What's it like to be a journalist in occupied Donetsk? Olexiy Matsiuka shares his experience
Donetsk journalist in Kyiv speaks to Hromadske Radio's journalist Marta Dyczok about media during war
Dyczok: Mr. Matsiuka, thank you very much for finding the time to speak to us.
Matsiuka: Thank you, Marta, for this invitation.
Dyczok: Let’s start with a little bit about yourself. You’re a journalist, you’re from Donetsk, and you lived in Kyiv briefly. What did you do in Donetsk? Why did you have to leave? When did you leave? And what do you do now in Kyiv?
Matsiuka: I was born in Donetsk in 1983. And four years ago I needed to relocate because I had a lot of threats from the self-proclaimed authorities. They demanded from me and our editorial office that we should recognize them as an independent state and use terms, such as Government, or President of the Donetsk People’s Republic. And we refused. And after that I wrote an article about the links between the self-proclaimed authorities, Russia, and Kremlin organizations. And also we followed a lot of people who came from Moscow to organize this so-called ‘referendum’ in Donetsk. And after that they fire bombed my car, near my house.
Dyczok: They set your car on fire?
Matsiuka: Yes. And that was the push for my decision to relocate, because it’s very difficult to be an open journalist and work under this pressure, and always find new ways to gather information in these conditions. But my colleagues and staff stayed on, and they continue their jobs in the city. And they send materials for our media, News of Donbas, every day. And we produce videos and short information from that territory.
Dyczok: So you relocated to Kyiv, you continue to work as a journalist here, and you receive information from your colleagues who have remained in Donetsk?
Dyczok: That’s very interesting. What are work conditions like for journalists who are in the areas that are not under the control of the Ukrainian authorities? In Donetsk, and the other cities?
Matsiuka: You know the situation with Stanislav Aseyev. He is a blogger who was imprisoned last year in Donetsk. He’s a journalist who worked with well-known Ukrainian media. With Radio Liberty, and he also wrote for Dzerkalo Tyzhnia [one of the most respected national newspapers].
Dyczok: And he stayed in Donetsk?
Matsiuka: Yes, he stayed in Donetsk and now he’s in prison for over a year. And the self-proclaimed authorities say that they have information about him, and a pending investigation…
Dyczok: What was he charged with?
Matsiuka: They think that he is a spy against the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’ And we have a lot of examples from the new authorities in Donetsk, of their attitudes towards independent journalists. For example, the case with my car. And in the latest news from the Donetsk People’s Republic, about a conviction for collaboration with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. And they think that an independent journalist is always a spy.
Dyczok: A threat.
Matsiuka: Yes. And they ban all of our activities on that territory. So, if you want to work there, you need to hide, and try to keep silent with your friends and even relatives. Because it’s conditions like in the Soviet Union. It’s dangerous to be an independent journalist. But if you recognize them [the DNR], if you want to openly work as a journalist on that side you can, but you should promote them as an independent country, for example.
Dyczok: So, like the Soviet times, as you said. As long as you toe the official line then you’re allowed to work. If you want to be independent, then you’re under threat.
Matsiuka: Yes. Dyczok: These are very difficult conditions. Let’s jump back to the Donbas Media Forum. You are the organizer, and this is the fourth one. I was at the first one in Kyiv, I was at the one in Mariupol. Matsiuka: The second Forum was in Mariupol, and the third one was in Sviatohirs’k.
Dyczok: And this year it’s in Kharkiv. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about the Donbas Media Forum, why you organize it, what happens there?
Matsiuka: The Donbas Media Forum is a platform for dialogue between different journalists, regional, and even international media. And different initiatives, NGOs, media experts, and other people who are involved in this process of building independent media in Ukraine, in the current situation. And the main goal of the Donbas Media Forum is to develop tolerant media, like Hromadske Radio maybe. And a tolerant media space in the Donbas, in all of Ukraine. And refusal of [rejecting] hate speech. Because after the war started, we became faced with this problem of hate speech on both sides. The non-government controlled territories there’s more. In the Ukrainian controlled areas there’s less, but it’s there. This time we organized this event in Kharkiv, on the 6th and 7th of July. Kharkiv is the biggest city in the Donbas region that is under Ukrainian control. So, it’s more comfortable for us to get a crowd of journalists, more than 400. This city can…
Dyczok: Accommodate such a big event.
