FREE PRESS RISES AMID CON­FLICT

Daily Press re­porter and pho­tog­ra­pher share in­sights on jour­nal­ism with col­leagues in war-scarred Ukraine

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Front Page - In­for­ma­tion from mil­i­tary.com was used in this col­umn. Hugh Les­sig, 757-247-7821, [email protected]­ly­press.com

In the Ukrain­ian bor­der vil­lage of Ryzhivka, the soccer field comes with a unique haz­ard: Kick the ball too far and it rolls into Rus­sia.

Given re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries, you’d need to buy an­other ball.

In an­other part of the vil­lage, a lo­cal check­point that once al­lowed peo­ple to cross be­tween the two coun­tries has been closed for years.

Olek­sandr Chekh, head of the vil­lage coun­cil, said through an in­ter­preter that it “is very painful to speak about be­cause ev­ery per­son who lives here has rel­a­tives” on the other side.

“We have an­other check­point, so peo­ple have to go there — 6 kilo­me­ters to go to visit their rel­a­tives who live 50 me­ters away,” he said.

Ukraine is uniquely con­flicted, proudly assert­ing its in­de­pen­dence while war­ring with its Rus­sian neigh­bor. Jour­nal­ism has made strides in this en­vi­ron­ment — not ex­actly like the U.S. model, but with the same sense of pas­sion and skep­ti­cism.

They’ve es­tab­lished June 1 as Jour­nal­ists Day, some­thing that would be hard to imag­ine in to­day’s Amer­ica, de­spite our 200-plus years of free press tra­di­tion.

For sev­eral years, jour­nal­ists from the Daily Press have trav­eled to Ukraine — and our Ukrain­ian coun­ter­parts have come here — to ex­change in­for­ma­tion, talk about our jobs and ap­pre­ci­ate the sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences of our two coun­tries.

The vis­its are made pos­si­ble through the Ukraine Me­dia Part­ner­ship Pro­gram that op­er­ates un­der IREX, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion com­mit­ted to global de­vel­op­ment and ed­u­ca­tion.

Our most re­cent trip came the week be­fore Christ­mas, when Daily Press pho­tog­ra­pher Jonathon Gruenke and I trav­eled to the Sumy re­gion in north­east­ern Ukraine.

Our tour guide dur­ing much of our stay was Nataliya Kal­inchenko, who leads a news­pa­per in the town of Bilop­il­lia. It has made the tran­si­tion from a gov­ern­ment-con­trolled out­let to a free pub­li­ca­tion, and em­ploy­ees have lit­er­ally bought in to that ef­fort, in­vest­ing in the en­ter­prise.

Mar­tial law

Dur­ing our visit, the big news from Ukraine — at least in the U.S. — was the imposition of mar­tial law in por­tions of the coun­try. It came af­ter Rus­sian bor­der guards fired upon Ukrain­ian ves­sels in the Kerch Strait near the Rus­siaoc­cu­pied Crimean Penin­sula.

It was the lat­est flash point in four-plus years of con­flict in east­ern Ukraine that have re­sulted in more than 10,000 deaths and dis­placed more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple.

Al­though Ryzhivka borders Rus­sia, it is tucked away in the north­east­ern re­gion of the coun­try, nowhere near the fight­ing. Our visit there co­in­cided with St. Ni­cholas Day, cel­e­brated on Dec. 19. Chil­dren re­ceive presents un­der their pil­lows — as­sum­ing they were good — and schools stage plays, sing songs or re­cite po­ems.

The school in Ryzhivka was well into Saint Ni­cholas Day cel­e­bra­tions with a skit in its au­di­to­rium, a pro­duc­tion that would have looked per­fectly nor­mal in any Hamp­ton Roads el­e­men­tary school.

If the vil­lage is united in spirit, it re­mains di­vided by pol­i­tics

year ago, an English-lan­guage news­pa­per based in Kyiv vis­ited the vil­lage and talked with 80-year-old Ha­lyna Hudilina, a woman whose house stood on the lit­eral bor­der with Rus­sia. It shows why Chekh said this is­sue is so painful to talk about.

“But af­ter the war started, Ukraine closed our vil­lage bor­der cross­ing, the one that was in front of my gate. Ab­so­lutely for ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing lo­cals. As soon as the bor­der was closed, trou­bles be­gan. Tell this to the au­thor­i­ties in Kyiv: here in the vil­lage, we cry for days due to the check­point be­ing closed, and Rus­sians cry as well. ... I can­not even go to the store. I used to go for bread to the Rus­sian store which is less than 50 steps away.”

Seeds of con­flict

The fight­ing traces its roots to 2013, when the Ukrain­ian gov­ern­ment was poised to agree to open European Union mar­kets for Ukrain­ian prod­ucts, pos­si­bly steer­ing the coun­try to­ward EU mem­ber­ship. That strained the coun­try’s bond with Rus­sia, its big trad­ing part­ner and most prom­i­nent neigh­bor.

