What an odd time to be celebrating Sunshine Week here in the United States, even as the last vestiges of a free and independent media go dark in Russia and the world holds its breath to see if Ukraine will survive, and as an international cadre of journalists risk their lives to tell the ongoing story.
Sunshine Week, celebrated in this country since 2005, has usually been a time for news organizations to push the envelope on government transparency and open records laws and to push back against efforts to chip away at the First Amendment freedoms we hold sacred.
It has in the recent past been a time to defend our profession against charges that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” and to counter those who yell “fake news” at the stinging truths that wound autocrats and autocrat-wannabes.
But this year, the world has come to know both the extraordinary lengths to which an autocrat like Vladimir Putin will go to hide the truth of his crippling war on Ukraine from his own people, and the extraordinary lengths to which news organizations and journalists on the ground will go to bring the world the real story.
Long before this war began, journalists, citizen bloggers, and, yes, government officials were documenting the Russian troop buildup that was slowly but surely encircling Ukraine. The Biden administration realized the wisdom of sharing what in years past would be restricted as classified information — in a nation that has had a tradition of over-classifying what should be public information — about the well-laid Putin plans to trump up an excuse to launch this “war of choice” against Ukraine.
Putin’s response, of course, was to crack down on what was left of Russia’s independent media and launch a warning shot to all journalists operating in his country that anyone spreading “false information” about the war or the Russian armed forces waging it would be subject to up to 15 years in prison. Of course, in Putin’s world, “false information” is anything that displeases Putin. So now, after 22 years in power, Putin’s stranglehold on the truth is complete — ratified unanimously by Russia’s Duma.
It is now a criminal act to call the war a war or an “invasion.” It is simply a “special military operation.”
TV Rain, one of the last remaining independent media outlets in the country, suspended operations, broadcasting “Swan Lake” before it was shut down. (Music from the Tchaikovsky ballet has often been played as a broadcast time-filler during critical moments in Russia’s political history, such as the fall of the Soviet Union.)
Echo of Moscow, a radio station founded by Soviet dissidents in 1990 and later acquired by the state energy giant Gazprom, was shut down — along with its popular YouTube channel — for what the Russian prosecutor general’s office described as spreading “false information” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Facebook and Twitter, which were important ways for Russians to share news reports from the “outside world,” were shut down by end of the war’s first week — before the worst of the bombings began.
The BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were blocked, and many of their reporters have left the country. But the technical workarounds that each has developed — and spread the word about — have allowed ordinary Russians to access news via VPNs (virtual private networks), apps, and an encrypted browser. They are not just marvels of ingenuity, but also a credit to the indomitable spirit of the journalists who refuse to give up on the important work they continue to do.
“Maybe the biggest weapon we have is truth,” Admiral James Stavridis said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It’s showing the Russians what their leader is doing in their name.”
And so, across the border in Ukraine, a cadre of journalists from around the world and a large and lively contingent of local journalists have provided that window into the war in real time and with the help of a media-savvy president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has brought journalists into his bunker and the world of social media into his presidential office.
In the process, Zelensky has become an international hero. Other members of his administration, including military leaders, have also been accessible, even since before the start of the war, and continue to give what by most accounts are candid and coherent briefings.
There have been no comparable efforts to censor journalists on the Ukrainian side, much less threats of imprisonment for those who question the government. Truth has indeed become the weapon of choice for Zelensky and for Ukraine. And because it is, Ukraine is winning the war for the hearts and minds of the world community.
Whatever comes next for the beleaguered government in Kyiv, it has already provided a powerful lesson in the power of sunshine.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.