Matsiuka: Yes. Absolutely. And this year there will be public discussions, and more than 25 workshops for journalists. And six special events will be held in Kharkiv during these days.
Dyczok: Who are the participants? Who comes to the Forums? Is it journalists from the Donbas? Is it journalists from all over Ukraine?
Matsiuka: All journalists are welcome. There are also media experts, some work in education with media. But the majority are journalists, and these are journalists from all regions of Ukraine. Because we see that the problems are the same in the Donetsk region, and in Kherson, and Kharkiv, and other cities. Some trust media. There is also disinformation, manipulation before the election [next year]. This year we decided to combine all these problems [issues] in one platform, and traditionally we use the Donbas Media Forum. Of course, part of our focus is on Donbas questions. But other parts of the program are about all the other regions of Ukraine. For example, what should they do after the de-centralization reforms. There used to be regional newspapers, and now, the de-centralization reform has created new communities.
Dyczok: A new administrative structure?
Matsiuka: In Ukrainian it’s called "Hromada," [which means community] and one question is, is it necessary to create new media for these small communities that are being created? We don’t know.
Dyczok: This is a topic you’ll be discussing?
Dyczok: So some of the issues will be those facing all regional journalists, and some will focus specifically on journalists in the Donbas.
Dyczok: Let’s talk a little bit more about that. I appreciate that regional journalists face similar questions, but journalists who work in the Donbas, whether it’s in the areas controlled by Ukrainian authorities, or in the areas not controlled by Ukrainian authorities, they face a specific set of challenges. They are in the war zone, on the front line. These are topics you have been discussing at these Media Forums. But for our listeners, who have not been able to go to the Forums, could you outline what are the big issues journalists in that region face, on both sides?
Matsiuka: Sure. The first is the issue of self-censorship for Ukrainian media, and censorship for media in the territories not controlled [by Ukraine].
Dyczok: Explain self-censorship for our listeners, who are from Canada or elsewhere, and don’t experience this in their journalism. Why do journalists self-censor?
Matsiuka: Because they’re afraid that their materials can open [raise] some controversial questions for our society, for example, corruption in the military. For example, different anti-corruption materials about authorities who operate now in the Ukrainian part of Donbas. Because some audiences think that during the war it’s absolutely not…
Dyczok: Not in the national interest?
Matsiuka: It’s not allowed in the national media to cover these problems, such as corruption in the war conflict zone, for example.
Dyczok: But surely journalists are the ones who are supposed to expose the corruption, right? That’s the whole point of being a journalist, when you see corruption you bring it to the attention of society.
Matsiuka: Of course, if we see it. …People think that if you gave the information [critical of] Ukrainian authorities in Donbas region now, it maybe looks like you work in collaboration with the enemy, with the other side. But of course [they’re] mistaken, in my opinion, because journalism is not a very patriotic job. And you should try to find [out] more, even if this is not very safe for the authorities.
Dyczok: Well these are the challenges of journalists during war, and that’s why particularly journalists in the region face these tough questions. There are examples of journalists who travel back and forth. Could you tell us a little bit about those people who work in Donetsk, go to Mariupol. Can you tell us a little bit about this phenomenon?
Matsiuka: You know we have very tough traffic [difficult travel] between Donetsk and Ukrainian cities around the occupied territory, and journalists also, they go through these checkpoints like normal citizens, I think. And a lot of journalists who work in the occupied territories are [just citizens], not professionals. And of course Donetsk People’s Republic representatives try to find out every time if you took a photo, or if they found this photo in your iPhone or other devices, you should explain why it is there. But every year it’s not very [many] journalists who continue their work on both sides, because it’s dangerous on our side and it’s dangerous on that side. You are under pressure from that side, it’s understood, but if you cross these checkpoints [often], it’s also some suspect for you on Ukrainian part. [you are also suspicious to the Ukrainian side].
Dyczok: So if you try to do your job you get criticized by both sides?
Matsiuka: Yes, but it’s normal when the conflict is ongoing and media and journalists are always there and [are the first to arrive on] go number one for both sides.
Dyczok: Well this leads me to another question that I am looking for the answer to: given the war, given the censorship, given that journalists need to go back and forth, how accurate and complete is the information we have on the news in Ukraine? In your opinion, does Ukrainian media, the national outlets, do they actually provide accurate and objective and complete information on what’s going on there? You’re someone that watches this very carefully.
