behind the news

Q&A: Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian director

Maryana Drach on her staff's experiences reporting on the conflict
March 13, 2014

For journalists in Ukraine, safety has become a leading concern. Radio Svoboda, the Ukrainian branch of Radio Free Europe, had been covering the protests (in Ukrainian) since they started in November. According to Maryana Drach, the Director of the Ukrainian Service for Radio Free Europe, the station is one of the leading sources of localized information in Ukraine, drawing in over 100,000 listeners a month.

Now, with violence increasing in Kiev and Crimea, some of it targeting journalists, RFE has had to find a way to continue reporting while maintaining the safety of its staff. Drach spoke with CJR via phone about the challenges that RFE’s Ukrainian journalists have faced in their reporting.

What are conditions like for RFE journalists in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine?

We have a correspondent in Crimea [who] received threats and also warnings from several official sources that he could be attacked. He ended up evacuating his family, and we took the editorial decision to not name our correspondents in Crimea. The media situation in Crimea has now seriously deteriorated.

What sort of audience listens to Radio Svoboda? How many have been listening during the crisis? Why is this important?

The coverage of dramatic, violent clashes in Kiev on February 18, and the rising number of fatalities among protesters, resulted in a spike in traffic to On February 20, the number of visits reached over 1.5 million, and the number of pageviews more than 2.9 million.

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Overall, registered 10,856,433 visits and 20,785,291 pageviews in February 2014. The February spike is significant, almost 10-fold compared to pre-crisis October 2013. In my view, this underlines the importance of Radio Svoboda reporting during crisis times.

What sorts of risks are your journalists facing and what sorts of precautions has RFE had to take?

At first, it was very peaceful, so we didn’t take special precautions.

[Now,] as a company, we decided to buy bulletproof vests for our colleagues. At one point when there was a massive use of force and there were snipers shooting at people on February 20–at that point we decided to stop coverage.

Our correspondent walked from the hotel to our office; there were dead bodies lying in Central Square. It was our [just-departed] president, Kevin Klose’s decision. He didn’t want any reporters killed on the scene. Looking back then, it was a very good decision because the risk was very grave.

Have any journalists seen a backlash from people who weren’t happy with your reporting?

There were two more incidents from our colleagues in Eastern Ukraine. One was attacked by a group of pro-Russia activists. He was accused of spreading false information. They forced him to kneel down to kiss the Georgian ribbon [a symbol of Russian solidarity and military valor]. He had torn clothes and got sick–they poured cold water on him. Another stringer approached a group [of pro-Russian activists] and then she was beaten herself and her camera was completely broken.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Joanna Plucinska is an intern at CJR