War Propaganda and Free Press


At Christmas 2014, we could commemorate the one hundred years anniversary of the Christmas Truce 1914. The truce events were described by Robert Naiman as “the most morally compelling acts of spontaneous mass civil disobedience in recorded human history”.1 This occasion is a perfect opportunity to investigate the power and impact of free press not only in those times, but also in present day when it comes to Ukraine-Russia- conflict.

The events occurred at the Western Front in late December and early January in the first year of the Great War. Nowadays these events receive broad public attention also thanks to the 2005 movie “Joyeux Noel”, nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 2006. They also surfaced the year 2014, for instance in the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert created in cooperation with The Royal British Legion, and started to gain increased access even to school curricula as a means of explaining various aspects of the Great War.2

This one hundred years anniversary was not only an opportunity to remember the tragedy of a conflict that killed more than 15 million people but also to learn about the war propaganda and the role of free press in conflicts as well as to draw a parallel to the current conflicts, including the situation in eastern Ukraine.

The Christmas Truce 1914

In 1914 after the First Battle of the Marne in Northeast France both sides dug in trenches stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland.3 The horrors of the trench war repealed any remaining beliefs that the war could be finished swiftly. The appeal by Pope Benedict XV to cease fire during Christmas was sharply repudiated by the war governments and army leadership of all sides. Despite direct orders to shoot at enemy even with a white flag, spontaneous truces occurred at various parts of the Western front on the holy day. Those who initiated truces were soldiers from the front lines. They did it under an immense danger of being shot from the enemy side and at the same time risked punishment from own army command for disobeying orders. German and British soldiers were more ready to get involved in the truces and even made larger scale agreements. French and Belgian soldiers, whose homeland was partly occupied at that time, also participated in several instances. However, in some locations fights continued. Soldiers who took part in truces met in no-men’s land and were chatting, buried their dead, were singing Christmas songs and even exchanged gifts or were playing football. Some sources estimate that about 100,000 men took part in such events.4

The events offer an opportunity for scrutiny of war propaganda. It was an opportunity to learn about human nature of war enemies and even question own war propaganda that depicted the other side as pure evil.5 Soldiers who witnessed human nature of enemy soldier were no longer that easily convinced that the causes voiced by the war propaganda could really legitimize the whole process of killing ordinary people in the opposite trenches and risk own lives in inhumane conditions of the trench war. Acts of amity continued until early January 1915 when the phenomena had to cease under strict orders from the high-commands, threats of court-martials and series of replacements of units that participated in the Christmas Truce with new-coming units.6

Free Press and War Propaganda During the Great War

The events of Christmas truces revealed also the different ways of possible coexistence of war propaganda with free press and the legitimate democratic discussion. The political and army leadership initially tried to prevent press coverage of these spontaneous events. However, it was hard for war propaganda to get along with such a large scale evidence of fraternity between soldiers. A breakthrough came with the New York Times coverage of the Christmas Truce on December 31, 1914.7 After this also British media offered extensive coverage of the events, including photographs and quotations from letters of participating soldiers. British newspapers mostly embraced the Christmas truce events and, instead of using army jargon of mutinous acts, largely praised humane character of the events. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described Christmas Truce as “one human episode amid the atrocities which have stained the memory of war”.8 Coverage on a significantly smaller scale was provided by German press – here, voices condemning the events occurred in some newspapers. French press featured these events largely by printing the official stances and suffered severe censorship.

