In Sloviansk, There is Only One Truth
In the Donetsk oblast, journalists don’t have it easy. Unless they work for the “right” media from “brotherly states”.
“I am open to talking to you as long as you write honestly. If not, we will have to say goodbye to each other,” I heard from the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk – Viacheslav Ponomariov. There is only one truth here: one that is preached by the local authorities. “Honesty” is the word most often used in conversations with journalists. Everybody expects it and it is commonly assumed that all media lie.
In front of the Regional State Administration, which is being occupied by supporters of federalisation (those who don’t either want separation of Donbas from Ukraine or its admission into the Russian Federation), a group of Georgian journalists was doing their work. When the news spread where they were from, several older people gathered around and began to shout at them: “You’ve been paid to be here,” an older woman yelled.
Being from Poland, I was welcomed a little more warmly. One person from the mob was trying to convince me that NATO troops are already in the area: “Are you from Poland? Your troops are already here,” he said.
In the Russian media, which are the main source of information for the supporters of changing Donbas’s status, the theory that NATO forces as well as private security firms (such as Blackwater) are involved in the current conflict in eastern Ukraine is quite common. In Donetsk or Kramatorsk, the situation is different than in Sloviansk. In these two cities we often hear that the protesters are “crazy”; their opponents are not scared to get involved in heated discussions with them. The reason for this different behaviour is that these two cities have not been taken over by men with machine guns, grenade launchers and armoured personnel carriers. In other words, the “little green men” as they are popularly called.
In Sloviansk, on the other hand, it is more difficult to find a person who would be thinking differently than the mob and if one can find one that does, this person either whispers to you and wants to talk on the side.
“Why the hell did you come here?” I was asked by a drunk resident of Sloviansk with a smile on his face. “Go back to where you came from. We don’t need you here,” he added and then invited us for vodka. Of course alcohol probably could best explain the changing moods of this gentleman, but the truth is that the message he conveyed to me, although presented in a primitive way, is what the majority of this Ukrainian city believe.
“Why are there so many foreign media here? They show what they want to show,” says an older lady with tears in her eyes. She stands next to a posting with pictures of victims of the blockade near Sloviansk. These people were allegedly killed by the nationalistic Right Sector – an organization which so often plays the role of a fascist bogie man.
“The little green men” have different moments. In their good moments, they even agree to have their pictures taken and being filmed by almost anyone. They talk. Some even smile. However, after a while it may turn out that recording is forbidden and everything has to be deleted from the camera, video-recorder, cell phone or tablet.
Smiling for the camera
“I don’t know if it makes any sense to let you in. Your news is hopeless,” says an armed guard of the occupied City Council in Sloviansk when he sees our Polish press passes. “Please show me your equipment,” yells one of the “green men” when we enter the building. Thankfully, he does not really know how to check it and one of the operator gets in (or maybe gets away?) with “illegal” recordings. Only the local residents can count on having their picture taken with men in the uniforms.
Although the “little green men” often smile and show their impeccable manners, for the majority of journalists interactions with them are not as pleasant as it might seem. “I don’t want to go there,” says one terrified journalist with a western accent after a “green man” picked him up from a bench and asked him to enter the City Council. In the end, it turned out that they were only checking his documents and they let him go. Such a situation happens here regularly.
The story is different for Russian journalists working for the pro-Kremlin media. They can’t complain of encountering any obstacles. They are allowed almost anywhere and don’t need to wait in any lines. It was quite different for us who had to wait for a meeting with the commander of the “green men” for over an hour as priority was given to the Russian and Chinese journalists. “Excuse me, but you have to wait,” said the press secretary of the “little green men”. No doubt he was a man of good manners.
Journalists from countries which are west to Ukraine have practically no chances for getting exclusive material. Access to such material is reserved for the Russian media. On Monday, April 21, among media circles a message started to spread that the federalists stopped three foreign journalists – two Italians and one Belarussian. They were soon let go, which means it was probably another control. Nonetheless, the media spread this news widely. Self-proclaimed authorities in Sloviansk used this fact to their advantage. “Give me your passports. We need to register you so that we know who comes here. Otherwise, we can’t help when somebody disappears,” said the Ponomariov press spokesperson, Stella Khorosheva.
Initially, safety was given as the purpose of registering foreign journalists. However, later at a press conference it turned out that the reason for this decision was quite different.
“We will be checking what information you journalists send out. We’ve been observing foreign media and we came to the conclusion that many of you lie. We are warning you that those of you who will continue to lie will be forced to leave our city. That’s why, we’ve recorded your data and we will continue to control you,” said Vera Kubrechenko, member of the City Council.
We have to get used to wartime conditions, she further explains. We may soon start seeing fewer smiles from the “little green men” for the journalists.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
The author thanks the Warsaw office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for making his visit to Ukraine possible.
Paweł Pieniążek is a journalist specialising in Eastern Europe. He is a contributor with the Polish daily Dziennik Opinii, New Eastern Europe and the Polish magazine W Punkt.