The Perils of Being an "Improper" Journalist in Ukraine

by Chris Miller Apr 20, 2012

I CAME TO THE EASTERN UKRAINIAN CITY of Donetsk, the industrial center of the country, to meet Oleksiy (Alex) Matsuka, a 28-year-old independent journalist. It was a cold and gray morning. Women plunged their chins into the tops of their padded coats; men tugged at the front of their newsboy caps to shield their faces from the wind.

Across the street, a loose corner of a billboard ad displaying two candidates from the Party of Regions — the current ruling party — flapped in the breeze. Some of the party’s members have been the subjects of Alex’s past stories, stories that have led to him being followed and threatened. On the other side of the billboard was another ad, this one with the party’s leader and Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovych, posed in front of a blue and yellow background — the country’s national colors. Next to him were the words, “One Ukraine. One story.”

It was early October. Two months ago, Alex’s Donetsk apartment had been set on fire. The attack was retribution for articles he’d published over the past two years as editor-in-chief of the news site Novosti Donbass. Alex had uncovered scandals, corruption, and conflicts of interest inside the regional government of Donetsk. He had published photographs of million-dollar mansions owned by civil servants and documents that proved the real salaries of elected officials to be many times higher than the amounts publicly disclosed.

I found out about the attack on Alex from a Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty email list. The headline — “Ukrainian Journalist’s Apartment Set on Fire.” — caught my attention. I saw Alex’s name in the second paragraph and immediately contacted him.

He was hesitant to speak about what happened over the phone. Instead of using words like attack and assault, he used “incident.” Even through email he wouldn’t elaborate, telling me only what was already publicly known. So I made the trip from Kiev to Donetsk to meet with him in person.

* * *

Ukrainians weren’t so naïve to think that total press freedom and an end to media censorship would happen immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, but both were expected to naturally follow independence.

Instead, press freedoms were rolled back and censorship worsened during authoritarian Leonid Kuchma’s presidency from 1994 to 2004, a decade associated not with democracy, but with lawlessness and corruption. During that time many opposition newspapers were closed, computers and files were confiscated, and 11 journalists died under mysterious circumstances, in ways reminiscent of Hollywood thrillers.

Vladimir Ivanov, editor-in-chief of the Crimean newspaper The Glory of Sevastopol, was mortally injured when a remote-controlled bomb detonated in a garbage can at his home on April 14, 1995. Despite undergoing three operations to save his life, he died at a local hospital four days later. Prior to his death he’d published stories denouncing the Crimean mafia as well as others critical of a Ukrainian-Swedish company’s plan to construct an oil refinery on the Crimean peninsula.

Petro Shevchenko, a correspondent for the Kiev daily Kyivskiye Vedomosti, was found hanged in an abandoned building in Kiev on March 13, 1997. Shevchenko’s death was ruled a suicide, but his colleagues believed he was murdered for a series of articles he published in the weeks before his death about disputes between the mayor of Lugansk and the local branch of the Ukrainian Security Service.

A professional assassin shot Borys Derevyanko, editor-in-chief of Vechernyaya Odessa, at point-blank range on his way to work on August 11, 1997. His colleagues believe his murder was related to the newspaper’s opposition to the policies of Odessa’s mayor.

But the most widely known example in Ukraine of violence against a journalist was the horrific murder of Georgiy Gongadze who, in the months before his death, was investigating government corruption for his online news site Ukrayinska Pravda, based in Kiev.

Gongadze disappeared on the night of September 16, 2000. Weeks later his headless body was discovered in a forest outside the town of Tarashcha, near Kiev. An autopsy revealed he’d been beaten and strangled, doused in gasoline, and then burned. His skull wouldn’t be found until years later.

The journalist should be sternly dealt with, the president said on the recording, and “kidnapped by Chechens.”

Gongadze’s murder made international headlines, putting pressure on Kuchma and each presidential administration that has followed to bring those responsible for the crime to justice. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and many other world organizations have on numerous occasions condemned the Ukrainian government’s poor handling of the case, stressing that it was a litmus test for Ukraine’s shift toward democracy and rule of law.

The case intensified in November of 2000, when Kuchma was heard discussing what to do with the inquisitive Gongadze on a tape recorded in secret by a bodyguard months earlier. The journalist should be sternly dealt with, the president said on the recording, and “kidnapped by Chechens.”

But over the next decade, the government dragged its feet. In March of 2011, more than 10 years after Gongadze’s death, a criminal case was finally opened against Kuchma on charges that he exceeded his authority, leading to the journalist’s killing.

The tape was to be the most damaging evidence against the former president.

But this past October Ukraine’s constitutional court made an “irrevocable decision” not to allow the recording to be admitted as evidence in the case on the grounds that it was made illegally. The president didn’t know he was being recorded, the court stated, rendering the tape inadmissible. Soon thereafter the case against Kuchma was dismissed. An appeal followed, but the court of appeals in Kiev upheld the decision not to proceed with the case against him. The former president was off the hook.

But the man believed to have carried out the murder, Oleksiy Pukach, the former general of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s external surveillance department, had been apprehended and would still be tried. Pukach confessed publicly and in court (the trial is ongoing) that he, personally, strangled and beheaded Gongadze, and that he did so at the behest of Kuchma and other top officials, including Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko.

The latter never had the chance to tell his side of the story and will never see his day in court. He died under mysterious circumstances in March 2005, just hours before he was scheduled to testify in the murder case. The official report, which has been scrutinized by Ukraine’s opposition journalists and political parties, as well as international media rights groups, indicated the cause of death to be suicide by two gunshots to the head.

* * *

I first met Alex in the spring of 2011, when we were in Konstantinovka to photograph and report on the city’s defunct Soviet-era factories and their lasting by-product: pollution. The mutual acquaintance of ours who’d arranged the excursion and introduced us described him as an independent journalist who didn’t pander to the agendas of politicians and oligarchs.

That day Alex and I chatted about writing and traveling. We joked about our cultural differences. “Do Americans really wear shoes inside their houses?” he asked. He was friendly and inviting, yet also blunt. He spoke honestly about challenges facing Ukraine. “We have a major problem with pollution, as you can see,” he said, gesturing to the makeshift landfill in front of us, which sat just 50 meters from a large residential area where children kicked a soccer ball back and forth.

After that day in Konstantinovka he and I remained in contact, checking in with one another mostly via email and the occasional text message. In our exchanges we discussed Ukrainian politics, including the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on charges that she abused her power while in office when she brokered a gas deal with Russia. (She was convicted in October and sentenced to seven years in prison.)

Like many in the West, the European Union and American government included, Alex condemned her arrest and subsequent conviction as politically motivated. “Yanukovych wants to get rid of all his political opponents,” he wrote.

Through email, we had agreed to meet outside a McDonald’s near the center of Donetsk.

Alex rolled up in his black Hyundai. “Hello, Chris,” he shouted through the open window. “Let’s go. I have a meeting with the police soon.” I got in the front passenger seat and shut the door. Before I could finish asking him how he was he interrupted. “Please, wear your seatbelt.”

Alex fought traffic on our way to the Novosti Donbass office on the east side of the city. We made small talk for the first few minutes. He’d just returned from a three-week holiday in Southern California, where he hoped the warm weather, palm trees, and a trip to Universal Studios would help him to forget about recent events.

“I knew right away why this happened…I have a conflict with very major people in the city who don’t like me writing about their luxurious lifestyles.”

Watching him nervously navigate the Donetsk congestion, his hands clenching the wheel at ten and two, eyes constantly shifting from the road ahead to rearview mirror to side-view and back to the road, I couldn’t help but think it must not have been enough.

Stopped at a red light he turned to me, sighed, and then asked, “So, you want to know about what happened, yes?” I nodded.

The morning of July 31, 2011, unknown assailants barricaded Alex’s apartment door with bags of cement, laid out a funeral wreath affixed with the message “To Oleksiy Vitaliyovych, from grieving friends” and set the place ablaze.

“They wanted to burn me alive,” he said.

There were no witnesses to the event, but a neighbor smelled smoke, discovered the fire and tried to extinguish it with water. When that didn’t work, the neighbor called the fire department and then Alex, who was at his office at the time, to tell him that he needed to come home immediately.

“I knew right away why this happened,” he explained. “I have a conflict with very major people in the city that don’t like me writing about their luxurious lifestyles.”

