KIEV, Ukraine — Journalists at Ukraine’s main English-language newspaper, the Kyiv Post, scored a rare victory for independent press in the former Soviet space this week by successfully challenging their owner to reinstate the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, after he had been fired days before.
The weekly’s entire staff went on strike to protest what they said was an attempt to censor the newspaper, after owner Mohammad Zahoor fired editor Brian Bonner for publishing a hard-hitting interview with Ukraine’s agricultural minister.
On Thursday the two sides announced that they had reached a compromise: Bonner would be allowed back as part of a four-person editorial board. Zahoor for his part promised that he would not interfere in the newspaper’s editorial independence.
In a joint statement, Zahoor said that, “despite differences in opinion over this particular incident,” he was “impressed that the Kyiv Post staff had stood up so actively for something they believe in — freedom of the press.”
“This temporary solution allows us to continue working as normal while we continue clarifying the details of a long-term solution and contracts,” the statement said.
The two sides still differ on what produced the dispute. Kyiv Post journalists recently interviewed Agricultural Minister Mykola Prysyazhnyuk. During the interview they grilled the Ukrainian official over the government’s controversial policy of imposing grain export quotas. The quotas have been criticized as non-transparent and benefiting a small circle of local companies, while blocking major Western grain companies from selling their production abroad.
According to Bonner, pressure not to publish the article began almost as soon as the journalists returned from the minister’s office. He said Zahoor called him, saying that “he [Zahoor] and the agricultural minister had discussions and the minister didn’t like [the interview].”
Bonner said that he refused to pull the piece however. When he eventually published, he was fired.
“I was dismissed because I refused to obey an order,” he said.
Zahoor, however, tells a different version of events. He said that he never wanted to kill the interview entirely — just wait a little while to add information which would balance the article and make it stronger.
Zahoor said that Bonner agreed not to publish the article late the night before the paper came out on April 15. When the Kiev Post owner awoke the next morning, he found he had been double-crossed.
“I just wanted to wait to make it a better story,” Zahoor said. “No one called from the government side to [kill the piece].”
Prysyazhnyuk on his ministry’s website denied that he wanted the interview removed.
Whatever was the actual cause of the disagreement, the resolution speaks favorably of Zahoor, a Pakistan-born British citizen who made his fortune in the Ukrainian steel business. (His wealth is estimated between $550 million and $1 billion.)
In 2009, he bought the Kyiv Post for $1.1 million. The paper was started in 1995 by an American expatriate and, despite a small circulation of 20,000 to 25,000, is read extensively by the foreign business community and government officials.
That a media owner in the former Soviet Union would acquiesce to journalists’ demands to butt out of their business is virtually unheard of. In fact the opposite is usually the case. Journalists regularly complain that their material is altered or suppressed, either because of the direct intervention of the government, or editors’ anticipation that officials will object.
But Zahoor was already an exception, it must be said. Bonner, while the strike was still in progress, said that Zahoor had up to the dispute been a “model owner” and a “hero of the free press.”
The Kyiv Post had already gained a reputation as an outspoken critic of President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration. Almost without exception, each week the paper seems to feature a front page article detailing some government abuse, while the editorial page weighs heavily toward the anti-Yanukovych opposition.
Zahoor staunchly stood by the paper in its recent successful defense against a libel case launched by Ukrainian billionaire Dmitro Firtash. Firtash sued the paper in a London court, hoping to take advantage of Great Britain’s more stringent libel laws, which place the onus of proof on the defendant. The suit could have cost the paper millions of dollars.
Indeed there are indications that the steel-magnate-turned-free-press-defender is growing tired of the newspaper business. In its announcement of the strike’s end, the Kyiv Post also reported that Zahoor was looking to sell the paper — possibly to the journalists themselves for $1, if they could find investors to pay off all its debts.