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I choose the truth: confessions of an ‘improper’ journalist in Donetsk

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In Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, ‘proper’ journalism means asking few questions and communicating few answers. Those who choose not to follow these Soviet rules of thumb are by consequence ‘improper’ journalists, who risk redress for the errors of their ways. In Aleksey Matsuka’s case, this has meant continual harassment and, earlier this month, the apparent attempt to set fire to him and his flat.

Aleksey Matsuka
23 August 2011

In the Eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, journalism is understood rather differently from generally accepted norms. 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. For example, by reporting the fact that the mayor of Slaviansk has a salary of one thousand dollars a month and shoes that cost one thousand euros, and the mayor of Makeevka, Aleksandr Mal’tsev, and the ex-governor of the region Anatoly Blizniuk – who have spent their whole lives in government service – live in fancy private residences, the cost of which start at one million dollars.

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Reports about expensive cars and residencies of the Donetsk authorities braught Aleksey Matsuka into the category of 'improper' journalists.

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.

Blizniuk, the former governor, put me in the category of ‘improper’ journalists when he yelled that I’m dishonourable, as did Gennady Kostiukov, the mayor of Kramatorsk, who insisted that I was a yob (before proceeding to throw punches at me in full view of everybody). Both these instances were caught on video, but neither elicited a reaction from the authorities or the public. Because, in their opinion, I am conducting improper journalism, and proper journalists – like Fil’, for example – receive government posts and deputy mandates from the ruling Party for their proper position.

In Donetsk national university, from which I graduated in 2005 with a degree in political science, on the special journalism course for politics students they told us that the ideal type of journalism is Soviet, and held up such a Soviet newspaper as ‘Truth’ (Pravda) as an example. The local model of journalism was the newspaper of the Donetsk regional council, ‘Life’ (Zhizn’). This latter is the ideological mouthpiece of the Party of Regions, which is published with regional taxpayers’ money and highlights only those regional events which show the activity of the local administration in a positive light. Nobody asks whether the taxpayers want to spend their money on a report of the party political life of the region’s rulers.

 

Mayor of Kramatorsk Gennady Kostiukov calls Matsuka a yob before confronting him physically. The vocation of honest journalism is increasingly fraught business in Dontesk region.

Aiming to restrict similar influence on students, we students founded a university editorial group to publish our own newspaper in which we described our own vision of what was going on in the region and in the country. The newspaper became popular in the history faculty of our educational institution, and for that the dean, Petr Dobrov, summoned me to his office and openly threatened ‘one more issue and you’ll be chucked out of university’. There were no formal grounds for my expulsion so I began to publish the student newspaper myself, at my own risk. My remaining friends and classmates were afraid to publicly support this initiative so I had to take on publication of the newspaper single-handed. I composed the newspaper, ran it off on a printer and then photocopied it. That way I could deliver around 500 copies – enough for all the students in my faculty.

“Blizniuk, the former governor, put me in the category of ‘improper’ journalists when he yelled that I’m dishonourable, as did Gennady Kostiukov, the mayor of Kramatorsk, who insisted that I was a yob (before proceeding to swing a punch at me in full view of everybody)."

Something similar was happening in the world beyond the walls of my faculty. In businesses people were being compelled to vote for the Party of Regions and for the initiatives of the then-president Leonid Kuchma. There was no independent press at all. In Donetsk region several independent publications, which are still functioning and which have staunch reputations for independence from the local authorities, appeared on the internet only in 2003 –  including ‘Donbass News’  which I set up with colleagues. In the real world, as in the university, I had to do everything myself – register the enterprise, build the business model, be completely independent from the administration. Bureaucrats came to us and initially suggested that we become friends, then made threats, then proposed a union again. And so it went on, month after month, until the country’s ‘Orange Revolution’ happened – for Donetsk independent journalists this was the most free and optimistic time. In 2010, with Viktor Yanukovych’s coming to power, the situation changed dramatically. Many facts testify to this change: a journalist disappeared in Kharkov; Yanukovych’s security beat up television broadcasters in Kiev; in Donetsk unknown assailants tried to burn me alive, indicating that they were doing so because of my journalistic activities. This is simply a recitation of the facts, not some sort of political or ideological stance.

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Soviet Pravda represents exemplary journalism in the minds of many loyal university tutors and regional party officials.

Unfortunately, understanding of the meaning of ‘journalism’ is twisted in Donetsk region. In August of this year, together with a well-known local blogger frankensstein, I published an independent newspaper with the eye-catching name ‘Donetsk Truth’ (Donetskaia Pravda). We print bloggers’ posts, articles from ‘Donbass News’ – in other words, that internet-based material which, for understandable reasons, local print media don’t publish. The paper is officially registered and published with our – my and the blogger’s – money. We went to a few organisations and got help from them too – anyway, we immediately and honestly declared this on the pages of the newspaper. But a few local journalists upbraided us on Facebook, saying that the newspaper couldn’t be free and must have sponsors, and they suspect us of having struck a deal with some political group or another to promote its interests in our newspaper. People are unable to believe that everything is in our hands, and that we ourselves may change reality by donating ten dollars to the publication of the newspaper every month. They don’t want to see independent journalism because many of them do not understand what it is. Many of them are so used to their status of ‘journalist-servant’ that they cannot conceive of themselves in any other way.

“Despite the threats directed at us, even after the burned flat and abuse from the local authorities and some colleagues, we have not stopped working to democratise our region. Truthful journalism is the best means of doing so.”

We decided to change this, and despite the threats directed at us, even after the burned flat and abuse from the local authorities and some colleagues, we have not stopped working to democratise our region. Truthful journalism is the best means of doing so. Over the period 2010-2011 ‘Donbass News’ has shed much light on the real lifestyle of Donetsk bureaucrats – we’ve noticed how the rolls of dollars rustle in their pockets, how the diamond cufflinks shine in their shirts, how quietly and comfortably the latest Mercedes models move, and how cosily they live in their elite mansions. The discrepancy between official salary and flashy lifestyle, between the officially given residency addresses and their real homes in mansions and estates, makes the bureaucrats vulnerable before the voters. Which, in its turn, arouses their rage towards us, journalists. It is now clear that this rage may flare up in flames in the flats of our colleagues, may pour out in threats and even physical abuse. But didn’t we know what we were letting ourselves in for from the very beginning, protesting against journalism teaching methods in Donetsk national university?!

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