As soon as Kherson was liberated from Russian occupation in mid-November, the General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces cancelled accreditations for journalists covering the city. It was a punishment for making reports during the completion of "stabilization works," which meant searching for and persecuting collaborators (sometimes in quite brutal ways). The Ukrainian Ombudsman, Dmytro Lubinets, protested the decision, calling it "unacceptable," but the accreditations have yet to be restored, while the freedom to express information, ideas, and opinions without fear of government censorship based on content - that is, freedom of speech - has already been violated.
It appears to be understandable why Ukraine revoked the accreditations: to conceal the ill-treatment of the collaborators from the general public, which could accuse the country of violating humanism and liberalism principles. To paraphrase Jean Baudrillard, Ukraine attempted to misrepresent events by using so-called "simulacra" - images of real reality gleaned from the media (Baudrillard, 1981). Journalists reporting on Ukrainian misdeeds risk undermining the proper simulacra, which is largely based on a distinction between the good, angelic, and civilized Ukrainians (‘we’ and "friend") and bad, evil, and barbaric Russians (‘they’ and "enemy").
When maintaining such a simplified distinction is essential for maintaining nationalism, which in turn is required for an effective civil and military mobilization to fight the invaders, harming the existing image may have serious internal, as well as external, repercussions. To prevent this ramification from destroying solidarity by shattering the unambiguity of friend-enemy distinction, governments, whether in Ukraine during the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war or the United States during the Gulf War (Baudrillard, 1991), impose restrictions on media coverage of events.
As a result, we face a dilemma: unlimited free speech protection versus maintaining the clarity of the friend-enemy dichotomy, which is critical for cultivating nationalism and without which achieving victory, namely restoring state sovereignty, is difficult. To solve the problem, we must first understand how the two alternative goods - freedom of expression and political community sovereignty - are related.
Let us begin with freedom of expression. According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; the rights shall include the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, orally, in writing or print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Although the Universal Declaration reads the right as universal, guaranteed to every human being simply because he or she possesses homo sapiens traits, it is, in fact, a political community that provides individuals with rights and freedoms.
As Hannah Arendt stated in "The Right to Have Rights," individuals must be members of the political community so as to have ostensibly "universal" rights. When a person becomes stateless, he or she loses “the right to have rights” and, as a result, any protection, including that guaranteed by Article 3 of the UDHR: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the security of person” (Balibar, 2014). That is why, data from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shows that in France, whose sovereignty was respected and relatively preserved after the arrival of the German troops, 22% of the Jewish population was murdered in the Final Solution, while 90% were murdered in Poland, a state Hitler declared non-sovereign (Snyder, 2015). Thus, only as a member of a sovereign political community can an individual assert and have his or her human rights protected.
It begs the question: if I am a member of a political community, and if my rights and freedoms are derived from that membership, and if that political community is under threat and may be destroyed, is it justifiable for a state to impose restrictions on its citizens' rights and freedoms - specifically, freedom of speech - to preserve itself?
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights gives a clear answer: as the exercise of this freedom carries «special duties and responsibilities, it may ‘therefore be subject to certain restrictions for respect of the rights or reputations of others’ or, what must attract our attention, ‘for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals’. That is, the imposition of limits on ostensibly "universal" rights such as freedom of expression when their source is jeopardized, thereby endangering the very "right to have rights," is excusable.
But even so, would we recognize the actions of the Kherson journalists, whose accreditation was revoked by Ukrainian officials, as a threat to the Ukrainian "political community," in Arendt's words?
Perhaps we would indeed, because journalists' reports on the Ukrainian side's so-called "filtration" procedures in the liberated city could jeopardize the purity of Karl Schmitt's "friend-enemy" distinction, which, in turn, forms an essence of group identity and allows its very existence, especially during the war (Schmitt, 1931). Politics, according to Schmitt, involves groups that face off as mutual enemies, and their willingness to kill members of the hostile group simply because they belong to "enemies" forms the highest degree of association (“we") as well as dissociation (“they”). Simultaneously, a strong shared identity emerges even before legal formalization if it solely motivates one to fight and die for the group's survival.
