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Zaborona vs. StopFake: what is hiding behind Ukraine’s ongoing media conflict?

Ukraine not only needs to initiate an open discussion on the extreme right, but also step up its efforts in strengthening professional standards of journalism and ensuring the safety of independent journalists.

August 3, 2020 - Anastasia Starchenko - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Trent Erwin

On July 3rd Zaborona, a Ukrainian online media outlet, published a long read discussing alleged friendly ties between Ukraine’s far-right and neo-Nazi groups and the leaders of StopFake.org, a non-profit fact-checking organisation exposing cases of false information and propaganda about events in Ukraine. The publication has sparked a storm of media controversy far beyond Ukraine and caused Katerina Sergatskova, Zaborona’s co-founder and co-author of the article, to flee the country. It has also raised concerns over weaknesses in Ukraine’s civil society and journalist ethics, as well as the fight against hate speech, online harassment and assaults against independent reporters.

Zaborona, StopFake and Ukraine’s ultra-right

One month earlier on June 2nd, Zaborona’s official Facebook page shared a publication about Denis Nikitin, a key figure among European ultra-right radicals, which the social network then blocked 18 hours later. Soon after, Facebook explained that the post was removed by mistake (assumingly, due to a photograph illustrating the material, in which a Ukrainian man wrapped in a swastika flag throws his hand in the Nazi salute) and reinstated it the next day. Zaborona decided to follow up on the incident and later released the material discussing alleged links of the fact-checking project StopFake to Ukrainian far-right and neo-Nazi organisations. Zaborona journalists explained their interest by the fact that after the removal of the Facebook post, some readers recommended to search for possible motives of the new fact-checking partner of Facebook in Ukraine– StopFake.org. On March 27th, Facebook indeed confirmed its partnership with StopFake and VoxUkraine to increase its fact-checking capacities on social network pages in Ukraine.

Zaborona eventually released material that first focused on Yevhen Fedchenko – the co-founder and chief editor for StopFake and director of the Mohyla School of Journalism at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. It pointed out Fedchenko’s habit of taking political stances, speaking against freedom of the press and on one occasion even whitewashing the reputation of a Ukrainian far-right group C14 (Sich), Ukraine’s controversial group of far-right radicals, by singling out one of its members as his respected colleague. Fedchenko has also been accused of taking the side of Myrotvorets, or Peacemaker, a Ukrainian nationalist website that in 2016 doxed the personal data of more than 5,000 Ukrainian and foreign reporters with press passes issued by the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, labeling them “terrorist collaborators”. A closer look, however, reveals that Zaborona’s allegations seem to be taken out of context and might conceal more complex motives in explaining such statements.

Later the Zaborona report moves on to Marko Suprun, “the main face of StopFake” and the person in charge of the English-language StopFakeNews project on YouTube. According to Zaborona’s findings, Suprun has often been spotted in the company of Ukraine’s infamous far-right figures, notably Arseniy Bilodub, the founder of the far-right clothing brand SvasStone and the leader of the hatecore band Sokyra Peruna, and Andriy Sereda, the frontman of another controversial rock band Komu Vnyz. The material refers to photographs of Suprun spotted together with both Bilodub and Sereda, as well as other Ukraine’s far-right radicals, and cites the opinions of experts, who point out that StopFake has become “too politicised,” and that Marko Suprun’s friendship with the extreme right may affect the organisation’s image.

Many consider Zaborona – which is sponsored by the Open Society Foundation, Free Press Unlimited, Journalismfund.eu and users of Patreon.com – a high-quality media outlet that publishes reports, documentaries, in-depth and non-mainstream research, most of which have no political undertone and do not promote any hidden agenda. While some readers have praised the material attacking StopFake as a bold attempt to initiate an open discussion of Ukrainian far-right radicalism, many Ukrainian journalists have criticised it as weak, not based on reliable evidence, and mainly presuming guilt by association. The article refers to Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher of right-wing radical movements, Christopher Miller, a Buzzfeed journalist covering Eastern Europe in Western media, Vyacheslav Likhachev, coordinator of the National Minorities Rights Group, Maxim Butkevich, a human rights defender, and Michael Kolborn, a Bellingcat journalist. All of the above, however, are regarded as like-minded supporters of Zaborona’s position and do not account for an alternative opinion from that existing within Ukraine’s media environment.