For­mer Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych had close ties to Rus­sia but said he would sign the deal. He then backed out, spark­ing mas­sive protests. He even­tu­ally fled to Rus­sia. In Fe­bru­ary 2014, Rus­sian of­fi­cials be­gan show­ing up on the Crimean Penin­sula af­ter a pro-Western gov­ern­ment as­sumed power in Kiev.

Troops that did not have in­signia soon ap­peared, con­trol­ling in­fra­struc­ture that in­cluded Ukrain­ian mil­i­tary bases. Years later, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin ad­mit­ted these were Rus­sian troops.

Crimean law­mak­ers later ap­proved. se­ced­ing from Ukraine to join Rus­sia, al­though that vote was not rec­og­nized by the United Na­tions.

En­cour­aged by Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion, Rus­sian-based ac­tivists took over towns in east­ern Ukraine. Oc­ca­sional out­bursts of vi­o­lence be­tween Ukrain­ian troops and the sep­a­ratists spilled over into a full-blown war in May 2014.

The con­flict in east­ern Ukraine has since killed more than 10,000 peo­ple and dis­placed over 1 mil­lion. Large swathes of this area re­main un­der sep­a­ratist con­trol.

A civil-mil­i­tary part­ner­ship

In the cap­i­tal city of Kyiv, Gruenke and I were in­tro­duced to a dif­fer­ent model of news-gath­er­ing, one that has filled a glar­ing need.

Troops that go up against Rus­sian-backed sep­a­ratists in the east can hear a steady bar­rage of ra­dio and TV broad­casts that has blamed the Kyiv gov­ern­ment and its sup­port­ers for a se­ries of atroc- ities.

As the Wall Street Jour­nal re­ported in 2016: “The sta­tions, say Ukrain­ian of­fi­cials, have grown adept at mir­ror­ing the ac­tual news, quickly is­su­ing re­ports about mor­tar strikes, ar­tillery bar­rages or buses hit­ting land mines. While Ukraini­ans say rebels are re­spon­si­ble for the at­tacks, the pro-sep­a­ratist ra­dio sta­tions as­sign blame to Kiev.” The ef­fect was de­bil­i­tat­ing.

“If I watch or lis­ten to it for an hour or two, it hits you in the head,” Lt. Col. Olek­sandr Va­sylenko told WSJ. “Whether you want it to or not, it just in­flu­ences you. Even though you know it is pro­pa­ganda.”

Into this void has stepped Army FM, sup­ported by Spirit of Amer­ica, a non­profit that of­fers help but has no di­rect role in pro­gram­ming. Army FM pro­vides an al­ter­na­tive to the what Ukraini­ans see as morale-crush­ing Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda, and the sta­tion’s pop­u­lar­ity has surged.

Yana Khlolod­naya, who man­ages the sta­tion, said this civilmil­i­tary part­ner­ship has never been more pop­u­lar. She proudly noted that the coun­try has es­tab­lished Feb. 16 as Mil­i­tary Jour­nal­ist Day, now the sec­ond day of the year set aside for news gath­er­ers.

Good­bye, then hello from the U.S. Navy

Our visit to Ukraine con­cluded on Dec. 23, af­ter some last-minute Christ­mas shop­ping in snow­cov­ered Kyiv and a fi­nal look at the coun­try’s mag­nif­i­cent cathe­drals. But just this week came a re­minder that our two re­gions have more in com­mon than a few jour­nal­ists.

On Jan. 7, the USS Fort McHenry be­came the first Amer­i­can war­ship to en­ter the Black

Sea since Rus­sia seized those three Ukrain­ian ves­sels on Nov. 25 in the Kerch Strait.

The Whid­bey-Is­land class ship is based in May­port, Fla., but it’s part of the Kearsarge Am­phibi­ous Ready Group, which in­cludes the USS Kearsage and the USS Ar­ling­ton.

Those two ships sail from Nor­folk.

The con­flict in east­ern Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 peo­ple and dis­placed over 1 mil­lion.

JONATHON GRUENKE/STAFF

Pi­geons take flight as peo­ple walk near the Shevchenko Park Square in the city of Sumy, Ukraine Dec. 19.

Daily Press re­porter Hugh Les­sig, left, and pho­tog­ra­pher Jonathon Gruenke re­cently re­turned from a visit to Ukraine. This col­umn is Les­sig’s first-per­son ac­count of their ex­pe­ri­ence.

JONATHON GRUENKE/STAFF

Hun­dreds of peo­ple gather out­side of St. Sophia’s Cathe­dral in Kyiv as Ukraine announces the found­ing of a na­tional Ortho­dox Church Dec. 15.

Nataliya Kal­inchenko, edi­tor of a news­pa­per in Bilop­il­lia, checks her phone at the train sta­tion in Sumy.

Fam­i­lies walk through the Molchan­sky Monastery in Pu­tyvl.

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