July 10, 2023
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CANADALAND
#900 Ukraine vs Press Freedom
Canada stands with Ukraine. Ukraine is our friend and ally. Ukraine is like us, they are a democracy, fighting for their sovereignty and their freedoms - including freedom of the press - from a hostile, despotic invader who respects none of those liberties. And as Ukraine fights Russia for those freedoms, Canada is sending over money, weapons, and….journalists. But Ukraine tried to send one back.
Jesse Brown
Host & Publisher
Bruce Thorson
Senior Producer
Tristan Capacchione
Audio Editor & Technical Producer
Karyn Pugliese
Editor-in-Chief

Last month the Globe and Mail reported that Anton Skyba, their photojournalist in Ukraine, applied to the Ukrainian government to have his press credentials renewed – and was denied. Ukrainian security services accused him of holding a Russian passport, demanded that he take a lie-detector test, and questioned whether his work as a journalist was aligned with Ukraine’s “national interests.”

It was not an isolated incident. 

Last year, Ukrainian Security – the SBU – sent a list of names to their friends in the FBI. The SBU explained that it was a list of people who they suspected of spreading “fear and disinformation” about Ukraine through their Twitter accounts.  They asked the FBI to get Twitter to remove these peoples’ accounts – to censor them. One of the names on that list was Aaron Mate, a Canadian journalist who works for the website GrayZone.

Skyba and Mate talk to Canadaland about the state of press freedom in war-torn Ukraine.

 

Host: Jesse Brown

Credits: Sarah Lawrynuik (Reporter), Bruce Thorson (Senior Producer), Tristan Capacchione (Audio Editor and Technical Producer), Annette Ejiofor (Managing Editor), Karyn Pugliese (Editor in Chief)

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Canadaland’s transcripts are edited to the best of our ability to ensure accuracy from audio to text. Please contact editor@canadaland.com should you have a correction. 

Transcript
Jesse: Canada stands with Ukraine. Ukraine is our friend and ally. Ukraine is like us. They are a democracy fighting for their sovereignty and for their freedoms, including freedom of the press against a hostile, despotic invader who respects none of those liberties. And as Ukraine fights Russia for their freedoms, Canada is sending over money and weapons and journalists. But Ukraine tried to send one back. 

Last month, The Globe and Mail reported that Anton Skyba, their photojournalist in Ukraine, applied to the Ukrainian government to have his press credentials renewed, and he was denied. Ukrainian security services accused him of holding a Russian passport. They demanded that he take a lie detector test and they questioned whether his work as a journalist for the Globe and Mail was aligned with Ukraine’s national interests. This was not an isolated incident. 

Last year, Ukrainian security, the SBU sent a list of names to their friends in the FBI. The SBU explained to the FBI that this was a list of people who they suspected of spreading fear and disinformation about Ukraine through their Twitter accounts. Ukraine asked the FBI to get Twitter to remove these people’s accounts, basically to censor them. One of the names on that list was Aaron Maté, a Canadian journalist who works for the website Grayzone. 

And those two Canadian examples, those are just two cases of many that challenge the notion of Ukraine as a country that respects press freedom. Ukraine has also revoked press credentials for a reporter from the New York Times after the Times reported on Ukraine’s use of cluster bombs. They revoked the access of an NBC reporter who entered Crimea from Moscow, and they did it again to a reporter from CNN and to reporters from domestic Ukrainian outlets. Now, in some cases, as with the Globe and Mail’s reporter, they later reinstated credentials after political pressure was applied. And other times they didn’t.

Now, information is often tightly controlled during wartime, and it is not surprising that Ukraine forbids reporters from reporting on things like the location and numbers of military personnel or details about combat operations. But more concerning are ideological crackdowns, owns on content which in their opinion, promotes or justifies Russia. Last May, the group Reporters Without Borders issued to Ukrainian President Zelensky an eight point roadmap for strengthening press freedom in Ukraine. Here’s point one: end arbitrary restrictions and discrimination with regard to media covering the war. Doesn’t seem to have worked. 

Just last month, The Intercept reported that Ukraine retaliated against journalists who defied press restrictions by reporting from the liberated city of Kherson and revoked their credentials. “It’s wild”, A New Yorker reporter was quoted as saying, “how little of what is happening is being chronicled. And the main reason is that the Ukrainian government has made it virtually impossible for journalists to do real frontline reportage.”