Matsiuka: You know, in Ukraine, we have different types of national media. One of them is media that is controlled by oligarchs.
Dyczok: Corporate media.
Matsiuka: Corporate media and different companies, big companies. And the other type is like public media, like Hromadske TV and Hromadske Radio. And this type, public TV and public [media] outlets explain more of what happens in the occupied territory, how people survive, and they produce [stories] about the humanitarian [aspect]. But national media, they ignore these things because I think they’re afraid to be more open about the occupied territory, because they’re under the rules of Ukrainian authorities who look at their content. And if they produce this video, for example, from Donetsk, then it is of interest how they [obtained it]. Sometimes the last [item] of the issue [the news] in national media outlets is—
Dyczok: You mean the news?
Matsiuka: Yes, the news, they show different entertainment content. They buy it from Reuters or Associated Press. I check international information agencies and they also produce videos from the occupied territories. And if you have a subscription for Reuters, for example, and you’re big media in Ukraine, you can use this content. But Ukrainian national media, they ignore this possibility. And I think, firstly, I don’t think that the audience on this side is very interesting for them.
Dyczok: Sorry, on which side, people who are in Ukraine?
Matsiuka: People who live in the occupied territories, they’re not of interest to the national media, because you can’t use them [as targets] for advertising, for example. And the other [point about] national media is: it’s complicated, what kind of content it should be, and if this content is very humanitarian or about human rights, it is not good for the ratings. They do it all, in their mind, according to ratings.
Dyczok: Which is exactly the same as the way commercial corporate media works in Canada, the US, and Britain. You want to drive the audiences—
Matsiuka: Yes, but they have special programs for minority groups and sometimes it’s available. You can find it in the programs. But in Ukraine it is just 1 per cent, that is the content of all media that’s dedicated to internally displaced persons. It’s not enough, I think, because we have over 1 million people.
Dyczok: I think over 2 million.
Matsuka: And also other problems. I, as an IDP person, I can’t vote in the local elections and elect the mayor of Kyiv, for example.
Dyczok: Even though you have been a resident here for four years now.
Matsuka: Yes, I have a propiska, registration, in Donetsk and I can’t change it because I do not have property in Kyiv.
Dyczok: Difficult situation. You mentioned editorial policy by these large corporate media outlets, that they are not presenting a lot of information about the war, about the humanitarian issues, everyday life. Is there perhaps a lack of interest in the audience? It’s been four years now that this conflict has been going on. Do you get a sense that Ukrainian audiences are tired of listening to the war and the problems and that is why they prefer more entertainment?
Matsuka: I mentioned the other [part] of this problem. It’s not entertainment versus serious information. It’s about how the national media explains the situation in the occupied territories. There are now more than 2 million people who live in Donetsk oblast under Russian control. They live ordinary life without war also and do not have enough reliable information from the Ukrainian side. The problem is that Ukrainian big media are not reaching out to those people. Of course people want entertainment more. For example, Russians use this approach when they create news, like the evening news. They prepare it as an entertainment show in the Russian language, which is very popular in Eastern Ukraine. People see in this content, their content. The Ukrainian content is not about them. It’s just about Kyiv, big politicians. During the Donbas Media Forum we will speak about this, how to create more quality content by regional media which cover small audiences but they can continue to work to involve more audiences through their content. For example in Sloviansk and other small cities.
Dyczok: So Donbas Media Forum hopes to contribute to improving quality of the information.
Dyczok: Thank you very much. Is there anything else you would like to add that I did not ask you that you think is important?
Matsuka: The main question that a journalist who works with this conflict sensitive theme can be asked, should be "What can media do to de-intensify this conflict?" I have an answer, after organizing Donbas Media Forum for four years: do not make the situation worse than it already is. I think it should be a slogan for our professional community in Ukraine. Every time you think about your future content, ask if it’s conflict sensitive and reliable for your audience.
Dyczok: Thank you. That’s very wise advice. We have been speaking with Oleksiy Matsiuka, the organizer of Donbas Media Forum that is happening on July 6-7 in Kharkiv. Thank you for finding time to speak to us and I hope you will have a very successful forum.
Matsuka: Thank you, Marta, for this.
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