Ukraine, press freedom and 'fake news'

Ukraine coverage, a 'press marathon,' NK and Russia's 'fake news' fight, and more

Good morning! Welcome to the “From Russia With Mila” newsletter, which covers Eastern Europe through the lens of journalism and the media industry.

The varied spellings of Ukrainian President Zelensky’s name in western media dominated last week’s newsletter, but this week, I delve into how Ukraine is represented in western media and look at press freedom.

What’s the story with Ukraine?

Its president’s name has varied spellings across media outlets (Zelensky/iy/yy), and many journalists have indeed been calling it “Ukraine” rather than the outdated “the Ukraine,” but how is context when reporting about different countries like Ukraine in western media affecting the way people view them?

Different media outlets have referred to Ukraine as a “small (European) country,” but as the head of investigations at Russian-language digital news outlet Meduza, Alexey Kovalev, points out, it’s the largest in Europe (excluding European Russia).

If it’s comparison to Russia — the largest country in the world, spanning two continents — then sure, Ukraine is a “small” country. Julia Ioffe talks about Ukraine as it is increasingly more relevant in the U.S. news cycle in this GQ piece:

“Whenever Ukraine appears in our news cycle, it is talked about as if it’s a simpler place than it is. The political dynamic gets reduced to neat binaries—the forces there are either pro-Russia or pro-West; leaders are either corrupt actors or laudable reformers; the good guys versus the bad guys. But that framework belies the moral complexity of the place, which is why it pops up in our domestic political scandals in the first place.”

Ioffe writes, “Ukraine is much easier to think about if we cram it into our own political dichotomies, even if that distorts what’s really happening on the ground.”

“Ukraine pops up in our domestic political scandals because it is in the middle of a tug-of-war between Russia and the West, and because Westerners go there to enrich themselves doing questionable work. But in our minds, it is a small country somewhere over the horizon, full of people with funny Slavic names.”

Perhaps some people visualize Ukraine as such — a small country in Eastern Europe — because of the framing, which is why it is important to keep in mind the context in reporting about lesser-known countries and overseas conflicts.

The Ukraine timeline

The Guardian writes out a timeline of events. It not only emphasizes Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, which was widely viewed as an affront to international law, but also Ukraine’s relevance to Trump’s July phone call with Zelensky, the resulting whistleblower complaint and the impeachment inquiry.

Ukraine’s perspective on the Zelensky-Trump phone call is parsed out in an explainer from English-language Ukrainian news outlet, Kyiv Post.

And how does all of this affect Russia?

The Los Angeles Times’ Moscow correspondent, Sabra Ayres, writes about how the Zelensky-Trump call and impeachment scandal benefit Putin.

“‘The scandal surrounding Trump’s negotiations with Zelensky is diverting attention from Russia, and that is beneficial for Moscow,’ said Evgeny Minchenko, a political consultant in Moscow.”

What is the ‘press freedom’ situation in Ukraine?

According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Ukraine ranks in at 102/180, moving down slightly from last year. For comparison, Russia has also declined and now ranks 149th. The U.S. ranks 48th, also declining from last year.

It’s been seven months since the White House has held a formal press briefing — when the press secretary comes to the podium to take questions from reporters.

…Meanwhile, in Ukraine:

Zelensky, before becoming president of Ukraine, was a comedian and TV show host. Journalists in Ukraine have complained that he hasn’t held a press briefing since his inauguration in May, according to Bloomberg.

Other dateline spelling changes re: Kiev ➡️ Kyiv

Last week, I talked about the AP Stylebook’s dateline change from “Kiev” to “Kyiv,” because “it is associated with a time when Ukraine was part of the Russian and Soviet states, rather than an independent country.”

The Wall Street Journal also announced making this switch.

“The exception is chicken Kiev, which retains the familiar spelling; after all, Peking’s change to Beijing didn’t make us change the spelling of Peking duck.”

The dateline change from Peking to Beijing followed a similar history of transliteration and politics. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government adopted the pinyin transliteration method and used it to write proper names using the Latin alphabet, changing Peking to Beijing.

A dateline switch rooted in politics was Burma ➡️Myanmar. The ruling military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising (BBC).

“Follow local practice when a country expressly changes its name,” The Economist Style Book advised in 2016.

“Though Barack Obama referred to Myanmar when he met the country’s former president, Thein Sein, for the first time, the American embassy still gives its address as ‘Rangoon, Burma.’” 

North Korean, Russian state news agencies join to fight ‘fake news’

According to BBC Monitoring, state news agencies in North Korea (KCNA), and Russia (TASS), are “joining forces to tackle ‘fake news’ as part of an agreement signed in Pyongyang. The head of KCNA said that fighting disinformation is one of the key aspects of cooperation between the two agencies.”

Russia’s state news agency TASS originally reported this. According to The Moscow Times, the Russian news agency is “currently the only Russian media outlet to operate a permanent bureau in Pyongyang,” and had previously signed a cooperation agreement with KCNA in 2005.

“Earlier this week, the head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s press department had said that Russian media outlets ‘fairly and objectively report the principled positions of leadership of [North Korea] in the ongoing disputes between Washington and Pyongyang,’ TASS reported.”

North Korea ranks 179/180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, and Reporters Without Borders explains:

“North Koreans can still be sent to a concentration camp for viewing, reading or listening to content provided by a media outlet based outside the country. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) is the only permitted source of official news for the country’s other media.”

That’s all for this week! Reach out with any questions or comments, and stop back for more on media and Eastern Europe.

— Мила (Mila)

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