Why are journalists becoming targets for Russian troops in Ukraine?

Members of the press holding gas masks in unknown location. (Credit: Engin Akyurt/Pixabay)

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 21 media people have died, according to the Press Emblem Campaign. At least half of them are journalists killed directly in the line of duty. Other victims either changed their jobs as soldiers in the Army Forces and died as soldiers in battle, or were representatives of other related professions, such as media trainers, cinematographers, employees of press services, and so on.


More often than not, journalists killed or wounded in Ukraine were wearing bright protective vests with the words “Press”, moved in cars with the words “Press”, and loudly reported their professional status. But all this did not prevent the Russian occupiers from shooting at them.

Well-known Ukrainian photojournalist Max Levin was killed in mid-March in the town of Guta-Mezhyhirska in the Kyiv region. Despite his clear identification, he was shot dead by Russian soldiers with two bullets. Former The New York Times employee Brent Renaud was also wearing a “Press” badge when he was killed on 13 March by Russian soldiers near the city of Irpin.

Killed war photojournalist Max Levin (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Eugene Datsenko)

International humanitarian law does not provide any additional protection for journalists during a war. According to the Geneva Conventions, journalists are civilians if they do not take part in hostilities. Accordingly, the Russian military should treat journalists like other civilians and not harm them.

Unfortunately, Russian soldiers in Ukraine are behaving like barbarians and committing war crimes: they kill civilians, rob citizens’ homes, torture, and rape people. Russians treat adults and children, women and men equally badly. The massacre in Bucha, the shootings in Irpin, the bombing of Borodyanka, and the destruction of Mariupol confirm this. In such a war, journalists become unwanted witnesses of Russian war crimes, and they are also targets.

An illustration of this thesis is the incredible photos from Mariupol taken by AP journalists Mstislav Chernov and Yevhen Maloletka. It was they who recorded the bombing of the maternity hospital by the Russians. These shots shocked the world and influenced the reaction of Western countries to this war. Photojournalists had to evacuate from Mariupol because Russian soldiers were purposefully hunting for them. After their evacuation, the world does not have reliable data from the Russian-occupied Mariupol, where street fighting is still going on in some areas.

Even when journalists work far from the front and investigate war crimes, they are in danger. Hackers are constantly attacking the Ukrainian media, and unknown individuals are threatening to kill Ukrainian journalists in private letters. Russian propagandists declare the most famous Ukrainian media people as “enemies” and post information about them on special sites. After a series of poisonings of Russian regime oppositionists, these threats do not seem empty. The work of journalists in Ukraine has never been so dangerous.

Andrii Ianitskyi is a journalist in Ukraine and director of the Centre for Journalism at the Kyiv School of Economics.