That appears to be the case in Ukraine for the time being. Numerous memes and social media posts urging people to "kill rusnya" (Russian soldiers and their supporters), "comediazation," and "popular-culturization" of this call. One illustrative example is Mariia Kondratenko's song "Van'ka-Vstan'ka," which is still one of the most popular in Ukraine and was featured on the New Year 2023 Show on Ukrainian TV. It invites a Russian man, Van'ka (short for Ivan), to “prepare a package [for corps] for yourself» because «there is nowhere else to go.”
The same type of humour, based on gaining happiness from more Russians killed, now pervades all spheres of Ukrainian media and popular culture, from official Twitter accounts to TV jokes about media outlet Kvartal 95. All of this receives massive public support and endorsement, paving the way for Schmittian total association and dissociation, which is required for motivating the group to fight and die to protect itself from the enemy (in our case, from Russians).
Hence, some elements within the group, whether directly or indirectly supporting the enemy and blurring the friend-enemy or “we”-“they” distinction, erase the association and shared identity. As a result, the desire to kill the enemies and die in battle is undeniable. When a group's autonomy, or, if you will, state sovereignty, is at stake in a war, the emerging reluctance to fight may, in the worst case, lead to the loss of sovereignty that defeat would imply.
At the same time, as previously stated, the political community is what grants members of the group "the right to have rights," and thus basic human rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression. In other words, in the most extreme case, erosion of the friend-enemy distinction in an existential war (where state sovereignty and group survival are at stake) may increase the likelihood of defeat and, consequently, loss of sovereignty. Members of a defeated group would become "stateless," depriving them of the fundamental "right to have rights" (as happened in Poland in 1939 and Czechoslovakia in 1938 to name just a few). Because defeated group members' freedom of speech would cease to exist, the imposition of restrictions that limit the dissemination of identity-erasing information (for example, news that could fragment the group and spark internal conflicts) appears reasonable and allowable. That is, in order to preserve freedom of expression in the long run, it is sometimes necessary to restrict it in the short run to have them saved later.
Let us come back to the journalists of liberated Kherson. Since they had the potential to shed light on the ill-treatment of Ukrainian citizens who collaborated with Russians and make their tortures public, they have the potency to spark internal debates about whether the actions were right or wrong, given that Ukraine has positioned itself as an angelic and human-rights-oriented side in contrast to Russians. Inspiring inner conflict, combined with bestowing good Ukrainians with bad Russian characteristics, has the potential to blur the distinction and set in motion the previously mentioned chain. From this vantage point, the imposition of a restriction on journalists and the punishment for breaking the rules in the form of renouncing accreditations appears justified.
All in all, although human rights and freedoms appear universal, their source is membership in a political community, providing its citizens with what Hannah Arendt called “rights to have rights.” In times of emergency, such as war, the political community's survival, and thus this "right to have rights," may be imperilled. As exercising rights, particularly freedom of expression, can sometimes destroy a group's identity and undermine its ability to fight, thereby increasing the likelihood of the worst outcome (loss of sovereignty), imposing restrictions on rights and freedoms to ensure their long-term preservation does seem to be permissible.
Having been born in Ukraine and brought up in Russia, Victoria Portnaya is passionate about digging into the past, present and future of these two countries. Also, Victoria is a Youth Fellow in the International Youth Think Tank and a member of the Common Futures Conversations (Chatham House).
Balibar, é. (2014). Chapter six. Hannah Arendt, the Right to Have Rights, and Civic Disobedience. In Equaliberty: Political Essays (pp. 165-186). New York, USA: Duke University Press.
Schmitt, C. (1976). The concept of the political. New Brunswick, N.J : Rutgers University Press
Snyder, T. (2015). Black earth: the Holocaust as history and warning. First edition. New York.
Note: this editorial was originally a winning piece in the IA Forum Student Writing Competition. The author's current collegiate status (current unenrolled) made the piece ineligible, however.