Why the rebuilding of Ukraine must include local journalism

A moment of silence.

  • For 17 journalists killed in Ukraine over the last two years.
  • For the more than 100 journalists killed in Gaza in the last seven months.
  • The 1,572 journalists killed since 1993 when the Committee to Protect Journalists first started keeping this grim count.

And we have to continue to remember wrongfully detained journalists like the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich.

We have to remember our colleagues in prisons in Egypt and Myanma. And those left behind and living under threat in Afghanistan and Iraq as the foreign press corps has moved on from those datelines.

Last week marked World Press Freedom Day. And to mark the day,  we gathered with the James Foley Legacy Foundation for its freedom awards ceremony.

And I just want to take a moment to remember my friend and colleague James Foley and his legacy. Jim worked with me at GlobalPost, an international news organization I founded in 2009. He was publicly executed by ISIS in 2014.

There are so many stories of Jim’s moral courage. Too many to tell here, but please take time to learn about Jim about his attention to craft and about his commitment to bearing witness.

Jim was first captured in Syria just after I left GlobalPost and started building a new non-profit organization called GlobalPost. After two years of waiting, we received our official recognition as a non-profit and we officially launched GroundTruth in August of 2014, the same month that we received the terrible news of Jim’s public execution by ISIS after two years in captivity.

You remember that haunting image of Jim in an orange jumpsuit kneeling in the Syrian desert as masked ISIS fighters beheaded him on video that was streamed around the world.

Why is Jim’s story important for you to know here in Ukraine?

Safety.

Jim’s murder changed us all. We forged a new alliance called “A Culture of Safety” which binds together newsrooms and freelancers in a contract and a clear understanding for safety standards and insurance requirements for freelancers. There are now more than 150 signatories to the agreement. If you are heading up a newsroom here, we hope you’ll join us.

Jim’s calling to bear witness to the innocent lives caught up in war provided a true north for us at The GroundTruth Project. After Jim was gone, he stayed with us guiding me on a journey to build our organization, a nonprofit with a mission to give a new generation of journalists the opportunities, resources and safety training they need to serve as reporters in communities in under-covered corners of the world.

As Jim’s death taught us, we must all push ourselves toward an honest re- assessment of the limitations of a foreign press corps covering big stories like the war here in Ukraine. We have the courage to rethink the model.

It is high time to concede that there is a deeper crisis in journalism, a crisis of faith in what it does, a loss of trust. Around the world , places where I have  reported – where many of us have rushed in to step up coverage over the years when there is crisis and war – are almost all worse off than when we started filing from there: Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Egypt, Myanmar, the list is long … and I pray it will not include Ukraine.

I believe the challenge now  for  us – for international organizations like ours who care about press freedom – is to not just cover the big story from datelines that capture the world’s attention, but to help build local news ecosystems in each of these places, particularly here in Ukraine. We have to support local reporters who serve their own local communities in their own countries, if we are going to truly affect change.

This prompted us GroundTruth to change  the way we worked. We forged two new service programs:  Report for America and Report for the World. We radically realigned how we work. We turned our focus to supporting local reporting and local reporters from a new generation of journalists who serve their own communities in the countries where they live.  We also pivoted from focusing mostly on international reporting, we began to look closer to home to try to address the incredible crisis in local news in America. More than 2 newspapers close every week in America, a true gutting of local journalism in America that is underway…

It has everything to do with the crisis in our democracy. Without local news organizations, we are more deeply divided, voters are disengaged and we are seeing our own brand  of rising authoritarianism with what feels like a cult around Donald Trump.

Today we are scaling Report for America rapidly, placing more than 600 journalists in 300 local newsrooms across all 50 states as part of our Report for America service program. And we are starting to scale Report for the World, placing about 50 more local reporters in more than 20 countries through this newer initiative.

We are trying our best now to build a movement.

The movement is based on the idea that the most profound crisis in journalism is in local news. And that the crisis in local news is a global crisis, and that this crisis has everything to do with the crisis in democracies around the world.

Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and India are all part of a long list of places where local news has evaporated and as a result democracy has been eroded.

On the global level, one place in the world that the crisis in local news feels most distressing is right here in Ukraine.

The Media Development Foundation has done outstanding research on this crisis. I presume most of you here in this audience know about this. Indeed many of you live and breathe the intense challenges of trying to build a sustainable local news organization, particularly amid the ravages of a war.

Through MDF’s research, I have learned some of the history of how new, local, independent news organizations across the Dunbas were systematically shut down and intimidated into silence by oligarchs who wanted to fill a void of journalism with misinformation and disinformation.

As we have all learned, the Russian approach to crushing local independent voices for news worked in many ways and helped to pave Putin’s march to Crimea in 2014 and then to the unprovoked and full-scale invasion that shocked the world in 2022.