So, yes, Ukraine is a democracy, but Ukraine is also a country at war, a country under martial law where things like press freedom and free elections are on hold. Today, we are going to dare to ask some questions about how free our ally Ukraine really is. We are going to speak with the two Canadian media journalists who were sanctioned by Ukraine, Grayzone’s Aaron Maté and The Globe and Mail’s Anton Skyba. And thanks to our colleague Sarah Lawrynuik reporting from Ukraine. We are going to get answers from the Ukrainian government, from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Defense, respectively. Wait for it.
(Canadaland theme plays)

Jesse: This episode is brought to you by Alexa Dodge, Bill Wingerak, Ed Roth, Parvez Javeed, Derek Blackadder, Kevin Stewart, Ted Somerville and Reena.

Patreon Supporter Reena: My name is Reena. I’m an engineer from Toronto and I support Canadaland because it’s an informative and entertaining source of Canadian news. I love listening to the Backbench, Commons and canadaLANDBACK. I think the work that you do is valuable and the stories that you share are important for Canadians to hear.

Jesse: Aaron Maté is a Canadian born journalist and writer who has worked for The Nation, Al Jazeera and Democracy Now! He currently writes for The Grayzone, which calls itself a website dedicated to investigative reporting on empire. Others have called it a far left, even a fringe publication. Maté spoke to me from his home in Brooklyn. I started by asking him about the FBI’s attempt to get him censored from Twitter because Ukraine asked them to.

Aaron Maté: In March 2022. The FBI sends Twitter a note on behalf of the SBU, which is Ukraine’s main intelligence service. And the FBI says that we received this list of Twitter accounts from the SBU. And the SBU says that these accounts spread fear and disinformation. And this list is for you to review. And in the attached list, which is authored by the SBU, Ukraine’s main intelligence agency, it’s a list of accounts. 

And Ukraine says basically to Twitter, please suspend these accounts and also provide us with their user information. And there’s more than 100 names on the list and including me, I’m on there. And Twitter responds by saying, okay, we’ll review these accounts. But just so you know, we can see already that there’s Canadian and American journalists on here, for example, Aaron Maté. And unless you can show us that there’s some sort of deceptive tie between these people and a foreign government, we’re not going to go after journalists. 

And the FBI says, okay, well, whatever you think is appropriate. But it took Twitter to tell the FBI that they were trying to censor journalists and to point out that that’s not an appropriate thing to do. And we know about all this because this is a part of the Twitter files, which is the trove of leaks that have emerged from Twitter in recent months. And so I obtained this portion of that trove, and this is what I reported.

This dynamic where you have the FBI passing on a censorship request at the behest of a foreign intelligence service. It raises the question of like, what law enforcement and public safety function does that serve? Like, how is it in the public’s interest to ban people from Twitter, including journalists? And does this violate First Amendment rights? I mean, I think it does. 

Now, I’m trying to take the best spin on this here for the FBI, which is that I don’t think the FBI got this list from its counterparts in Ukraine, looked it over, saw me, for example, and said, yes, let’s get him suspended. I just think they were doing this because the US support for Ukraine is so deep right now because, you know, in my opinion, Ukraine is being used for a geo-strategic purpose to basically sacrifice itself to bleed Russia, which is the US main rival. 

So as part of that cooperation between these two states is so extensive that the FBI is willing to just blindly pass on censorship requests like this without vetting them themselves. That’s my assumption, is that this wasn’t vetted. And I asked the FBI, I asked the special agent personally who passed on this request. And I also asked the FBI headquarters, you know, did you vet this list before you passed it on? And when Twitter told you that the FBI was effectively trying to censor journalists. Has that prompted any review or reconsideration of your policy of collaborating with Ukrainian intelligence on matters like this? And the FBI said, thank you for your questions, but we can’t confirm or deny the veracity of our correspondence, so we’re not going to comment on your question. So I haven’t gotten an answer, which means that for all I know, this this collaboration is still going on.

Jesse: Why do you think you were targeted by the SBU for spreading fear and disinformation and being contrary to the war effort?

Aaron Maté: I’ve been critical of the proxy war in Ukraine, but the things I point out I don’t think are particularly radical and nothing I say I think could ever justify censoring me no matter what my views are. But for what it’s worth, I’ve never supported Russia’s invasion. I’ve been critical of it. I don’t think it was justified. What I’ve tried to do is point out that there’s a context and I’ve tried to provide some background to that, to my audience. 

