The Brief Life and Slow Death of Ukrainian Journalism

KIEV, Ukraine — The industrial zone outside the town of Avdeevka in eastern Ukraine was for years a half-abandoned concrete wasteland. Today, it serves as a strategic outpost on the front line of a simmering war between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists, which flared up again this summer with a vengeance.

At 2 p.m. on July 6, machine-gun fire shattered the usual afternoon lull. From inside an empty warehouse, the Ukrainian army’s 81st Brigade began moving to hold off a rebel advance when a 120 mm mortar shell ripped through the ceiling, sending slabs of concrete crashing to the ground.

From beneath the rubble, comrades retrieved 31-year-old paramedic Oleg Lysevych, who died on the spot, and heavily wounded soldier Volodymyr Sergeev. The 23-year-old had received shrapnel wounds to the head, stomach, and both legs and arms. As Sergeev was given treatment, a second mortar strike left another soldier wounded. Four were loaded into an ambulance that day, flanked by an armored personnel carrier as it sped to the hospital. Less than an hour passed before Sergeev was pronounced dead by medical staff.

Two days later, the Ukrainian online news channel Hromadske TV, which had embedded with the 81st Brigade, posted its dispatch from the scene to YouTube. In the clip, Hromadske reporter Nastya Stanko applied a tourniquet to Sergeev’s bleeding leg. Her cameraman, Konstantin Reutski, carried another soldier to the ambulance. Neither the warehouse’s location nor the soldiers’ evacuation route was shown. An article with graphic images and video of the battle, titled “War Has Returned,” was published by Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

In Kiev, the government erupted in outrage. Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) against pro-Russian rebels has its own public relations team, and, via its Facebook page, it essentially accused Hromadske of treason. It charged the channel with exposing army positions, condemned its collaboration with Russian media (a reporter with Novaya Gazeta had accompanied the Hromadske team), and demanded its staff be disciplined. “The video clearly shows the positions of Ukrainian soldiers, their faces and weaponry, objects which can be used as orientation cues by the enemy,” the Facebook post read. “This is a serious violation of the rules of conduct in the ATO zone.”

But even more unexpectedly, the public, too, turned on Hromadske. The press center post received more than 3,000 “likes” and shares — completely out of keeping with the response most ATO statements get. Users hurled accusations at the channel, often in abusive tones. “It’s not their accreditation that should be withdrawn but their freedom, as accomplices of terrorists. Lock them up, and don’t let them near our boys,” Facebook user Irina Osypenko wrote.

Three hours after it went live, Hromadske removed the video. But the damage had been done. On July 11, the journalists were stripped of their front-line accreditation pending a probe into their activities.

It marked the end of an era for Hromadske — and perhaps for Ukraine. When it launched in 2013, Hromadske quickly emerged as the unofficial mouthpiece of Maidan, the protest movement that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. Just as Maidan inspired something new in Ukrainian politics — a commitment to transparency — so Hromadske gave hope of something new in Ukrainian media: a commitment to the facts. The channel brought no-holds-barred coverage of Ukraine’s political upheaval and the subsequent Kremlin-backed insurgency in the east. And that coverage helped keep the country’s democratic transition on track through incisive reports of the fight for reform and damning investigations into official corruption.

Hromadske is now under growing pressure from the public and the government to choose between its loyalty to the nation and its journalistic ideals.

But, three years on, the country’s post-Maidan transition has stalled. There have been few political reforms, and corruption is still rampant. Members of Yanukovych’s administration still occupy key positions in the government. The war in eastern Ukraine shows no signs of ending. And the harmony between Ukraine’s new political life and its most ambitious media venture has become a dissonance.Hromadske is now under growing pressure from the public and the government to choose between its loyalty to the nation and its journalistic ideals.

“The situation has changed,” said Stanko, who has been covering the military conflict since May 2014. “A ‘patriotic’ wave has swept over the media. Journalists are either traitors or servants of the state. There’s a feeling that truth no longer matters.”