The Brief Life and Slow Death of Ukrainian Journalism

An independent news channel wanted to revolutionize Ukrainian media. But not all Ukrainians were in the mood for the truth.

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 Hromadskeand 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.

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.”

Pro-EU activists stand opposite riot police during a demonstration organized by the Ukrainian opposition in Independence Square in Kiev on November 22, 2013. Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY

Ukraine’s post-communist television industry has traditionally been dominated by the country’s oligarchs. The few dozen men who had exploited the 1990s privatization drive to build business empires from the ashes of the Soviet system also gained control of the television airwaves. They have used them ever since to wage business feuds and champion the politicians who pledge to safeguard their wealth.

Billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky controls the channel 1+1 and its English language spin-off, Ukraine Today. Steel magnate Victor Pinchuk has ICTV. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, runs Ukrayina, while the exiled oligarch Dmytro Firtash owns Inter. Between them, these men bankroll Ukraine’s 10 most-watched TV channels. Billionaire confectionary magnate Petro Poroshenko was elected president in 2014 on a pledge to sell his businesses and “focus on the well-being of the nation”; today, he still controls Channel 5, where, for the right sum of money, anyone can spread his or her message over its airwaves. It’s a media landscape that the Ukrainian economic elite designed to further its interests, and one the country’s political elite learned to navigate to further their own, at the expense of the 90 percent of Ukrainians who rely on television for their news.

The seeds of Hromadske TV (“Public TV” in Ukrainian) were sown in April 2013. That month, TVi, a channel known for its investigative reports, changed hands in a highly publicized ownership dispute. Owner Konstantin Kagalovsky accused businessman Alexander Altman of a corporate raid to seize the channel, carried out with help from Ukraine’s secret service. Following the firing of high-profile staff, and allegations of censorship, 31 journalists left the station. In June, several of them combined forces to launch Hromadske.

Hromadske chose an unprecedented business model. In announcing the project, presenter Mustafa Nayyem promised a “genuinely transparent” news source without oligarchic involvement. With little upfront capital, it registered as a nongovernmental organization (NGO), in the hope that nonprofit status would insulate it against government or oligarchic intrusion. The move also meant Hromadske would rely solely on the goodwill of donors in taking on competitors worth billions of dollars.

Crowdfunding among Ukrainians was slow to gather momentum, but the West was quick to lend a hand. Various European and North American state and private entities helped keep the channel afloat at the outset and since. In July and August 2013, George Soros’s Ukraine-based International Renaissance Foundation and the U.S. Embassy in Kiev provided crucial funds to kick-start the project, and Canada’s Department of Global Affairs has been a source of regular grants. (In a sense, Hromadske is a microcosm of the broader Ukrainian economy, which is dependent on Western support in staving off collapse.)

Hromadske had planned to go live at 6 p.m. on Nov. 22, 2013, but an 11th-hour decision was made to push that time forward four hours. The previous day, under pressure from Russia, then-President Yanukovych had abandoned an agreement on closer trade ties with the EU. In the hours that followed, protests had erupted: Some 2,000 activists had gathered on Kiev’s central square, or Maidan, and Ukraine was poised on the brink of a full-blown political crisis.

Hromadske followed the revolution from its first hours, offering 24-hour live coverage of the protest movement and the violence into which it soon degenerated. While other channels linked live to reporters on bridges overlooking the Maidan or outside government buildings, Hromadske jumped into the fray, sending its reporters into the heart of the protests. From the start, Hromadske was unequivocal in its support for the revolution; its founders even played key roles in it. Nayyem, who has since entered opposition politics, is widely credited with writing the Facebook post that inspired tens of thousands of people to gather on the Maidan, thus sparking the protests that led to Yanukovych’s fall in February 2014.

Hromadske’s on-the-ground reporting and accessible analysis quickly earned it an audience. By December 2013, it had become the go-to source of information for Ukrainians and foreign observers struggling to make sense of the unfolding revolution. Its streams regularly reached 100,000 viewers, and contributions were flowing in from the public; in the first half of 2014, the station received donations totaling more than $120,000. That September, the channel launched a service called Hromadske International. Its English- and Russian-language content was designed to grow the channel’s international audience — and, many Ukrainians suspected, to counter the information war that Russia was accused of waging in their country.

