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24th Oct 2021

Opinion

Why journalism in Ukraine is a very risky job

  • Kyiv: The Kyiv Post has been telling Ukraine's story to the wider world since 1995 (Photo: Marco Fieber)
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Nearly 30 years after the fall of communism, Ukraine is struggling to build a free press, due to corrupt oligarchs and Russia.

Ukraine's oligarchs continue to dominate the media landscape, creating a monopoly of information by a small, corrupt elite that uses the press to influence elections and, indirectly, access public resources.

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One of the few beacons of truth is the Kyiv Post, Ukraine's oldest English-language newspaper.

But even as Ukraine grapples with building its own democracy, it is also fighting a war with Russia, not just in the trenches in the Donbas region in Ukraine, but also via TV and online propaganda.

De-oligarchising the press

In October 2019, the then recently-elected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky spoke about "de-oligarchisation" of the media.

And the problem has long roots.

During the transition from communism, many formerly state-owned media companies were sold to private and often foreign individuals. In the past decade, business interests with strong ties to the government also started buying large shares of the market in a number of eastern European countries.

Almost all media outlets in Ukraine are now controlled by oligarchs.

Over 75 percent of Ukrainians regularly watch TV channels owned by Ukrainian oligarchs Viktor Pinchuk, Ihor Kolomoisky, Dmytro Firtash, and Rinat Akhmetov.

New and upcoming media projects such as Espreso.tv have also been captured. And while much of Ukraine's media landscape is free, it is not independent.

Ukraine ranked 80 out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index by French NGO Reporters Without Borders.

And this only adds to the importance of English-language publishers like the Kyiv Post, who provide quality reporting to a Western audience.

Killing journalists

Meanwhile, the environment for being a journalist in Ukraine and eastern Europe remains dangerous.

Since 1992, 18 journalists have been killed, imprisoned, or have gone missing in Ukraine.

Georgiy Gongadze was a Ukrainian journalist who helped found the investigative news website Ukrayinska Pravda.

He was kidnapped and murdered in 2000 in what became a nation scandal which implicated Ukraine's then-president, Leonid Kuchma.

But political violence continues to plague Ukraine to this day.

Kateryna Handzyuk was a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist who exposed corruption in her hometown of Kherson. She was attacked with acid on 31 July 2018 and died from her injuries a few months later.

Another activist, Vitaly Oleshko, a veteran of the conflict with Russia, spoke out about government corruption in his native city of Berdyansk also in 2018.

He was shot in the back and killed.

Information wars

At the same time, Russia has been waging an aggressive information war against Ukraine ever since the Euromaidan Revolution some seven years ago.

It has peddled false stories to weaken pro-Western forces and justify Russia's invasion of Crimea and Donbas.

Most Western news outlets only have press bureaus in Moscow, and even esteemed titles such as the New York Times often promote false narratives about Ukraine, unknowingly parroting Kremlin talking points.

And this is why the Kyiv Post plays a crucial role in getting out real news on Ukraine to a global audience.

It has kept going since 1995, despite aggressive tax audits, oligarch lawsuits, and hostile takeover bids by pro-Russian tycoons.

It was instrumental in providing coverage of the Euromaidan Revolution and of Russia's subsequent invasion.

The AGT Communications Group in Russia recently published findings that the Kyiv Post was the most-quoted Ukrainian source of news by American and European news organisations.

But in one attack, Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch, tried to use British courts to shut it down.

Firtash made his fortune in the Russia-Ukraine gas trade in pre-revolution times.

He later moved to London to build a life as a philanthropist and he sued Kyiv Post for allegedly giving him a bad name in British courts, where libel laws favour the complainant.

The case could have bankrupted the newspaper or seen it shut down.

Luckily, the judge disagreed and Kyiv Post won the trial.

"The more you learn about the Kyiv Post, the more you realise how remarkable it is that it holds its own against these (other media) behemoths. Its newsroom budget is less than $25,000 a month. It has but 19 editorial staff; it has faced repeated attacks from regime-allied oligarchs," British writer and journalist Oliver Bullough, recently said.

In this context, the West needs to double down on efforts to promote freedom of information coming from Ukraine.

The country is a battleground for Russia's hostility towards the post-1991 international order.

The official motto of the Kyiv Post is "Ukraine's Global Voice".

It is a voice against Russia's information warfare against the West, which begins with Russia's war in Ukraine.

To confront the first line of warfare, the West should seek to ensure papers like the Kyiv Post have ample support and can continue to grow and provide reliable information to the wider world.

This is the first line of defence against Russia's hybrid campaign against the Western order.

Author bio

David Kirichenko is an editor at Euromaidan Press, an online English language media outlet in Ukraine.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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