In Digest, Media critique, Ukraine

Published on Ukraine Comment, October 15, 2015

The specter of a crackdown on free speech in Ukraine was raised this spring by the murder of opposition journalist and intellectual Oles Buzina and the arrest of Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Kotsaba, who was charged with undermining the military draft. Yet a showdown between the government, radical activists and Vesti, the country’s largest opposition paper, has largely slipped by unnoticed by western commentators.

Stanitsa Luhanksa after aerial bombardment by the Ukrainian army in summer of 2014 (photo by РИА Новости)

Stanitsa Luhanksa after aerial bombardment by the Ukrainian army in summer of 2014 (photo by РИА Новости)

It came to a head in July of this year with the resignation of Vesti‘s editor-in-chief Igor Guzhva, who was likely forced out by the paper’s owner, former Yanukovich ally and oligarch-on-the-lam Aleksandr Klimenko. Strict oversight was imposed on the paper, politically sensitive material withdrawn and a focus on “affirmative topics” announced.

In a series of posts we will argue that this was the commencement of a 15 month campaign by Kyiv to intimidate one of its harshest critics into silence, and not, as opponents of the paper insist, a much-belated defensive strike against a channel of Russian propaganda and separatism.


Vesti editor-in-chief Igor Guzhva speaking to reporters after the paper’s offices were attacked July, 2014

Vesti editor-in-chief Igor Guzhva speaking to reporters after the paper’s offices were attacked July, 2014

The Vesti media holding, which includes Ukraine’s most popular daily newspaper (Vesti), the most popular talk radio station (Radio Vesti), the magazine Vesti.Reporter and the television channel UBR burst onto the scene in 2013 under the leadership of media veteran Igor Guzhva. With the help of anonymous financial support, he poached his staff from other major papers, including Sevodnya, from which he had been fired a year before for refusing to pull pictures of President Yanukovich’s absurdly luxurious estate Mezhgorye.

Guzhva’s strategy to distribute the paper for free in large cities seems to have succeeded – by the time of the Maidan revolution, Vesti was the country’s most popular daily. But opponents have pointed to the free distribution as proof of a darker agenda – without oligarchic or Kremlin backing, who could possibly afford to hand out hundreds of thousands of free papers every day?

Covering Maidan

Vesti’s coverage of the revolution was restrained, but showed growing alarm at the violent radicalization of the protest and the increasing brutality of the government forces. The paper’s coverage of the unfolding chaos earned it the ire of many Maidan supporters. Later a frontpage image of a balaclava-clad, club wielding protestor with the headline ‘Day of mayhem’ would be cited as proof of Vesti’s bias and its role as “mouthpiece of the Kremlin”.

But others respected its reporters’ willingness to report from the thick of the conflict. One of these reporters, Vyacheslav Veremii, was murdered in the last days of the revolution when he attempted to photograph a band of armed thugs who were preparing to attack the protestors. For this reason, the paper maintained the loyalty of some portion of the protestors, including Maidan self-defense activists who would come to the aid of Vesti reporters months later when they were being intimidated by a surly mob led by radical Maidan activist (and victim of a brutal kidnapping and torture by tituskhi (vigilante) thugs) Igor Lutsenko.

Vesti gave extensive coverage to the protestors and their demands but also to their opponents (including, strikingly, the notorious Berkut riot police). It followed with alarm the violent radicalization of the protest and the increasing brutality of the government forces. In the 2015 Vesti book ‘Revolution Diary’, a collection of Vesti’s articles about Maidan, the balance and spread of the reporting is striking. The paper published the points of view of barricade activists next to Berkut commanders, and opposition party leaders next to the pro-Russian MP Oleg Tsarev (who would later flee to Russia and become a leader of the unsuccessful ‘Novorossiya’ movement).

