Editor’s note: This column was originally published by The Boston Globe on April 25, 2022
KYIV, Ukraine — They say that in war, truth is the first casualty.
But here in the Ukrainian capital, the news organization Ukrayinska Pravda, which translates as “Ukrainian Truth,” has been incurring human casualties since it launched 22 years ago.
Long before the war that is now raging here, reporters for Ukrayinska Pravda, or “UP,” were risking their lives to report on rampant corruption in the government and the police force.
Just six months after UP’s April 2000 launch, its founder and publisher, Georgy Gongadze, was murdered by Ukrainian security forces acting on the orders of the notorious pro-Russian regime of then-president Leonid Kuchma. Gongadze’s death didn’t stop the paper’s staff from pursuing the story. Indeed, it emboldened them.
In 2016, UP’s leading columnist, Pavel Sheremet, a winner of the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, was killed by a car bomb in apparent retaliation for an investigative series.
Two years earlier, one of the website’s most prominent journalists, Mustafa Nayyem, used a Facebook post to urge people to come to Maidan Square to protest government corruption. This call to action unleashed street protests that would result in the deaths of 108 protesters and 13 police officers. Further, it ignited a movement that would topple the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych and eventually lead to the election of a comedian and, as it turns out, an extraordinary leader named Volodymyr Zelensky.
In other words, it can be argued that independent journalism gave shape to modern Ukraine — a fledgling democracy fighting for its existence.
As the world prepares to mark World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday, it’s safe to say that Ukrainian democracy — indeed, democracy everywhere, including ours here in America — will require courageous, independent, fact-based journalism if it is going to survive.
For reporters at UP and other media outlets in Ukraine, survival will require them to face not only the hostile business environment that confronts nearly all media organizations there but the mortal peril of covering a war from the front lines. Already, seven civilian journalists have been killed in Ukraine since the current conflict began two months ago. UP’s chief editor, Sevgil Musaieva, says World Press Freedom Day “is meaningful as a way to honor that fact and to remember those who have been killed doing this work.”
In the predawn hours of Thursday, Feb. 24, when the first Russian missile strikes slammed into the nation’s capital, the UP staff got to work immediately preparing the first dispatches on the new war.
The team did its best to cover the Russian troops closing in on the city and the ensuing combat in the streets just a few hundred yards from Maidan Square.
“It is surreal when war is a local story,” says Andrey Boborykin, UP’s executive director, who eventually fled to the south of Ukraine, where he is from, only to find that region under attack as well. Eventually, he pulled back with his wife and child to Western Ukraine, where he is now.
And now, well, “it’s all about just surviving,” says Boborykin, 35, speaking from a shared work space that he and colleagues have set up far from the front lines in Kyiv and the war that is raging in the eastern part of the country.
Inside that shared workspace, in an old building called “Ukraine’s House of the People,” and in another workspace in the Carpathian Mountains outside Kyiv, where other members of the editorial team are gathered, Boborykin and Musaieva are trying their best to keep track of a staff that is scattered across the country, living in fear and isolation but also continuing to report on the story wherever it is unfolding. The team has gathered helmets and flak jackets and stepped up training for colleagues who find themselves working and living in active war zones.
Musaieva, 34, has been the editorial chief of UP for the last eight years. She did not want to leave the sleek new offices for which she had signed a lease shortly before the war began, but a Western diplomat told her that there was solid intelligence that she was on a target list that Russian forces had for Kyiv. She and her partner fled to the Carpathians, where 10 of the 26 editors and reporters on her team are now based.
She gathers the full team on Zoom twice a week and takes part in a running chat on the encrypted app Signal. She struggles to be sure everyone is carefully assessing the risk of covering this war and taking decent care of themselves while also making sure they stay on top of the story. One staff reporter lost their father, a civilian who was killed by Russian forces during the horrific rampage through the village of Bucha. And Musaieva lost a dear friend, the American documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud, whom she met when they were Nieman Fellows at Harvard in 2019. Musaieva had the grim task of helping arrange for the return of Renaud’s remains to the States. After the funeral in Arkansas, she returned immediately to get back to covering the war.
“My partner and I have no kids, so I can stay completely focused on the work,” Musaieva says. “But it is so hard for people with kids. You need to take care of them, and nowhere feels safe. We are all just surviving and trying to get through one day and then the next.”
