Writing the truth in the People’s Republic of Donetsk

Some journalists in Donetsk are brave enough to tell the truth about what is going on there. But there are consequences…
Aleksey Matsuka
openDemocracy | 18 July 2014

The clampdown on journalists in the Donetsk oblast [region] dates back to the beginning of the so-called ‘Russian spring.’ On 1 March this year, 7,000 people came out on to the city’s Lenin Square carrying Russian flags, and the flag of an unknown organisation called the ‘Donetsk Republic.’ Most journalists reported this as a normal demonstration expressing the will of the people. Independently-minded journalists, however, wrote that the rally had been organised with additional support from towns whose mayors were part of former President Yanukovych’s circle. This became the dividing line between the ordinary journalists and their independent colleagues.

When Viktor Yanukovych fled, he left his people behind in the Donetsk oblast – mayors of cities to the regional administration – all ensconced at various levels of the power vertical. Some of them subsequently publicly renounced any links with ‘The Family,’ others lay low, and yet others followed Yanukovych into exile. One of these was the former chairman of the Donetsk Regional Council, Andrei Fedoruk, whose current whereabouts are still unknown. The media overwhelmingly disregarded these facts, preferring to concentrate solely on what could be seen from the outside, both more convenient and simpler – not only for the editors, but for the journalists themselves.

Follow the money

Most of the local media ignored the themes of corruption, and did not touch material we listed on our website highlighting discrepancies between the officials’ lifestyles and their incomes.

The mayor of Makeyevka, for instance, one Aleksandr Maltsev, worked all his life in the public sector, but was able to buy himself an expensive detached house with a garden and a swimming pool. Immediately after his appointment to the post of governor, Andriy Shishatsky bought his son a detached house in the centre of Donetsk. One of his deputies – a civil servant – regularly went to work in a watch worth $150,000.

Our information was ignored for a very simple reason: the journalists were hostages to their editors-in-chief; the editors depend on the local government; as do their owners. That is why journalists in the Donetsk region have traditionally been regarded as servants by the authorities. When Viktor Yanukovych and his team came to power, we came under even greater pressure. In recent years the only independent sources of news from Donbas have been ‘Donbas News’ (where I am editor-in-chief) and the website ‘Ostrov‘ [Island]. For a region with a population of five million, that is not much!

Independent journalism in Donbas is a dangerous profession: persons unknown tried to burn my flat down, and the editor of ‘Ostrov’, Sergei Garmash, had his car set alight. In 2013, after we began investigating the activities of the Donetsk public utility company ‘Donbas Water,’ where Governor Shishatsky had appointed one of his friends as manager, unknown people tried to barge their way into our office. Subsequently, my car too was burned, but that was already after the beginning of the so-called ‘Russian spring;’ and the arsonists were in all probability not the local authorities – they had been tightening the screws on us for the last five years – but their ‘children,’ the armed separatists.

I say ‘children’ because our investigations, which were made possible by the help we received from the International Renaissance Foundation, showed us that the local authorities had been preparing for the ‘Russian spring’ for a long time. Civil servants handed over property for no money to the separatist organisations; they even gave them cash bonuses. In the local press, today’s separatists are heroes, whereas the Euromaidan campaigners were portrayed as ‘agents of the West’, ‘enemies of the people,’ and ne’er-do-wells.

Media in the Donetsk People’s Republic

In January 2014, local TV channels in the DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) ran various identical pieces, immediately after the news programmes, with the message that Euromaidan was ‘preventing Ukraine from developing.’ Running alongside these paid items, the local authorities, which controlled most of the print journalism in the region, warned viewers that Ukrainian nationalists were preparing to descend on Donetsk. They did not actually come – instead we got the Russian neo-Nazis, representing radical movements; they took on managerial roles in the organisation of the so-called ‘Russian spring’ in the regional centre, Donetsk. They made no secret of their neo-Nazi sympathies; and issued calls for pogroms in the media.

Our agency had to change addresses twice, but armed separatists still managed to find us at home. In the middle of April, my car was set alight when it was parked right outside the entrance to my apartment block; a few days later, shots were fired at the windows of Sergei Garmash’s home. A few days after that, the separatists came to visit the company which runs the commercial site 62.ua, where there is a news department. They issued an ultimatum – only news favourable to the DNR should be published. The editor-in-chief and the management all left Donetsk.

In the small towns of the region, the separatists set fire to editorial offices (in Konstantinovka and Torez); kidnapped journalists (Aleksandr Bilinsky in Gorlovka, Nikolai Ryabchenko in Mariupol, and others); and installed their agents as editors.

