When I returned to Ukraine to work for the Kyiv Post, I had a vague plan to stay for three years. Two years of combing through the city of my birth as a journalist eroded these plans.
The Kyiv Post has helped me take on a national bank, two powerful oligarchs and their empires. It also gave me good friends. As my third year approached its end, I, now a news editor, knew I’d be staying.
This is why it was such a gut punch when, on the morning of November 8, the Post’s editor-in-chief, Brian Bonner, gathered us all and solemnly told us that the owner, Adnan Kivan, an Odessa-based; Syrian-born construction oligarch, was pulling the plug. Kivan ordered for the paper to cease publishing immediately and fire everyone. One day, he intended to “reboot” the Kyiv Post under new management.
And just like that, Ukraine’s English voice for 26 years was gone.
I looked around the newsroom when he said it. My colleagues’ faces weren’t so much crestfallen as determined. They looked like they had already decided to fight. As had I. We had to save the Kyiv Post or at least its spirit.
I think we all knew something bad was coming, even though nobody predicted it would be this drastic. Tension had been building around Kivan’s proposed expansion concept for the Kyiv Post.
Parts of it just seemed impractical, like the TV studio or the separate Ukrainian section, which the Kyiv Post has already failed to implement once. In one of my earlier publications, the different language sections presented significant logistical problems. Regardless, we had resolved to make it work.
What we took a stand against was the appointment of a deputy chief editor from Kivan’s pet television channel in Odessa, who had never worked in independent media before. This channel lacks a commercial department and advertising, whose presence in media Kivan seems to regard with contempt.
Several weeks later, we were all fired. To a businessman trying to make it big in Ukraine, we are perhaps more trouble than we’re worth.
We stayed troublesome because our owner, to his credit, largely remained hands-off. But it couldn’t have always been easy. He had complained on several occasions that our investigations were damaging. He once told the newsroom that “silence is golden,” which was a bit like telling a roomful of doctors “why save people?”
But we have always been this way and Kivan knew it when he bought us. Multiple presidential administrations and powerful people have tried to co-opt or bully the Kyiv Post. Under a previous owner, Bonner was once fired for refusing to pull a critical story when pressured; a staff strike brought him back.
That hasn’t changed. In the past two years, our coverage got us chewed out by a member of the president’s administration and threatened with a lawsuit by a very high-ranking official. Other high-ranking officials have been censured for talking to us.
Some journalists are now investigating whether the closure was ordered from above. We don’t know. But we do know how things too often play out in the Ukrainian media landscape.
This is exactly why it’s important to keep the Kyiv Post around in its current form: independent. Even the death of a relatively small publication like the Kyiv Post makes independent media poorer, investigations less frequent, checks to power more dilute.
But the Kyiv Post is so much more than investigations. The business section is read by the business world’s movers and shakers, foreign investors and international financial organizations. Diplomats and the diaspora watch our political coverage. The lifestyle section dazzles with culture, art and fashion, bringing locals and foreigners closer together. Many foreign media look to us to understand the country.
More than that, the Kyiv Post has helped develop numerous prominent journalists, including Vitaly Sych, Chris Miller, Nathan Hodge, James Marson, Katya Gorchinskaya and Josh Kovensky, among many others.
People like them help project the country’s voice internationally and grow Ukraine’s journalist corps, as talented newcomers coalesce around them.
It’s easy to overestimate one’s importance and I intended to tone it down. But the massive outpouring of support in the 48 hours after we posted our statement convinced me otherwise.
Media outlets from around the globe, NGOs, embassies, business leaders, endowments, international organizations, law firms and many many people all reached out, offering their support to help keep us going. We’ve received word from multiple interested buyers, some more suitable than others. But that decision isn’t ours. So far, the owner doesn’t want to sell.
We hope Kivan, a professed opponent of autocracies, who once said that independent press is key to democracy, changes his mind and does the best thing for the Kyiv Post by selling it to a good buyer. The brand is nothing without its team. Closing the paper and relaunching it with a more compliant staff will make it a hollow shell of its former self, as has happened to Ukrainian media in the past.
But the team is also made stronger by the brand. I don’t doubt that any of our journalists can quickly find gainful employment at other media hungry for their talent. But, to use a cliche, when the team and the brand are together, they are both greater than the sum of their parts. This is why separating them would be a huge mistake.
But even if separation is inevitable, at least we can preserve the team.