The diverse reaction of press can be attributed partly to different level of press freedom and in part to position of each individual country during the war. As indices monitoring the level of press freedom do not date back to before the 1980s, basic orientation for the level of freedom in individual countries could be drown from Polity IV: Regime Authority Characteristics and Transitions Datasets by Center for Systemic Peace.9 While freedom of press is not examined separately, it is considered as a specific manifestation of general principles observed under a Democracy indicator of this dataset.10 The Democracy indicator is presented on a scale from 0 to 10 (10 being the highest level of institutionalized democracy). Moreover, the Autocracy indicator is also presented under Polity IV project and it can be understood as being able to counter the Democracy indicator. It is shown also on a scale form 0 to 10 (10 being the highest level of institutionalized autocracy). While both United Kingdom and France posessed during the whole period of the Great War the Democratic indicator of 8 and zero level on the Autocracy scale, Germany has only 5 points on the Democracy scale and at the same time the Autocracy indicator of 3. This suggests significantly lower freedom of press in Germany during the Great War and is a possible explanation of the restricted press coverage of the Christmas Truce in Germany in contrast to the British press.

The second factor of a different position of individual states in the war may be used to explain different level of freedom in coverage of the Christmas truces in France and United Kingdom. France was invaded and some of its northeastern regions on border with Belgium were occupied. Paris was around 150 kilometers from the battlefields. There was no natural barrier to protect it as in case of the English Channel that provided, together with the British navy, relative safety for the United Kingdom during the war. With a similar level of democracy in France and United Kingdom in 1914 and 1915, the different position of each country in the war and fear of more imminent collapse is a possible explanation of the processes that resulted in coverage of the 1914 Christmas truces in France on a smaller scale. The situation of democratic institutions and free press was thus more complicated in France and war propaganda could easily claim its priority with appeals on threatened state security. This mobilizing factor of uneasy French position in the war may be a relevant explanation of why war propaganda gained upper hand. However, events such as the Christmas truces and more broadly the “live and let live” philosophy of the soldiers in trenches (when followed by both sides) could be in fact considered as less threatening to French national security than the strategy of reckless offensives with high casualties.

War Propaganda and Free Press

The main reason for war propaganda is to unify people behind a particular cause and persuade them to sacrifice ordinary comfort and even own lives to that cause. For that war propaganda tends to concentrate on one sided arguments, exaggerates issues that may support the cause and suppress anything that may threaten it. War propaganda prefers to work with simplified facts and emphasize them to the extent that still could be believable by the audience. It may also slide to deliberate inaccuracy and even create artificial pretexts supporting the cause.11 The main objective of war propaganda is to boost morale not to stick to objectivity or keep facts in their real proportions. It doesn’t work merely with the reason but also with emotions. It may not be in opposition only to the external enemy but also to the internal “enemies”, such as pacifists.

The role of free press in the face of war propaganda is quite complicated. War propaganda may claim certain issues to be a taboo, setting them aside from available free discussion. Any attempt to enter such space may be labeled as defeatism or support for the enemy. Nevertheless, in liberal democracy, truly free press and media in general should question these entrenched positions and put them under dutiful scrutiny. This may even be considered as an advantage of liberal democracies. War propaganda that refused to prove itself in an open discussion can quickly rally support but this support may as well rapidly fall apart. Dutiful scrutiny of the cause could thus strongly add to its longer-term sustainability.

Free press as a means of setting boundaries to war propaganda has also an essential role in conflict prevention. An unrestricted propaganda would naturally tend to respond to a propaganda of the enemy side. This may lead to further exaggerations and end into a spiral of sworn hatred on both sides. An escalation of a conflict would be only a natural result of this process.

With regard to conflicts, free press should objectively report on all relevant issues including such things as the misfortune of soldiers and civilians on both sides. Free press should offer insights and even empathy to the suffering people and question legitimacy of the propaganda causes that brought such situation into existence. It does not mean that the free press must always disregard patriotism, but a real scrutiny of whether patriotism is not invoked in ill way or used to cover other hidden interests should be considered as essential aspects of free journalism.

Limitations of the free press in the face of the war propaganda may be therefore a key indicator of truthfulness of the propaganda and relevance of its cause. Only well established cause with deep foundations in the value system of general public can withstand open criticism of free press. At the same time free press and pluralistic discussion regarding all aspects of the cause can set borders to excessive propaganda and cultivate it. Low level of freedom of press at any side of a conflict can thus serve as a key indicator of potentially artificial propaganda. Level of press freedom can be also used as the basic and initial means to determine level of truthfulness of any propaganda and its rallying cause.

