Ukrainian police officers and security services experts examine the charred car of journalist Pavel Sheremet, after he was killed in a car bomb in Kiev on July 20, 2016. Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
On the morning of July 20, as he drove to work in central Kiev, Pavel Sheremet was killed when a bomb exploded in his car. A reporter for popular Ukrainian news portal Ukrayinska Pravda, Sheremet, Belarusian by birth and Russian by nationality, had been an outspoken critic of governments in all three states. His murder sent shockwaves through Ukraine’s journalist community.
That evening, colleagues and friends gathered in the Hromadske studio. Sheremet had been a regular guest on the channel, on close terms with much of its staff. Also in attendance was the deputy head of Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy, Tetiana Popova. Popova warned of a growing campaign among Ukrainian politicians to discredit the media.
Within two weeks of that appearance, Popova publicly resigned from her post at the ministry. In an open letter on Aug. 3, she cited “attacks on journalists and attacks on freedom of speech by political organizations and individual political officials” and condemned the government’s weak response.
Popova told me she first handed in her notice in May in response to a leak by Kiev-based hacker group Myrotvorets (“Peacemaker”), which launched in December 2014 to investigate “crimes against Ukraine’s national security.” (On its website, it keeps a list to which visitors can add personal details of purported “traitors of the Motherland,” anti-Ukrainian propagandists, terrorists, and war criminals.) In May, Myrotvorets released the names, addresses, phone numbers, and other personal details of several thousand journalists, around half of them from Western media organizations, who had received press passes from the Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway state declared with Moscow’s backing in 2014.
The leak caused a global outcry for its breach of privacy — but it especially enraged Ukrainian nationalists who already suspected journalists of cooperating with the separatist governments. Popova said attacks on Ukrainian journalists are now happening in some form every three days, and she had grown frustrated after futile attempts to get them investigated.
“The climate has fundamentally changed. Ministers have started to openly attack journalists, and I’m not ready to represent a government whose members act in such a way,” she said.
Poroshenko’s administration has spoken out against Myrotvorets’s vigilante justice, but many of its high-level officials have voiced support. Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, has used the hacks to wage war on Ukraine’s media establishment. In May, he shared parts of the leaked database of journalists with his 160,000 Facebook followers. On July 27, he described a new Myrotvorets release as “yet another brilliant psycho-informational operation behind enemy lines.”
In a telephone interview, Gerashchenko called some journalists a national security threat. “There are professional journalists who write the truth, and there are those who hide behind the title and work to undermine our country’s security. We have a right to denounce that,” he said.
Gerashchenko may be the most vocal, but in a country at war he is not alone in drawing a distinction between “patriotic” journalists and those betraying the people’s trust. Debates rage on social media: Should a Ukrainian journalist report on compatriots using weapons banned under the cease-fire agreement? Does working with Russian media equal treason? Can a journalist report the views of those with whom his or her country is at war? Hromadske is frequently mentioned in those threads.
According to Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst, the climate emerging in Ukraine is reminiscent of sentiments that were widespread following the Soviet collapse, particularly in Russia and the Baltics. Debates on the media and journalism in the 1990s were rife with accusations of treason, and “Moscow’s hand” was seen in every article that lamented the Soviet collapse or expressed sympathy for attempts to renew regional integration. Journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote articles critical of the government, were branded traitors and accused of putting the country at risk. Such sentiments have, in part, contributed to an atmosphere that has allowed President Vladimir Putin’s government to suppress the majority of independent media in Russia, and many of the journalists interviewed for this article worry that similar developments may be in the cards for Ukraine.
Oleksiy Panych, a former professor at Donetsk National Technical University, believes a journalist’s role should change when his or her country finds itself at war. Panych has clashed with Gorchinskaya over social media and repeatedly challenged Hromadske’s goal of BBC-style neutrality. During wartime, the search for truth and the commitment to presenting opposing views should come second to the task of countering propaganda peddled by the enemy, Panych said, particularly when at war with Russia.
“Russia has shown an ability to manipulate Western standards of journalism. Attempts to apply those standards works badly when your country is at war. War brings with it another ethics,” he said.
Panych is an elected board member of the National Public TV and Radio Company of Ukraine, a state-owned broadcaster slated for launch by this year’s end. He proposes the creation of a commission on war censorship that would regulate journalists in the war zone and specify permissible topics of coverage, and he claims to have discussed the idea personally with the head of Ukraine’s armed forces, Viktor Muzhenko. He told me it was after watching Hromadske’s report from Avdeevka that he realized such an initiative was needed.
“People are turning away from Hromadske — I see this clearly. When they launched, we saw them as a new kind of TV, an example to follow. But they let us down through their pacifism,” Panych said.
Hromadske’s first ever audience study, conducted this year, revealed that viewers are still interested in the war and its impact on Ukrainian society; only the economy ranked higher as a topic of interest. Coverage of political reform and the fight against corruption also remains in high demand.
The channel is aiming to respond with a new set of offerings. It’s launching a reality show about grassroots initiatives in Ukraine’s various regions, a program on start-up business projects, and a satirical news show jointly created with the state-run First National channel. It’s also taking part in the Russian-Language News Exchange, a pan-European media project aimed at strengthening independent news production in the Russian language.
Rany (“Wounds”) is perhaps Hromadske’s most ambitious idea. A collaboration with Ukrainian-American photographer Joseph Sywenkyj, it takes photos of Ukrainian soldiers wounded on the front line and brings them to life in a documentary series about their everyday lives and their struggle to reintegrate into society. As part of the project, Hromadske plans to pioneer the use of virtual reality video technology in Ukraine.
In May, after a drawn-out process, the channel secured a 10-year TV license. It successfully lobbied the country’s licensing authorities to become the first noncommercial outlet in Ukraine able to broadcast over satellite networks to a wider audience. It may be some time before the satellite broadcasts go live: The channel still needs technical upgrades and a signal transfer, neither of which it can immediately afford. But it’s a milestone for the fledgling station as it works to navigate the complexity of post-Maidan politics while staying true to its original mission.
On July 26, Hromadske finally published its full report of the Avdeevka battle. Despite ATO officials’ requests, all original quotations were left in, though panorama shots in the video have been cut and the sound from radio receivers distorted. Stanko said it’s the first time Hromadske has made any such concessions.
The nine-minute video ends with a scene shot 12 hours before the fighting began. In it, the Ukrainian soldiers joke with reporters as they prepare food in a warehouse storeroom. When the lights go off, the commander explains that there’s not enough gas to run the generator. Sergeev, the 23-year-old soldier, is asked why he hasn’t sought treatment for a piece of shrapnel caught in his leg. He replies that a shortage of men has forced him to remain on the front line — a brutal truth that, for many back in Kiev, must surely have been difficult to hear. He would be killed the next day.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Roman Skrypin quit Hromadske in December 2015. The article has been updated to reflect that there is a dispute over the circumstances of his departure.
Clarification: A previous version of this article included photos of the media organization Hromadske Odessa; Hromadske and Hromadske Odessa are no longer affiliated.
Top photo credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images