picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Evgeniy Maloletka
“The evidence of crimes done by the Russian forces will become the textbook of Ukraine’s recent history” – Interview with a Ukrainian JiR

ECPMF

24 November 2022

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As part of our ongoing series of interviews with Journalists in Residence fellows, we interviewed a Ukrainian journalist, who worked for one of the most popular daily newspapers in Ukraine for  several years. Moreover, she currently monitors and collects stories from civilians who suffered and are suffering from Russia’s war against Ukraine since 2014. The interview was conducted in Russian in written form and translated into English. 

Tell us about your work in Ukraine and which reason(s) made you leave the country and be part of the JiR programme in Leipzig?

We never thought we would end up in exile. Very few believed that it would come to a war. Or rather, till the last moment possible many held on to hope that the catastrophe would not happen. I was hoping for a miracle as well, but subconsciously I could sense a great danger approaching. Perhaps it had to do with my professional experience. For a while I have been working with civilians in Donbass who have lived in war since 2014. For years I have been reading, reviewing, editing, and ultimately embodying thousands of their war stories daily. Many of my interview partners told me that after what they had been through, they did not feel safe or that they feared the war would burst out with new vigour. After watching the meeting of the Russian Security Council on the 22 February and seeing the frightened faces of some of Putin’s circle, it was obvious that something terrible was being prepared. Because of this, when my mother woke me up on 24 February with the words, “War has started!”, it didn’t surprise me, but it broke my heart. 

 

I was heartbroken that my life and the lives of millions of people, as we know it, was forced to abruptly end. All what we have loved, all what we have been building for years and through generations. The severe explosions outside our windows were loudly announcing this end. 

 

These constant explosions, the shock, the inability to eat or to sleep, the hiding in the hallway corridor, the monitoring of news became the reality for me and my loved ones during the start of the war. My interview partners told of cancer, mental disorders, and increase of diabetes. The knowledge about what people endure when they live in unsafe zones, in constant stress and danger, mobilised me to urgently look for opportunities to get my loved ones away from the hell that had begun. I knew that I could work remotely from anywhere in the world and that I could also support our people from abroad. Sure, I could not be a volunteer. But I could support different initiatives financially. Which means I need to continue to work.

 

I was aching to leave Kiev. At least four generations of my family have lived here. I know and love the history of my streets, I love urban legends, and I collect the secrets of Kiev’s mansions. The parting is still painful, although I recently have stopped living “out of suitcases” and I am trying to accept the separation.

 

I didn’t understand much in the first months of the war. I felt like I was in a fog. What do we do next? How do we live? Where? Thank God, we always encountered incredible people: In Kiev, in Lviv, and also in Warsaw we gained tremendous support in our escape. It was then when you came into play and helped us by inviting me and my parents to Leipzig to be part of the JiR program. I was able to continue working without interruptions from air raids or blackouts due to shelling. My work schedule is the same as it used to be in Kiev – and so far we have gathered tens of thousands of stories from civilians in Ukraine about how the war changed their lives.  

 

Which topics are currently dominating Ukrainian media? Can there be an open pluralistic media discourse despite the ongoing war? 

There is a principle now in our country that we try to hold on to: “All disputes after the war”. Meaning that all the discussions about the politically charged topics and all the criticism of the government are for now on hold. This is not because there is no freedom of speech. There is. But we share the understanding now that we need to be united. We have a common external enemy, and all the efforts must be directed at its defeat, and not at our internal squabbles.

 

In the context of war, there can be no platforms for the enemy media. For a long time we had a huge number of “Kremlin mouthpieces” that tried to present all events from a pro-Russian point of view, to spread fake news against Ukrainian patriots, and to prevent our state from becoming European in every way they could. 

 

When they were shut down, they tried to present it as crushing the dissenting opinion, but it was simply our fight against Kremlin lies and Russian propaganda. It is important not to speculate on the notion of pluralism, as the pro-Russian politicians and media figures try to do.