And I’ve tried to point out that, you know, things you could easily say before Russia invaded. So, for example, before Russia invaded, you know, Barack Obama was talking about how it wasn’t worth having a war with Russia over who rules eastern Ukraine. And it was widely reported in the Western media that Ukraine had a neo-Nazi problem inside its armed forces and that US officials had long raised concerns about NATO expansion going to Russia’s borders and how that could possibly trigger a war. And after Russia invaded, it all of a sudden became very, very difficult to say those things in public in the West. But I kept saying them, and I think that’s probably explains why I was marked for censorship here by Ukraine, because they don’t like having these things pointed out.

Jesse: So that’s from my conversation with Aaron Matt. Now, I knew when I was speaking to him that this is a controversial guy. His website, The Grayzone, is constantly facing accusations from Foreign Policy magazine, from The Daily Beast that they are pro-Kremlin, an accusation that Matt denies vigorously. I am not weighing in on that. I have not reviewed their coverage extensively. What I can say is that whatever case you might try to mount about Aaron Maté, I just don’t know how you can make the same argument about a journalist from the very mainstream Globe and Mail. But as you are about to hear, Ukraine did just that.

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Jesse: Anton Skyba is a Ukrainian photojournalist and reporter who has covered Ukraine since 2014 for many international news outlets. He’s been working for the Globe and Mail in Ukraine since 2022, starting a month before the Russian invasion. Skyba was recently nominated for a national newspaper award for his coverage of the war in Ukraine. He’s also been interrogated twice by Ukrainian security officials. He’s been accused of holding a Russian passport and he’s been asked to take a lie detector test by those same Ukrainian security officials. Reporter Sarah Larnach spoke with Skyba for Canadaland in Kyiv. In discussing his interrogations, he told her that his interrogators were focused on whether or not his journalism, in their opinion, served Ukraine’s national interests.

Anton Skyba: The most recurrent phrase was that the officer told me who interrogated me. He told me, Well, I don’t see you as an enemy, but I have doubts that your work is aligned with national interests of Ukraine. Like what does it mean serving to the national interests at all? So it’s very hard to divide my personal feelings on that and my professional feelings on that because from professional point of view, it’s a pure establishing of the control over the job I’m doing. 

And so if you’re trying to model the situation, okay, if my job is not aligned to national interests of Ukraine, so it doesn’t mean that I can’t do journalism here. For me, it’s clear that now Ukraine is doing wherever to win this war. So and that’s why they are trying to fight an enemy on any battlefield is possible, not on the physical battlefield, but informational warfare, et- et cetera, Et cetera. And there is a lot of Russia Russian disinformation here and Russian propaganda and Russian narratives, which is trying to penetrate through Ukrainian communication field. 

However, asking professional journalists about serving international interests is probably the most stupid thing they they could ever ask. Because why still, even professional journalists do not serve to the government of Ukraine. They serve to Ukrainian society. As a Ukrainian journalist, I’m working for the society or public interest, but not for the government interest.

Sarah: Well, and I mean, there are some inherent like rules that we do follow to get the accreditation like you won’t we won’t report on where a missile strike is exactly or if it’s hitting-

Anton Skyba: Embargoes. I really support the separation of security rules where it means you about disclosure like certain facts about army and like their location. I’m absolutely fine with that because it’s it’s not okay if the journalism harms like army or civilians or whatever because our main principle do not to harm but to tell the story. However, talks about national interests very, very vague definition, and the government could put whatever they want into this definition. For me, it’s like it’s the biggest concern in this story because I and it’s clear that now within time, the government of Ukraine, they also see informational sphere as a part of the warfare and they fighting in this sphere. They are also trying to establish more and more control here in this field as well among the journalists. And we hear all the story, all the stories where like when journalists reported something. Something bad or that the government didn’t like, and they suspend accreditation, they strip accreditation. It shouldn’t be in this way.

The journalists job is very clear. It’s just to report what you see and to fact check and to verify to your audience. Why is this information legitimate? Ukraine is very hostile and hazardous environment. So and all those Ukrainian journalists who are fighting here for for media rights, they are like heroes. They are double heroes because from one side they report war crimes committed by Russia. But from other side, they are trying to build better environment here. So that’s why I’m concerned and I insist that media freedom should be in attention of our Western partners and countries, and it’s never should be put out from the agenda, at least till the end of the war. It just should be always underlined whatever is going on in the country. Because I it’s just during much of war, it’s like media freedom. It’s the first thing, which would be the easiest thing to crack down.