Freedom of the Press index by Freedom House

A useful tool for determination of the level of press freedom in a specific country is provided by the Freedom House in its annual reports Freedom of the Press that has been monitoring media independence around the world since 1980.12 Freedom of the Press reports provide insights into media independence in 197 countries and territories and assign each country a numerical index as well as a simplified ranking as “Free”, “Partly Free” or “Not Free”.13

The numerical Freedom of the Press index is on the scale from 0 to 100. Lower score indicates free press, high score the opposite. The index for every country is derived from its score in 23 methodology questions and 132 indicators that are divided into three main subcategories.

The subcategory (A) focuses on the legal environment for operation of free press, including guarantees for press freedom. It also covers potentially harmful laws and regulations. The subcategory (B) is devoted to the political environment in which press functions. This includes evaluation of the degree of control over media content that can be exerted from the political sphere and reflects even such aspects as self-censorship and intimidation of journalists. The last subcategory, (C), represents the economic environment in which press operates. This subcategory covers such aspects as the structure and transparency of the press ownership, or impact of bribery and corruption on the content of the press. The index recognizes cultural differences and uneven distribution of wealth in the world, but its data is based on the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”.14

The whole process of score assessment is conducted on several levels. They include: pluralistic data gathering by individual analysts, reviews in regional groups, a deep scrutiny of any major numerical changes from the previous year and, in particular, the final layer of cross-regional assessments, which allows to compare the scores across all regions and parts of the world.15

As it was suggested above, the level of press freedom can serve as an indicator of the relevance of the different propaganda in conflicts. For that purpose, it can be underlined that Freedom of the Press index, under its legal environment subcategory, reflects also the legislative provisions that may hamper free and pluralistic coverage of propaganda-related events. The second methodology question of this subcategory includes the following indicators:

Do laws restrict reporting on ethnic or religious issues, national security, or other sensitive topics? Do the authorities restrict or otherwise impede legitimate press coverage in the name of national security interests?16

Positive answers to these questions may result in a higher score, which would indicate less free environment for operation of press in a given country.

At the end of 2014 the last available Freedom House report was Freedom of the Press 2014, the results of which are based on the events of the previous year (i.e. only events between 1 January 2013 and 31 December 2013 are reflected).17

World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders

An alternative to the abovementioned Freedom of the Press index by Freedom House is the World Press Freedom Index created by Reporters Without Borders.18 World Press Freedom Index 2014 focuses on the level of freedom of information in 180 countries. The limited number of countries (in comparison to the index by Freedom House) reflects the different way in which Reporters Without Borders create their index. The non-profit organization bases its findings on questionnaires dispatched to its partner organizations as well as to a network of its correspondents and cooperating human rights activists. Some countries thus have to be omitted due to a lack of confirmed data or incomplete questionnaires. Most of the relevant countries are, however, covered. Besides the questionnaires, additional data for the index is gathered through research of external researchers and includes such aspects as self-censorship (which might be biased in the questionnaires) or relevant legislation and governmental intrusions. The index is composed of six general criteria of different weight. These criteria include: pluralism, media independence from the authorities, environment in which journalists function, quality of legislative framework for media, transparency of institutions affecting news production and quality of infrastructure. The score of each country is between 0 and 100 (0 representing the highest freedom of press achievable and 100 the least free environment for press).19

The same scale (0-100) used in the Freedom of the Press (Freedom House) and World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders) simplifies the parallel use of both indexes. Nevertheless, the methodology and accentuated aspects are for each index different. Violence against journalists is particularly stressed under World Press Freedom Index and results in significant score penalization. The last available reports (both covering events of the year 2013) thus reveal several noteworthy differences. For instance, in Freedom of the Press 2014 the overall score for the United States (21) and Canada (19) is quite comparable and both countries are safely ranked as “Free”. However, under World Press Freedom Index 2014 the Canadian overall score of (10.99) is significantly lower than the overall score of the United States (23.49), to which Reporters Without Borders add a comment that since 9/11 the United States have been “torn by the conflict between national security imperatives and respect for the principles of the First Amendment.”20 This also ranks situation in Canada as “Good” and in the United States as only “Satisfactory”. Combination of the two indexes can thus help us obtain a better picture of the freedom of press and may serve for mutual corrections.

