This article was originally published in Open Democracy.
By Maxim Eristavi
Watching a video of journalists running for their lives amid choking smoke in a building set ablaze in Kiev is horrifying. It is even more chilling to realize that some of these people are colleagues and close friends you have known for years.
We would disagree on many political issues, but it is still shocking to see where the exercise of freedom of speech in post-revolutionary Ukraine can lead you. At the same time, the increasing violence against Ukraine’s journalists brings powerful voices at home and abroad together in the expanding uprising against Soviet mentality, which has plagued the country for the last 25 years.
Culture of Impunity
This Sunday, usually a very busy day for the Inter team producing the country’s most popular weekly news show, ended with one person suffering spinal injuries and dozens escaping a building set ablaze by far-right paramilitaries.
Some journalists were trapped inside Inter’s burning headquarters and prevented from leaving by the attackers, who were from different far-right paramilitary groups. Eventually, fire fighters and police secured a safe escort of all journalists outside the site. Six attackers were even detained. But the Inter news team stayed defiant and did a live broadcast outside the torched newsroom that night anyway. This was in the true spirit of Ukrainian journalism, which has survived multiple hostile regimes and numerous public executions and attacks on its brightest journalists over the past 25 years.
This arson attack on the biggest TV channel in Ukraine is hardly a surprise for anyone. Months of threats and vandal attacks on the Inter headquarters in Kiev were followed by zero arrests, investigation or public condemnation.
Moreover, top Ukrainian officials were engaged in enabling hate speech against the TV channel’s journalists. Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister, has publicly criticized the channel for months, and in a recent Facebook post on Aug. 31 called it “anti-Ukrainian, anti-state.”
The Ukrainian president’s official statement following the attack was more like a double-edged sword. Within the space of a single text, President Petro Poroshenko demanded an investigation into the attack and at the same time indirectly blamed journalists for “destabilizing the political domestic situation in Ukraine.” The Soviet mentality of treating journalism as either “good” or “bad” just by the amount of positive coverage it devotes to the government is unfortunately alive and well among Ukraine’s political elites.
The chances that an investigation into the attack on Inter will produce any results are microscopic. The well-publicized incompetence of the General Prosecutor’s office is jaw-dropping when you consider its inability to put anyone from the previous kleptocratic regime behind bars. Inter journalists report scattered evidence at the attack site has been left completely unattended, illustrating why hardly anyone believes in a successful investigation. All the detained attackers were released right after getting charged on the same day. Two days after the attack, in his parliamentary address, President Poroshenko failed to mention the dramatic spike of violence against journalists even once.
The open indifference of the current Ukrainian officials toward violence against journalists is nothing new. In May this year, officials failed to condemn a series of data leaks exposing the personal information of dozens of war reporters with assignments on the territories covertly invaded by hybrid Russian troops, and no serious attempt at shutting down the law-breaking website in question has been made. Moreover, some members of the parliament and government, including interior minister Avakov, praised the leaks, despite wide international condemnation.
Lack of official reaction has only fueled more hate and death threats towards Ukrainian journalists. My Hromadske colleague Ekaterina Sergatskova received a death threat targeting her toddler son following the journalist data leak.
Moreover, many female reporters at our network have faced gendered hate speech in what Hromadske’s CEO believes is an organized online bullying campaign with ties to Ukraine’s corrupt elites. In recent months, I have also faced a number of similar online bullying attacks and death threats after speaking out against the leaks. All of them showed a clear, well organized dynamic and tended to intimidate me based on my status as the only openly gay journalist in Ukraine.
These violent attacks on Inter TV journalists have taken place just weeks after the murder of Pavel Sheremet, a high-profile media personality known for his critical views of Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian governments. The Ukrainian police has recently admitted lack of progress in the investigation.
Now, playing the devil’s advocate, it is worth mentioning that Inter hasn’t been a beacon for Ukrainian independent journalism of any sorts. Owned by the oligarchic groups of Dmytro Firtash, Inter has pivoted towards pro-Russian programming choices for several years now. And we shouldn’t underestimate the damage Russian-financed information warfare has on national security of Eastern European countries.
As we can see in eastern Ukraine, propaganda kills, literally. News distortion, fabrication, and manipulation are as effective in hybrid warfare in the region as actual weapons, if not more so. Still, this does not mean we should not allow local officials, often plagued by Soviet mentality toward the media, to have the power to declare who is a “real journalist” and who is a “national security threat.”
Ukraine and other states affected by Russia’s information assault should follow recent OSCE recommendations and move the process of confronting propaganda and hate speech to the courts, preferably international ones. If you are a government official and confident that an individual pretends to be a journalist and works as a spy instead, opt for an open court hearing rather than deciding it behind closed doors.
Frankly, I would assign partial blame for increased violence on Ukrainian journalists themselves—the lack of solidarity and communal support is disturbing. When Hromadske journalists faced recent government bullying for war reporting, many of our Ukrainian colleagues sided with the officials, including some journalists from Inter. During the arson attack on the latter on Sunday, several local reporters took selfies in front of the burning building—an outrageous expression of their disagreement with the channel’s editorial policy.
Still, the past couple of days have shown that many in the country have decided to speak out against the disturbing tendency of assaults on freedom of speech. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Council of Europe, strongly condemned the attack, pointing out that extrajudicial revenge against people with different opinions only makes things worse.
The Hromadske network, the largest independent newsroom in the region, has covered the story of the arson attack non-stop in three languages. Prominent human rights defenders and reformist politicians have also joined the condemnation camp.
On the day after the arson attack in Kiev, we learned that Zhalaudi Geriev, my colleague from Caucasian Knot, one of the last fortresses of independent journalism in Russia, had been sentenced to three years in a penal colony essentially for his investigative reporting (officially on drug charges, clearly trumped up). This fresh attack on freedom of expression in the Russian republic of Chechnya brings unfortunate grim parallels.
The international community didn’t stand up for Russian democracy in the 1990s. We often ignored rising assaults on journalists, who were jailed and murdered as “national security threats” or “traitors.”
We failed to support a free and stable Russia largely because we didn’t care enough to extend a hand of solidarity to its struggling democratic institutions—journalists were some of the first victims of Russia’s rising authoritarianism. We can’t make the same mistake with Ukraine.
Maxim Eristavi is a Ukrainian journalist, writer, and civil rights advocate. He is a co-founder of Hromadske International, the foreign news desk for the region’s biggest independent broadcaster.
[Photo courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov]