- A two pronged campaign of heavy-handed harrassment, obstruction, demonization and intimidation by government and radicals stretching over 15 months couldn't silence the paper or its chief editor, Igor Guzhva
- Until a deal was struck with the oligarch owner of the paper to change course and get rid of Guzhva, who was hit with an avalanche of financial violations charges as revenge
Originally appeared at Ukraine Comment
According to former editor-in-chief Igor Guzhva, in April 2014 the holding was approached by figures within the new government who proposed that Vesti hand over part of its shares, free of charge, as means to avoid conflict. This was refused, and in May began a series of investigations, searches and official denunciations of Vesti by high ranking officials.
First the paper’s offices were raided and trashed by uniformed men claiming to be tax authorities, although they did not present any identification. They seized the paper’s servers. The next day a press conference was held by the Cabinet of Ministers, where the allegedly shady financial scheme of the newspaper was presented to assembled reporters. However, Vesti journalists were denied access to the press conference, supposedly because they did not have “accreditation”.
The government then alleged that Vesti laundered 93.6 million hryvnia ($4.2 million) through a complex shell game of companies in Crimea supposedly linked to the exiled Kharkiv oligarch Sergey Kurchenko. On the basis of these findings the accounts of both the newspaper and Guzhva were temporarily frozen, but after several weeks the case appeared to be shelved.
Then in September an entirely new accusation was raised by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), when it alleged that four articles published by Vesti threatened Ukraine’s territorial integrity and inviolability. The SBU conducted another raid of the paper’s offices and prevented any employees from leaving or making phone calls. Servers, laptops and personal notebooks were seized.
The content of the four articles reveals that the SBU’s definition of treasonous content is exceedingly wide. In our first post we described the tone and content of three of the articles, published in the longf-form journal Vesti.Reporter. They bluntly display the alienation and rage that swelled in the Donbas after in March and April of 2014, and which Russia would soon tap into with its separatist project. But by no means is the reader encouraged to agree with them, or, for that matter, to disagree with them. Just to listen.
The fourth article, published in the daily, details accusations by soldiers and volunteer activists about the sale of military supplies and the withholding of pay and discharge papers. The piece presents the point of view of the soldiers, notes that the army refused to comment and puts forward a partially dissenting view by army veterans.
The raid and court case earned the condemnation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which called on Kyiv not to pressure critical journalists. This investigation too was shelved when the government’s key witness, a forensic linguist, confirmed the lack of an inflammatory content in the four articles.
Not long after this, Radio Vesti won an appeal against a decision by the National Commission on Radio and Television not to permit the holding to broadcast in 26 cities where it had purchased radio stations. The Commission had not offered any reason for its refusal, and many observers saw it as another “front” in the growing confrontation between the government and the critical media empire.
The court of public opinion
Meanwhile pro-government activists targeted the paper, peacefully and otherwise. The Civil Sector of the Euromaidan movement held frequent anti-Vesti demonstrations in the capital. As one protest organizer shouted through a megaphone:
“This mouthpiece of the Kremlin is mean to destroy the consciousness of Ukrainians, deceiving them about the events going on in the east and inciting civil war in our country. We believe that the articles in this newspaper kill no less than bullets.”
Regular pickets were organized near the points outside of metro stops in Kyiv where Vesti is handed out for free every morning. Young people would hold signs calling on passerby not to take in the paper’s “Kremlin propaganda.” Frequently they would dress as zombies, insinuating that Vesti zombifies its readers with misinformation.
These protests soon escalated. In June a crowd of masked youths jeered and threatened participants in a Constitution Day celebration organized at the paper’s offices. Their leader, radical parliamentarian Igor Lutsenko warned “This is our last peaceful demonstration about Vesti. We won’t have any more patience if they don’t change their editorial policy.” Only the intervention of Maidan Self-Defense activists who had maintained good relations with the paper prevented the youths from physically assaulting the event participants or lighting up the flares that Vesti reporters claimed they had brought in backpacks.
A week later a larger mob of balaclava-clad youths smashed the windows of Vesti’s offices, threw in flares and badly beat a security guard. The video shot by the paper’s security camera shows the abandon and vicious glee that of a mob convinced of its total license.
Oles Vakhnii, the leader of the notorious nationalist and skinhead organization Chestnoe Slovo (“Honest Word”) took responsibility for the attacks. When Vesti approached him about this he said “Accepted moral norms don’t need to be applied to you. It’s acceptable to beat you on the head with clubs, poison you with gas.” Vakhnii earlier spent five years in jail for organizing an attack on the offices of the League of Ukrainian Voters (allegedly for its US funding), then two years in jail for racist incitement. He is yet to be arrested for the Vesti attacks despite the fact that he posted a filmed confession on Youtube, although now he is under house arrest for allegedly beating a Kyiv city prosecutor who had opened a different case against him.
