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11 November 2021

We couldn’t save the Kyiv Post. But we can save its values

A journalist from the English-language paper recounts how the entire newsroom was fired – and why it matters.

By Illia Ponomarenko

KYIV – After 26 years of independent journalism, the Kyiv Post is dead. I was there at its end.

On the morning of 8 November, the newsroom was getting ready for its Monday meeting. I was going to upload an update on Ukraine’s latest Covid-19 figures when I realised I was locked out of the website. Thinking it was a glitch, we asked the administrator to fix it.

It wasn’t a glitch. During the staff meeting, our chief editor Brian Bonner told the paper’s 50 members of staff that we had all been fired. The Kyiv Post was no more, starting from that very day. We needed to vacate the premises.

The biggest and oldest English-language publication in Ukraine, the Kyiv Post had spent the past quarter of a century covering five presidential administrations, two revolutions and a war. It had developed a reputation as one of the country’s most independent media outlets. It had trained many top journalists who had gone on to glittering careers at other respected news organisations.

Yet it did not survive the ownership of Adnan Kivan.

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Kivan, an Odessa, Ukraine-based developer and tycoon, has been the paper’s publisher since 2018. He is also the owner of Channel 7, an Odessa-based TV channel – which isn’t known for its editorial independence.

But there had been an understanding: the Kyiv Post was to preserve its own independence, and Kivan had pledged not to meddle in our coverage or editorial appointments. “Without independent journalism, you cannot get democracy,” he was quoted as saying on the front page of our paper.

The agreement worked for some time. The owner’s sentiments didn’t influence editorial policy.

In recent months, however, the newsroom suspected the owner was unhappy with some of our coverage. Those suspicions grew after the Kyiv Post published critical stories about Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general. Thanks to Bonner’s diplomatic efforts, relations with Kivan remained cordial – for a time.

But on 14 October, a woman named Olena Rotari announced on Facebook that a Ukrainian-language version of the Kyiv Post was being created, which she would edit. She said she was hiring a full editorial team. The news came out of the blue for everyone in the newsroom, including Bonner.

We soon learned that Rotari was one of Kivan’s media managers, having worked at his other media venture, Channel 7. She had been tasked with launching Russian and Ukrainian versions of the Kyiv Post. My team wasn’t against the expansion per se, but we were shocked that this decision and appointment had been made and announced without our knowledge. We saw it as an attempt to undermine the newspaper’s editorial independence.

We requested that the role for heading the paper’s Ukrainian version be selected in an open competition, to which anyone could apply. We demanded transparency.

Again, thanks to Bonner’s diplomacy and discussions with Kivan, we thought the crisis was resolved. We launched the expansion process and announced new vacancies. Then we were fired.

The official statement published on the website says the Kyiv Post has been shut down “for a short time”. The owner pledges to relaunch the newspaper with new staff and to make it “bigger and better”.

We view this as an attempt to get rid of the Kyiv Post newsroom and replace us with more agreeable and obedient writers. The team has done its best to negotiate a peaceful divorce. Kivan repeatedly declined to let us keep the Kyiv Post brand, or sell the newspaper to a willing buyer, or even let us have a transitional period before the paper was shuttered.

Kivan owns the brand, which has earned a good reputation for its independent journalism. Over the course of 26 years, it has exposed corruption, reported from warzones, advocated reforms and promoted democracy. The Kyiv Post’s independence has been its key asset. As a result, foreign embassies, expat communities, diplomatic circles and international readers have trusted us and chosen us as their primary source of news about Ukraine.

We don’t know how Kivan will use this hard-earned reputation, but we don’t believe that there will continue to be an independent Kyiv Post.

The outpouring of support we’ve received has humbled me, along with the rest of the editorial team. Media outlets around the world have covered the paper’s closure. Diplomatic missions called 8 November “a sad day for Ukrainian journalism”.

Indeed, we are devastated by the fact that the Kyiv Post has ceased to exist as it was. But we will not “go gentle into that good night”. If we can’t save the Kyiv Post, we can at least save its values.

The editorial team is already working on launching a new media outlet. We’re going to keep publishing independent journalism. In a time of ongoing Russian aggression and political turmoil in Ukraine, we can’t allow our country to end up without an independent English-language publication that can speak to the world. We will stay with our readers.

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