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Ukrainian fury as ZDF airs report normalizing life under Russia

A German TV report presenting Mariupol as lively under occupation, with no visible resistance, has infuriated Ukrainian officials and society.
Russian soldiers walking along a street in Mariupol on 12 April 2022. Photo: Alexander Nemenov/AFP
Ukrainian fury as ZDF airs report normalizing life under Russia

After illegally entering the occupied part of Ukraine from Russia, German TV channel ZDF’s Moscow bureau head, Armin Coerper, recently produced a TV segment on life in Mariupol under Russian occupation, sparking intense criticism from Ukrainian media experts, officials, and society. Ukrainian diplomats criticized Coerper for unlawfully crossing Ukraine’s border and legitimizing the Russian occupation, while activists accused him of portraying the occupied city as normal.

Before falling to the Russians, Mariupol faced Russia’s devastating attacks, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Occupied individuals underwent “filtration” checks, often leading to imprisonment or deportation. Russia now conceals war crimes by rebuilding and portraying normalcy in the city.

On ZDF, Coerper said that he and his team entered the area of Mariupol after receiving papers from Russia that permitted their entrance. Meanwhile, visiting Ukrainian territory without Ukraine’s approval violates Ukrainian legislation.

“I would like to make it very clear that this (illegal entrance to Ukraine, – Ed.) does not mean that we recognize this occupation by Russia,” Armin Coerper said during a live broadcast on ZDF.

The journalist didn’t notice any restrictions imposed in the city by the occupation authorities, saying that his team could move around freely and, according to his observations, were not being monitored or supervised.

While acknowledging the Russian occupation, Coerper simultaneously stated that “Mariupol is not a ghost town, and I want to make that clear,” after he was asked what life is like now under Russian occupation.

“You see people on the street here. They live their lives here, and they (people, – Ed.) are forthcoming,” Coerper said, adding that he had not sensed any reservations among the people, and those who approached them also talked to them.

Tragedy of Mariupol

In 2022, Russia’s aggression caused a humanitarian catastrophe in Mariupol, with almost 90% of the city destroyed in artillery and air attacks. Residential houses, hospitals, schools, kindergartens, and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and thousands of civilians were killed. To conceal its war crimes, Russia has demolished 465 buildings in the city with nearly 33,500 apartments in them.

During the seizure of Mariupol, Russian armed forces bombed the city’s drama theater, which resulted in the deaths of over 600 civilians seeking shelter in it. The destroyed theater has also become a target for the so-called “reconstruction” of the city, aiming to remove traces of the crimes of the occupiers.

The ZDF says Russian was the predominant language in Mariupol before the war, but actors in the Russian-occupied city told the ZDF correspondent that the theater – which was later bombed – had previously allegedly not been allowed to perform plays in Russian, and now things are “different.”

“Another sector where you can feel Russian occupation is education. New textbooks and teaching programs have been introduced in schools, with history lessons now naturally following the Russian narrative,” explained Coerper in his report.

Pushing Russian propaganda’s narrative of the alleged oppression of the Russian language by Ukraine has further intensified the debate surrounding the ZDF report, as Ukrainians questioned the accuracy and objectivity of the coverage at a critical time in Mariupol’s history.

Normalizing the occupation

​​Starting his commentary live from occupied Mariupol, Coerper admitted that a lot of destruction can be seen in Mariupol, but he continued:

“But we are seeing a lot of reconstruction – roads, schools, blocks of flats, whole neighborhoods are being rebuilt. That happens very quickly.”

The German reporter portrayed the city as “alive,” saying that stores and restaurants are open and residents have access to heating, hot water, and internet services. He also asserted that “he did not witness any resistance” in the city and suggested that the majority of the population supported the Russian occupation.

“If there are people in this city who remain pro-Western, they are probably much more reserved and may fear repressions if they speak with us,” admitted the German journalist.

Ukrainian outrage

In response to Coerper’s segment, Ukrainian media expert Diana Dutsyk, a member of the Journalism Ethics Commission, has expressed concerns about Armin Coerper’s professionalism level as ZDF’s report presents life in occupied Mariupol as ordinary.

“The main message of this report says life in Mariupol isn’t that bad, and a person can live under occupation,” said Dutsyk on social media.

According to the expert, her agency has already had several “ideological misunderstandings” with journalists from Germany and other countries on how to cover the news on occupied territories.

“Unfortunately, discussions on revising approaches to balance the reporting at international journalistic forums have never ended effectively. Instead, media outlets often accuse Ukrainian journalists, insinuating that they are all traumatized and, therefore, are over-emotional,” Dutsyk said.

Coerper’s phrase that the team of journalists was working in the city “freely” looks like an invitation to other media to break the law and cooperate with the occupation authorities, warned the Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine.

In a condemning statement, the Ukrainian state-funded broadcaster Suspilne said the ZDF report was created with the approval and assistance of Russian occupation authorities, which is a direct violation of Ukrainian law. It also emphasized that the fact of entering Mariupol through Russian territory should have been explicitly addressed in the report.

The company called on the ZDF to explain all the violations and “give its audience a wider context to the facts described in the report.”

The Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany, Oleksii Makeiev, has also shared the outrage of the media expert. He has reported that the embassy promptly contacted the German television channel editorial office with a letter expressing the inadmissibility of such reports. In turn, the embassy has received a response from the ZDF acknowledging the mistake and assuring respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“The illegal Mariupol broadcast was a legitimization of the occupation and a relativization of [Russian] war crimes,” Makeiev wrote on X/Twitter.

The spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Oleh Nikolenko, took to social media to condemn the report:

“Distorting reality is not journalism. Moreover, @ZDF Moscow bureau chief’s visit to occupied Mariupol without Ukraine’s consent violated Ukrainian legislation. We call on @ZDF to provide an official explanation. Violating Ukraine’s laws may impact the media’s further work in Ukraine,” Nikolenko said on X.

ZDF’s response to criticism

Later, on 30 January, a comment from the ZDF editorial team appeared on the page with the report’s publication.

“ZDF takes criticism of the reports from Mariupol seriously. As a journalist, Moscow studio director Armin Coerper went to Mariupol to get an independent picture of the situation in territories occupied in violation of international law.

He tells the story of a city completely destroyed because of the Russian aggressive war and its forcible russification. Armin Coerper implies that those who oppose Russian occupation have to fear repressions if they speak with a Western journalist,” the statement reads.

Documented occupation

Meanwhile, the team of the “20 Days in Mariupol” documentary, directed by Mstyslav Chernov, is waiting for the decision of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to win the 2024 Oscar Award. The movie, created in co-production between the AP and PBS’ “Frontline,” features the work of Ukrainian photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and Ukrainian field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko.

In 2023, the “20 Days in Mariupol” was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category. Chernov and his team documented the siege of Mariupol, including the tragic deaths of many young people in the city, mass graves, and the bombing of a maternity hospital.

Earlier, the documentary was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize for public service and for breaking news photography. The “20 Days in Mariupol” was acknowledged as one of the most significant nonfiction films of the year and received multiple nominations, including from the BAFTAs, the Producers Guild, and the Directors Guild.

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