Journalist Maria Grynevych speaking to Vice President Vera Jourová
“You can't write anything without considering the war, because the war changed everything”

ECPMF

16 June 2022

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Maria Grynevych is a Ukrainian journalist and Chief Editor of the news agency Socportal. She has been displaced since the start of the war in Ukraine. Maria is currently participating in ECPMF’s Journalist-in-Residence programme in Leipzig. 

Since 2013, you have been the editor-in-chief of Socportal. Can you tell me a bit more about your media agency, its main focus, and your priorities in running it?

Socportal was founded by four people. We had worked on a project doing some research on social aspects of the European Union which had an investor. But after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, the investors said “we have other priorities since there is a revolution, so we will just close the project”. That’s when we decided that we want to create our own media; because if we invest work and our souls, our aspirations, into something, we want it to be read. We want this aired and not just going somewhere in the cupboard.

 

So we founded Socportal as an independent media outlet without any investors. We wanted to cover social issues because it is not often spoken about in Ukraine. So we started to work on pensions, on the social guarantees for people with disabilities, on health care, and so on. After 2014, a lot of social spheres were reformed and somebody had to enlighten audiences on what is going on. We decided to do so and we had a lot of enthusiasm. We did our best. During the first year, we were in the top 25 Ukrainian websites. We had more than 120,000 people reading us per day; but it was the first year and then crisis after crisis kept coming. When you don’t have an investor, when you don’t have somebody who pays you for development, for optimising the website, the app – we had an app, but we needed to cancel it because we couldn’t afford to update it – if you don’t get enough money from somebody and you earn money from advertising, as we do, it is sometimes very hard to keep going. So we had a couple of hard years. Before the war, I think we came to the period of our flourishing. But then the war started and everything collapsed in one night.

Prior to the escalation of the war, how would you characterise the relationship between the media and politics in Ukraine? What were the main challenges for editorial independence in the Ukrainian media landscape?

I also worked as a civil servant in the ministry of youth and sports. What is funny, when I was there working in the ministry, you know there is a special language of those civil servants. They are so official. So when you get a press release from some institution, for example the ministry, sometimes you just can’t read it because it’s official and so complicated. Journalists basically can’t create news from those press releases because they are like “Ok, I just don’t care what is written there”. So that is one part of the gap between the official institutions and journalists. Sometimes they just don’t communicate enough.

 

As for political influence, the most popular media in Ukraine are owned by big businessmen. We call them oligarchs. This causes a lot of political influence on those major media outlets. This is also why we wanted to be independent; because when the big boss says “you have to do so, you need to do this aspect and to emphasise this or to do the interview with this person” and I don’t want to and the boss says “you have to do this”, you just can’t say no. You have to leave your job or do as you’re told. That political influence is sometimes not very clear because since the Revolution of Dignity, the owners of media are trying not to be very bold in their demands. They try to do it gently, because if they push too much, journalists can publish on social media that “we are leaving this channel or this media because of pressure” and so on. There would be a scandal and there were plenty of such scandals. So it’s not very good for business and they tried to do it gently.

 

Before the Revolution of Dignity there was a huge division between pro-Ukrainian or pro-European and pro-Russian media. Since the revolution, after Crimea was occupied, after Donbass, there has been no such bold division. Some are slightly more pro-Russian, some are slightly more pro-European, and some are slightly more about some political figure or political party. So if you have critical thinking, well-developed critical thinking, you can read news on any channel knowing that this media is owned by this person. You can get some news from the source, while being aware of the ownership.

 

As for the war, everybody, every television channel is running basically the same programme about the war. If there could be even an idea of creating some pro-Russian media in Ukraine, now, they will be banned in seconds. There are Telegram channels that are pro-Russian which try to act like they are Ukrainian, but they are in fact Russian. So they are in Telegram, but not in the media landscape.

Journalist inspecting destroyed Russian military machinery at the Gostomel airfield near Kyiv, Ukraine, 08 April 2022 (Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto)

How has the recent invasion by Russia changed the way you are running your media outlet? Has your focus shifted a lot or are you still trying to cover your main themes but with regard to the war?

