Ukraine’s journalists face insecurity, economic hardship a year after Euromaidan

By Stephanie Schoenhoff, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

Following an interview with IMS’ Antonina Cherevko in June, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has touched base with Cherevko again to get an on-the-ground perspective on the issues facing journalists and media workers in Ukraine after several months under new president, Petro Poroshenko, and amidst sustained conflict in the east of the country.

Despite having reached a ceasefire agreement with Russia to end fighting in the east in early September, it has nevertheless been a tumultuous autumn for Ukraine. Russian-backed insurgents have repeatedly violated the ceasefire, and both the Ukrainian army and the wider public continue to live in an atmosphere of violence in the conflict zones in the eastern part of the country. Journalists and media workers are in no way exempt from the dangers associated with living in Donetsk and the surrounding region.

Although journalists are now relieved of former president Victor Yanukovych’s systematic suppression of speech, practicing journalism in these areas still means putting one’s life at serious risk. Not only are there the inherent dangers of conflict journalism, there are also Russian-backed forces intent on stamping out dissident voices and controlling the flow of information that journalists must contend with.

“After Yanukovych left, the situation became almost immediately better,” Cherevko says, because there was no one to put institutionally centralized pressure on free expression, “but reporting in a conflict zone comes with serious dangers.” “Many good journalists had to escape the conflict regions like Donetsk, and are trying to find work in Kyiv,” she continues. Some may travel in and out of Donetsk, but the risk of living there is too serious for some and thus there are fewer professional journalists reporting from the east. Partially as a result of this, some of Ukrainian military volunteers on the front lines have taken on the additional role of citizen journalist to contribute to reporting on the ongoing conflict, largely through social media.

According to Cherevko, “There are people who go to fight, but they also do media-related work.” One project done by a Ukrainian volunteer soldier is a YouTube documentary, War at Our Own Expense, which depicts the experiences that he and his fellow soldiers have endured throughout this year’s conflict. Further, “Many of the commanders of the voluntary Ukrainian battalions are on Facebook and Twitter,” says Cherevko. “They will be fighting and during the breaks sending updates on their Facebook pages about how the combat is going.”

While social media has been gaining more influence as a means for the public to stay informed, the government of Ukraine is also moving forward with implementing a public service broadcasting law, which will fill in a much-needed gap in the country’s current media landscape. Ukraine has, to some extent, long been dominated by privately owned media outlets whose journalists are beholden to the political and economic interests of those who write their paycheques.   “In principle we should have a public service broadcaster running as of January 2015,” says Cherevko. “It’s very close. They’re lacking money and resources together [but] government support at this time is not enough,” she says.  “It’s a burden that international organisations are now helping to carry,” not only in terms of garnering financing but also in terms of providing expert technical advice for the developing broadcaster.

In the meantime, the public continues to rely on alternative sources of information. Oleksiy Matsuka, the recipient of CJFE’s 2014 International Press Freedom Award has spearheaded several independent media initiatives in his hometown of Donetsk, despite facing many risks. Matsuka will accept the award at the CJFE Gala: A Night to Honour Courageous Reporting on December 3. “I was pleased to hear that you decided to [honour] him,” says Cherevko. While Matsuka was forced to leave Donetsk after threats and attempts on his life, he continues to work as an investigative journalist in Kyiv.  Donetskaya Pravda, Matsuka’s website that publishes investigative reports on public officials, is one of many alternative internet-based news outlets that are helping to build a strong independent media landscape for Ukraine with a multitude of voices.

Following up on Poroshenko’s controversial ownership of the television station “Channel 5,” CJFE asked Cherevko if the country has seen any corrupt content coming out of the network. While the issue has been a point of contention since his election, Cherevko maintains that it appears as though Poroshenko has kept his promise to refrain from steering the editorial content of Channel 5. As far as Cherevko is concerned, there has been no obvious distortion of the channel’s content towards Poroshenko’s political party, and she hopes that the channel will continue that way.

However, almost all Ukrainian media outlets (Channel 5 included) engaged in a form of covert paid political advertising in the run-up to Ukraine’s recent early parliamentary elections that took place on October 26. This sponsored content masquerading as independent editorial reporting is called “jeansa” and Cherevko notes that it was widespread prior to the vote.

Cherevko also notes that the political presence in the media took on a different character than in previous elections. Unlike during the Yanukovych regime, where paid political content from his party held a monopoly on election coverage, this time around any political voice could practice jeansa so long as they were able to finance it. “The corrupt paid advertisements were still widely present, but this time there was a variety of voices,” Cherevko says. As a result, instead of there being no corruption in the media, the Ukrainian landscape under Poroshenko now provides an “equal corruption opportunity” for politicians, although the prevalence of jeansa will likely decrease significantly now that elections are over.

Cherevko notes that in these tough economic times, many Ukrainian media outlets simply cannot afford to be selective when it comes to who brings in the funding. This is a huge problem affecting the quality and reputability of the content produced, but is a financial reality for the country’s mainstream media organizations.

In a recent article for IMS, Cherevko spoke in depth about “jeansa” and the disjuncture between this paid political content and the progressive political values of many Ukrainians today. For Cherevko, the government and the media remain behind on the widespread social change that has been fostered in post-EuroMaidan Ukraine. In the piece she writes:

“The ‘Revolution of Dignity’, also known as EuroMaidan, is believed to have profoundly changed the Ukrainian public. However, not so much the media and politicians, an opinion voiced by the participants of the press conference on 23 October with a clear sense of disappointment. There is still a lot to be done to bring the Ukrainian political scene and media practices in line with the European values for which more than 100 Ukrainians lost their lives during the EuroMaidan protests.”

It is clear that when it comes to Ukraine’s current mainstream media landscape, things must change. The public has, for the most part, had to rely on independent media and social media to get accuracy and efficiency in reporting. Citizen journalism and independent media initiatives that sprouted from EuroMaidan created a cultural expectation for immediacy and honesty in reporting that currently remains unsupported by many mainstream and state-funded programs. However, with the transformation of state outlets into the burgeoning public service broadcaster, there is a cautious optimism that change is underway. The drive for independently delivered and accurate information has not gone away, says Cherevko, and people will continue to push for media that will provide consistent and uncensored updates on current events in Ukraine, particularly as it pertains to the political climate and ongoing conflict in the east of the country.

This article was adapted and republished from A year after EuroMaidan, Ukrainian journalists continue to face challenges, courtesy of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression