Ukraine’s Journalists Need Your Help
Papers like mine get little aid from international organizations even as we risk it all to report the war.
May 18, 2022 6:17 pm ET
Journalists don’t confess; they solicit confessions. Yet here I am—editor in chief of Ukrayina-Tsentr, a weekly Ukrainian newspaper—and I’m opening with a confession of my own political nearsightedness.
In March 2005, I was among a small delegation of Ukrainian journalists at North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels. The first talk we heard from NATO officers included a map of Europe with a raving mad Russian bear suspended above it. This slide elicited howls of laughter from my colleagues and me. It had to have been a relic of the Cold War. The world had changed. The Soviet Union had collapsed, yet NATO still saw Russia as the enemy of the civilized West?
We were so naive, so stupid.
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Seventeen years have passed, and this bear is seeking to tear from the map of Europe my own country and destroy its people. Horrific videos and photos from Russian-occupied areas—Borodyanka, Bucha, Chernihiv, Hostomel, Kharkiv and Mariupol—are destroying our conception of what civilization means in the 21st century.
I always thought the scariest photos I’d ever seen were those taken in the aftermath of the pogroms in Lviv, in Nazi concentration camps, and in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s days. Now I can add the images of what Russia has done to Ukraine. The invaders have left the bodies of civilians strewn in the streets, tied up in cellars, in makeshift torture chambers, in the rubble of destroyed apartments and houses. Severed limbs and heads are seen on the street. In a few more weeks, all of the tiny towns outside Kyiv will be known throughout the world—and not in the way we want to be known.
It is impossible to understand in full if you don’t see it with your own eyes, if you don’t hear the airplanes and explosions with your own ears; if you don’t smell the horrifying stench of decomposition, of death. Even when we witness it all, what is left to say, and who’s able to say it? The poets will eventually have their word, but in the meantime only journalists can continue writing and speaking about it all.
Ukrainian journalists today have two options: Take up arms and defend our country, or write, take photos and comment on everything that’s happening. Both are of great importance.
Journalists here are taking the same risks soldiers do. A crushing tragedy for me and my colleagues was the widely reported recent death of Max Levin, a talented and well-known photo reporter. He didn’t die during a firefight or in an indiscriminate bombing. He was detained and shot by Russian soldiers not far from Kyiv, according to the Ukraine prosecutor general’s office.
Russia’s attack has united Ukrainians with a desire to defend each other. All our resources are thrown toward the support of the military and refugees. From regions far behind the frontlines, caravans of cars head east with food and supplies. People are sharing their last possessions with the displaced—relatives and strangers alike. The country is helping its medics, reducing taxes on small businesses, and providing subsidies to farmers.
The whole world is helping Ukraine with weapons and humanitarian aid. We are grateful. Without you, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
Yet Ukrainian journalists are in a particularly tough position. The logistics of newspaper distribution are a mess. The price of paper has gone through the roof. We can’t—and wouldn’t—ask the government for anything. It has a million problems of its own. But no help is coming from international organizations or charities either. The attitude seems to be that it’s good that we are still writing, but no big deal if we are forced to stop, that there will be no barrier to reopening papers when the war is over.
But reporting on the war is of vital importance to Ukrainians—to say nothing of how it keeps the world informed about what is really happening. During the first few weeks of the war, my colleagues and I gave out Ukrayina-Tsentr free in the supermarkets. People formed lines and thanked us. That was very moving. It shook us up in a revelatory kind of way. Our newspaper was as important to them as bread, milk and salami. There is a centuries-old reverence here for the printed word, even among the young. But we can’t keep at this for long. From our most optimistic estimates, at the rate we’re going, our paper will begin to fold at the end of this month.
Ukrainian journalists struggled for the right to report the news even before the war. Ukrayina-Tsentr has risked much, even in peaceful times, to bring people unprejudiced facts—the cornerstone of a still-burgeoning democracy. In 2002 we broke the story of a corrupt local judge ordering a hit on a local journalist. That judge sued us for libel and his colleagues ruled against us in his favor in unjust proceedings. The financial penalties could have put us out of business, but we took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. In 2010, we won
After our victory, I was invited to give a speech to the Ukrainian Parliament about the rights of journalists. On my way home from Kyiv someone in a passing truck tried to kill me by throwing a large piece of metal onto my windshield. The cops arrived at the scene an hour later and informed us no truck matching the description was anywhere to be found.
Much has changed for the better for Ukrainian journalists since those days, but without the support of our international colleagues and their readers, everything we’ve gained could be lost. Without our newspapers, history will never know the truth about Russian atrocities. Please don’t forget about us.
Mr. Marmer is editor in chief of the Ukrayina-Tsentr. Jake Marmer, his son, translated this article from Russian.