Three years ago I worked as a news editor at Donbass, the largest newspaper and news website in my native city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. I was responsible for a dozen reporters covering local news, three pages of the paper, and a website news feed. The governor’s weekly press conferences, construction of a new hockey arena, several scandalous crimes a year—that was my journalistic routine. It felt like nothing unexpected could happen in my life.
But it did. In the spring of 2014 war came to my city. Tanks and armed people showed up on the streets of Donetsk, which suddenly turned into the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). My neighborhood became a battlefield. My newspaper was forced to suspend its activities. But I didn’t stay unemployed for long. Because of the armed conflict our region attracted the interest of the international media, and I started working for them—first as a fixer, then as a reporter for The New York Times.
My fancy office dresses were replaced by a flak jacket and a helmet, as I spent two years covering the conflict. I’ve seen people fighting, surviving, and dying. My colleagues and I often found ourselves under shelling.
I came to realize that the biggest challenge for a journalist in a situation like this is not even the physical danger, but the moral and emotional dilemmas of covering extraordinary events in your homeland. Should you write about corruption in the army, knowing that your story will eagerly be picked up by the Russian propaganda machine and used against your country? How do you balance opinions about the conflict while your brother, a Ukrainian soldier, is imprisoned and tortured by the insurgents (this was a situation my colleague faced)? These are the complicated choices Ukrainian journalists are facing. Nor is being on the other side any easier. How can you remain an objective journalist and a loyal citizen of your country after you work in Donetsk observing civilian neighborhoods being shelled by government forces? None of us were prepared to answer these questions.
It’s easy to be a person of principle in a peaceful and democratic environment. But as soon as the situation becomes emotionally charged for a journalist—when things get personal—then a discourse of “truth above neutrality” prevails. This is when we realize that truth is never simple.
Consider this example from my life. My house in Donetsk was shelled by governmental forces. This is true. It was shelled by retaliatory fire, because an hour earlier rebels—trying to use my family as human shields—had shelled government forces from my backyard. This is also true. Supporting one or another side, you can choose your truth. Journalists in DPR mention only the first. Ukrainian journalists mention only the second. Being neutral, you have to mention both.
I chose to be neutral and never regretted it. Talking to people on both sides of the frontline, you realize how similar to each other they ultimately are. Then you try to get the idea of reconciliation, not hate, across to your readers.
No one wants the complicated truth. While staying in Donetsk, I was in constant fear of being arrested, like some of my colleagues, for working with foreign media and for traveling to the Ukrainian side. On the Ukrainian side the methods are more humane though the attitude is similar. In May 2016 the website Mirotvorets (“Peacekeeper”), notorious as the unofficial platform of the Ministry of Interior, published a list of over 4,000 journalists who had applied in the last two years for DPR accreditation. “We consider it necessary to publish this list because these journalists are cooperating with the militants of the terrorist organization,” the introduction said. Among the “collaborators” were dozens of journalists from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, and The New York Times.
But the ones truly impacted by this officially sanctioned leak were local journalists who, often risking their lives, dared to cover the conflict on both sides. Many of us encountered problems: from accreditation denials to direct threats. Among the people hounding us were many of our former colleagues who had proudly become soldiers of the disinformation war, putting “patriotism” above objectivity.
Being in the U.S. for the shocking presidential election, I have had a unique opportunity to observe conflict in American society and in the journalist community. I am pleasantly surprised to see many colleagues grappling with the situation in all its complexity, asking vexing questions such as how did the country become so polarized and where do we find a common language.
Journalists in the U.S. have a responsibility beyond their nation. Thousands of my colleagues in post-Soviet countries (not to mention the developing world) look up to American journalism as a model. It was an American newspaper that gave me the opportunity to cover objectively the conflict in Ukraine. I hope that journalists in the U.S. will sustain enough professionalism and democratic instinct to come out of this crisis stronger, wiser, and with answers to these ethical issues. We still need a good example.