On July 8th the StopFake Supervisory Board issued a statement denying all allegations and claiming the material was part of a wider information campaign to discredit the organisation. According to StopFake’s position, the allegations presented by Zaborona “are untrue and cause moral and reputational damage to the organisation”. Among other things, the rebuttal stated that Marko Suprun “has also been photographed alongside Rabbi Yakov Bleich, but this does not make him a member of his synagogue,” referring to the claims of his neo-Nazi links as “an outright manipulation and slander”.

Despite the earlier pledge to provide a platform for open and inclusive discussion, Zaborona published another text backing the original accusations. “Drawing the line between journalism and political activism appears to be difficult for Katerina Sergatskova’s team,” wrote Otar Dovzhenko, Ukraine’s media monitoring expert. “It is unfortunate that one structure of an already not very powerful civil society attacks another because of illusory ideological differences… Especially since these structures are actually much more alike than different.”

Journalism, political activism and online harassment

Zaborona’s publication has also revealed many issues of journalistic standards in Ukraine: insufficient level of professionalism, lack of solidarity, propaganda and impunity. Following the release of the original material, the controversy between Zaborona and StopFake has also provoked a storm of reactions on social networks, including hate speech and personal insults, primarily against Kateryna Sergatskova, a former Russian citizen. On July 11th Roman Skrypin, blogger and Sergatskova’s former colleague with over 130,000 followers on his social media account, posted a picture of Sergatskova with her five-year-old son along with details about her personal life, accusing her of cooperating with Russian intelligence services. Social media users threatened Sergatskova with death and physical violence over her alleged involvement in pro-Russian propaganda and posted her address and even photos of her home. The post appears to have been deleted, but Sergatskova continued to face a wave of threats targeting her personal and professional life. According to media reports, Sergatskova and her family left the territory of Ukraine out of fear for her safety.

According to Human Rights Watch, online harassment, including threats and doxing of journalists or “pro-Russian” conspirators in Ukraine, has become a common phenomenon in Ukraine since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent fighting by Russia-backed armed groups in eastern Ukraine. “Journalists should not have to fear for their lives because of what they report,” commented Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “The Ukrainian government should protect journalists when they are threatened and harassed, including when that harassment takes place online.”

On July 17th Mediarukh “Media for a Conscious Choice”, a coalition of Ukrainian media-development and groups focusing on freedom of the press, called on Ukraine’s Independent Media Council and Commission on Journalists’ Ethics to evaluate Zaborona’s publications about StopFake on their conformity to professional journalistic standards. They also called on law enforcement authorities to investigate personal attacks on Zaborona and StopFake journalists. Mediarukh has also insisted that journalism should be free and responsible; that is, any attempt to question a colleague’s work must be carefully justified, based on indisputable facts and be part of an open discussion within the professional community. “In our view, this situation is damaging to the Ukrainian media community and civil society,” says the official statement. “The hate speech, public squabbling, unfounded personal accusations, abuse and threats that appeared in comments in social media surrounding this conflict are unacceptable. We urge everyone involved to stop and to return to the framework of civilised discussion.”

It remains to be seen whether the controversy will find an appropriate solution within the professional community and mark a positive development in Ukrainian journalist culture. One thing appears clear – the Ukrainian government needs to step up efforts to guard freedom of the press and protect journalists and activists from online harassment and physical assaults, as these have come increasingly under serious attack in the recent years.

Anastasiia Starchenko is an editorial intern at New Eastern Europe and a recent MA graduate of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. She has a BA in Law from the Ukrainian Academy of Banking and a BA in International Relations from Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia.

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