Ukraine Justice: “Reporting the Story is Just the Start”
Journalists need training and support to properly cover war crimes trials.
The influx of war crimes cases in Ukraine presents an unprecedented challenge for national and international media. Olga Reshetylova, co-founder and coordinator of the War and Justice department at the Media Initiative for Human Rights, tells IWPR’s Olga Golovina how a key skills gap and lack of conflict-sensitive reporting knowledge is presenting an obstacle to high-quality and consistent coverage.
IWPR: What is the level of understanding of war crimes investigations and justice processes among Ukrainian journalists?
Reshetylova: Court journalism is a niche area and a common problem - and not only in Ukraine - is clickability, the pursuit of audience's interest, of action. All this contributes to superficial coverage of the very concept of war crimes and justice in general. Unfortunately, we see this in court proceedings and the questions journalists ask, what materials come out when we share contacts of victims or witnesses. We often see a lack of professionalism, a misunderstanding of the concept of traumatisation and the desire to squeeze a tear out of the victims.
By the way, we observe this more in foreign journalists [for instance regarding] children who were deported to the Russian Federation. There was a press tour for them in The Hague; it looked like child abuse. One 11-year-old boy, whose mother died in front of him during the shelling of Mariupol and who was deported to the Russian Federation, had ten interviews in two days. One journalist’s first question was, “Could you tell us how your mother died?” And the boy answered, “Are you sure you want to start with this?”
We are talking not only about the lack of empathy, but incompetence and misunderstanding of the principles of working with war victims. This means that, in the end, victims who previously came forward for interviews and publicity, refuse to talk to the media because it is so difficult. The most painful thing for them is not so much remembering their own stories, but feeling their trauma is misunderstood.
We are also sometimes surprised when journalists ask us only for the contacts of victims and witnesses, neglecting context and expert assessment. Now we often refuse if journalists refuse to include professional comments from experts or cover the activities of human rights organisations.
What are the gaps that you see and what can be done to fill them?
My last personal trauma was when I went to the Yahidne case at the Chernihiv District Court, [in which nearly 400 civilians were held in a cellar for almost a month] when the interrogations of the victims began - and there was no media representative. This is quite a high-profile case, which many have written about before, and so it was seen as a story that had been covered. What will happen next, whether someone will be brought to justice, whether the victims will feel justice - these questions are rarely asked. The misunderstanding of the essence of justice among the journalistic community saddens me. Reporting the story itself is the tip of the iceberg, and tracking the case further is not easy. You need to go to courts - often proceedings are postponed - you need to understand exactly why lawyers ask such questions,exactly why prosecutors argue in this way, how the judge should behave. It is much more difficult than just creating a tear-jerking story. I do not want to devalue the work of journalists, but [the court case] is not the end of the story, it is only the beginning. A decade of litigation is ahead and we have to learn to work with it.
What can be done when audience attention decreases?
We have to come to terms with the fact that attention will gradually decrease, especially from the international community. This happens after every armed conflict. And no matter how cynical it sounds, the issue of victory is also of great importance, because the international justice system that exists today is, after all, the justice of the victors. Prosecution will also depend on how significant Ukraine’s political weight will be after victory.
As it is clear that over time there will be less and less interest, it is already important to support professional publications and organisations that are ready to work in the long-term. The more there are, the more coverage there will be. The more people we educate while there is this wave of interest, the more people will stay in this field and continue to cover it. Therefore, it is already important to train journalists and encourage individual newsrooms to cover court proceedings professionally. This is what our organisation and several other donor programmes in Ukraine are engaged in, but there are too few of them for the amount of work we have.
It is very important for the journalistic community to understand that this is how the history of these events will be written. One of the elements of transitional justice is the right to the truth. The coverage of war crimes is one of the ways to ensure society's right to the truth. Journalism must understand its historical mission - the determination of the truth, which cannot be established in any other way than in court.
Are there problems with journalists' access to court hearings?
There are obstacles that are prescribed at the legislative level, for example, crimes related to sexual freedom, for instance one closed trial in Ukraine concerning the rape of a woman by Russian servicemen in Brovary. Victims have the right to a closed trial. We have to be understanding about it. I also urge journalists not to try to wait near courts and to obtain the testimony of the victim at any cost. The victim's right not to share her story publicly must be respected.
There are other situations where judges exercise their right to restrict access to court during martial law. Several times we witnessed how foreign journalists were not allowed in court in the Poltava region, even though the case concerned Russian gunners and there was nothing sensitive about it. This is a certain irrational fear of journalists in the judicial system, which is gradually changing. Our colleagues from the Human Rights Vector NGO are implementing a project on forming communication teams in courts - teaching and explaining to court employees why communication with the press is important, and why it is important to provide maximum access for the media. Journalists and monitors must know their rights in court. For this purpose, we are preparing a special guide with recommendations for journalists in Ukrainian and English.
How well do public organisations cooperate with the national judicial system and international institutions?
There is basic cooperation, but it happens at different intensities. When the full-scale invasion began, the judicial system in Ukraine had not been reformed, so we need to work on this in parallel. If we are talking about the national justice system, then a lot depends on the human factor. There are professional and motivated people, but there are also cases when elementary knowledge of international humanitarian law is lacking. Although large-scale training of law enforcement agencies has begun, all this happened after February 24, 2022.
Regarding cooperation with international institutions, we are very concerned about the information about the leak from the database of the International Criminal Court [after a hacking attack in September 2023]. We have transferred many victims' contacts and are now concerned about data insecurity in the ongoing conflict. Now we doubt whether we are ready to continue sharing contacts.
To meet these challenges, we created the 5 AM Coalition after the full-scale invasion, which unites 34 public organisations, including several international ones. Among the tasks of this coalition are the documentation of war crimes, analytics, advocacy issues and information coverage. We are trying to find optimal solutions, since today there is no final model of justice regarding the war in Ukraine. We are in the process, but the fact of the process gives hope that justice is and will be [done]. This is difficult and painstaking work, but we have professional colleagues and international support.
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