Grytsenko also cites the tendency of people caught up in the war to—whether out of fear or intentionally—distort the truth. When encountering abandoned Ukrainian army vehicles in Luhansk Oblast, for instance, Ms. Grytsenko heard civilians attest that the damaged vehicles were empty due to an army defeat that cost the drivers their lives. Further investigation, however, soon revealed that the vehicles had been intentionally abandoned and had been burned to prevent their capture and use by separatist forces. In addition, barriers to reporting on the truth do not only exist on in the conflict zones themselves. According to Ms. Grytsenko, journalists in Ukraine who cover the war often face pressures to take sides. Ms. Grytsenko commented that whereas journalists in Ukraine are often pushed to omit unsavoury details regarding pro-Ukrainian troops from their published, one must report misconduct in order to effect change. As Ms. Grytsenko put it, the job of a journalist is, quite simply, to tell the truth. Similarly, when discussing how she ensures that her coverage of the conflict is balanced, Ms. Grytsenko observed that “it is difficult to remain balanced when you are a citizen of that country” where the war is taking place.
Other factors can be double-edged swords, sometimes serving to further Ms. Grytsenko’s search for the truth and, in other situations, serving to impede it. For instance, Ms. Grytsenko notes that as a woman, she is often perceived as less of a threat than a man and therefore may be better able to bypass checkpoints and access conflict zones. On the other hand, Ms. Grytsenko remarked that male soldiers tend to be much less open with a woman and often don’t perceive women seriously, which can inhibit the interview process. Likewise, Ms. Grytsenko’s hometown initially served as a point of connection between her and the separatist partisans whom she wanted to interview. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s political web shifted, that same factor began to serve as a dividing force between Ms. Grytsenko and members of separatist groups.
Ms. Grytsenko’s account of how she has worked to confront these challenges speaks to the key role played by trust in her coverage of the war in Ukraine. While recounting her work reporting on the war, Ms. Grytsenko’s words were underpinned by a focus on journalistic ethics. In one telling instance, Ms. Grytsenko mentioned her interaction with a released SBU captive who told her—off the record—that he was affiliated with the separatist cause. Due to this confidential comment, Ms.Grytsenko opted not to publish any of his words, on the grounds that doing so would require her to betray the man’s trust or else lie to her readers. Trust indeed seems to be closely tied to the truth in Ms. Grytsenko’s journalistic work. Both Ms. Grytsenko and Mr. Siohan note that gaining the trust of interviewees—and thereby uncovering the truth regarding the conflict—involves careful listening. Being a journalist, Ms. Grytsenko maintained, means listening and then telling a story.
Overall, the Danyliw Seminar’s panel on Journalism and War was a testament to the role of journalists in illuminating the truth behind the complex and often contested situation unfolding in Ukraine. As the conflict in Ukraine continues, reporters like Stéphane Siohan and Oksana Grytsenko represent an ever-important force in the parallel war of information.