The Donetsk Regional TV station was occupied in May. The first thing the separatists did was to prevent members of staff getting in to their offices. But of the 250 staff, only 15 agreed to work for the DNR. Now Donetsk Regional TV frequently broadcasts the Russian channel ‘Rossiya 24,’ while those15 members of staff make a programme called ‘People of the republic,’ which runs interviews with representatives of the militants several times a week.

The offices of the two biggest privately owned TV channels ‘Donbas’ and ‘Union’ are now closed. The ‘First Municipal Channel’ has also stopped carrying news. ‘Donbas’ broadcasts from Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk, cities which are controlled by the Ukrainian army. ‘Union’ broadcasts short news bulletins, but the separatists have seized the servers and uploaded their own video clips.

The separatists also put in an appearance at the editorial offices of the biggest and oldest papers in the region – ‘Donbas’ and ‘Evening Donetsk.’ They took the editors-in-chief from their offices for a ‘precautionary chat,’ after which the decision was taken not to publish either of the papers. Now subscribers receive a gardening supplement instead of ‘Donbas’. Part of the editorial staff of ‘Evening Donetsk’ went over to the DNR, but shareholder and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov decided to put a stop to publication.

Information vacuum

Now the newspaper kiosks of Donetsk, Makeyevka and other towns seized by the armed separatists have no Ukrainian or local papers or journals; just entertainment. Cable channels do not run Ukrainian channels (except entertainment). In ‘liberated’ Slovyansk, the local administration has put up a large screen where it transmits Ukrainian TV – there is no electricity or water in most of the city districts, so the locals come to the central square to find out what is going on.

The information vacuum is a good thing for the armed separatists because only the ‘right’ news gets disseminated, such as the information that in Slovyansk the local ‘nationalist population’ and the National Guard had ‘executed’ a little girl; or that in now-liberated Kramatorsk, the ‘Right Sector’ party is forcing people to speak Ukrainian.

Back in January 2014, the local authorities in Donetsk were already putting out phoney news items: Yanukovych was still president, and the local elite, who were totally behind him, were doing all they could to ensure that the population did not come out in support of Euromaidan. This led the secretary of the Donetsk City Council, one of the local Party of Regions ideologues Sergei Bogachov, to spread rumours to the effect that right-wing ‘Right Sector’ militants were on their way to Donetsk to orchestrate actions against peaceful Russian-speaking citizens in Donetsk. Actually, no one from ‘Right Sector’ ever showed up, but radicals from Russia did. Bogachov himself left on 13 July 2014 for Berdyansk on the sea in the Zaprozhye oblast, which is completely controlled by the Ukrainian army; and the locals there have no fear of ‘Right Sector’.

Only one side of the story

The local press published the officials’ lies without checking the facts, with no second opinion and no investigation, though all the rules of journalism would dictate that after Bogachov’s statement, calls should have been put through to ‘Right Sector’ to establish whether they really had got busloads of activists ready to descend on Donetsk. But none of the editors were at all interested in fact checking, just as they were unprepared to take on any opinion that differed even slightly from the official line of the local political elite.

Throughout January, ‘Union’ TV put out a programme called ‘Face to Face’, which usually involved a presenter in a studio with two guests. Journalistic standards, and a wish to make the programme more interesting to the viewers, would have meant that editors invited speakers with differing opinions. But ‘Union’ obviously had other ideas – not to inform, but to promote, because the guests in the studio in practically every broadcast were representing one and the same party, or they had very similar views. There was never anyone from Euromaidan, or indeed anyone with an opinion that was not in line with the Party of Regions.

So local journalists turned into canvassers, purveyors of the views of the local government – exactly the same role as has been imposed on Russian journalists. The paradox is that the armed separatists did actually come to see the editors of ‘Union’ recently (summer 2014), demanding that there should be no talk of Ukraine. Now the ‘Union’ journalists are experiencing exactly the same pressure as the ‘Donbas News’ and ‘Island’ journalists have been, during the past few years.

Integrity

Social and political life has changed so much that perhaps local journalism will too. After all, attacks on editorial offices, and the disappearance of editors-in-chief have resulted in the Donetsk journalists being more united. Will the quality of their journalism and their levels of independence increase too? It probably will, because conflicts such as this provide a reason for the professional community to reflect on our common mission, and the mission of each one of us. A threat from an external enemy, the possibility that journalism as we know it will disappear altogether mean that we journalists have to answer honestly the question as to whether we ourselves are in any way to blame for what is going on today in the Donbas.

http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/aleksey-matsuka/writing-truth-in-people%E2%80%99s-republic-of-donetsk

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