Press Indexes Scores of Russia Vs Other States (2013)

In 2014 one of the most intense clashes of different propagandas can be seen in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. There are many issues that are interpreted by each side in an utterly different way. Both sides accuse the other of using groundless propaganda. For instance, Russian media showed pictures of pro-Russian demonstrations at various places in Ukraine. Media in Ukraine countered with identification of several persons on Russian photographs from demonstrations at various places in Ukraine claiming that they are always the same people. As the Ukrainian evidence concerned only several people from the bigger crowd and the Russian side can always claim that the people were part of discrediting arrangement created by the Ukrainian side, uncovering the true story seems almost impossible.

For this purpose, a comparison of the level of the press freedom in the respective countries may be a helpful tool for better understanding of the labyrinthine spectrum of information that encompass the conflict. Therefore the Russian level of press freedom is further put under scrutiny and contrasted with the last available data for Ukraine (still only for the year 2013). As the conflict is also covered by media in the European Union, its countries are also analyzed in order to put the data on Russia and Ukraine in the context and reveal the level of press freedom in the countries that observe the conflict from a distance.

According to Freedom of the Press 2014 (Freedom House)21 Russia gained the total score of (81) and was ranked as “Not Free” for events during 2013. This score is comparable to the overall score of China (84) or Saudi Arabia (83). Russia has incurred a similar unfavourable total score for the last 6 years. It scored under 80 for the last time, in reports covering the year 2007, when it gained score of 78. Last score under 70 is even older and dates back to the years before 2005. In contrast to a Russian total score for events during 2013, even Ukraine scored considerably better and gained a total score of 63. It was still ranked as “Not Free” and its score was comparable to the score of such states as Mexico (61). The worst total score for a member states of the European Union was (46) for Greece, followed by Romania (41), Croatia (40) and Bulgaria (39). On the other hand the best-ranking states of the European Union were Sweden (10) and Netherlands (10), followed by Finland (11), Belgium (11) and Denmark (12).

A closer look at individual Russian scores in the subcategories of Freedom of the Press 2014 show the following results. The score for legal environment for the press in case of Russia is 25 on a scale from 0 to 30 (the same score had such countries as Oman or United Arab Emirates – it is one point worst even than the score of Zimbabwe: 24). For events during 2013 Ukraine scored 19. The worst scoring states of the European Union are Greece (14), Italy and Romania (both 12). In the European Union the best ranking is Netherlands (1), followed by Sweden, Luxemburg, Denmark and Belgium (all 2).

The score for political environment for the press in case of Russia is 32 on a scale from 0 to 40 (the same score was given to such countries as Central African Republic – it is only one point better than in China: 33, and considerably worst than in Zimbabwe: 25). For events during 2013 Ukraine incurred a score of 24. The worst ranking states of the European Union are Greece (20), Bulgaria and Croatia (both 16), followed by Romania (15). In the European Union the best ranking state is Finland (3), followed by Sweden, Luxemburg, Estonia and Belgium (all 4).

Finally, the score for economic environment for the press in case of Russia is 24 on a scale from 0 to 30. The same score was given to such countries as Iran, Zimbabwe or Burma (Myanmar). It is two points worst even than the score for China (22). For events during 2013 Ukraine incurred a score of 20. The worst ranking states of the European Union are Croatia (15), Romania (14), Greece and Bulgaria (both 12). In the European Union the best ranking states are Germany, Finland, Netherlands and Sweden (all 4).