Now it is 3 months since the beginning of the war. All of the editorial board is now outside of Ukraine. At the beginning of the war, we were totally focused on covering everything that was happening. We worked 24/7 just writing about the war on any possible channels: on our website, Instagram, Telegram, Tik Tok, YouTube, and other social media. We are posting a lot on Reddit, because it is where the Western audience is and where people from abroad can read about what is happening. We are also thinking about a German version of our website, because Germany hosts a lot of Ukrainian refugees and I think Germans need first hand news from Ukraine. In Germany Russian media is still very popular and sometimes they get propaganda from those websites and YouTube channels and so on.

 

Now our work is a little bit calmer. We still write a lot about the war because it is still our focus. But we try to focus on our main issues, meaning social issues. We focus on refugees, on displaced persons, on people with disabilities in the war, on health care workers, everybody who knows how to care, how to tend to wounds, bandages and so on, anybody with some medical skills. Now we try to focus on our main issues but with the secondary focus of the war. You can’t write anything without considering the war, because the war changed everything. We tried to learn how to be journalists during war, how to report during war, how to continue the board during war, and how to preserve your identity during the war – your journalistic identity.

How does the war affect the media landscape in Ukraine more generally? Do you have any prospects for the future?

The war affected the media landscape a lot because a lot of media closed. Maybe it is more about small websites, focusing on, for example, lifestyle. They couldn’t change their perspective, so they just closed. A lot of Ukrainian media cut their salaries, journalists were sent on leave or fired. The media in occupied territories can’t work anymore and the journalists are under great threat in these territories. They can’t go outside, so they just hide somewhere. They just hide their identity because they will be taken and prosecuted. A lot of print media near the frontline have great troubles with printing. They just can’t print the physical newspaper because, for example, their publishing house is not accessible.

 

Ukrainian media is mainly reporting on war now and some just don’t have capacity to enlighten audiences on other topics. So some spheres of life are not covered. If it is not covered it can be a starting point for corruption in the future.

 

Media is suffering a lot from the war and if it doesn’t end soon, I think we will see that by the end of the war maybe only the major media will survive. If there is no pluralism of media, we can think about a poor media landscape in Ukraine; and as they are owned by big businessmen, they can think of using their media for political issues after the war.

 

From this perspective, I hope there may be some solution for Ukrainian media. Maybe some international help will come, so smaller media can survive the war, people don’t lose their jobs and journalists remain journalists. For me, I try not to think or reflect on what is happening but to do my work on my place, on my frontline. I try to work hard and to find solutions so my colleagues can continue working. I try to find some strength in it. So if I quit, if I just lay down and cry, nothing good would happen; my media, the work of my life, would perish. My colleagues, who rely on me, would lose their jobs.

Members of the media the foreign and local press covering Russia's war on Ukraine. Kyiv (Kiev) Ukraine, March 20, 2022. Photo by Alfred Yaghobzadeh/ABACAPRESS.COM

It is also about information. We do our part in this. You may call it an informational war, because without information, without our daily struggle to inform everybody about what is happening, without informing English speaking audiences, the informational war can be lost. Russians are now very active in the informational field. They try to calmly introduce their narratives. They were very bold and aggressive at first in the international information field, but they understood that it doesn’t work, so they try now to use more gentle ways of persuading people of what is happening in Ukraine. We have to be very careful with experts and people who say “Ah we don’t know what is happening and where the truth is, we don’t know. So maybe each side is lying a little bit”. These narratives started to appear recently in English speaking radio and media. Russia also has its own media war experts writing for major western newspapers saying “It is not as bad as Ukrainians want to portray it” and people say “Maybe, maybe they are right”. So it is very dangerous, because what is happening now in Ukraine is a genocide. It’s like they’re killing Ukrainians because they are Ukrainians. It has to be said and we have to say it.

In what ways does the Journalists-in-Residence Programme enable you to pursue your work as a journalist?

I am very thankful to the Journalists-in-Residence Programme for having me here. I received threats and I had information that these threats could become real if I stayed. As I don’t have a person who can protect me from some trouble because of my profession, like I don’t have a big boss with big money and big connections, I decided that I will quit. If I stayed in Ukraine, I would not have been writing. Here I can continue my work and my colleagues also can continue their work. I think all the colleagues who have ever applied for the Journalists-in-Residence Programme can say absolutely the same. If they had not been here, nobody knows what would happen to them.

 

Interview conducted by Marieann Weißhuhn, Programmes and Policy intern at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). Lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

Read more about our Journalists-in-Residence programme here and about our work to support journalists in exile here.

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