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Why Ukraine Today is More Dangerous for Journalists

Each year journalists worldwide who ask unwanted questions, who investigate those in power, and who simply are doing their job are persecuted and killed. But even in this dangerous profession there are those who have it worse than others: the women. Despite talk about feminism and equality, women journalists are still subjected to more threat than their male colleagues. The Ukraine journalist Juliana Skibitskaja here relates the special difficulties that impact women journalists in her country.

Credits Text: Yuliana Skibitskaya Translation from Russian to English: Natasha Perova October 07 2020

Each year increasingly more journalists are killed and persecuted around the world for raising awkward issues, investigating painful problems, and simply doing their job. However, in this dangerous profession the situation for some is still harder than for others – and that is for women. Despite the progress of feminism and emancipation women are getting more threats than men. The Ukrainian journalist Juliana Skibitskaya talks about particular problems encountered by women journalists in her country.

In July this year the editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian periodical Zaborona (Ban) Katerina Sergatskova had to leave Ukraine with her husband and two small children. Her flight was caused by the multiple threats Katerina was getting through the social networks. She explains: “At some point we realized that even outside Kiev we could not feel safe. The problem is that people haven’t changed, they read the same social networks, and I may be recognized in the streets.”

Her ex-colleague, a journalist, who could be more accurately described as a showman, Roman Skrypin placed a post in the Facebook making insulting remarks about her. He pictured Katerina’s appearance in most denigrating terms, attached a photograph of her child accompanied by improper details from her personal life. Facebook promptly removed the post in response to many users’ complaints. But it was too late to stop the hate wave.

The comments contained insults and threats to kill Katerina. Some people wrote: “Go back to your Russia!” (Before 2015 Katerina had Russian citizenship, but since 2008 she had lived in Ukraine.) Some comments even provided her home address. Among those who put their “likes” to the post were also women and men journalists. Roman Skrypin continued to write insulting posts. After that first one had been deleted he declared that he had ten more ready. Three weeks had passed since then and Katerina is still getting threats.

Unfortunately this story is typical for Ukraine today. Women journalists still encounter violence, harassment, and sexism.

Ultra-right Problem Being Ignored

It was not accidental that Roman Skrypin wrote that post. Several days prior to that Zaborona published a piece about the ties of the facts-checking organization StopFake with the ultra-right and even neo-Nazi groups. Recently StopFake joined the Facebook’s facts-checking program of examining posts and spotlighting the unreliable ones.

Zaborona wrote that Marko Suprun, the English-speaking speaker for StopFake and the husband of the ex-minister for health Uliana Suprun, is friends with the leader of the Ukrainian rock group ”Sokira Peruna” (Perun’s Axe). Their songs deny the Holocaust, and their concerts are attended by people carrying banners of the Third Reich; they “Sieg Heil” one another and glorify the white race. Zaborona, and Katerina personally, were accused of manipulations and lies. This is what usually happens when Ukrainian journalists write on the topic of the ultra-right which is an awkward one in Ukraine and tends to be hushed up.

In order to understand why the neo-Nazi threat has become quite real in Ukraine we should look back at the year 2013. At the end of November that year a small group of people assembled in the country’s main square to protest against the decision of the then pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovich to reject the association with the European Union. That protest demonstration came to be known as Euromaidan. Several days later the police used force to drive away the remaining protesters from the square. Those demonstrations in support of the integration with the European Union grew into the protest movement against police brutality, corruption, and pro-Russian politics. Ukrainian society strove towards European standards, and not only regarding the quality of life (incidentally, in 2013 every tenth citizen lived below the poverty level) but also European values such as human rights, and equality.

At the same time the ultra-right protesters, who had their own vision of the situation, actively joined the movement. They were more interested in its nationalistic aspects and in the departure from the zone of Russian influence. The organization with the telling name “The Right Section”, which was later employed by the Russian propaganda as a kind of a bugaboo, was actually born in the Maidan. It was then that people first started talking about the growth of radical rightist sentiments in Ukraine.

In the atmosphere of the euphoria some members of the Right Section were seen as heroes. However, they did not attract much attention in those days. Soon a new government was established which declared moderate pro-European politics. It seemed that Ukraine was getting a chance to actually become part of Europe, and not only geographically. But then Russia stepped in. The Crimea was annexed and the war in Donbas unleashed -- still going on.

Ukraine was not ready for the war. Voluntary battalions were formed in a hurry. All sorts of people were drafted as long as they were prepared “to defend Ukraine”. That was how men with ultra-right and even neo-Nazi views joined the army. Many of them came from abroad. Some were fugitives from justice in their own countries while some others were adventure-seekers or mercenaries. But because they fought for Ukraine most people saw them as heroes.

We were witnessing a paradox: on the one hand, the government declared full support of the European values and, despite resistence, issued anti-discrimination laws; but on the other hand, radically-minded people disrupted the gay prides and attacked the marches for women’s rights. Members of the ultra-right organization C14, which bears all the neo-Nazi characteristics, patrol Kiev as part of the municipal teams sponsored by the Kiev authorities. Andrei Biletsky, leader of the former “Azov” battalion known for his ultra-right views, used to be a deputy of the Ukrainian Parliament for five years.