In spring of 2015 Vesti activists of the notorious Right Sector organization blocked Vesti delivery trucks at two Kyiv metro stations and seized 45000 copies of the paper, which they sold for scrap to buy patriotic school textbooks. They claimed “We are fighting an internal enemy, the propaganda newspaper Vesti… which stands for everything that our brothers are dying for in the East.” Later the organization’s press secretary commented that “The main thing is that we are not for censorship, but for journalistic standards and objectivity.”
The video includes a fascinating altercation between the “Pravoseki” and a group of senior citizens who had come to get their free morning paper. The elderly Ukrainians begin haranguing the head activist:
-Who decided that these papers should be confiscated?
-What court? When and where?
-The People’s court.
-What, you’re “the People’s court” now?
-Yes, I’m the People.
-Huh! Just one! And the rest of us, we’re not the People?
-You are too.
-Well we want to read that paper!
-Go read something other than pro-Russian papers that support separatism! And why don’t you speak Ukrainian?
The pensioners continue to argue with him (many of them switching to Ukrainian) and angrily crying out “lawlessness!”
Just as was the case with the earlier sacking of the Vesti offices, the government could not make a case even with a filmed commission of the crime.
Guzhva alleged that the SBU recruits radicals to attack government critics in exchange for staying out of jail themselves. In a detailed piece in Vesti one of his journalists quoted a representative of Chestnoe Slovo, the radical organization which took responsibility for the July attack on his paper: “Together with the SBU we work against separatism and the opposition, who wish to undermine national security and discredit the government.” In the organization’s offices there is a citation of appreciation from SBU head Valentin Nalivaichenko for “significant contributions to the maintenance and strengthening of national security.”
The article’s accusations proved particularly ominous when the controversial anti-Maidan journalist and commentator Oles Buzina was murdered a few days later, allegedly by extreme nationalists serving in one of the volunteer brigades in the east. In response to public shock at Buzina’s death a well-known battalion leader wrote on Facebook that he was surprised people would doubt that the journalist was killed by “patriots”:
I find these people interesting who just a little while ago shouted ‘Oy, boys come back from the front and put things in order here!’ [but now are shocked by Buzina’s death]. What else did they have in mind by ‘putting things in order?’ At the front they don’t teach you to waste your time sitting in court hearings or writing complaints.
Guzhva claimed that a smear campaign had been ongoing against Buzina for the past year, led by “a pack of hysterical, intolerant media instigators who call for reprisals against anyone who, in their opinion, has an incorrect point of view. Because of them the offices of Vesti were trashed and our distributors attacked. And possibly Buzina was killed because of them.”
On Journalism Day (June 5) at a press conference about freedom of the press President Poroshenko claimed that it is not his job to order that some media outlet or another be shut down. But he then added “… If the tax authorities prove the non-transparency of Vesti’s financing, there should be no doubt that the country will defend itself…”
Three days later the Tax Authorities called in 242 current and former employees of the paper for questioning, essentially anyone who received their salary electronically. Some employees claimed that the authorities aggressively badgered them, threatened them and their relatives while convincing them to come down to the station.
This was soon followed by yet another raid on the paper’s offices by uniformed men offering no i.d. They claimed to have a court order to search the premises of “Vesti Mass-Media LLC” even thought that company isn’t located in Vesti’s newspaper offices. They did not allow journalists or newspaper’s lawyers onto the premises, gave the offices another thorough trashing and once again, confiscated the servers. Around 500 people gathered outside of the Verkhovna Rada and Tax Authority to protest the raid.
The culmination of the 15 month standoff was at hand. Guzhva left the country on vacation, and from abroad suddenly came the news that he had had sold his shares in the media holding to his partners and stepped down as editor-in-chief. Ukrainian media watchers quickly circulated the version that Vesti’s majority owner, exiled oligarch Aleksander Klimenko, had bargained his way back into Ukraine by forcing the overly critical Guzhva out of the paper. Anonymous sources within the paper’s staff claimed that overseers from the presidential administration would be installed to filter out any improper materials. The new spokesman for the paper, Klimenko’s common law wife, announced a new focus on “affirmative topics.”
Guzvha returned from abroad and was immediately summoned to court on charges of tax evasion, which purportedly were based on evidence from the latest raid. The judge denied the prosecutor’s request for a massive 17 million hryvnia ($727,000) bail, imposing a more standard 1 million ($45,000). He also forbade Guzhva to leave Kyiv without explicit permission from the court.
At the present time the former editor is preparing his defense. He claims that the Tax Agency, lacking the basis for a real case after a year of investigation and raids, manipulated the facts in order to create the illusion of a crime. In his complicated explanation, the paper took returnable financial assistance from a firm in Sumy in 2013, but was unable to return the sum in time because the firm’s accounts were frozen during the initial investigation of Vesti in May of 2014. According to Ukrainian law, the paper must now wait for the expiration of the statute of limitations (three years), and then include this sum in its gross income and pay income tax on it. “But the tax authorities decided on direct forgery. They chose to regard the financial assistance we received as irrevocable and demand that we should have included it in our gross income and paid income taxes on it in 2014. And since we didn’t do that, they have a formal occasion to present to us the charges of tax evasion.”
