On the 8th of November, the Kyiv Post’s staff entered a meeting with chief editor and executive director Brian Bonner, only to leave soon thereafter no longer as employees of the paper: Bonner had informed them that the Kyiv Postwould cease publication, and that they had all been fired, effective immediately. The paper’s owner, real estate-tycoon Adnan Kivan, was not present at the meeting, but said in a statement that day that ”One day, we hope to reopen the newspaper bigger and better”.
The abrupt way in which the decision was made has prompted outcry and demands for explanations from figures in the industry and the international community. Although Bonner stated in an interview that the Kyiv Post has not been profitable since 2009, three weeks prior to the paper’s closure, Kivan announced a significant expansion which would double the size of the editorial team and publish articles in Ukrainian, Russian, and Arabic, so evidently money was not the deciding factor here.
Nor does it appear to have been the result of owner’s personal antipathy towards the editorial team and its journalistic priorities or style. While the closure of the Kyiv Post and the dismissal of its journalists has certainly soured the latter’s relationship with Kivan, according to Bonner, ”Kivan has actually invested the most, and interfered the least, of any of the three publishers of the Kyiv Post [...] the owner has supported that [the staff’s editorial independence] up to the end”.
Instead, the Kyiv Post’s (now former) journalists claim that the decision was an attempt to ”get rid of annoying journalists” resulting from political pressure on Kivan for some of the paper’s articles criticising President Zelensky. Bonner, who has largely sought to avoid the limelight in the aftermath of November 8th, has himself acknowledged that the Kyiv Post’s work was likely causing Kivan problems in his other endeavours. The paper’s journalists stated that the owner had complained to them on numerous occasions about political pressure resulting from their criticism of Zelensky. One dismissed journalist specifically implicated Prosecutor-General Irina Venediktova and parliamentarians from the Servant of the People party in pressuring Bonner. Moreover, according to Sevgil Musayeva, editor of Ukrayinska Pravda, Kivan’s construction company has recently failed to win a number of government contracts and other real estate deals in what Musayeva believes is a sign of political pressure. Zelensky’s spokesman, Sergii Nykyforov, has denied any allegations of political pressure, stating that he was ”just as surprised” as everyone else.
The Kyiv Post’s closure was not the only surprise to rock the Ukrainian media industry in the last few weeks. On November 8th, Petro Poroshenko sold his Channel 5 and Pryamy TV channels to Free Media Holding, the latter of which explicitly stated that the sale was a direct result of the new law on oligarchs entering into force the previous day. Additionally, in the recent auctions for regional media licenses, a small handful of companies and individuals close to Zelensky and oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky won a disproportional amount of TV licenses. Meanwhile, numerous companies received no licenses, including in areas with no contenders. Media experts cited by BBC’s Ukrainian Service state that although these events are not directly linked, they represent a broader trend of political pressure on media outlets and attempts by the President’s Office to consolidate a pro-Zelensky media network for the upcoming election campaign. All of this poses a concerning (to say the least) challenge to Ukraine’s media freedom and democracy, as well as Ukraine’s international voice at a time when it faces escalating aggression from Russia.
As it stands, it is currently too early to concretely verify claims of political pressure from the President’s Office, but if I may rephrase a much-used adage: if it looks like political pressure and quacks like political pressure, then it is probably political pressure. Whether or not the ultimate aim of this purported attempt at suppressing editorial independence will be achieved remains to be seen. The Kyiv Post’s former staff have rejected Kivan’s offer to return to the paper under a new management structure, and have announced that they are searching for an investor to help fund their new paper – the Kyiv Independent – dedicated to the principles of objective and independent reporting. In the meantime, we will continue to watch developments in Ukraine closely.