But there are examples of hope out there. Right here in Bucha I have had a chance to get to know Alex. I am impressed by the resilience and innovation of the local news organization Bucha City that Alex heads up.

There are small examples of hope like Bucha City in digital newsrooms around the world that we are supporting through our program Report for the World.

Through our program, I have gotten to know the amazing team at Ukrainska Pravda, or UP, and I am proud to be their guest here at this conference. I’ve been in their newsroom in the dead of winter and in the darkened stairways when the power is out.

And I have heard their own narrative of building a trusted news organization to serve their own country through public service journalism. I have seen how exhausted they get, and the sacrifices they make and the trauma they endure in losing colleagues.

They launched in April 2000 as the first digital news organization in Ukraine, and at that point one of its only independent voices focusing on the corruption and brutality of Russian-backed oligarchs infiltrating the Ukrainian government.

Like we experienced in losing Jim Foley, Ukrainska Pravda  had a moment that changed them. Their founding publisher, Georgy Gongadzy, was brutally assassinated just after their launch. From everything I have seen over the last two years, the heroic team at UP continues to be inspired by his legacy through a fierce commitment to covering the war.

We are proud to be supporting them through Report for the World to look specifically at the issue of ‘ecocide,’ the deliberate destruction of Ukraine’s environment by Russia which has a long and devastating history dating back to Stalin. We would like to support more environmental reporting in Ukraine and I would like to hear from you if you have ideas for coverage areas that are urgently needed and see if there are ways we can help here in Ukraine in the coming years..

There was one very small way I was able to help Ukrainska Pravda.  That was last year in the depths of winter amid power outages. I worked with my son to lug  a solar-powered generator from a warehouse in Poland to Kyiv to help keep their laptops going and the heat on when the bombing knocked out the  power grid. It was a practical and effective way to power change. It was a way to literally keep the lights on.

Now, the reality is that UP has a beautiful new newsroom and they are working hard on their business model. They have a much bigger and better generator now!

But that solar-powered generator we lugged up the stairs still stands as a metaphor – a very modest but tangible expression of  what is truly needed now more than anything to support press freedom…  And that is to do whatever it takes to support the local reporters who are risking their lives and struggling to serve their own communities.

In these challenging times, it is not just journalism that is struggling to survive.

Truth is on the line, democracy is on the line. No one needs to tell you this … you know it and you know better than anyone that the lives of your loved ones are on the line. The future of your country is on the line.

I know everyone in this room is exhausted by the war. I can feel a different spirit here this year compared to the confidence of last year when I attended this conference. So I want to say thank you for the incredibly important work you do, thank you for persevering, for taking risks to tell the truth. What you do matters and the world needs you to keep going.

A big part of the battlefield in this war is psychological terrain. This is always true in war, but particularly in a long war of attrition. As you navigate, try your best to find a way to look forward to staying positive.

I want to try to assure you that there will be a time when this war ends, when Ukraine begins to rebuild. And as the huge sums of international funding begin to take shape for reconstruction, everyone in this room needs to work together to be sure that journalism has a seat at that table with all the donors.

I want to encourage you to dare yourselves to think big.

It is estimated that the community of international donors may come together with $500 billion to invest in the rebuilding of Ukraine. So what if an effort to build and strengthen the eco-system for journalism is introduced as part of that plan?

What is one percent – or even one half of one percent – of that

$500 billion went to a fund for journalism in Ukraine, and what if you all developed a national fund to support journalism , especially local and regional journalism.

Just look at how “the eggs of Resnekov,” as we heard about here today in an incredible investigation into the military commissary about a contractor who was overcharging for eggs by a 10x factor. As we learned that graft cost the government millions of dollars.

Take that small example writ large. Imagine how much savings there will be if there are watchdogs of journalism in every corner of the country probing and challenging the efforts that will go into rebuilding the country. You will need to sell that idea and tell that story to future donors.

You as journalists need to come together, as you have so often in times of crisis, and fight together for a massive infusion of funding for journalism. If Ukraine wants to successfully rebuild, it will need the watchdogs of journalism to prevent corruption, to provide transparency and equally important to serve as the conveners of thought leaders around building a new future.

Work together on shared goals for a more robust and resilient landscape for journalism.

In a deeply divided time of war and uncertainty, when it feels like the skies are darkening we just have to look to the northern skies and there is a constellation there – the legacy of journalists like our Jim Foley or Ukrainska Pravda’s Georgy Gongodzy – and we just have to let those stars guide us on a path forward out of the darkness.

That’s the generator that can power you, that’s the way we keep the lights on.

GENERATOR THAT CAN POWER YOU, THAT’S THE way we keep the lights on.

 

Editor’s note: The speech presented here corresponds to the prepared remarks of Charles Sennott at the Bucha Journalism Conference. The live speech included other elements.