Pressured by media rights groups, Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko publicly condemned the attack on Alex and ordered a thorough investigation. He also assigned police protection to Alex, but only for one day.

Driving past a statue of Lenin, Alex told me his meeting with police that morning would be to discuss what progress had been made in the case. But he expressed serious doubts. “I’m thinking that [the police] will not have any new information for me. I don’t think they want this case to be solved, but we will see.”

We arrived 20 minutes later at the Novosti Donbass office. I followed Alex into a narrow and dimly lit elevator, which took us up nine terrifyingly shaky floors.

“Almost there,” he said as we exited. “We must walk up two more levels.” Three women smoked cigarettes in the stairwell. They greeted us with nods as we passed.

The office was neat and bright, though sparsely furnished. The Ukrainian flag hung on the northern wall. On the southern were cutouts of past news stories and maps with districts of Donetsk outlined in red marker. A small table with packets of instant coffee, tea bags, and a teakettle atop it sat against the western wall. Windows made up the entire eastern side of the office.

Beyond them bloc buildings like Tetris pieces rose above pine and ash trees; slag heaps stood gray and plain on the horizon. Six young men pecked at their laptops. Alex introduced me to the staff and assigned me a desk before leaving for his meeting with the police.

“I think you should stay here,” he told me. “If you need anything the guys will help.”

A moment later another journalist, who blogs independently under the name Frankensstein to avoid detection, was standing over me with an empty coffee mug in his outstretched hand. “This is for you,” he said. “You can keep it. There is coffee.”

Alex returned a couple hours later from his meeting with the police investigators. When we heard the door creak open, we spun around in our chairs. “So, how’d it go?” I asked.

“The police have no new information,” he said with a shrug.

Despite the mayor’s promise to investigate the incident, there’d been no headway made in more than two months. Alex leaned back against the wall and mulled it over. Crossing his arms, he added, “This was not a surprise.”

* * *

In late 2004, with Kuchma’s second and last term as president coming to a close, it seemed for a moment that Ukraine had turned the page on the authoritarianism and repression endured during the past decade. The democratic opposition, led by Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, was on the rise. Polls showed the presidential race between Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, who was prime minister under Kuchma and the up-and-coming leader of the Party of Regions, to be tight, but with Yushchenko at a slight advantage.

Ukrainians turned out in record numbers that fall to vote in the elections. But when the ballots were counted, Yanukovych came out the victor, despite exit polls showing Yushchenko with a commanding 11% lead over the prime minister.

When it was discovered days later that the ruling government had rigged the election in favor of Yanukovych, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians — on some days there were more than a million — clad in opposition party orange descended upon Kiev’s Independence Square to protest the result.

This was the Orange Revolution. Demonstrators endured freezing temperatures, rain, and snow for two months, during which time Ukraine’s Supreme Court ordered a re-vote. This time the result came out in favor of Yushchenko. Finally, on January 23, 2005, following Yushchenko’s inauguration, the protests ceased.

Yushchenko, however, would turn out to be a lame-duck president. Infighting between members of his cabinet, and the dismissal of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other Orange Revolution leaders with whom he fought hampered his mission to clean up corruption and improve press freedoms.

By the fall of 2009, Ukrainians had decided they’d had enough of Yushchenko’s empty promises. In a race that came down to a few percentage points, they elected Yanukovych — the very same man who tried to cheat his way to victory six years earlier — president of Ukraine over his opponent, Tymoshenko, who’d been the prime minister under Yushchenko. Official observers ruled the election fair and democratic.

With Yanukovych in office, Ukraine has backslid yet again. Despite multiple promises during Yanukovych’s incumbency to improve civil rights, there have been numerous cases of censorship and “multiple press freedom violations,” according to a 2010 report conducted by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

His mobile phone and keys were found a week later inside a boat floating in a nearby reservoir.

Another independent journalist has also gone missing. In August of 2010, Vasyl Klymentyev, editor-in-chief of the Kharkov-based newspaper Novy Stil, known for publishing stories critical of Party of Regions officials, disappeared after getting into a car with an unknown man. His mobile phone and keys were found a week later inside a boat floating in a nearby reservoir. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since and is presumed dead.

