Václav Havel Fellowship programme helps young journalists from post-Soviet bloc states

Václav Havel, photo: Tomáš Adamec, ČRo

The Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship was founded in 2011 by the Czech Foreign Ministry, Radio Free Europe and Vize 97 -the Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation, with the aim of advancing and promoting media freedom in the post-communist world. Fellows are selected from the RFE’s broadcast region where media freedom is stifled and independent journalists often work at risk. The selected journalists spend several months at RFE where they receive on-the-job training from seasoned professionals.

Václav Havel, photo: Tomáš Adamec, ČRo
This year’s fellowship programme has brought together young journalists from Ukraine, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova. When they visited Czech Radio this week I asked some of them about the media scene in their homeland and the problems they face in their daily work.

Olga Malchevska is from Ukraine:

“Journalists had a difficult time in Ukraine under president Yanukovych because we didn’t have freedom of speech and every time it was a struggle for me as a journalist to make people understand what was propaganda and what was the truth. It was a really, really challenging situation. Then the situation changed rapidly and now we don’t have such problems –i.e. attempts to suppress the media- but we have a different problem. We are at war with the Russian Federation and that is also very difficult. First, it is difficult to cover the situation physically because Ukrainian journalists are not allowed into Eastern Ukraine and secondly, it is very hard to fight propaganda. We are journalists and our job is to tell the truth –just to tell the truth – not to fight propaganda, but we face a huge propaganda blitz from the Russian media and this propaganda is in the brains of people who do not have any other source of information than the Russian media and that is what is happening in Eastern Ukraine right now. They don’t get information from the Ukrainian media or independent foreign media –they only have information from the Russian media and that is why they do not have a choice, they do not have the ability to figure out what is going on. And now we are facing a situation where we see with our own eyes how the media can cause a war in a country. It is something I would not have imagined possible. But as a Ukrainian journalist I am trying – no, I am not trying – I AM telling the truth. ”

“There is no public demand in Russia for free and independent media”

Evgeny Kuzmin is a journalist based in the far-east Amur region of the Russian Federation. He entered the media scene when the country was ruled by president Boris Yeltsin and says that much has changed in the past decade.

“The problem is, of course, very complex. The first is pressure that has been tightening and tightening now for over a decade. And in the wake of what happened in Ukraine it became …almost total. Only a few independent voices remain on the federal level. I think that the number of media outlets which have an independent voice and express independent opinions can be counted on the fingers of one hand or at the most two hands –that’s in the whole country and they are almost virtually non-existent in the regions, though there are some exceptions.”

“But, looking at the problem from another angle, there is no public demand for a free and independent press, so as I see it this is not just a problem created by the bad guys in power, but by the millions, tens of millions of people who do not require it… they do not really need it, sometimes they do not want to listen to something that is the truth, but a bad truth. But of course it is the responsibility of those who are in the Kremlin to change that. They had 15 years to make society more thoughtful and more mature but they did not, it was not something they wanted to do.”

Was it a difficult decision for you –entering journalism when you knew you would be up against these problems and would be putting yourself and your family at risk?

“As a journalist from the regions I didn’t really face any threats – I don’t face them – though maybe the situation would be different if I were to move to Moscow and work for some federal media…When I entered the media scene in 2000-2001 the situation was different. It was just after president Yeltsin resigned and he was famous for being very liberal towards the media. That was when a lot of them emerged and I was pretty optimistic about the prospects - with the arrival of the Internet –and everything, but now, if I had to make the choice again – or, let us say, that if a young guy asked me whether to become a journalist or not I would probably say NO, do something else. There is not much room to do good journalism in my country –and also –which is shameful for me as a citizen – there is no demand in the society for this journalism and that may be even worse. ”

Olga Malchevska from Ukraine says that even if she is ready to tell the truth the public is not always cooperative –overcoming years of censorship is not easy.

“One of the main difficulties is that we cannot change the mentality of people in a single year. Most people are still scared. They were scared during Yanukovych’s time, they were scared to tell the truth, they were scared that they were giving an interview and somebody would call them and somebody would harm their children. Now they don’t have such a president and such a government, but they are still scared because they cannot change their mentality in one year or one month. And that is why our job is difficult. We try to explain that nobody is going to suppress them, that we are trying to help. We tell them – if people know about your problems then maybe those problems will be solved, we need to know about them so please be open, be open and then you will change your society and your life.”

“On the one hand there is the truth, on the other hand my children’s safety”

When you applied for this fellowship you were told to write a letter to Vaclav Havel. What did you say in the letter?

“Well, I just closed my eyes and tried to be sincere. I asked Mr. Havel the questions that are in my heart – I asked him how to be a free journalist in a free county. How to be objective, because sometimes it is really difficult to be objective when, on the one hand, you have your emotions and you must be separated from them and, on the other hand, when you are suppressed and your family is suppressed and you know that it is really dangerous for your children – because I have children and I must think about them. So, on the one hand, there is the truth and then there is a person calling me up, saying I know where you live – and I must decide what to do and I have responsibility not just for my own life but for my family. Those were the hardest decisions for me and I am always thinking –what kind of a mother am I –but I always chose the truth and I hope that in my country there will come a time where you will not have to make this choice, you will only be doing your job and not thinking that your family will be supressed because you are telling the truth as a journalist. ”

Arzu Geybullayeva is from Azerbaijan – although she is based outside her homeland she has not escaped persecution. Like Olga she feels it is essential to speak out even if it means putting herself and her family at risk.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“There are a number of issues. We are seeing a major crack-down at the moment especially against the independent media outlets and opposition media outlets. I am here as a fellow for Radio Free Europe and our office was just shut down in December, right on Christmas and our correspondent –actually one of the hosts of the radio show – she is currently in jail. She was arrested early in December before the office was shut down and she is facing several criminal charges actually. We have over 90 political prisoners, among them quite a few journalists who have been jailed and this has been going on for several years this is not a new phenomenon. We have had major libel cases against independent outlets launched by the government. Defamation and slander are very common charges brought against media outlets and journalists. So overall the situation is pretty dire. If you look at some of the reports of Freedom House, Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International they would rank Azerbaijan quite low and when it comes to media freedoms it is pretty devastating in terms of having any media outlets where you can actually read independent news- apart from on-line. A lot of them are shifting online because that is the only place where they can have something of their own and yet despite that they are still facing major intimidation by the government.”

Was it a hard decision for you to go into journalism knowing what you would be up against?

“I have a very unique story, because my introduction to journalism started with a blog. I started blogging in 2008 and it was one of the few political, English-language blogs on Azerbaijan. One thing led to another and in 2009 I started being a foreign correspondent on Azerbaijan and back then I had no idea whatever of what the consequences could be. I mean, I knew what journalists were facing but I was based out of the country and I thought I had this freedom, or at least a lot more freedom than journalists based in the country to write about what I thought was really important, to tell the stories that I thought were really important – until I started hearing that my brother would get talked at by his boss or my father would call me and say –what are you doing? I’ve been getting phone calls and people are telling me that you are writing about things...I was lucky because I was not in the country long enough for me to get arrested or for me to face any physical threat from the government, but, last year, I realized that even when you are based outside you can still be threatened – I received death threats and I was defamed. There was a lot of stuff going on and despite this I feel that right now is the time when we have a very important role as journalists especially those who speak foreign languages because it is very important to tell the stories to the world about what is happening in the country. We have a very strong government that invests billions into lobby companies to show this bright and rich and fast-developing country whereas you have prisoners, you have journalists who are silenced and who face criminal charges that have nothing to do with what they have done, but they really are being silenced for their work.”