Considering all aspects analyzed by the Freedom House, Russia is among the worst countries globally. Ukraine under President Yanukovych in 2013 scored considerably better in all subcategories than Russia, but still within the ranks of “Nor Free”. This is in contrast to the situation in European Union, where most of the states are placed in the “Free” category, sometimes even gaining the best results globally. Only Greece, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria and Italy slipped into the “Partly Free” category .

The World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders)22 assigns Russia the total score of 41.78 (number 148 from the 180 covered countries) and ranked it as “Difficult situation”. Similar position occupy in this index Burma (41.43), Bangladesh (42.01) and Malaysia (42.73). Reporters Without Borders adds to the Russian score a comment that it “might have been lower in the index had it not been for the stubbornness and resistance shown by its civil society.”23 Even in this case the numbers reflect the events of the 2013. For events of the 2013 Ukraine gained slightly better score (36.93) and ended up as the 127th worldwide. The worst ranking states of the European Union are Bulgaria (31.42) and Greece (31.33) at the positions number 100 and 99, respectively. The best ranking state of the European Union is Finland with the lowest score of 6.4, granting it the first position worldwide. Netherlands, Luxemburg, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany scored among the 15 best performing countries globally, with Germany at the position number 14 of the index (10.23).

Concluding Remarks

The contrasted data shows a significant gap in the freedom of press between Russia and countries of the European Union in all the abovementioned aspects. The position of Ukraine in 2013 was somewhere halfway between the situation in Russia and in the worst ranking states of the European Union. Moreover, events of the year 2014 suggest that the position of free press in Russia further deteriorated as several new mechanisms intruding into pluralism of the information landscape have been introduced.24 In case Ukraine follows the path of transformation towards a well-functioning liberal democratic state, for which the free press is one of the essential elements, and the 2015 press freedom indexes reflecting the events of the year 2014 confirm the positive trends in this direction, it makes sense to consider Ukrainian information coverage of the conflict as significantly more trustworthy than the Russian reports. At the same time, until Ukraine transforms itself into fully liberal democratic regime, it is still necessary to adopt its informational coverage with adequate caution.

Both Russian and Ukrainian positions are already deeply entrenched and it is very difficult to identify any example of propaganda without invoking a stubborn defensive reaction and a long list of already existing arguments. It is, however, clear that certain aspects of the standpoints of both sides should be opened for pluralistic discussion and questioned by free press. Without understanding and empathy the conflict may only escalate further.

In Russia, the negative interpretation of the Euromaidan movement or the role of Russian citizens in the conflict should be questioned in an open pluralistic discussion and broader publicity should be given to perspectives alternative to the official propaganda. Similarly, in Ukraine the necessity of labelling of the campaign against the pro-Russian separatists as the “anti-terrorist operation” and possibilities of decentralization should be also put under free scrutiny and opened to public pluralistic discussion. Ukraine may be tempted to respond to Russian propaganda with a similar one-sided propaganda, but this would be contrary to its transition goals. It should rather support media plurality and open discussion even on the matters that may be considered as sensitive.

Overcoming the exaggerated propaganda at both sides is an essential aspect for the “de-escalation” of the conflict. Both Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day on January 7 in the Gregorian calendar. Hopefully, this day would be an opportunity to strengthen the official truce with gestures of mutual respect for humanity and possibly emulate the bottom-up events of the Great War’s 1914 Christmas Truce in the eastern Ukraine.

An article by Krystof Krulis. The article was originally published in the second issue of “4liberty.eu Review” entitled “Energy: The Challenges Europe Must Face”. The magazine was published by Fundacja Industrial in cooperation with Friedrich Naumann Stiftung and with the support by Visegrad Fund.

Read the full issue online.