However, in Ukraine it is not proper to mention the existence of the ultra-right threat. It is believed that neo-Nazis is a myth created by the Russian propaganda. Indeed, since 2014 Russia has been actively spreading the idea that Ukraine is deeply infected with “fascism” while they apply this term to all those who disagree with pro-Russian policies. It has become convenient to accuse all the writers on this subject of serving the Kremlin. That was the problem Katerina Sergatskova had suffered from. And because she is a woman accusations against her also included sexism and lookism.

Katerina writes: “If you look closer at Skrypin’s post you don’t find any criticism of my professional qualities, and my article as such is not discussed. Likewise the comments are concerned only with my appearance. I never came across any comments anywhere which discussed a man’s appearance in such a situation.”

The War and Women in the War

The Ukrainian journalist Nastia Stanko has been working as a war correspondent since the first day of the war. Her reporting from Donbas has been repeatedly awarded Ukrainian and international prizes for journalism. In 2014 Nastia and her cameraman Ilya Bezkorovainy were captured by pro-Russian separatists in the Lugansk Region. Three days later they were released. But in 2016 there was a scandal after Nastia’s next trip to the frontlines. The Ministry of Defense accused the journalist of revealing classified information in her dispatch and thus violating the rules of working in war conditions. Later a special committee investigated the case and established the absence of any breach of the rules. But a persecution campaign against Nastia had already been unleashed in the social networks.

Nastia recalls: “Apart from open threats the comments said that I should better cook borscht than interfere in the war which was not a womanly business. And such comments came both from men and women alike. More often these accusations were made by men journalists who had never been in the war but who believed that sitting comfortably on their sofas they are taking part in the informational war for Ukraine.”

The war in Donbas remains one of the most painful issues for the Ukrainian society. The years 2014 and 2015 saw the most acute stage in the war, but to this day Ukrainian soldiers and local civilians still perish at the frontlines. During the six war years a certain vision of how to present that war has formed in the society and in the journalistic community. Journalists often resort to self-censorship and hush up the crimes of Ukrainian soldiers so as not to damage the country’s image and thus play up into Russia’s hands. If you go against the grain you are in trouble.

Nastia says: “But then it all comes down to the fact that you’re a woman and therefore do more harm than good to your country. Some people think that you are not doing it on purpose but simply because you are such a stupid cow. But some other people think that you are doing it on purpose because you have this Stockholm syndrome after your captivity. I’ve never been accused of lying, but of untimely revealing the truth.”

Women journalists who work in the Donbas battle zones are accused of going to the war “for thrilling experiences” or “in search of men”. At the frontline women have to overcome soldiers’ stereotypes. Nastia Stanko recalls how a detachment commander threw her out of the blockhouse into the frost. “We came to visit some soldiers we knew. But then their commander came and started scolding me in public. My cameramen were standing nearby but they kept silent and did not attempt to say anything in my defense. Finally the commander told us to get the hell out of the blockhouse because women in the war brought misfortune.”

Patriarchal Society

It would be wrong to say that all the problems in Ukraine are due to the war. It goes without saying that the tension in which the country has been living the last six years has aggravated many problems, but it had not created them. As in most post-Soviet countries, the Ukrainian society has remained patriarchal and stereotypical.

Nastia Stanko recalls how in 2008 she took a job at the “First National” TV channel. “My chief editor told me: ‘Suppose I have to send you to Chernobyl and you tell me that they have radiation there and you’re pregnant and have a baby, and you won’t go.’ I was at a loss for words. I was in shock that this matter was brought up at all. Later I went to Chernobyl many times. I never refused any special assignments but, on the contrary, I was always in favor of them.”

The Ukrainian media-expert Irina Zemlyanaya comments that in the media the majority of key positions are occupied by men rather than women. Moreover, women often encounter physical resistance in the fulfillment of their duties. For instance, it is much easier to push off a woman than a man. Women have to deal with cyber-bulling and sexism more often too.

In 2018, Ukrainian sociologists carried out a highly significant questionnaire. They studied men’s reaction to women-related stereotypes. 70% of the respondents said that the woman’s main duty was housekeeping. An ideal wife, in their opinion, ought to yield to her man in arguments and “smooth out conflicts”. Each second respondent believed that a man was a better leader than any woman.

Naturally, this attitude affects women journalists as well. What can you expect if even the country’s leaders allow themselves disparaging words in addressing women? In 2018, the Ukrainian ex-president Pyotr Poroshenko called a woman journalist at the press conference “dearie”. In response to that the media-women organized a flash-mob campaign with the slogan “Iamnotyourdeary”. The current president Vladimir Zelensky said to one of the men at a production meeting: “You’re a serious person, not a woman, aren’t you.” Andrei Bogdan, the ex-chief of Zelensky’s administration, used to put his arms round women journalists’ shoulders when they asked him a question.

Ukrainian women, both in journalism and other fields, do not let it pass and demand equal rights with men. Special support groups have been organized for women providing psychological and legal help to them. However, to this day Ukraine still has not ratified the Istanbul Convention against violence to women and discrimination. The Ukrainian clergy do not accept that convention and our deputies do not want to quarrel with them.

Roman Skrypin, who launched a persecution campaign against Katerina Sergatskova, and thus endangered both her and her family, continues to work in journalism. His activities have been criticized by some international and human-rights organizations, but it will hardly affect his work position or his reputation. Katerina Sergatskova says that she has no intention to return to Ukraine as yet and will come back only when she would feel there is no danger. Meanwhile the Ukrainian police never opened criminal proceeding on the fact of threats addressed to her.

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