The Kyiv Post‘s Brian Bonner on why silence is not golden

Since 2008 the English-language Kyiv Post, under the leadership of editor-in-chief Brian Bonner, has consistently uncovered corruption and cronyism in Ukraine’s highest circles, despite sometimes ferocious opposition from the oligarchs, officials and politicians on the receiving end of their reporting. 

But on Monday, the paper’s owner, Syrian-born construction mogul Adnan Kivan—who also owns a TV station, Channel 7 in Odessa, where he is based—fired the entire Kyiv Post newsroom. Bonner says he was blindsided by the decision. As was the Ukrainian expat community. 

Bonner has a long and colorful history of surviving disaster. In 2011, the New York Times reported on his refusal to kill a story critical of the Ukrainian agriculture minister (said to have been involved in a scandal known as “The Great Grain Robbery”); upon its publication he was summarily fired by then-owner Mohammad Zahoor. The newsroom went on strike in protest. Its reporters took their laptops to a city park from where they posted reports on the dispute via Facebook. Bonner was eventually reinstated.

In 2014, CJR reported on the Kyiv Post and its independence, citing an editorial in which Bonner had defended telling the truth about corruption and war to a group of angry businessmen. “When Ukraine suffers, we suffer… Readership has never been higher, because the world is tuning in to the horrors unfolding.” A few weeks later, the Kyiv Post won the prestigious Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. But the editorial cited in the piece by CJR’s Oliver Bullough no longer appears on the Kyiv Post website.

On his acquisition of the paper in 2018, Kivan had said he would preserve its editorial independence. But during his first meeting with the newsroom, according to two Kyiv Post reporters, Kivan announced that “Silence is golden,” which was understandably taken as advice to go easy on the establishment. Clashes familiar to journalists the world over, between management, journalists and the subjects of their reporting, came and went over the succeeding years.

Tensions came to a head some weeks ago, when Channel 7’s Olena Rotari announced on Facebook that she would be heading a Ukrainian-language version of the Kyiv Post, with its own staff—a decision made entirely without the knowledge or consent of Bonner or anyone in his newsroom. Trust appears to have broken down during subsequent discussions regarding the exact parameters of the Kyiv Post’s editorial independence.

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I spoke with Bonner to discuss the state of the Kyiv Post. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

So, what are you going to do?

There’s a lot of moving parts at the moment. There’s a movement afoot to try to get the owner and publisher, Adnan Kivan, to reverse his decision, and reopen the newspaper, or sell it to somebody else, or sell it to a group of journalists in-house who want to form an NGO. But every passing day a newspaper is closed, it makes it so much more difficult to reopen without damage.

How much did the decision to shut down have to do with the interplay between the owner/publisher and the political machine in Ukraine?

Owning media is not easy in Ukraine. There are very few, if any, independent news media outlets that are both commercially and editorially successful. We tried to be the combination of both. We didn’t succeed; on a commercial basis, we’ve been unprofitable since 2009. So that is one factor. 

The other factor is that most of the [media] ownership in Ukraine is oligarch, and they use their media outlets as political weapons—to reward friends, punish enemies, and wield influence. They’re not interested in free speech, they’re not interested in profits; they’re interested in influence. And they dominate the sector.

Then there’s a smaller sector of editorially independent but government-funded media. US-funded, Radio Liberty, different investigative programs—or grant funded, which is also a dangerous way to live. We got about half our money from commercial sources, and half from the owner, a significant amount of money. We’re still a small newspaper, with a $1.2 million budget and fifty employees. But we’re proud that we are commercial, and we’re proud that we strive to be, and have been, editorially independent, and the owner has supported that up to the end. 

We’ve gone after presidents, prime ministers, general prosecutors, CEOs, oligarchs. We gave them tough coverage—we believe fair, but they often didn’t—and they would complain. But in Ukraine, because there’s such a custom that owners control, or should control, everything their journalists do, they often go to the owner. So people would complain to Kivan directly.

I think he got tired of it, or it caused him problems. And this is not his main business; I think he saw that there are threats to his [main] business; he tells me that’s not the reason, but I believe that all these things are factors.

He never told me, “don’t do this,” or “don’t touch this person.” He just said what I think publishers all over the world say: “Be careful, get your facts straight, be fair, if you made a mistake, correct it… if somebody feels they’ve been treated unfairly, or wants an op-ed, publish them.” All these things are what journalists should do anyway, I think. 

But because media was not his main business, I don’t think he anticipated the blowback of having a truly editorially independent newspaper under his ownership.

Your guys told me a story that when Kivan first came on board he told them that “Silence is golden,” which struck me as a pretty bizarre thing to tell a roomful of journalists.

Well… it may be golden, but that’s not the way we operate as journalists. We’re a megaphone. 

