oDR: Opinion

The Kyiv Post and the fight for independent media

Staff at the Ukrainian newspaper have lost their battle to maintain its independence, but have begun a new venture to promote a free press

Anna Myroniuk
10 December 2021, 8.34am
The Kyiv Post has been in operation for 26 years
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(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In Ukraine, oligarchs use media as tools for influence, a long-time tradition that has thrived for decades.

Their purposes vary, but not much. At times, it’s to advocate for policies favourable to them. The Ukraina television channel, owned by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, has previously promoted a controversial energy tariff that was profitable for his company. The pricing scheme is now at the centre of a criminal case brought by anti-corruption investigators.

Sometimes, it’s to protect their businesses: take oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, whose 1+1 TV channel defended his influence on Ukrnafta, an oil and natural gas company co-owned by him and the Ukrainian state.

Often, owners use the media to “pass a message” to Ukrainian officials. Both Kolomoisky and Akhmetov have turned to this tool when negotiating with the country’s presidents.

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Ukrainian oligarchs tend to believe that by buying media, they gain power, and to some extent they are right.

The independent Kyiv Post

One might think that by buying the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s leading English-language newspaper, businessman Adnan Kivan had counted on using it for influence.

The Syrian-born Odesa real estate developer already had a media outlet in the southern Ukrainian city where he lives, where he clearly influenced editorial policy. But it was local. He wanted more, including, as the now former staff were to discover later, a national TV channel.

In 2018, he purchased the Kyiv Post newspaper – and promised to keep its editorial independence intact. However, three years later, this promise would be broken.

In mid-October of 2021, the manager of Kivan’s Odesa media announced, via Facebook, the launch of a Ukrainian-language outlet under the brand of the Kyiv Post. She said it would be run by a separate editorial team and announced that she had already started hiring.

Neither the Kyiv Post’s current team, nor its then editor-in-chief Brian Bonner were aware of these plans for expansion.

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September 2021: Brian Bonner and Adnan Kivan at the Kyiv Post office | Source: Facebook / Brian Bonner

The editorial team perceived this interference by the owner in the hiring process, and the lack of transparency in communicating his expansion plans, as pressure.

The team opposed it. Soon we learned that Kivan had told Bonner that the Kyiv Post could continue hiring staff as before, assessing people’s qualifications and holding job interviews, instead of appointing people according to the owner’s preference. So we carried on implementing the expansion plan step by step.

Two weeks later Kivan fired us all and closed the paper for an undefined period of time.

Why? It seemed that he could not let go of his plans to take control of the Kyiv Post’s content, and so got rid of those who stood in his way. What the owner didn’t take into account was that the Kyiv Post’s staff would stand up against this.

We don’t know what made him take the drastic action of firing 50 people in one day, but we believe that the conflict with the editorial team was the tip of the iceberg and the owner had other reasons to kill off the paper.

Government interference

The independent Kyiv Post had apparently caused him problems. He once told newsroom staff: “You write and I get shot at.”

Was there pressure from officials? We believe that there was and that it came from the Prosecutor General’s Office in response to the Kyiv Post’s critical stories about the performance of Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s general prosecutor.

Bonner told The Ukrainian Weekly that the Prosecutor General’s Office had opened investigations against Kivan, but then closed them. Venediktova has denied pressuring Kivan.

The closing of the Kyiv Post was covered by top media outlets, including CNN, The Guardian and Le Monde.

The story was so widely reported because the Kyiv Post had served as the world’s window into Ukraine for decades. Ukraine has been an independent country for only 30 years, and the Kyiv Post has been there for 25 of them. It was known for high journalism standards as well as editorial independence.

The Kyiv Post’s end comes just as a wave of pressure on journalists in Ukraine is reaching a peak

For Ukrainian journalists, the story bore similarities to the events of 2013, when the editorial teams of Ukrainian magazines Korrespondent and Forbes walked out after an oligarch close to then-President Viktor Yanukovych bought the magazines.

Kivan has now announced plans to reopen the Kyiv Post with a new staff. But will this new version of the newspaper be trustworthy? Former employees have reasons to doubt it. An owner who closes his newspaper and fires its team in a single day does not inspire confidence. Kivan effectively killed independent journalism at the Kyiv Post, something he had promised to preserve just three years ago.

In a recent interview with Interfax, he said that “the Kyiv Post doesn’t have a list of untouchable people, but criticism should be justified”, adding that the media must “stimulate something good and kind”. Having seen the owner’s approach and his dissatisfaction with the Kyiv Post’s criticism of those in power, we find it hard to believe that it will be a force for good. .

Journalists under pressure

The Kyiv Post’s end comes just as a wave of pressure on journalists in Ukraine is reaching a peak. In early October, a law enforcement agency allegedly tried to disrupt the screening of an investigative film by Slidstvo.info about President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s offshore companies.

The Ukrainian intelligence services demanded that the management of a state-owned venue cancel the event. After news of the incident became public, journalists were allowed to show the film.

A few days later, journalists at Schemes, an investigative project from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, came under physical attack. Employees of a state-owned bank, UkreximBank, assaulted the programme’s journalists, deleting the video of an interview they had conducted with the bank’s director.

The journalists managed to recover the recording later, which showed that the bank’s director ordered the attack. He was suspended after the incident.

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President Volodymyr Zelenskyy | (c) Pustovit Serhii/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

Recently, employees of state-owned TV channels UA Pershyi and Dom have complained about pressure from the authorities. In late October, two hosts with public broadcaster UA Pershyi accused President Zelenskyy’s office of making demands on whom they should include and exclude from their political talk show.

They alleged that officials had said that if the demands weren’t met, representatives of the government or Zelenskyy’s party would not participate in the show.

In mid-November, ex-employees of the Dom TV channel claimed that their editors had instructed them to include positive mentions of Zelenskyy in their news coverage.

The president’s office has denied interfering in the editorial process of either TV channel.

In late November, during a press conference, the president had a dispute with the editor-in-chief of Censor.net, Yuriy Butusov. Soon afterwards, the State Bureau of Investigations opened a probe into Butusov for publishing a controversial video in which he fires a round from an artillery piece.

The Independent Media Council called the investigation an instance of “pressure” on a journalist.

Our fight for an independent media

There is no democracy without a free press. Ukraine does not have enough independent media outlets, and it is important that they are supported.

We did not manage to save the independent Kyiv Post, but we saved its values when 30 former staffers launched a new media outlet: The Kyiv Independent. With our new website online, we have already started a newsletter, Ukraine Daily, and a podcast, Media in Progress.

The Kyiv Independent is not backed by oligarchs. We are currently crowdfunding (you can contribute anything from $5/€4/£3 a month, and ppt out any time) and are looking for investors for our new venture.

Support independent journalism in Ukraine, it needs you.

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