For Ukrainian journalists, the biggest challenge is yet to come

No one knows when the war in Ukraine will end. But when it does, Ukrainian journalists will play a vital role in keeping the country on its path to democracy.

The Ukraine war is a year old this week — and the day the guns finally go silent, will be the day that will mark the beginning of the most challenging and democratically significant story Ukrainian journalists have ever covered.

I recently spoke with Anastasiia Rudenko, editor-in-chief of The Eastern Variant, a local media outlet that previously operated in eastern Ukraine. She is keenly aware of what lies ahead for her and her colleagues.

Like other local media in the war-affected areas, Rudenko and her team had to relocate to Kyiv last year, but as the Ukrainian army have progressed eastwards and southwards, they and other journalists have followed and re-established their presences in the liberated areas.

According to Rudenko, the scale of the destruction and the effects the war has had on local communities in these areas are merely a precursor for what awaits in the still-occupied territories.

Challenges loom in every direction

For the Ukrainian media, the coming challenges loom in every direction, and the level of preparedness and skill of the media in handling these challenges will likely have a determining effect on the direction of post-war Ukraine.

An issue that is often overlooked in the geopolitical discussion, Rudenko stressed, are the human stories of war-time testimonies and post-war reconciliation. Ukrainian media will need to treat these stories with extreme sensitivity in order to provide a space for dialogue.

The media must be a platform for the local communities to voice not only their experiences but also their needs regarding the processes of reconstruction that directly relate to them.

It will be equally important for the Ukrainian media to conduct thorough investigations and fight cross-border disinformation campaigns. It is likely that, in the face of any imminent military defeat, the Russian regime will remain autocratic and nourish revanchism in the post-war period.

These efforts will likely aim to hinder the reconstruction process in Ukraine in various ways by sowing distrust and discrediting the media, donors and other entities involved. In post-war Ukraine, it will be crucial for the independent media to participate in maintaining social cohesion around the reconstruction processes and to uncover foul play of every kind.

Specifically, the ability of Ukrainian journalists to look into business deals, the spending of public funds and the foreign financial aid that is being transferred to Ukraine for reconstruction purposes will be a task of historic proportions. Without public oversight and the sharp eyes of investigative journalists, the risk of corruption will be enormous.

Corruption scandal

The recent high-level corruption scandal within the Ukrainian military exposed by the outlet is an excellent illustration of the importance of independent, professional journalism, as well as of what, essentially, is at stake in the coming years.

Not only did the exposé give the Ukrainian government a chance to showcase its credibility, commitment to transparency and stance on corruption, it was also a precursor to what is a likely scenario with the influx of hundreds of billions of euros to Ukraine for reconstruction.

In the struggle for freedom and democracy, now and in the post-war period, exposing corruption will be a key element in maintaining the goodwill of allied countries (and their populations) around the world. Brave journalists have already shown that they will play a critical role in that effort.

However, Ukrainian media organisations are already struggling economically, and the scale of the upcoming task is overwhelming, to put it mildly. The war has caused the number of subscriptions and ad sales to plummet and affected the safety costs related to reporting, leaving many Ukrainian outlets dependent on international support and donations to keep publishing.

This will likely remain unchanged in a post-war economy, leaving little room for expensive and time-consuming investigations and the investments in staff qualifications that are desperately needed to match the challenges ahead.

Strengthening Ukraine’s democratic infrastructure

It falls to European and international donors to keep this in mind as they engage in the reconstruction of public infrastructure. Strengthening Ukraine’s democratic infrastructure, of which the media is a central pillar, will be vital not only for Ukraine, but also for the fight against the creeping autocracy within the EU and on its borders.

Compared to the military aid currently provided, the support to Ukrainian media is a miniscule investment with a potential massive and crucial payoff that will be key in securing the hard-won gains achieved on the battlefield.

Ukrainian journalists have shown an awe-inspiring level of resilience and dedication the past year. They must be remembered and supported when the global attention is diverted to new crises and the long haul of reconstruction in Ukraine begins.

This opinion piece was originally published in the EU Observer, 20 February, 2023