FREE PRESS RISES AMID CONFLICT
Daily Press reporter and photographer share insights on journalism with colleagues in war-scarred Ukraine
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.
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.
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.
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.