Journalists risk their lives in rebel-held east Ukraine

Interview with Evgen Schibalov, a Ukrainian journalist formerly based in Donetsk by Kira Kirschbach
Over the past two years the pro Russian insurgents in the self-styled People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine have created an infrastructure that operates in isolation from the rest of Ukraine.

Map Ukraine Front running Urkaine 26 Mai 2016 (Map:

The newly-created media landscape plays a special role in this. When war broke out, Ukrainian media were forced to leave Donetsk. Their buildings were over-run with unknown armed men. Their transmitters in the rebel-held areas no longer worked. In their place new media sprang up. In the Republic – which is not recognised internationally – the new media law has been in force since 2015. Press freedom and the ban on censorship are named in it. But in reality every criticism of the new power is forbidden and  deadly dangerous.

Is this because the media play a big part in the totalitarian system? ECPMF discusses this with Ukrainian journalist and volunteer Evgen Schibalov. He lived and worked in Donetsk, the capital of the pro-Russian separatist republic. And he was officially accused - without investigation - because of his work for a humanitarian NGO and forced to leave in February 2016.

ECPMF: What was your journalistic activity from the start of the military conflict in Ukraine?

Ewgen Schibalov: I was working in journalism for more than 15 years. I worked 8 years for local media in Donetsk. And for the last 7 years I was a local observer for the national weekly paper "Dzerkalo tyzhnya" (Mirror Weekly). I tried to explain for people from all over Ukraine the content and sense of all important events and processes happening in Donbass.

For the moment I'm not a journalist any more. After the conflict started, me and my friends united to provide humanitarian support to people affected by conflict in Eastern Ukraine. We began as a volunteers but later we realised that we should do it systematically.

That's why we established a humanitarian NGO named "Responsible Citizens (RC)". And now I work as a co-founder and board in member of RC.

Did you work as a journalist in the reber-held areas that were not controlled by the Ukrainian government? What are your experiences of working with meida in the self-styled People’s Republic of Donetsk?

Yes, my career finished in Donetsk. I left journalism in February 2015. It means that for almost one year I was working in NGCA (non-government-controlled area).

But I never co-operated with the media of  the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

What did the new media landscape of the self-styled republic mean in terms of  freedom of expression and journalistic stadards? How possible or dangerous is it for journalists in this Republic to criticise those in power?

The majority of journalists left in Donetsk are very loyal to DPR and its leaders. But it did not happen as a result of pressure. The basic reason is that the journalists who stayed there are real Ukraine-haters.

So it's impossible to make any assessment about complications with standards or other things like that. Because the local media never try to be impartial nor to criticise the leaders of DPR. They really have the same feelings. And in this situation they perceive their own role as "soldiers". Their product is very different from ordinary media content. It is military propaganda. And local journalists do it openly. They understand what they do. But they conceive of it as their duty.

That's why in Donetsk journalists never had any troubles with local de-facto authorities.

ECPMF: Could you please explain why all Ukrainian journalists were forced to leave the region of the unrecognised Republic. Were they forced out by repression or why was it?

Those were some issues.

At first, a lot of local journalists who later escaped before were very known as civil activists. Many people participated in Euromaidan events. And, of course, many more were active during pro-Ukrainian rallies in early spring of 2014.

Because at that critical time a lot of people tried to do something to keep unity and to avoid the separation of their homeland from other parts of Ukraine.

So, local journalists always had very anti-DPR feelings. And never hid that fact.

Of course, they were recognised as enemies of DPR from the very beginning. And when the DPR was established and the Ukrainian authorities left the area, journalists escaped because of security reasons.

Unfortunately, they stay on the "blacklists". For example, Vladimir Fomichov, a journalist from Kiev, was detained in the winter of 2016. He came to NGCA (Ukraine) with a personal goal - to visit his parents for Christmas. But DPR people arrested him as  an "enemy of republic".

Many Ukrainian journalists confirm that in rebel-held areas there is a totalitarian system at work. In your opinion, is the new media landscape an important part of this system? What is your personal experience? Are pressure and repression brought to bear on journalists and bloggers? How did it manifest itself? Who threatened you?

As I told you before, local media became a part of the DPR system. And journalists work as the allies of armed people and political leaders. What most of them said, ley me repeat again, it's not a result of pressure. It’s a result of conscious choice.

I never was under pressure as a journalist, blogger or civil activist.

But my background was a reason for my deportation from Donetsk during my work in thehumanitarian NGO. I was detained together with couple of my colleagues. And DPR armed people moved me out because of my past activities. I was transported to the buffer zone late in the evening and now my return to Donetsk is strictly prohibited.

Who helps you and other journalists in cases where your life is in danger?

I don't know. I always tried to deal with all security concerns by myself.

Are there possibilities for Ukrainian and foreign media to work without danger in the unrecognised Republic? Do you plan to work as a journalist again?

Unfortunately, there is only one way - to recognise their rules. A lot of foreign journalists did it and received accreditation cards from DPR administration and agreed to a couple of limitations (don't film armed people and military objects, get approval for the questions before every interview etc.).

But Ukrainian journalists almost never do it because for them it means recognition of the"republic". They ignore the rules of the DPR because that is their position. And also any co-operation with DPR can put Ukrainian media in trouble – the DPR is formally recognised as "terrorists" by Ukrainian power. And any sort of relationship with DPR is illegal.

As for me, I'm not going to work as a journalist in the near future.