2014 IPFA Winner: Oleksiy Matsuka

Monday, December 1, 2014
Oleksiy Matsuka, this year's International Press Freedom Award winner. PHOTO: Andriy Dubchak.
By Alexandra Zakreski For Oleksiy Matsuka, recipient of the 2014 CJFE International Press Freedom Award (IPFA), being a journalist has always been tied to a broader mission: “To do the most I can to democratize the region in which I live,” he says—which is no small task in Donetsk, an area in eastern Ukraine long plagued by government corruption and cronyism. Matsuka began working as an investigative journalist in 2010. As he dug into the activities and expenditures of local government officials and regional departments, he quickly learned that journalism in Donetsk is a dangerous profession. Nearly all of the politicians Matsuka investigated were desperate to cover something up—corruption, embezzlement of public funds or bribery. “Every day from that point on, I was persecuted in some form,” he says. Over a three-year period, Matsuka launched a series of projects to fight censorship and corruption, strengthen independent journalism and civil society, and improve protections for Donetsk’s journalists: Novosti Donbassa, a regional news website; Donetskaya Pravda, a forum for investigating public officials and government spending; and Hromads’ke TV Donechchyny, a public television station. Ukraine has long been known for government corruption, censorship and impunity for violence against journalists, and public outrage at government corruption has reared its head many times in recent years. It came to a boiling point in the EuroMaidan movement, which began in November 2013, when citizens took to the streets to support greater integration with western Europe and to protest corruption in Kyiv’s central government. When former president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February 2014, there was hope for change. In post-Yanukovych Donetsk, Matsuka says “things were actually freer than they had ever been” in terms of free expression. “But, when local officials realized the threats posed by rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), everything changed.” Most eastern Ukrainian media outlets—broadcast in particular—were shut down and replaced by Russian propaganda channels, and the Internet now serves as the most reliable source of information about the region. The violent conflict between Russian and Ukrainian forces has created significant problems for access to information and the safety of journalists in Donetsk and the surrounding region. Since the start of 2014, six journalists have been killed while reporting on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and many more have been held captive—in some cases, for weeks at a time before being released or escaping—largely at the hands of pro-Russia forces, but also by Ukrainian authorities and “self-defence” militia. Furthermore, the Institute of Mass Information, a Ukrainian non-governmental organization that works to defend journalists’ rights and press freedom, has recorded at least 281 assaults on journalists, 130 instances of censorship and 137 cases of journalist activities being impeded in some way. Persecution of journalists has intensified in Donetsk since pro-Russian rebels took control of the region. Given Matsuka’s line of work, it’s no surprise that, over the years, some people have wanted to shut him up. In August 2011, following the publication of several articles on the embezzlement of public funds by senior regional officials, arsonists barricaded his door, set his apartment on fire and left a condolence wreath; luckily, he was not at home. Two years later, on Sept. 24, 2013, there was an attempted break-in at the Novosti Donbassa office, where Matsuka and his colleagues spent most of their time. Fingerprints found on the office doorframe belonged to a violent felon previously convicted of assault resulting in death. After four years of nearly uninterrupted threats, the final straw came in April 2014. Two days after he co-wrote an article, published in Kyiv Post, that linked separatist leaders to Moscow, Matsuka’s car was torched. Surveillance footage shows a masked man calmly and deliberately walking up to the car, dousing it in fluid and setting it ablaze. At the same time, flyers calling Matsuka a traitor and showing his picture circulated in Donetsk. He fled to Kyiv, where he continues to work as an investigative journalist, as well as produce Novosti Donbassa and its associated projects. While many in the international community have been quick to believe that the new Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, will create a more open culture in both politics and the media, Matsuka is not convinced. Such endemic corruption and censorship will not be erased by a simple change in government, he says, and there is still much work to be done. Matsuka says Ukrainian journalists still face many threats to free expression. Wealthy media owners often “influence” reporters, he says, adding that journalists are limited in their ability to critically report on people in power; indeed, President Poroshenko owns a TV station. Another threat to free expression, according to Matsuka, is “low media literacy in the Ukrainian population at large,” a by-product of years of clientelism, corruption and censorship in the Ukrainian press. Combined with impunity for attacks on journalists and a series of high-profile cases of journalist murders, Matsuka says, there is a climate of self-censorship that will be difficult to overcome. While conflict obviously presents its own life-threatening dimension to reporting in Ukraine, the fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces has had some unexpected consequences for journalists in the region. “There have been attempts by the Ukrainian government to censor reporters using the current war as a guise and excuse to do so,” says Matsuka. In just one example from early September, Ukrainian security forces raided the Kyiv offices of Vesti, an independent newspaper that’s been described as pro-Russian, under the pretext that its reporters had violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity. While the government of President Poroshenko approved new laws in October 2014 to combat corruption and reduce censorship and surveillance, Matsuka is skeptical of the leader’s potential to change the political culture in Ukraine. “It’s up to us as journalists to do that,” he says, adding that reporters must continue to hold politicians accountable. Matsuka’s greatest hope for meaningful change in the press and political landscape lies in the solidarity between Ukrainian journalists and the international media community, and he believes this is strengthened by events like the CJFE Gala: A Night to Honour Courageous Reporting, which demonstrate that there’s a network standing behind Ukraine’s journalists as they continue to forge a space for strong independent media. “Ukrainian journalists [fighting for press freedom] can take confidence from that support,” Matsuka says. For his tireless investigative reporting in the face of great personal risk, CJFE is honouring Oleksiy Matsuka with its 2014 International Press Freedom Award, to be presented at the CJFE Gala: A Night to Honour Courageous Reporting on Dec. 3, 2014.
Alexandra Zakreski is CJFE’s International Programs Coordinator.

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