Thirty journalists who were abruptly fired from the Kyiv Post this month have started their own publication and promised to block any attempts to influence their journalism from the outside.
The English-language Kyiv Independent was announced on Monday with the launch of a crowdfunding Patreon page, which says the new title will rely firstly on readers and donors before adding commercial activities later down the line.
It said: “We are not backed by a rich owner or an oligarch… we want to be closer with our readers and champions than we were at the Kyiv Post. Our relationship will be a two-way street. We will be asking for your opinion and calibrating our work to serve you better.”
The publisher of the 26-year-old Kyiv Post, Adnan Kivan, said on 8 November that the newspaper was closing immediately “for a short time” but would hopefully reopen “bigger and better”. All 50 members of staff were fired.
Real estate tycoon Kivan took over the Post, the biggest and oldest English-language title in Ukraine, for more than $3.5m in 2018. He also owns Channel 7, based in the city of Odessa, and initially agreed to respect the newspaper’s editorial independence. However it appeared this agreement did not last.
The paper’s defence correspondent Illia Ponomarenko wrote in The New Statesman that there had been an understanding that Kivan would not “meddle in our coverage or editorial appointments”.
“In recent months, however, the newsroom suspected the owner was unhappy with some of our coverage,” he said. “Those suspicions grew after the Kyiv Post published critical stories about Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general.”
The editorial staff, on their Save the Kyiv Post website, also claimed Kivan had “repeatedly complained about pressure from the authorities as a result of the Kyiv Post’s coverage”.
The Post’s journalists were surprised to learn a Ukrainian-language version was being created without their prior knowledge amid plans for a restructure. They “saw it as an attempt to undermine the newspaper’s editorial independence”, Ponomarenko said.
He said Post staff requested the job to lead the new version would be appointed through an open competition, and for transparency going forward. They thought the situation was resolved, but then suddenly the English-language version was closed and all staff fired.
Ponomarenko said: “We view this as an attempt to get rid of the Kyiv Post newsroom and replace us with more agreeable and obedient writers.
“The team has done its best to negotiate a peaceful divorce. Kivan repeatedly declined to let us keep the Kyiv Post brand, or sell the newspaper to a willing buyer, or even let us have a transitional period before the paper was shuttered.”
The staff are therefore going it alone. They said: “We were fired by the newspaper owner for defending the editorial independence. But we won’t be silenced.
“Ukraine needs on-the-ground English-language journalism of the highest quality and our readers need a source they can trust.”
Former Post deputy chief editor Olga Rudenko has been named chief editor. US journalist Brian Bonner, who led the Post since 2008, has retired.
The Patreon page offers several levels of support: £4 per month gives a weekly email with behind-the-scenes updates and recommended readings, £8 will also get a website shoutout, £23 will also get access to a closed chat for supporters and the editorial team plus exclusive analysis.
For £38.50 supporters will also be given a seat at the table, with participation in operational decision-making; story pitching. For £77 per month they can also attend annual strategic meetings with the team and invitations to closed-door events.
In just a few hours since going live on Monday morning the page had raised topped income of £800 per month from more than 100 people.
According to The Fix, which reports on media business models and whose co-founders and ex-Kyiv Post staff Daryna Shevchenko and Jakub Parusinski are supporting the Kyiv Independent as acting chief executive and chief financial officer respectively, a new Kyiv Post team hired by Kivan has announced it will be back before Christmas.
Kivan has re-hired Luc Chenier as chief executive. He previously ran the newspaper between August 2016 and February 2018.
Chenier told subscribers in an email: “Editorially, my priority will be to make sure we are in a position to deliver balanced and factual news. I regard the BBC as the gold standard in this regard, as does Mr Kivan.”
Of the dispute between ex-staff and Kivan, he said there had been “miscommunications and tensions around the Ukrainian-language version”.
He also reportedly revealed the Post would be dropping its paywall, launched in 2013, following “mass cancellations” he claimed were due to “technical problems”.
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last week urged Kivan to sell the Post to protect its independence. Jeanne Cavelier, the head of its Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said: “If the suspicions of pressure from members of President Zelensky’s administration are confirmed, this would represent a very disturbing evolution in the state of press freedom in Ukraine.”
According to RSF, Kivan offered to rehire the Post’s 50 staff under new management but they refused, due to his alleged attempts to interfere and “get rid of annoying journalists”.
Ukraine is ranked 97th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.