“Serious conflicts of interest are menacing Ukraine’s media pluralism,” the Reporters Without Borders report stated. The same oligarchs who often grace the front pages of newspapers own a large majority of the country’s media outlets. And their main reason for owning these outlets is not profits, but promotion of their own businesses and political agendas.

Recently, a disturbing trend has popped up. According to the Kyiv-based Institute of Mass Information, with politicians hoping to gain favor with voters ahead of the 2012 parliamentary elections this fall, the practice of paying for approving news is on the rise in Ukraine. Such paid-for news stories have appeared in print publications as well as on television news programs.

Yanukovych made another promise as recently as January 23 of this year to improve press freedoms in Ukraine.

“The protection of human rights is an essential value for democratic European countries,” he said at a meeting in the National Palace on the Day of Unity and Freedom of Ukraine, the anniversary of the end of the Orange Revolution. “We will significantly improve the monitoring and control over the investigation of every case of infringements of human rights and freedoms. Freedom of speech will be the subject of special attention.”

But, given his record, this promise will probably go unfulfilled. It’s more likely that he’ll return Ukraine to the media mentality of the Soviet Union: emphasize the positive, place stories of labor heroes and economic achievements above all else, and do not — for any reason — publish stories controversial in nature, or stories critical of the government.

* * *

Alex’s interest in journalism began while studying political science at Donetsk National University. It was there, with the help of some colleagues, that he began publishing his own independent newspaper, which was met with resistance almost immediately.

“The university faculty didn’t like how outspoken we were,” Alex explained. “In teaching Journalism at the university, our teachers still used Pravda as an example of proper journalism. If you don’t know, Pravda was a Soviet Union newspaper. It was propaganda.”

The dean of the university threatened Alex and his colleagues with expulsion, unless they stopped publishing. Afraid of the potential repercussions, his team abandoned him.

Alex, however, continued to publish the paper on his own, printing about 400 copies of each issue, or enough for each faculty member and student in his department.

“I handed all of the newspapers out myself,” he said. “I believed that there was no formal ground for expulsion.”

He was never expelled.

In 2003 Alex founded Novosti Donbass, an online investigative newspaper committed to exposing a regional government fraught with corruption. Independent journalists and opposition politicians here hold the paper in high regard. Its downside, though, if there is one, might be that it’s so glaringly anti-Party of Regions that it’s difficult to find stories having to do with much else, or written as objective pieces of journalism. Someone who knows little about the political, cultural, and social situations in Ukraine might think Alex has a chip on his shoulder.

But all that doesn’t bother Alex. “It is generally accepted that the government is corrupt here,” Alex explained over coffee at the Novosti office. This seemed to be his way of justifying his paper’s stance. If everyone believes the government is corrupt, if you’ve grown up in a society so rife with it, how could you remain impartial when reporting on it?

“In Ukraine, [officials] carefully hide their real incomes and their real life,” Alex told me. “We–” he paused to find the right word using an online translator, “We catch them.”

What Alex meant by “catching” them was that it’s the paper’s mission to shine a floodlight on the situation. In the past year he and his team have published stories about the mysterious and growing Yanukovych family fortune; about illegal coal mining operations with ties to government officials; and about the Donetsk regional governor’s multi-million dollar mansion and his 2010 tax return, which states his primary residence to be a meager apartment in the city center. (The paper discovered that he’d transferred ownership of many of his expensive assets over to his wife to avoid scrutiny.)

Novosti Donbass also exposed a vote-rigging scandal among the Donetsk regional council, as well as a corrupt city council whose members were recorded having voted for resolutions while not in attendance.

Publishing these stories and many others similar in nature have led to Novosti Donbass journalists on multiple occasions being followed, intimidated, and threatened with violence.

In one instance, attempting to frighten Alex, the mayor of nearby Kramatorsk bumped chests with him and slammed his forearm into his chest after Alex had confronted him in a public parking lot with questions regarding a colleague. That encounter was caught on video and later posted to YouTube.

And then, of course, there was the fire at Alex’s apartment.

In the beginning days of Novosti Donbass, the same regional and city officials investigated by the newspaper approached Alex — like they’d approached other journalists — in hopes of arranging a partnership. Alex would hold off on publishing stories critical of them, and in return he’d receive perks. At the least, this could mean having the authorities off his back and that of Novosti Donbass. At best it could mean payoffs, or perhaps a future cabinet appointment for Alex.