They also have to worry about keeping their news website, which now receives up to 30 million unique visitors per month, online when shelling and airstrikes from Russian forces knock out connectivity. So far the site has never gone offline for any sustained period of time, and the audience is steadily growing due to interest in the war and the recent launch of an English-language edition. UP’s stories have gotten more than a billion page views in the past two-plus months. Sadly, none of this audience growth translates into earned revenue, Boborykin says, as the ad market has fallen by 90 percent during the war. UP has had to rely on donors and foundations to get through, and it finds itself becoming a hybrid of a for-profit and a nonprofit.
The site has always been published in Russian as well as Ukrainian. It has long been officially banned in Russia, but before the war began, enough Russians could access it that about 7 percent of UP’s audience was inside Russia. Now the service is totally blocked in Russia, so UP’s editors have started a channel on Telegram, a social-media app popular in Russia.
The UP is sharing its makeshift workspace with smaller local news organizations that have also had to pull back from the front lines. One fellow journalist in the space is Eugene Zaslavsky, 34. He heads up the Media Development Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting local journalism in places where it has been decimated by failing business models over the long term and the collapse of the advertising market in this war. Some Ukrainian publishers have also been hurt by Facebook’s attempts to curtail Russian disinformation. The business is brutal for everyone from industry leaders like UP to startups such as The Kyiv Independent, an English-language website, to government-funded public media stations that together form something akin to PBS, and to established newspapers that are largely owned by oligarchs and tend do their owners’ bidding more than serve their community.
A reporter himself, Zaslavsky hails from Lugansk, a small city in a metro area of about 400,000 people in the Donbas region, where Russian and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since 2014.
Zaslavsky used to work in Lugansk for a small digital news organization called Politics 2.0, covering city government. He saw firsthand how the pro-Russian forces in Donbas intimidated and undercut the independence of the news organization and tried to influence his coverage.
Eventually, the pro-Russian separatist forces took control of the area and shut down Politics 2.0, and Zaslavsky was out of a job. The void of local news, he said, was filled with toxic misinformation and disinformation from Russia that divided and polarized the population and weakened opposition to Russian domination.
“They knew exactly what they were doing, and they knew that when these local towns lose their community news organization and the shared sets of facts, they lose their culture and they lose what holds them together,” Zaslavsky told me on a Zoom call while Boborykin sat next to him in the cluttered office they share.
Both journalists worry that this same array of forces — economic, political, and military — is conspiring to erode independent journalism beyond Ukraine and around the world.
This is a struggle I know well. Ten years ago I founded a nonprofit journalism organization called The GroundTruth Project, which is trying to confront the worldwide crisis in local news by funding the work of community-focused journalists. We have two programs: Report for America, which by this summer will have placed 325 reporters in more than 220 newsrooms across all 50 states, and Report for the World, which is currently supporting local reporters in Nigeria, India, and Brazil. On Tuesday, we will officially open a call for applications to expand our reach, and I hope we will fund reporters in Ukraine, Poland, and other countries in Eastern Europe.
When I spoke to Zaslavsky and Boborykin, we were almost completing each other’s sentences as we talked about the links between the spread of authoritarian regimes and the collapse of local news ecosystems. This is true in countries such as Brazil, India, the Philippines, Poland, Hungary, and even the United States, where the authoritarianism and populism of Donald Trump took root most deeply in distressed areas of the country that lacked a trusted, independent free press to challenge his lies and falsehoods.
This is what former president Barack Obama had in mind in his recent keynote address at a Stanford University Cyber Policy Center symposium when he said: “Autocrats and aspiring strongmen have become emboldened around the globe. They’re actively subverting democracy, they’re undermining hard-won human rights, they’re ignoring international law.”
He specifically highlighted the crisis in local news in America, where 60 percent of journalism employees have seen their jobs vanish in the last 15 years and where nearly 2,000 communities have lost their local news organizations and become news deserts.
Obama suggested several ways forward, including new business models for local journalism. Zaslavsky and Boborykin both told me they had downloaded Obama’s speech, seeing it as a kind of global manifesto. They also have been avidly reading a new book by Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan titled “Ghosting the News.” The book mentions my organization’s Report for America project, and Zaslavsky and Boborykin are working now on a similar model to support local journalists in Ukraine.
“A lot of attention has been paid to national media, but the truth is that the real struggle is around local news,” says Boborykin. “We will need that to pull our country back together after this war.”
You can see a commitment to that struggle in the determination of the UP reporters who are working around the country in isolation and in the shared workspaces.
Reflecting on their work and on World Press Freedom Day, Musaieva observed that “the main difference between Ukraine and Russia is press freedom. Without press freedom, we would be the same as Russia, and we would live under the same tyranny and the same misinformation and disinformation.
“We know what truth is,” she continued. “We know that without it you will never have a democracy.”