#SaveKyivPost: how ‘Ukraine’s Global Voice’ was silenced6 min read

 In Analysis, Eastern Europe, Politics
Monday, 8 November was far from a slow news day for the Kyiv Post, but for all the wrong reasons. The staff of the oldest and most prominent English-language news site of Ukraine, which publishes daily articles and a weekly newspaper, came to work to find out they had been fired. The newspaper’s owner, Odesa real estate tycoon Adnan Kivan, had put out a simple statement: he would be closing the outlet “for a short time.” After 26 years, surviving the tumultuous 1990s, two revolutions, invasion, and waves of violence against journalists, the newsroom in the heart of Kyiv was shut down.

The staff released a separate statement explaining that they had been fired effective immediately and had lost access to the site: “We see this as the owner getting rid of inconvenient, fair and honest journalists […] We have exemplified high professional and ethical standards. That is why every president and government in Ukraine’s history attempted to influence the Kyiv Post.” Instead of spending the start of their week pitching stories, many writers were left making back-ups of the hundreds of articles they had produced for the paper over the years, fearing the imminent removal of the site.

On social media, the news snowballed as researchers, diplomats, fellow journalists and ordinary readers saw the announcement. Confusion turned into grief and then outrage as it became clear that Kivan had done the unthinkable. As an English-language outlet, uniquely independent from the usual suspects who dominate Ukrainian media, the Kyiv Post had a reputation for blending everyday news with powerful investigative journalism. Under a team of talented editors, headed by American editor-in-chief Brian Bonner, the paper became an invaluable source for those following Ukraine’s politics, economy or society. However, its continued critique of those in power had evidently created tensions between its staff and Kivan, who bought the paper in 2018. 

In recent months, the relations turned for the worse. News reached staff that a Ukrainian-language version of the site would be created, with new editors and writers. The Kyiv Post staff protested these plans due to the fear that the content of these editions would not maintain the editorial independence the Kyiv Post enjoyed, tarnishing its name in the process. 

The fears are not unfounded. In Ukraine, the line between media, business, and politics is often so blurred that it’s rendered invisible. For example, billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, whose father-in-law is former president Leonid Kuchma, has the TV channels STB and ICTV as well as tabloid Fakty i Kommentarii in his portfolio, while Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine and an ally of ousted President Yanukovych, owns Kanal Ukrayina, Segodnya newspaper, and various regional channels. The previous president Petro Poroshenko maintains control over the TV channel Kanal 5, while current President Volodymyr Zelenskyi founded the production company Kvartal 95

Zelenskyi’s rise to power went hand-in-hand with his opaque dealings with one of the country’s most powerful men, Ihor Kolomoisky, whose television station 1+1 was the platform for Kvartal 95‘s hit show Servant of the People (in which Zelenskyi played the part of the President). The Kyiv Post was known for its coverage of corruption and murky dealings of Ukraine’s leaders. There are now speculations that the President’s Office forced the closure as a result, though this was quickly denied by Zelenskyi’s press secretary.

So what was Kivan’s likely motivation in buying the Kyiv Post? Though the paper was punchy, in comparison to the oligarch-owned enterprises mentioned above it is a small fish in the Ukrainian media landscape, with a readership that was primarily foreign or based abroad. While he promised editorial independence multiple times when he bought the paper, the Kyiv Post itself published an article that questioned whether his purchase was to silence its “critical coverage of corruption in high places.” 

There is now speculation that Kivan likely misjudged how easily he could pressure the staff into toning down their less than complimentary critiques of certain elites – as he allegedly did at TV Channel 7 – which he acquired a few years prior. Sergey Fursa, a columnist at the Novoe Vremya paper, suggests that by acquiring the Kyiv Post, the businessman bought “a bunch of costs” instead of the influence he had hoped for: “It turned out that buying an influential publication does not mean becoming influential yourself.” 

The businessman now faces a dilemma: while he may hope to re-launch with malleable writers and editors, the outcry around how Kivan “killed” the Kyiv Post and fired its staff will mean that any attempt at a replacement will be marred by this scandal.

The shock of the closure also reflects the historical context: English-language newspapers sprung up all across the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. In recent years many have shut due to financial or political pressures, leaving the Kyiv Post and the Moscow Times as some of the last remaining local traditional papers free from the editorial control of governments or billionaires.

For those outside the country (or those inside without proficient local language skills), the Kyiv Post provided daily news and local updates about the stories that wouldn’t reach foreign media, who all too often have Moscow correspondents tasked with covering Ukraine. The newsroom was also a multi-national petri-dish for fostering the growth of talented journalists, tasked with transforming often deeply complex news into readable stories. As a former newsroom intern myself, I saw first-hand the energy, dedication, and long hours the staff gave to producing quality content.

On Wednesday, November 11, the staff published a new statement on a new website: Save the Kyiv Post. They write that Kivan refused their demands to sell the paper, and instead, offered them the option to return to work under new management – an offer they all refused. Their plan now is to launch their own publication and currently working on a strategy and business plan. They are asking anyone willing to help them with this – potential investors, advertisers, lawyers, and any others – to get in touch. “If we cannot save the Kyiv Post brand, we can at least save its values.”

The events of the last few days show the fragility of independent media in Eastern Europe, even in a country with media freedom miles ahead of that of neighbouring Russia or Belarus. What happens next is (for now) unknown, but whatever happens will be representative of the future of independent media Ukraine – or lack thereof.  

If you are interested in supporting the fired Kyiv Post staff or subscribing to their new publication once launched, visit the Save Kyiv Post website.

Featured image: Cancelled Kyiv Post / Amanda Sonesson
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