Covering the ‘Russian Spring’

In the aftermath of the revolution, Vesti began extensive coverage of the Crimea annexation and the growing crisis in the Donbas region. Its journalists, including Russian writers, reported directly from the eastern cities seized by the separatists. They wrote of the dangerous levels of alienation towards the new Ukrainian government:

Many people truly hold these convictions, and it’s not worth simplifying everything by saying that what’s happening in the Donbas is exclusively the work of the Russian security agencies. Their influence is likely there, but it’s not Russian citizens protesting on the main squares and joining the self-defense forces. It’s much more serious than that. (Vesti.Reporter April 18, 2014)

Three articles published in Vesti.Reporter in this period would later be the basis for a criminal investigation into the media outlet by the Ukrainian Security Agency (SBU) on charges of “undermining Ukrainian sovereignty”. These articles contain extensive quotes by pro-Russian activists and separatist supporters, which demonstrate both the sincere, comprehensible anger of the easterners and the dubious causes they had seized hold of to vent it: ‘protecting the Russian language’, Orthodox militarism, revival of the Soviet past. The tone of the articles is not sympathetic towards either the pro-Russian or pro-Kyiv side, but rather they convey a reserved agony at their mutual incomprehension and mythmaking.

Tragically, no means was found to offer a political outlet for this eastern discontent, to peel off those who wanted Kyiv to listen to the east from the active core of the separatist movement. Although many Ukrainians would disagree with such an opinion, we believe that a genuinely inclusive political process initiated before the violence erupted could have diverted many future supporters of the ‘Peoples Republics’ from this radical path, and at least weaken the strength of the separatist cause. It is a signal tragedy of the Ukrainian crisis that Vesti’s calls were not heeded and no such attempt was even made.

Covering the war

And so Vesti’s reporters began covering the war in the Donbas. In this period, the long-form articles of Vesti.Reporter particularly stand out for their agonized, clear-eyed assessment of events. Russian writer Marina Akhmedova described the journal’s mission as “journalistic diplomacy”: We simply show all the horrors of this war from both sides, with one goal – to drive it out of our hearts. Only once that happens will “fragile ceasefires” become concrete.

In this blog we will publish a series of our translations of Vesti.Reporter’s best frontline reporting. But for readers of Russian we offer direct links here:

Легкость войны     Мы мира хотим любой ценой      Завод и город на границе двух миров    Линии жизни Донецка   Дневник протоиерея Георгия Гуляева   Две истории одной войны

Several of these pieces played a crucial role for the editors of Ukraine Comment in forming our understanding of the war in the Donbas. The personal experience we then accumulated in the region only served to reinforce the sense of mutual tragedy communicated by Vesti.Reporter’s writers.

The daily Vesti also extensively covered the war, reporting on high civilian casualties from the very beginning of the “anti-terrorism operation.” This editorial stance soon won Vesti many opponents. Together with headline we cited above about mayhem on Maidan, a stark frontpage with the words “Massive civilian deaths in the east” and an iconic photo of residents of Stanitsa Luhanska fleeing their burning home would later be cites as proof of the paper’s bias and “distortion of facts”.

The frankly critical reporting of Vesti from Maidan and the frontlines of the Donbas War earned it enemies from both the new government in Kyiv and from the street. In the next post in this series we will describe the showdown between the media holding, the Ukrainian Security Agency and radical activists that would last more than a year and a half.

Part two of this report is here. ‘Ukraine Comment’ is an anonymous blog which began publishing on Sept 21, 2015. Here is the ‘welcome’ note on that date:

Welcome to Ukraine Comment

This blog is intended to broaden the discourse on the current crisis in Ukraine. We have long noticed that an overwhelming amount of the information about this conflict available in English regards external factors, especially Russia’s financing and arming of the Donbas separatists. But this can eclipse the internal policies and social trends within Ukraine that are contributing to this human tragedy, and which receive far less attention than the geopolitics.

Of particular focus in this blog will be the civic and human rights of civilians in the warzone, social strife in the country’s east and questions of press freedom. We will include both original analyses and essays, and also translations of important works from Ukrainian media and blogosphere.

If this blog has a particular posture or slant, it is that of supporters of Ukrainian unity who believe there are deeply concerning trends in today’s Ukraine that, left unaddressed, will do as much to undermine that unity as foreign-backed separatism.

Some things we will try to avoid in this blog: snark, trolling, conspiracy theorizing and avoiding challenging critiques by calling them conspiracy theorizing. Far too often the internet dialogue about Ukraine has been hijacked by trolls and bots, and we will do our best to keep this a reasoned debate. We ask commentators to adhere to that spirit when contributing.

We look forward to the dialogue.


EDITOR’S NOTE: We remind our readers that publication of articles on our site does not mean that we agree with what is written. Our policy is to publish anything which we consider of interest, so as to assist our readers in forming their opinions. Sometimes we even publish articles with which we totally disagree, since we believe it is important for our readers to be informed on as wide a spectrum of views as possible.

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