“There’s an order to abduct you.”
The warning came to Oleksiy Matsuka in a text message from a fellow journalist who said he had been offered $1,500 by a separatist in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region for information about Matsuka’s whereabouts.
The threat of abduction and far worse is an occupational hazard for independent journalists in the country’s war-torn east, though theirs was always a dangerous profession. Matsuka, recipient of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) 2014 International Press Freedom Award and host of RFE/RL’s “Donbas Realities” TV news program, perhaps knows this better than most.
Six months before the menacing text message, his car was set on fire outside his home in Donetsk. A few days later, fliers with his photo and the words “Attention! Traitor!” were circulated in the city.
In 2011 his apartment was set on fire while he was away, and someone, Matsuka presumes the arsonist, later left a funeral wreath with his name on it in the hallway of his building and sent threatening messages to his mobile phone. The cement bags blocking the front door from the outside during the fire suggest it was attempted murder. In an example of the impunity with which crimes against journalists are often perpetrated, police classified the crime as “hooliganism.”
Matsuka is convinced all of these attacks were carried out in retaliation for his work as a journalist--first by those loyal to ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych who stood to lose from his investigative reporting on official corruption in eastern Ukraine, and now by separatists who want to silence his reporting on the conflict in the Donbas region.
He now reports from Kyiv, but he’s not convinced he’s safe.
“I’m always looking over my shoulder, trying to identify who might be representing the separatists in Kyiv,” he said. “I’ve been living under this kind of pressure for three years now.”
Disgusted with what he calls the “Soviet-style journalism” taught at Donetsk National University where he studied, Matsuka graduated instead with a degree in political science in 2005. While still in school, he and a group of like-minded students founded their own newspaper to provide classmates with an alternative take on regional events. He describes local print media at that time as a mouthpiece for the ruling Party of Regions, and then President Leonid Kuchma.
The popularity of the upstart newspaper among students irked school officials, who warned him to stop writing or be expelled. He ignored them and continued to publish the paper almost single-handedly, as the other students dropped out of the project for fear of disciplinary action.
He later founded the websites “Novosti Donbasa” (“Donbas News”) and “Donetskaya Pravda” (Donetsk Truth) to investigate regional corruption, government spending, public tenders, and other matters of public interest avoided by pro-government media.
Since June 2014 he has anchored RFE/RL Ukrainian Service’s “Donbas Realities,” a 30-minute Russian language TV program providing independent news and analysis about events in eastern Ukraine, where official Russian media has flooded the airwaves since the conflict began.
“Ukrainian national media produce most of their content in Ukrainian language, and this is part of what causes a problem for informing citizens of Donbas,” said Matsuka. “We produce our program in Russian because that’s what our audience speaks. The main idea with ‘Donbas Realities’ is to present accurate information about what is occurring in Donbas, and the reasons, causes, context, and background to the current crisis.”
Though the security situation for journalists in eastern Ukraine is not expected to improve any time soon, Matsuka hopes the crisis will galvanize journalists, who he believes should feel a greater responsibility to report the truth now that the stakes are so high.
“My colleagues have to be much more responsible now,” he said, “before both society and their readers.”