December 5, 2023

English-Language Press Flexing Its Muscles in Eastern Europe

KIEV, Ukraine — Brian Bonner, the editor of The Kyiv Post, a small English-language newspaper here in the Ukrainian capital, received the first phone call even before his journalists had returned from their interview with the minister of agriculture. Other calls followed, growing increasingly shrill.

And soon enough, Mr. Bonner, a former reporter at The St. Paul Pioneer Press who moved here a few years ago for the adventure of working at an English-language newspaper abroad, found himself on a bizarre trip through the journalistic norms of former Soviet states.

Minutes later, an aide to the newspaper’s publisher began calling the editor, expressing concern about the tone of the questions to the minister, Mykola Prysyazhnyuk.

Eventually, the publisher called demanding that the newspaper drop the project and not write about the interview, Mr. Bonner said.

The ministry of agriculture later said it had not contacted the publisher asking that the article be withheld.

Media rights groups say that all too often at newspapers in this region, a phone call is all it takes to kill an article, even if only to save face for a public official who misspoke.

But when that approach was applied to an English-language newspaper with Western ideals, the phone calls did not work as intended. Mr. Bonner refused to kill the article and was fired, and the newsroom went on strike to support him.

The episode highlighted the spunky role English-language newspapers play in many Eastern European capitals, particularly in countries with repressive policies toward publications in the local language.

Distributed free in racks at bars and hotels, the papers blend nightlife reporting for tourists with hard-hitting news aimed at a highbrow audience of businesspeople and diplomats.

In Ukraine and Russia, these newspapers come under less scrutiny than their local counterparts, which made the move to muffle reporting at The Kyiv Post unusual. English-language newspapers like The Moscow Times, The Prague Post, The Budapest Times, The Slovak Spectator, The Baltic Times and The Krakow Post have been springboards for a generation of American journalists interested in working in the former East Bloc — though not in the servile role of many local publications.

“Kyiv Post had a great tradition of editorial independence,” Mr. Bonner said in an interview. “I don’t want the job if it’s not independent journalism. Who would want it?”

In the interview, reporters at The Kyiv Post, whose name is an alternative spelling for the Ukrainian capital, had asked Mr. Prysyazhnyuk about a hot topic in Ukrainian business circles — the appearance of favoritism in awarding grain export quotas to a trading company, Khlib Investbud, suspected of having insider ties with government officials. At one point, he said he did not know who owned the company, and “should not know this.” Later in the interview, he said he did know who the owners were.

After disregarding the calls from a representative of the publisher — Mohammad Zahoor, a British citizen with other business interests in Ukraine — Mr. Bonner was fired on the day of publication, April 15.

Most of the staff of 23 Ukrainians and seven Western journalists and editors then struck in protest, taking laptops to a city park and posting updates about the dispute on a Facebook page.

The recourse to social networking sites “shows how hard it is to practice censorship these days,” Mr. Bonner said.

While on strike, reporters and editors wrote that they were told by representatives of Mr. Zahoor’s publishing company, the Istil Group, that “independent journalism potentially threatens the company’s other investments in real estate, media and other areas.”

Repression of free speech has taken many forms in the former Soviet space, some far more violent than the pressure on publishers.

In Russia, four reporters for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta have been killed in the last decade, in what appeared to be a poisoning, an assault with a hammer and two shootings. In Kazakhstan, an opposition journalist was once held down while assailants carved an X — the mark of the censor — on his chest with a knife. In Ukraine, prosecutors are pressing charges against a former president, Leonid Kuchma, related to the killing of the opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000. Mr. Gongadze was beheaded.

But in Ukraine, as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, a major obstacle to routine public service journalism today is the ownership of newspapers and television stations either by the state or by publishers whose other business is beholden to government favors, Natalia Ligacheva, the director of Telekritika, a media monitoring group in Kiev, said in an interview.

“Nobody goes to the printer at midnight and seizes the print run these days,” Mr. Bonner said. “It’s all understandings with the publishers.”

In a compromise reached after publicity created on blogs by the journalists elicited a statement of support by an American Congressional delegation that happened to be visiting Kiev recently, Mr. Zahoor rehired Mr. Bonner, though as one member of a four-member board, rather than as editor in chief.

In a meeting with staff members, Mr. Zahoor acknowledged that they disagreed with his reasons for firing Mr. Bonner, but praised their commitment to editorial independence.

Mr. Bonner said the standoff was ultimately good for the Kyiv Post’s reputation. “Nobody wants to edit a paper that isn’t read, or doesn’t stir up controversy from time to time,” he said.

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