Sarah: Are you more widely concerned about press freedom in Ukraine? Like, is that-

Anton Skyba: Yeah. Well, I clearly understand now where in martial law and like the challenge Ukraine is facing right now, it’s the biggest conflict since World War II in Europe by scale and by amount of tragedy and drama. And like my main concern is that it’s not the only war which Ukraine has. Another war, which Ukraine has, is a war for democracy. And very important to remember about this war for democracy, because Ukraine is not sustained and developed democracy as it been perceived in the Western countries, because it’s still the country in transit. 

Like nine years ago, people were like, I don’t know, few hundred meters from here were fighting against dictatorship who were building authoritarian state and then escaped to Russia. And like Ukraine, started to reform itself after that. And for nine years, a lot of reforms, process reforms simply hasn’t finished yet. And if we are talking about fight corruption, media freedom, like I don’t know who enforcement or like cetera, et cetera. Ukraine is is still the country in transit who is facing the hugest challenge to fight for its existence. But in the meantime, Ukraine should fight for the democracy inside and the media freedom is one of these aspects. And also the governmental control over over media doesn’t help.

Jesse: We wanted to know what Ukraine had to say about all this. And thanks to reporter Sarah Lawrynuik. We were able to submit questions in Ukrainian, which they answered in Ukrainian from two ministries, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Defense, respectively. These responses have been translated, and I’m going to share with you from those responses now.

We asked Ukraine what is the government’s response to these restrictions on press freedom? The Ministry of Culture answered: “We must emphasize that Russian propaganda is based on methods known since the Second World War, which were used by Goebbels and other war criminals. However, Russian propaganda multiplied this entire arsenal with enormous funds, and this is a very scary weapon. The international field has been under the pressure of racist propaganda, which updates the media arsenal to plant the Kremlin discourse covers like an octopus, different corners of the world and constantly mimics and is reborn under new names.”

They went on to say that despite their admitted semi censorship due to the war, which they say justifies bans on the distribution of certain types of information, Ukraine still remains one of the positive leaders of Europe and the world in the context of freedom of speech. We went on to ask Ukrainian officials about specific cases about the Globe and Mail reporter who was initially denied an extension of his credentials and about other reporters who seemed to face similar retaliations for the nature of their reporting.

“The above described cases are not known to the Ministry of Culture”, said the Ministry of Culture. But we got a bit more detail from the Ministry of Defense. Here’s what they said: “It should be noted that the armed forces of Ukraine do not censor journalistic materials and do not try to influence their content by canceling, suspending accreditation as this is prohibited by the current legislation of Ukraine. As of today, seven people were refused. The reasons for this are the inconsistency of the information provided, the existence of reasons to consider the granting of accreditation to a media representative in appropriate cases of cancellation in the past, or the recommendation of the security service of Ukraine. Such a refusal may be made without explaining the reasons for the refusal.”
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Jesse: That is your Canadaland. I’m going to say it like I mean it this week. If you value what we do here, please support us. This is how it’s going to work in this country. We rely on listeners like you to pay for journalism. As a supporter, we want to make you so happy and proud. We want to give you things: premium access to all of our shows, ad free early releases, bonus content, an exclusive newsletter, discounts on our merch invites and tickets to our live and virtual events. Come say hello. More than anything, I know why people do this. It’s not for any of those tickets or merchandise. It is to become a part of the solution to this growing journalism crisis in this country. Keeping our work free and accessible for everybody. Come and join us now. Click on the link in the show notes or go to canadaland.com/join. 

You can email me at jesse@canadaland.com, I read them all. We’re on twitter @Canadaland. Our website is canadaland.com. I’m your host, Jesse Brown. Additional reporting today from Sarah Lawrynuik. Our senior producer is Bruce Thorson. Additional production and editing from Tristan Capacchione. Our managing editor is Annette Ejiofor. Our editor in chief is Karyn Pugliese. Welcome, Karyn. Our theme music is by so-called syndication is handled by CFUV 101.9 FM in Victoria. Visit them online at CFUV.ca. You can listen to Canadaland ad free on Amazon music included with Prime.

 

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