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A bombed-out building near Kyiv Hollie McKay for Deadline

In Ukraine, Russia Is Turning On Journalists And The Truth With Personal & Painful Consequences — Special Report

Editor’s note: In Hollie McKay’s latest special report for Deadline, the veteran foreign affairs correspondent and author of Only Cry for the Living: Memos From Inside the ISIS Battlefield reports from the battlefields of Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion is targeting journalists and the truth.

It’s the sort of news that leaves you raw: former colleagues had been hit in a Russian attack, fate unknown. Having just returned from the frontlines on the fringes of Kyiv city, I peeled off my body armor and sat on the floor of my hotel room to process the news.

In the fog of war, the initial rumbles from fellow journalists were distorted. Still, I quickly learned that Fox News’ Benjamin Hall, a lovely and highly experienced war reporter, had been severely wounded in an artillery attack on a vehicle that he and others were traveling in.

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Hours later, I learned that their local producer-fixer Sasha Kuvshynova and Pierre Zakrzewski – possibly the kindest and most supportive and charismatic video journalists one could encounter – were missing. In the context of a frantic and feeble war zone, that can only mean a few things: they had perished in the blast, been taken as a prisoner of war, or transported to a morgue not yet identified.

As the day turned to night and night turned day, I learned that Ben had been injured and was fighting for his life. He was later evacuated and eventually made it to a hospital in Germany. I also learned that Pierre, and later Sasha, had been located. They both were dead.

Of course, every death in a conflict zone is a tragedy, but Pierre’s passing was as painful as it was guttering to anyone who had encountered the veteran cameraman. The sort of rare soul that lights up a room and shines a light in the darkest places on the planet.

While it remains unclear as of this writing that March 13’s deadly onslaught was mainly aimed at journalists, there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin and his propaganda thugs are doing their best to drive out reporters from the conflict theater, dampen dissent and clear the path to commit war crimes with less watchful eyes from the world. A day earlier, filmmaker Brent Renaud was shot dead in the Kyiv city of Irpin. In weeks prior, scores of journalists were hunted, enduring Russians opening fire despite being in vehicles marked “PRESS” and screaming “journalista!” as the bullets barraged.

Despite international law deeming press persons as protected, neutral players, legalities mean little to the savage Kremlin. It continues to bomb and blister innocent Ukrainians caught in the crossfire of this crushing conflict. The less outside news, the more Putin can perfect his utterly ludicrous propaganda. Anyone in Russia who dares use the terms “war” or “invasion” rather than the Moscow-approved “special military operation” is subject to fines and a 15-year jail term.

What is worse is how much of the Russian population remains blinded to the harsh reality as the conflict protracts into its fourth week.

One snowy afternoon in a muddy open field inside a Kyiv village, I meet a trembling 55-year-old Igor Sitalo, his head and hand wrapped in bloody bandages. He had just escaped the Russian-occupied city of Bucha, in which enemy forces had opened fire as he tried to escape – killing his beloved German Shepard and injuring the left side of his body.

“I sent photos to my family in Russia of my injuries,” Igor says tearfully from inside an ad hoc medical tent. “And they don’t believe me. They don’t think a war is really happening.”

I hear this same sentiment almost everywhere I go: frustrated Ukrainians unable to convince associates beyond the border of the butchery that ruins their world.

In the 21st century, it is hard to comprehend how a nation of more than 144 million people could be so blind to the realities of their leadership, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding right in front of them.

For months, Putin and his state-controlled media have pushed the narrative that they must “liberate” Ukraine from a “Nazi” regime, despite President Volodymyr Zelensky himself being a Jew.

To justify the actions and the thousands of Russian soldiers returning in body bags, the Kremlin cronies have latched onto the notion that Ukraine is riddled with U.S.-backed bioweapon laboratories preparing to attack Russia. Over the past week alone, Russian diplomats and its extension of state media have tweeted the term “biological” more than 600 times, with Russia ally China jumping in on the disinformation campaign by connecting this “fact” to the theory that the Covid-19 pandemic originated at a biological research center in Maryland.

Further, Moscow peddles the notion that Ukraine is testing lethal pathogens on its own people and expressing “extreme concern” that extremist, U.S.-backed Ukrainian groups are readying to assault Russian “liberators” with chemical weapons and then blame Moscow. The story version is particularly unsettling for international watchdogs and intelligence communities; it could mean that Russia is prepping some chemical onslaught to bring a dogged Kyiv to its knees.

Kremlin-linked accounts have also gone on the rampage against the evil, global “fake news” hucksters – tweeting the word “fake” more than 200 times and pushing it to become one of the top trending hashtags that often re-directs users to propaganda “fact-checking” websites. And after bombing a maternity hospital in the eastern city of Mariupol last week, Russian officials claimed that the searing images of a bloodied woman and her baby fleeing was the work of a “crisis actor.”

Moreover, the Russian government has implemented mass crackdowns and social media censorship in case citizens are exposed to slivers of truth. Even as dozens of deeply traumatized civilians recount how they were thrashed and shot at by occupiers as they tried to flee, Moscow has distorted the reality with assertions that “racist” Ukrainians are the ones killing and wounding civilians.

Nonetheless, the churning of propaganda and the isolation of millions being spoon-fed ludicrous lies isn’t the only component of this conflict that belongs to a different time and place. From the icy streets littered with concrete chunks as checkpoints and metal “hedgehogs” to repel artillery, to the mass migration of millions possessing little more than a few pieces of clothing and documents and the memories inside their minds, to the aerial bombardment and slow choking of significant cities, much of this Eastern Europe conflict is rooted in the Second World War.

The only difference now is that the rest of the world – outside of the perpetrating nation of Russia – watches on in real time, unable to intervene or lend a hand, as the most vulnerable in society are slaughtered with no end in sight.

But the apertures in the Putin play are growing, raising questions over how long he and his storytellers can hold their disinformation as death tolls mount and bodies are brought back in bags.

Earlier this week, a bold Russian activist – and employee of a state-run television station – interrupted a live broadcast with a handwritten sign blaring: “No war,” “Stop the war,” “Don’t believe the propaganda,” “They are lying to you here,” and “Russians against war.”

Later identified as Marina Ovsyannikova, we can only hope more Russians will be courageous enough to fight for the truth. It is a matter of life or death – very literally.

However, never in my career have I also had so many people reach out in confusion, unconvinced that the images and pictures eliminating from the battlefield are real. “We don’t believe any of what we see anymore,” one follower wrote over the weekend.

That skepticism may also be a result of Kyiv’s own slick videos and fervent messages to the world, along with earlier stories about ghost soldiers and executed fighters on Snake Island that turned out to be inaccurate and part of the other side’s propaganda machine.

Over the weekend, Zelensky signed a decree that combines all national TV channels into one platform, stressing the necessity of a “unified information policy” under martial law. Nonetheless, this control over private organization may end up doing more harm than good, seeking to enhance outside speculation over what is really happening rather than portray a cohesive picture of the devastation.

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