However, on Friday 14th April news spread online in Ukraine that the chief editor of Ukraine’s leading English language newspaper, Brian Bonner, had been sacked. He had been sacked by the papers new owner Mohammed Zahor for refusing to pull an interview with the Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Prysyazhnyuk.
It seems that Zahoor had asked Bonner to remove the article (for resons which are still unclear) and when Bonner refused he was relieved of his duties. This triggered a strike by Kyiv Post staff in defence of a free press and the right to publish their material without censorship. They have refused to layout any new material for the print edition of the paper, an official protest and petition was signed (see below) and sent to Mr Zahoor and it is being reported that are to make public a transcript s of a telephone conversation to prove their point.
Where the strike action will lead is unclear, but one thing is certain – there are no winners in this dispute.
As it stands, the chief editor has his reputation and journalistic integrity in tact (for which he should be applauded), but is without a job. The Kyiv Post staff face possible redundency or a future working for a tarnished and ultimately discredited newspaper, and Mr Zahoor’s reputation is in tatters. It’s also an embarrassment for President Yanukovych and his deputies who often point to the KP as proof that a free press exists in Ukraine. Finally, as Mr Zahoor is a British citizen, the UK’s attachment to free-speech may also be tarnished and discredited amongst an already skeptical Ukrainian population.
If Zahoor refuses to back down, free-speech in Ukraine will have taken another damaging blow and I say this because, despite its relatively small circulation, the Kyiv Post is seen by many as one of the most honest papers in the country and has not pulled any punches in its coverage of high-level corruption and political mismanagement. In fact , it is this and and the fact that the Kyiv Post recentky took a stand against another wealthy businessman in the UK courts to defend freedom of the press, that the whole affair seems so strange. If the KP’s owner is prepared to fight fellow billionaire Firash (and win) in the UK courts, then why has Mr Zahoor backed down and resorted to such tactics over an equally valid article. It also raises other questions. For example, did the Ukrainian government finally give in to temptation (as would seem to be the case) and pressure Mr Zahoor to take such action? If so, then what threats were made to convince him to act and how high in the political pecking-order was the decision made? If Mr Zahoor had other reasons, what are they? and why are they so important that he’s prepared to risk his reputation and the future of the KP,? More importantly, what happens next?
Ideally, something like this…
Mr Zahoor and the Kyiv Post staff will meet and enter a period of negotiation/moderation to resolve the dispute. During the talks, Mr Zahoor can clear up any greviences he has with Bonner, win back the trust and respect of his staff and he will reassert his commitment to running a newspaper which is editorially independent.
If this doesn’t happen and Zahoor stands by his decision, it is hard to see how the KP can have a serious or credible future. Should this be the case, it will be extremely interesting to see how other stake holders an KP supporters react. For example, the UK Ambassador regularly allows the KP to reprint articles he posts on his blog. In these same blog entries Ambassador Leigh Turner raises his own concerns over media freedoms in Ukraine and he would surely need to reconsider his relationship with the paper. In addition to this, many other companies advertise in the newspaper and distribute it for free in their premisies and it will be interesting to see who they support. Will they come out on the side of the KP staff and in favour of a free press in Ukraine, or will they turn a blind eye and pretend not to notice? These companies include many many law firms and many Embassies who post job ads etc. Probably the most high-profile (and significant) advertiser to appear in the paper is the European Business Association who take up the whole of page 3 with a weekly infomercial to lobby on behalf of its members. If the Zahoor doesn’t back down, then, given the stated aims of the EBA (promoting European standards in Ukrainian business) then its hard to see how the EBA can justify a continuation of this relationship. This is also true of the American Chamber of commerce and other business groups who contibute to articles. How could this continue of the independence of the paper has been breeched?
So, will we see those who claim to support press freedom, transparency and decent business practices stand up and be counted? Will the expat and foreign community stand by the ethical standards they expect (and enjoy) at home and support the staff of the Kyiv Post? I hope they do, because, without a free KP, Ukraine and the international comunity in Ukraine will be much poorer.
The irony of this whole event is that, the offending article has now been read by hundreds if not thousands more people than would have been the case. If nothing else that is a PR disaster.
US Senators have expressed their concerns over these developments: http://ukraine.usembassy.gov/us-senator.html
The EU has….??
Support from hetq: http://www.hetq.am/eng/news/355/