He didn’t indulge them. But they returned every so often with more offers, hoping he’d soften his stance. He hasn’t.

Since then, in the eyes of the regional authorities, Novosti Donbass has been considered an opposition news organization, and Alex and his coworkers subversive and “improper” journalists. Essentially, they’ve been blacklisted.

Alex described the reason for the “improper” label best in an op-ed he published on his LiveJournal blog last August, which later was translated and republished at Open Democracy Russia:

Here journalists are perceived as support staff by the regional authorities, and journalism itself as a medium for communicating only news the authorities find it necessary to broadcast. In the opinion of the elite, this is ‘proper’ journalism.

‘Proper’ journalists wind up on the list of regional deputies for the ruling Party of Regions – like the chief editors of prominent newspapers ‘Donetsk News’ (Donetskie Novosti) and ‘The Priazovsky Worker’ (Priazovskii rabochii). In the past week the new governor of the region has appointed Rima Fil’, chief editor of ‘Donetsk News’, as his personal press secretary.

‘Improper’ journalism, in their understanding, is that which dares to mention the double standards of local authorities.

It follows that ‘improper’ journalism is conducted by ‘improper’ journalists. I and a few of my colleagues belong to precisely this category. They burn the flats of ‘improper’ journalists in Donetsk, and they confiscate servers in editorial offices which house the databases of independent mass media.

* * *

The sun was setting, turning the sky a deep pinkish-orange, as Alex and I zigzagged slowly in his Hyundai through rush hour Donetsk traffic on our way to the western bus station. I had a 6:15pm bus to catch and Alex needed some time alone after a disappointing meeting with investigators.

The ride was quiet at first. I listened to the news program coming from the radio, not actually comprehending much of the Russian being spoken, just hearing the harsh consonants, the rolling of Rs. Alex had been thinking about his life as a Ukrainian and independent journalist.

“You must understand that here freedom of speech exists only on paper,” he said. “In real life there is no free speech in Ukraine. They want journalists to tell only one story — their story.”

He paused to check his blind spot before changing lanes.

“This makes it dangerous to be an independent journalist here, especially coming after the election victory of Yanukovych — the journalists disappear. I know the goal of journalism is telling the truth, leveling double standards. But [the government] doesn’t want this.”

He’d started in, and I could tell that now it would be difficult for Alex to stop. He began gesturing wildly with his right hand.

“Our society is passive. People do not trust government, do not trust each other, do not trust anyone at all. Without us, without independent free press the people will not see the real picture. It must be shown to them. This is why the importance of our job and independent journalism cannot be overstated. But the authorities think another. To powerful people I am an improper journalist.”

The entire time in the car I’d remained mostly quiet, save for a few acknowledging mhmms and yeahs, allowing Alex this moment of self-aggrandizement, this pressure release. Afterward we didn’t speak for 10 long minutes. The only sound was the news radio show fuzzing in and out.

He released his hands from the wheel while stopped at a red light, let out a long, audible breath, and then spoke up.

“You know,” he said, “when we were children, me and my friends, we painted over the street signs here in Donetsk that were named for Soviet heroes. We painted them Ukraine’s colors.”

He glanced over at me and we both burst out laughing.

Four months later I returned to Donetsk to visit Alex. Since our last meeting Novosti Donbass had moved into a new office. He showed me around the place as we discussed a new law the Constitutional Court of Ukraine was considering, a law that would ban the dissemination of information about authorities and elected officials without their approval, essentially making the work of many of the country’s journalists illegal.

“This seems like a big step in the wrong direction,” I said.

Flipping on the switch to the electric kettle, he sighed. “Yes, unfortunately it is.”

Though I had an idea of what the answer might be, I wondered whether or not he’d change how he and his colleagues at the newspaper reported stories and whether he was afraid of reprisals if they chose to not do so.

He nodded.

“Coffee or tea?” Alex asked.

“Tea’s fine,” I said. “Thanks.”

He passed me a mug and then stirred sugar into his tea. The spoon clanked against the sides.

“Well, this is our job,” he said, slowly rotating the mug around in his hands. “And we will continue to do what we do.”

[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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