Lack of News a Big Challenge in Occupied Cities, Ukrainian Journalist Says
When Russia launched its full invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the country’s journalists found themselves on the front lines.
The dedication of Ukrainian journalists to keep reporting under such trying times is being recognized Thursday, when Sevgil Musaieva, editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda, is honored with an International Press Freedom Award.
Known for its investigative reporting into corruption, Ukrainska Pravda since the war has pivoted to coverage of Russia’s invasion.
In announcing its award to Musaieva, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists cited her leadership that assisted Ukrainska Pravda journalists in “providing critical, reliable coverage despite the dangers of war.”
En route to New York to collect her award, Musaieva spoke with VOA’s Eastern Europe bureau chief, Myroslava Gongadze, in Warsaw, Poland, about how the war has changed her media outlet’s approach, and more widely on Ukrainian journalists’ commitment to media freedom. Gongadze is the widow of Ukrainska Pravda’s founder, Georgiy Gongadze, who founded the publication in 2000 and was kidnapped and killed in retaliation for his reporting that same year.
Musaieva is one of three International Press Freedom Awardees. The CPJ in 2022 is also recognizing jailed Vietnamese blogger Pham Doan Trang, Iraqi Kurdish reporter Niyaz Abdullah, and independent Cuban journalist and Washington Post columnist Abraham Jiménez Enoa, who is in exile in Spain.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: What does this prestigious media freedom award mean for you and for Ukrainian journalists?
Musaieva: It’s recognition of all journalists who cover this terrible war. And it’s also recognition of my colleagues, journalists of Ukrainska Pravda and of independent journalism, [which is] one of the greatest achievements of our country in the past 30 years of independence.
VOA: How has the war affected your work in terms of coverage and in terms of the difficulties that you incurred during this time?
Musaieva: Of course [our work] has changed dramatically. Before this war, we focused more on domestic issues. We covered politics, corruption, we did a lot of investigations into high level officials.
[That focus] has changed dramatically, because 90% of our coverage now is about war and coverage from the front line.
Even when we publish political stories, some of [that reporting] irritates people because they think it’s not a good time for such coverage.
But still, we do our best not only to cover this war but also to cover misconduct of high officials even in time of war.
VOA: Ukrainska Pravda is one of the top publications in Ukraine and famous for its investigative journalism. How will that work during and after the war, now that Ukrainian officials are used to not being challenged by journalists?
Musaieva: A lot of investigative projects in Ukraine focus more on war crimes. Our team also publishes a lot of stories about Russian oligarchs and the yachts and jets. We covered a story about [Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov’s villa in Dubai.
But now we have decided that we have to move forward with our investigation department [and] domestic politics.
For example, we published an investigation about misconduct by a high-level official in [the Ukrainian city of] Dnipro.
It will be even more terrible after the war. We will [likely find] that a lot of misconduct and corruption took place.
VOA: How is the role of journalism changing during the war?
Musaieva: I went to territories that were under Russian occupation and met a lot of people. They told me the hardest part during the occupation was not being without electricity, without food or water. The main challenge was being out of news all the time.
In the first days of the invasion, I received a call from one of my colleagues in Mariupol. It was February 28 and he was crying because he believed that Kyiv had surrendered.
Russia spread that information in Mariupol when it occupied the city.
What Russia did first was it blocked all Ukrainian websites, it blocked all Ukrainian information, and even prosecuted people who still read Ukrainian news.
But at the same time, I think [Ukrainian] authorities changed the understanding of media during the war. They think they can use us as they want. And I think it’s a big mistake.
I understand a lot of restrictions during war — for example, not to publish the place after a missile attack, and some restrictions in the beginning of September, before the counteroffensive.
But some of the restrictions can be a manipulation to not cover sensitive topics for the Ukrainian government.
But journalism will fight back.
VOA: What kind of challenges will affect the future of media and journalism in Ukraine?
Musaieva: The main one is emotional pressure. The second is financial pressure. The business model of Ukrainska Pravda was destroyed by this war, and now we are dependent on donors and from our readers.
But I hope something will change in the near future.
There is this definition, “the fog of war.” Everyone is so focused on the war, you can miss important events or stories.
So those challenges will be important for Ukrainian journalists as well.
And of course, I think that we will probably face censorship efforts, unfortunately, because it’s war and because officials say that during the war you can’t tell the whole truth and they want to control the informational field.
But I strongly believe that Ukrainian journalists will fight back because we’ve experienced [censorship] before and [because] one of the main values of the Ukrainian democratic state is freedom of speech.
VOA: You’re a young journalist and a Crimean Tatar who has been through a lot during the history of Ukraine: the revolution, censorship during Viktor Yanukovich’s presidency, and now war. How are you personally holding up?
Musaieva: It’s difficult of course, when I see people in the occupied territories and when I see among this Ukrainian army a lot of former journalists, former artists. I understand that I don’t have time for self-reflection.
What gives me hope? I have a dream that Ukraine will be free and my native Crimea will be free. And I will see the Black Sea together with my children and my husband. This one picture gives me hope.
I have this connection with this country, with my native Crimea. And I understand that we will be free. And we pay, every single day, a huge price for this freedom and for democracy. But at the same time, it gives me hope.