“Ukraine represents exactly what the regimes in power fear the most”

An interview with Jakub Parusinski about the strengths and challenges of independent media in Central and Eastern Europe

Jakub, you wear a few hats. You are the CFO of the Kyiv Independent, an editor at The Fix—a research and media publishing organisation—as well as a media consultant at Jnomics. You’re obviously very involved in the media sphere. How have you experienced the media landscape in Central and Eastern Europe in the past five to 10 years?

I guess my story started when I moved to Ukraine in 2009. I worked as a foreign correspondent for a couple of publications covering Ukraine and the wider region. And since then, I’ve experienced media freedom through a variety of roles. First of all, I would say that the region is not homogenous. There’s an absolute abyss when it comes to Belarus and Russia. It’s hard to find places that are more repressive now, and it’s been a steady slide in that direction for the last couple of decades. There’s placeslike Central Europewhich have become increasingly repressive over the last five to 10 years, but it’s a more recent phenomenon. And then you have countries like Ukraine, which was one of the more healthy media environments. There were independent, quality media which were competitive and had a high level of audience engagement. Quite a few of them were sustainable, although international donors played a big role in kicking off the sector. It was one of the few bright spots when it came to the media in the region.

What did these noticeable improvements in the sector mean for Ukrainian society?

The media have played a big role in holding power to account. They have been at the forefront of tackling corruption, which has been a huge problem since independence in 1991. During the last revolutionbecause there have been severalthe media played a big role in mobilising society. And so, to a large extent, you can say that the free, democratic and successful Ukraine arose through years of building an independent media sector. The two of them were very strongly linked—the media played a key role in pushing society forward.

When people talk about the war in Ukraine, most would probably be referring to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. But many would argue that the war started in 2014. What did international mediaget wrong in the aftermath of the Donbas war? And did that influence the 2022 invasion?

It definitely did. Internationally, people might say that the war started in 2022. In Ukraine, it’s pretty clear that it started in 2014. To some extent, it was even prepared a little bit beforehand. When the Donbas war started, I think the international communityespecially the media—were quite naive and fooled to a large extent by Russian propaganda. The Russian strategy was all about muddying the waters. They said: It’s not our army that’s fighting. It’s little green men, polite people, local citizens… 

Obviously now we have overwhelming evidence that the war was fought by and directed by Russian troops. But back then, the goal was to create as much doubt, uncertainty and confusion as possible. Because unlike in the West, where we tend to think of disinformation as trying to convince people of lies, in Russia, disinformation means convincing people that the truth does not exist. And so the tactics revolve more around making things unclear and complicated, asking a lot of “but what about” questions, and muddying the waters as much as possible. This time, both the media and the international community, including diplomats and policymakers, didn’t get tricked, or at least not as much. Overall, the reporting was significantly clearer in its language and approach. As a result, people mobilised in support of Ukraine and against Russia much more effectively. That’s quite directly tied to a reaction to disinformation or, let’s say, confusing narratives.

So when we think about clouding the waters of the truth, is there a correlation between one of the most repressive countries with regards to press freedom attacking one of the most free in that region?

Yes, absolutely. It’s no coincidence that two of the most repressive regimes on the planet have attacked—or in the case of Belarus, I would say sort of passively attacked one that was moving quite clearly in the other direction. Ukraine represents exactly what the regimes in power fear the most, which is a democratic, even if troubled in some areas, country where people have a growing amount of freedoms. One where there is press freedom, where society develops normally and it’s exactly what they don’t want to happen.

Which brings us to the start of the Russian invasion at the end of February. How did you experience the 24th of February 2022?

On the 24th, I was in Riga. I woke up earlyI tend to be a bit of an early riser. And, the first thing I see is that my phone is absolutely exploding with news and updates. We very quickly got on calls with colleagues from a variety of organisations that we work quite closely with, mainly driven by The Fix but also Media Development Foundation, Are We Europe, The Kyiv Independent and Jnomics. We understood that the situation was really bad. All the news back then was that Kyiv would fall within three or four days and the question was: what can we do in those three or four days? We tried to solve the problems ahead of us and understood that our colleagues in the Ukrainian media sector would need as much support as possible. One of the things we did was to fundraise for them, because we knew that they would need a lot of support. Another one was to buy protective equipment and gear, and ship that to Ukraine. We also prepared for the relocation of journalists that would be fleeing the war, along with the millions of other refugees.

Many Ukrainian media have moved to safer cities, or fully moved abroad. What do you think that will do to the national media scene in the country?

In the first couple of days and weeks, a lot of media moved to the west of the country. Some journalists moved abroad. There’s a division of roles, like needing journalists to cover what is happening from the frontlines. So, some people wanted to remain in the hotspots to be able to continue to report from there. But you don’t need to have your accountant or your social media manager or whoever else in those frontlines as well. You want them out of harm’s way, but also in a place where they have good WiFi connection, can work securely, and are able to operate unhindered without worrying about their safety. So we were recommending that people move out and helped quite a few in various ways and moved them out of the country. A lot of them were hesitant, or resistant, and didn’t want to leave the country. 