 

Despite the war, there are many other dangers for independent journalism such as state capture, oligarchization of media, and media monopolisation throughout Europe. Which tendencies or even dangers affecting Ukrainian independent journalism would you identify (based on your personal experience)?

Accusing Ukraine of the absence of freedom of speech resembles the accusation of us in corruption – it is a cliché that should have vanished a long time ago. In fact, over the past 5 years we have carried out numerous reforms that aimed at making corruption impossible. For instance, we have digitised and decentralised state processes in different sectors, from courts to street-level bureaucracy. The central administration has renewed many times, it became younger, and is now replaced with the generation in their 40s, who are well-educated and who share European values. It can be assumed that the overblown cliché of corruption in Ukraine benefited not only Russia, but also some Europeans, as an excuse to deny us membership in the EU. The myth that there is no freedom of speech has been created and manipulated with the same logic. We do have space to get better, but the situation with freedom of speech has significantly improved in Ukraine in recent years. With enough publicity and resonance in the media or on social networks, you can achieve official investigations, criminal proceedings, and resignations of officials from their positions. 

 

In smaller towns, however, the situation is different. We struggle with the remnants of the 90s era, when criminal groups infiltrated or merged with the authorities. There are still local “lords” who pressure and threaten the press. But the main threats to journalists for the time-being are different.

 

First, above all is the direct risk of being killed during the Russian shelling in Ukrainian cities and villages across the country. Second, the big issue today is the very basic economic survival in the absence of an advertising industry, the difficulties in distribution of print media, and the collapse of the country’s energy system. Many media outlets have ceased to exist due to these reasons. Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Third, the Ukrainian journalists working in territories under temporal Russian occupation are being deprived on a mass scale of their right to practise their profession. The “Rashists” are trying to force regional media outlets to work for them. Those who have been unable to leave and who refuse to cooperate were either killed, have gone missing, or were forced to lose their profession. Unlike in Russia, where the list of journalists killed or imprisoned by the state is extensive and continues to grow, there is no such lawlessness in Ukraine and there never has been. Journalists in Ukraine have always been able to openly criticise the president, the government, and officials.

 

We Ukrainians will never remain silent if we see what we believe to be injustice. This war is a war of clashing worldviews. 

 

What crimes against media professionals or even against yourself did you observe? 

No one should be killed for their journalistic work. For me personally, a huge tragedy was the death of my friend, Serhiy Nikolayev, a war photographer for the newspaper Segodnya. He was reporting near Donetsk, in the village of Peski, about the nightmare in which the Ukrainians live while being shelled from the occupied territories. Sergei was killed by a Russian mine in 2015. Back then, the cowardly response from the Russian authorities was that “they were not there”. More than 40* Ukrainian journalists have been killed by Russian forces since the start of the war in February 2022. Among them are my dear colleagues whom I knew well, with whom I have worked. I wish that the Russian war criminals will be persecuted in the Hague for those murders, as well as for the genocide against thousands of Ukrainians.

 

Can the monitoring and collections of stories from civilians who suffered from Russia’s war against Ukraine serve as evidence and contribute to prosecution of crimes against media professionals?

Among these stories are testimonies of our fellow journalists; of how they survived the shelling, reported while being bombed, or how they rescued their families from the occupation. For example, one famous Ukrainian photographer and war correspondent Evgeniy Maloletka spent 20 days in the besieged Mariupol. He filmed both the consequences of the city bombing, for example the destruction of a maternity hospital. He also documented the daily nightmare of survival done by the civilians, the regular people, who were killed simply because they were Ukrainians. 

 

I wish the testimonies that we collect and preserve will become the key indictments in court since they are the direct evidence of violations of the Geneva Conventions done by the Russian forces. The evidence of crimes done by the Russian forces will become the textbook of Ukraine’s recent history.  

 

* Number varies across monitoring platforms due to difference in verification and data collection methods.

Interview conducted by Jessica Jana Dutz, Press and Communications Intern, and Lukas Malek, Policy and Programme Intern at ECPMF. Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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