Tell us about your work in Ukraine and what reasons made you leave the country and be part of the JiR program in Leipzig?
We never thought we would find ourselves in exile. Few believed it would come to war. Or rather, until the last possible moment, many hoped that the catastrophe would not happen. I too was hoping for a miracle, but subconsciously I felt a great danger approaching. Maybe it had to do with my professional background. For some time I have been working with civilians in Donbas who have been living in war since 2014. I have been reading, reviewing, editing, and ultimately embodying thousands of their war stories every day for years. Many of my interlocutors told me that after what they had been through, they did not feel safe or that they were afraid that the war would break out again. After watching the Russian Security Council meeting on February 22 and seeing the frightened faces of some of Putin’s entourage, it was obvious that something terrible was brewing. Therefore, when my mother woke me up on February 24 with the words, “The war has begun!”, it did not 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 an abrupt end. Everything we’ve loved, everything we’ve built over years and generations. Loud explosions outside our windows loudly announced this end.
These constant explosions, the shock, the inability to eat and sleep, hiding in the hallway, watching the news became a reality for me and my loved ones at the beginning of the war. My interlocutors told me about cancer, mental disorders and an increase in diabetes. Knowing what people experience when they live in insecure areas, in constant stress and danger, mobilizes me to urgently look for opportunities to get my loved ones out of the hell that has begun. I knew that I could work remotely from anywhere in the world and that I could support our people from abroad as well. Of course I couldn’t volunteer. But I could financially support different initiatives. Which means I have to keep working.
I really wanted to leave Kyiv. At least four generations of my family have lived here. I know and love the history of my streets, I love urban legends and collect the secrets of Kyiv mansions. The breakup is still painful, although I recently stopped living “out of suitcases” and am trying to accept the breakup.
I didn’t understand much in the first months of the war. I felt like I was in a fog. What are we going to do next? how do we live Where? Thank God, we have always met amazing people: in Kyiv, in Lviv, and also in Warsaw, we received enormous support during our escape. Then you stepped in 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 airstrikes or power outages due to shelling. My work schedule is the same as it was in Kyiv – and so far we have collected tens of thousands of stories from civilians in Ukraine about how the war has changed their lives.
What topics are currently dominating the Ukrainian media? Can there be an open pluralistic media discourse despite the ongoing war?
Now in our country there is one principle that we try to observe: “All disputes after the war.” This means that all discussions on politically charged topics and all criticism of the government are on hold for the time being. This is not because there is no freedom of speech. There is. But now we share the understanding that we must be united. We have a common external enemy, and all efforts must be directed to his defeat, not to our internal quarrels.
In war, there can be no tribunes for the enemy media. For a long time, we had a huge number of “Kremlin mouthpieces” who tried to present all events from a pro-Russian point of view, spread fake news against Ukrainian patriots and prevent our country from becoming European in any way. .
When they shut them down, they tried to portray it as crushing dissent, but it was just our fight against the Kremlin’s lies and Russian propaganda. It is important not to speculate on the notion of pluralism, as pro-Russian politicians and media figures try to do.
Despite the war, there are many other dangers to independent journalism such as state capture, media oligarchization and media monopolization across Europe. What trends or even dangers affecting Ukrainian independent journalism would you identify (based on your personal experience)?
Accusing Ukraine of lack of freedom of speech is similar to accusing us of corruption – it’s a cliché that should have disappeared long ago. In fact, in the last 5 years we have carried out numerous reforms aimed at making corruption impossible. For example, we have digitized and decentralized government processes across sectors, from courts to street-level bureaucracy. The central administration was repeatedly renewed, rejuvenated and now replaced by the generation of 40-somethings who are well-educated and share European values. It can be assumed that the inflated cliché about corruption in Ukraine benefits not only Russia, but also some Europeans as an excuse to deny us EU membership. The myth that there is no freedom of speech was created and manipulated with the same logic. We have room to improve, but the situation with freedom of speech has improved significantly in Ukraine in recent years. With enough publicity and response in the media or social networks, you can achieve official investigations, criminal proceedings and resignations of officials from their positions.
In smaller cities, however, the situation is different. We are fighting the remnants of the 1990s era when criminal groups infiltrated or merged with the authorities. There are still local “gentlemen” who pressure and threaten the press. But the main threats to journalists at the moment are different.
First, first and foremost is the direct risk of being killed during Russian shelling of Ukrainian towns and villages across the country. Second, the big problem today is basic economic survival in the absence of an advertising industry, difficulties in the distribution of print media, and the collapse of the country’s energy system. Many media have ceased to exist for these reasons. Thousands of journalists lost their jobs. Third, Ukrainian journalists working in territories under temporary Russian occupation are massively deprived of their right to practice their profession. “The Racists” trying to force the regional media to work for them. Those who failed to leave and refused to cooperate were either killed, disappeared or were forced to lose their profession. Unlike 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 never has been. Journalists in Ukraine have always been able to openly criticize the president, government and officials.
We Ukrainians will never be silent if we see what we consider injustice. This war is a war of clash of worldviews.
What crimes against media professionals or even against yourself have you observed?
No one should be killed for their journalistic work. For me personally, a huge tragedy was the death of my friend Sergey Nikolaev, a military photographer for the newspaper Today. He was reporting near Donetsk, in the village of Pesky, about the nightmare Ukrainians live in as they are shelled from the occupied territories. Sergei was killed by a Russian mine in 2015. At the time, the cowardly response of the Russian authorities was that “they weren’t 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 and worked with. I wish the Russian war criminals would be prosecuted in The Hague for these murders as well as the genocide of thousands of Ukrainians.
Can surveillance and the collection of stories from civilians affected by Russia’s war against Ukraine serve as evidence and contribute to the prosecution of crimes against media professionals?
Among these stories are the testimonies of our fellow journalists; about how they survived the shelling, reported while being bombed, or how they saved their families from the occupation. For example, a famous Ukrainian photographer and war correspondent Yevgeny Maloletka spent 20 days in besieged Mariupol. He filmed both the consequences of the bombings in the city, for example the destruction of a maternity hospital. It also documents the daily survival nightmare perpetrated by civilians, ordinary people who were killed simply because they were Ukrainian.
I wish that the testimonies we collect and preserve will become key indictments in court, as they are direct evidence of violations of the Geneva Conventions by Russian forces. The evidence of crimes committed by Russian forces will become a textbook on the recent history of Ukraine.
* The number varies across monitoring platforms due to the difference in verification and data collection methods.