As the war continues, news fatigue starts to kick in. How can journalism challenge this?

Humans have a limited amount of capacity to suffer, or empathise. What I noticed throughout the revolution when I was on the ground in Kyiv, is that no matter how horrible the situation seems, after two weeks, you start to adapt to it. It’s the same thing for the audience. It doesn’t matter how much people care and really do have good intentions, at some point the interest will wane. I think we need to know that’s happening. Well, we need to understand it. But also find ways to retain people’s information, to find fresh angles to tell the human stories. I think the goal is more to keep it on the radar and make sure people care. But also, we do need to accept that interest will be diverted in other directions. It’s a very difficult task for journalists to keep the world’s attention. A lot of creativity, experimentation and heartbeats goes into it.

As you’ve briefly mentioned, The Fix launched a fundraiser to keep Ukraine’s media going at the start of the war. What do you expect for the future of Ukrainian independent media? 

Right now, a lot of the international community has mobilised or is mobilising. A lot of these larger organisations take time to move around and make decisions. They’re coming in and planning to support Ukrainian media, which is great. I think that’s really important. What I’m worried about is that being dependent on international support is not great for the media. We’ve seen this time and time again across the region, whether it was after the wars in the Balkans in the 90s, the wars in the Caucasus, the multiple revolutions in Ukraine or now the war. 

Donors come in with support but they don’t necessarily support innovation and vibrancy, they simply try to keep the market alive. That’s important. That’s critical. I think they’re doing a very important job. But we also can’t let this vibrancy and energy, as well as the impactfulness of the Ukrainian media sector die. And that’s really what I’m worried about, and what I’m focused on: how do we make sure that over the next 12 months, 24 months, 36 months, we can recreate a media market that is competitive, creative, and delivers a quality product? And that’s not going to be easy.

The media sector in general has been struggling for decades. You have a name for these organisations that are propped up for years through sheer willpower, and that’s “media zombies”. Why does the state of journalism today remind you of an apocalyptic blockbuster?

Many industries are sustained through state intervention, international donations or various other efforts that create unnatural financial flows. To some extent, you can live with that but it really does sap the energy and the innovation from the sector. Zombie banks are the most well known example, when governments would prop up a financial institution even though it was essentially not delivering the service that it was supposed to deliver. Under market rules, it should not exist. 

A lot of media are the same. They have a history, a brand, maybe a couple of famous faces, and nobody wants to let them die. But at the same time the audience has moved on, to a large extent, and the people don’t care about them as much anymore. Big parts of the media sector are living and breathing museum pieces. Nowadays, a lot of companies are managing their own newsletters. Whenever you have a newsletter subscription list, though, you’re going to have hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people who will receive your email every day, and most of them will never open it. It starts going to spam and gets lost along the way. Now, a lot of people feel happy about having those thousands of people on their list of subscribers. But you want to clean your list of people who never open your product and really focus on the ones who actually get some kind of value from it. There’s a lot of debate about what’s the better strategy. Maybe at some point those people will start to read your email again. I’m more on the side that it’s better to have a painful but honest view of what is happening as opposed to one that is easier to swallow but doesn’t represent the true picture.

It’s a lot nicer to see a big number of subscribers, I suppose, than to swallow that bitter pill. But how do ethics and sustainability intersect when many media are fighting for financial stability? 

I think that they are related, but are not one and the same. A lot of media can be sustainable without being ethical, unfortunately. There’s also a lot of media who might be ethical, but are not sustainable at all. I think we need to work on both of these vectors a little bit independently. There is a portion of the market which will support and subscribe to only ethical media. And that’s great, but that only solves a small part of it. Rather than getting all excited and hoping that will magically grow and cover the whole media landscape, we need to take an honest look and see what can be done to nudge those media that have problems with ethics in the right direction, all the while working to make the ethical ones more sustainable. We also need to accept that there is a portion that will be neither and maybe we need to make sure that they do less damage.

As a closer, and I’m looking for a silver lining here, what makes you hopeful these days?

There’s a ton that makes me hopeful. The amount of people who care about the media, and the importance of quality, verified reliable news is more visible than ever. That by itself is a huge force that makes things better across the world. The availability of tech solutions and functioning business models is better than it has been at any point in the last couple of years. New platforms are coming out that are giving a voice to both classical media and individual creators in ways that were not available before. And so there is an availability of good, quality content that is bigger than ever. Sometimes you need to make an investment to find the right one. People don’t get upset at the fact that you need to make an effort to find a good restaurant. You get recommendations, do a bit of research. Maybe sometimes you find one that isn’t so good, and you simply don’t go there anymore. It’s the same thing with the media. If you just do nothing and expect the world to come and bring you the best fruits of other people’s labour for nothing, then of course you’re going to be disappointed. But I think the availability, affordability, and vibrancy of the media sector is so huge right now—I’m so happy to be in this industry at this point. Compared to 10 years ago when everything looked extremely gloomy, I think we now have a lot of hope. We just need to do some hard work to get there.

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About Juli Simond