The “new” Vesti
The holding cut ties with all Russian writers and journalists, who made up a significant contingent on Radio Vesti and in Reporter (including Marina Akhmedova, author of some of the journal’s most powerful war journalism from Donetsk). The editor-in-chief of Vesti.Reporter, Gleb Prostakov, described the changes thus: “we will try to look at broader trends and not run around after the latest newsmakers…. More reporting form the regions, more emphasis on urbanism. But we won’t shy away from strong opinions, we’ve kept our teeth.”
But it soon became clear that Guzhva’s exit posited real changes in Vesti’s tone and editorial stance. An already printed issue of Vesti.Reporter was held back from distribution, which sources within the paper attribute to an article about the intricacies of Poroshenko’s inner circle and competition with the “Georgian court” of exiled reformers led by Mikhail Saakashvili. Several copies made their way into the hands of media commentators, who published scanned versions online. The journal itself was soon reprinted and distributed without the touchy article.
Next in line was sensational reporting by reporter Svetlana Kriukova on the early elections in the northern city of Chernihiv. Gennady Korban, a corporate raider and ally of the country’s most prominent oligarch (Igor Kolomoisky) balloted against President Poroshenko’s handpicked candidate. From the first days of the campaign it became clear that this would be an extraordinarily ugly election. “I was made aware that this piece would never get published in Reporter while I was still on assignment,” Kryukova told the editors of Ukraine Comment. “I was traveling with [candidate] Korban and at one point I turned to him and said ‘I hope this story will be good, because I’m gonna lose my job for it’.”
In her piece Korban was shown to be a crude populist, earning the humorous internet nickname “Marshal Buckwheat” after sewing support by giving out free buckwheat kasha to the poor and elderly. Many voters were shown to be in such desperate economic straits that their vote was virtually the only saleable resource at their disposal.
More damningly, the president’s candidate Berezenko liberally used various schemes to purchase those votes outright. At one point in the piece Korban’s campaign team surrounds a locked car in which they have been told Berezenko’s vote buyers are located. The two men inside are observed tearing up sheets of paper and eating them. After a multi-hour standoff they are hustled away by the police but a search of the trunk reveals 500 envelopes stuffed with 400 hryvnia each ($18) and an entire arsenal of firearms. Later one of the apartments is described where city residents can come to collect their $18 after they show a picture of Berezenko and promise to vote for him.
When it became clear that the piece would never see publication in the “new” Vesti, Kryukova resigned and took her work to the competing paper Ukrainska Pravda. It proved to be one of the most hotly discussed pieces of political journalism in post-Maidan Ukraine.
Several newsroom veterans followed Guzhva and Kryukova out of the paper, including one writer who claimed that the new management forced the news staff to remove even the smallest mention of Igor Guzvha’s court case from the paper. Vesti.Reporter’s chief war correspondent Inna Zolotukhyna quit, claiming “The concept of Reporter was changed. Now they don’t write about the ATO [anti-terrorism operation] there. And I continue to think that in a country where there’s a war on, that should be topic number one.” And in October Zolotukhyna was followed out by the journal’s editor-in-chief, Gleb Prostakov.
The extraordinary pressure exerted on the Vesti media holding over the last fifteen months should raise serious questions about whether the exit of its editor-in-chief was more than the result of mere newsroom and boardroom politics.
It appears that Kyiv jettisoned its cruder strategy to silence the paper – the accusations of separatist support and associated raid – after it earned the condemnation of the OSCE. But removing Guzhva while leaving the paper largely intact to continue publication is a low-risk neutralization strategy. It has not caught the attention of Kyiv’s western backers, who claim they will hold Ukraine to high standards of democratization. As US ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers stated in June, “Ukraine should zealously protect freedom of the press, including for its most outspoken and biased critics – indeed, especially for its most outspoken and biased critics – even as the so-called separatists expel journalists from the territory they control, and even as Russia shutters Tatar media outlets in occupied Crimea.”
Gennady Korban, well-experienced in corporate raiding and Ukrainian politics, described what had occurred thus: “I have a simple, inexpensive and effective method for privatizing freedom of speech. You need to do just two things – get the support of the presidential administration, and then slap any newspaper you want with fines for financial violations. After that they’ll put out a warrant for the editor and you’ve got freedom of speech in your pocket… This recipe was first cooked up in Russia after Vladimir Putin came to power. By this method he had his way with freedom of speech in his homeland.”
The question now is if Vesti’s various media outlets begin to blunt their criticism of the president, avoid contentious issue and “focus on the affirmative,” will international organizations and the western press recognize that Ukraine’s biggest opposition paper was muzzled?