But for Nataliya Gumenyuk, Hromadske’s head, the channel’s focus has always been on delivering facts to the Ukrainian public. The channel takes the BBC as its model, she said. “Dealing with propaganda is the state’s task,” she told me. “Journalists should provide the news and the facts. We may debunk or fact-check stories, but our primary goal was always to be in places first, to go after the least covered stories.”

That approach has not been without risk. On Nov. 29, 2013, a week after the channel went live, two Hromadske journalists were beaten and had equipment stolen in the center of Kiev. Dmytro Gnap and Yakov Lyubchich subsequently claimed that they were jumped by a group of government-hired thugs, who reacted aggressively when questioned. In June 2014, Nastya Stanko was captured on a reporting trip near the border with Russia and kept for three days in a basement before being released in a prisoner exchange.

Pro-Russian activists break through the gate in front of TRK Donbass television station on April 27, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In Hromadske’s tightly packed newsroom, on the 13th floor of a multistory building on Kiev’s Suvorova Street, are mementos from the violent clashes on the Maidan and reporting trips to war-torn parts of the country’s east. The NGO occupies three other rooms in the building, to which it moved in December 2013 from humbler surroundings on the capital’s outskirts. Its studio is an open, lightly furnished space with spectacular views of the city.

Despite modeling itself on Western media standards, the channel’s involvement with the turbulent events that engulfed Ukraine in 2014 has made it hard at times to remain above the news. In July 2014, anchor Danylo Yanevsky cut short an interview with Tanya Lokshina, a respected researcher at the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, when she declined to admit Russian military involvement in Ukraine in response to his aggressive questioning. Lokshina cited the official Human Rights Watch position, which she said described the war in the east as a domestic armed conflict. In a Facebook post about the interview, Yanevsky suggested that it was wrong to invite on air anyone that “demeans our soldiers, who are spilling blood in eastern Ukraine.” Discussions in the Hromadske studio about the war often became heated, especially in its early months.

As Ukraine’s crisis spread to the country’s east, and from Kiev’s streets into its corridors of power, Hromadske’s coverage expanded. Graphic reports from the Donbass region eschewed narration to give a platform to local actors and ordinary victims of the conflict. Through a series of hard-hitting investigative reports, journalists followed the fight against corruption and documented power struggles among Ukraine’s new elite.

These reports could sometimes stray from traditional standards of journalistic objectivity. An investigation into a secret offshore company set up by Poroshenko, which journalist Anna Babinets based on the “Panama Papers,” a trove of leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, was a case in point. It alternated between graphic scenes from the August 2014 battle for the town of Ilovaisk, which turned into a massacre of Ukrainian soldiers by separatist forces backed by regular Russian troops, and revelations about dubious transfers made in the president’s name. It hinted in no uncertain terms where Poroshenko’s priorities lay at the time.

By the end of 2014, the revolution had settled into a rut, as had the war in the east. News channels like Hromadske began losing viewers disillusioned with stalled reforms and daily casualty updates. (Hromadske said its presence on multiple platforms means viewership figures are not readily available.) The channel has struggled to find its niche in the post-Maidan era. It’s also been dogged by high staff turnover. In the winter of 2015-2016, co-founder Roman Skrypin parted ways with the channel in a messy divorce.* The NGO has since launched a legal case against him, accusing him of stealing foreign donations to the tune of $250,000, an accusation that Skrypin denies. This January, as part of an organizational shake-up, well-known investigative journalist Katya Gorchinskaya was appointed the channel’s CEO, a newly created position. She said she arrived to news of a $120,000 budget hole, something the NGO is still working to fill.

The channel today enjoys a steady base of Western donors, both state and private. Yet donations from the Ukrainian public have dried up, from more than $156,000 in 2014 to $16,000 in 2015. Gorchinskaya’s appointment has also coincided with a decline in viewership. She sees the audience contraction as natural for an outlet that built its support base as an online platform for the revolution but admits that Hromadske has struggled to adapt.

Such challenges may disguise a deeper trend. The fallout from the Avdeevka report has shown that journalism can hold different meanings in a country coming to terms with a protracted war. Hromadske may want to offer Ukraine independent journalism, but it’s unclear if that’s what Ukraine currently wants.

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

Matthew Luxmoore is a journalist focused on Eastern Europe who has written for Al Jazeera, The Times, the New Republic and other publications.