Kivan owns a TV station, Channel 7 in Odessa, and I think they’re fine people but they’re not editorially independent, or even remotely commercially independent. So yeah—we had, as you can see, a fundamental disagreement about our role. 

I know he views journalists as saints, as an important profession. He’s Syrian, he was kicked out of Syria by Assad the senior, so he hates dictators, he hates Russia—the Kremlin—hates what Russia has done to Syria, and what Russia has done to Ukraine, so we’re all on the same page there. He’s for democracy, you know—he was trying to promote Ukraine because he’s a businessman, and he wanted this to be a successful, democratic, European Union country, and he viewed the free press as indispensable to that. 

He also understood the way the power structure works here, which is: If you attack me, I fight back. And that’s I think what he was trying to convey to us, with his warnings. 

And then there is the whole issue of expanding into the Ukraine-language edition, launching into this without consulting you. 

There’s a backstory there. I have been here fourteen years, I’m 62 and coming to the end of my tenure very soon. We tried a Ukrainian-language version ten years ago, and it was a flop. We did everything wrong. It lasted for two years, and by the time we started to figure out what we were doing, the then-owner didn’t want to fund the project anymore.

Every owner, and there have been only three, has wanted to make the Kyiv Post accessible to Ukrainian and Russian-language audiences. It’s understandable. And this owner was no different; he wanted us to be bigger, because he thought that it would be forever, or a long time, before this became an English-speaking nation.

But because of my past experience, I dragged my feet. And then, he also wanted a TV station. Well, this market is oversaturated with TV stations. We’re about the same age, Kivan is about 60, I’m 62. And I said, this is just not the way to go, because it’s not like the old days where we sit around and watch the eight o’clock news. Everyone wants video news on demand, and that’s where we should put the money. 

So he had talked about this, that we were going to expand, hire a hundred journalists, we’re going to go into Ukrainian language, we’re going to go on TV, et cetera, and I had said Welllll, let’s talk about this. So I think he got tired of me dragging my feet, and he issued an announcement suddenly, without my knowledge.

There was a post by his top journalist at Channel 7, announcing herself as the chief editor of the Ukrainian-language version of the Kyiv Post, with a separate team and separate content, all unbeknownst to me completely. Blindsided everybody. It was a rough thing.

So I tried to smooth it out, not offend him, not offend Olena Rotari, the journalist he’d appointed, and not offend my staff. I ended up offending all three.

It seems to me just from this brief contact that your staff are ready to keep on, that you have a lot of goodwill there.

That’s good to know. It’s been contentious. So there was a big kerfuffle, and you know the way news works; today’s big story can be forgotten in two weeks. So I waited until everybody sort of forgot about this, stopped writing about it, and I went down to Odessa. 

And I explained to our sister colleagues—I said we should try to help them, and they should try to help us, but I explained that this is a toxic way to go about it; this is not a collegial way to go about it. There’s no such thing as two Kyiv Post brands; we have one brand, we have one set of standards, and our hiring is independent; you have to go through the process. 

They were disappointed, and I explained this to our owner almost at the same time, and he said he accepted it, but I don’t think he did, and he was very unhappy with the situation.

All this is combined with the very serious health issues that he is facing. Also his family never wanted him to be in media assets, because owning media costs money and causes trouble, and nobody appreciates you. And so why do it? 

We’d been all set to go for the expansion. But if we’re editorially independent, as we are at our current size, do you really want to put Kyiv Post on steroids? And instead of two investigative reporters, four? The logical conclusion, for him, was that he wanted to take a pause—but it is very damaging. 

All these factors went into his decision, which I don’t agree with. I’ve decided that if he’s not going to keep it open, I am leaving on my own terms, and maybe it’s time. But I’m concerned about my staff. I hope it is not over for them, or for the Kyiv Post. I am doing what I can to salvage this situation, encouraging the owner to sell, or find a new owner. 

I regret that this has happened because Kivan has actually invested the most, and interfered the least, of any of the three publishers of the Kyiv Post, and I knew and worked for all three. I’ve talked to him recently, and he feels under attack, defensive. I don’t think that’s the way to approach this. I think we should thank him for what he did, for investing—he invested seven million dollars in this place, which—there is no possibility of him getting a return financially. He didn’t do it for those reasons. We have a studio now where we can do TV production, we have all these things that we never had before, and it would be a shame if it went away.

What is the best-case scenario for the Kyiv Post?

Sometimes Ukraine is the hot news story, but we are a small publication. My life right now is talking to media, and I’m grateful for all the attention. I’m talking to deeply concerned ambassadors, who want to know what they can do; I’m talking to potential investors, and there are some, thankfully; I’ll be talking to government officials, including the president’s chief of staff, on Friday. And I think the best thing that they can do from a government perspective is to really ensure that media owners are not harassed for what their outlets publish.

I think that message, from the president on down, would be a very helpful signal.

 

 

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Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.