1 NAIMAN, Robert. The Christmas Truce of 1914: “Threat to National Security”? Catholic New Times, 07010788, 1/24/2011.

2 See for instance Teaching the 1914 Christmas Truces: Resource pack by Martin Luther King Peace Committee, Northumbria University and Newcastle University, available at: http://research.ncl.ac.uk/martinlutherking/activities/worldwaronechristmastrucecommemorations/ [2014-12-12].

3 See also WOODWARD, David R. Christmas Truce of 1914: Empathy under Fire. Phi Kappa Phi Forum [online]. 2011, vol. 91, issue 1, s. 18-19 [2014-12-02].

4 VINCIGUERRA, Thomas. The Truce of Christmas, 1914. The New York Times, December 25, 2005, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/25/weekinreview/25word.ready.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 [2014-12-09].

5 See for instance SHORTELL, Catherine K. a Troy R. E. PADDOCK. Teaching the Great War through Peace. History Teacher [online]. 2011, vol. 45, issue 1, s. 9-24 [2014-12-02], p. 11.

6 TSUCHIYAMA, Jitsuo. Fostering Peace through Cultural Initiatives. Aoyama Gakuin University. The Japan Foundation, London, March 2010, p. 27.

7 NAIMAN, Robert. The Christmas Truce of 1914: “Threat to National Security”? Catholic New Times, 07010788, January 24, 2011.

8 See for instance THOMPSON, Jonathan. The Christmas truce of 1914. The Telegraph, July 4, 2014, available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/travel/first-world-war-centenary/10942667/christmas-truce-1914.html [2014-12-09].

9 Center for Systemic Peace: http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html [2014-12-09].

10 MARSHALL, Monty. GURR, Ted. JAGGERS, Keith. POLITY IV PROJECT: Dataset Users’ Manual. Center for Systemic Peace, May 6, 2014, available at: http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscr/p4manualv2013.pdf [2014-12-09], p. 14.

11 For a good compilation of quotations on the nature of war propaganda see for instance SHAH, Anup. “War, Propaganda and the Media.” Global Issues. 31 March, 2005. Available at: http://www.globalissues.org/article/157/war-propaganda-and-the-media [2014-12-11].

12 Freedom House. Freedom of the Press. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-press#.VImx7XvPt7Y [2014-12-11].

13 According to the data for 2013, only 14 % of the world’s population lived in countries with press ranked as “Free”, Freedom House. Freedom of the Press. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-press#.VImx7XvPt7Y [2014-12-11].

14 Freedom House. Freedom of the Press 2014. Methodology. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FOTP2014_Methodology.pdf [2014-12-11].

15 Freedom House. Freedom of the Press 2014. Methodology. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FOTP2014_Methodology.pdf [2014-12-11], p. 1 and 2.

16 Freedom House. Freedom of the Press 2014. Methodology. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FOTP2014_Methodology.pdf [2014-12-11], p. 3.

17 Freedom House. Freedom of the Press 2014. Methodology. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FOTP2014_Methodology.pdf [2014-12-11], p. 1.

18 Reporters Without Borders. World Press Freedom Index 2014. Available at: http://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php [2014-12-11].

19 Reporters Without Borders. World Press Freedom Index – Methodology. Available at: http://rsf.org/index2014/data/2014_wpfi_methodology.pdf [2014-12-11].

20 Reporters Without Borders. World Press Freedom Index 2014. Available at: http://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php [2014-12-11].

21 Freedom House. Freedom of the Press 2014. Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-press#.VImx7XvPt7Y [2014-12-11].

22 Reporters Without Borders. World Press Freedom Index 2014. Available at: http://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php [2014-12-11].

23 Reporters Without Borders. World Press Freedom Index 2014. Available at: http://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php [2014-12-11].

24 For more information see for instance AGHEKYAN, Elen. Russia’s Information Controls Reach Far Beyond the News Media. November 25, 2014. Available at: https://www.freedomhouse.org/blog/russia-s-information-controls-reach-far-beyond-news-media#.VIq8KnvPult [2014-12-12].