Oleksiy Matsuka, 31 has been for a decade one of Donetsk’s most prominent journalists. In 2003, he founded Novosti Donbassa (Donbas News), a website to cover his home region. Matsuka soon built a reputation as a courageous investigative journalist, writing stories that most journalists in the Donbas (Donetsk Basin) region avoided. Last week, the Paris-based freedom of information group Reporters Without Borders named Matsuka among 100 worldwide “information heroes” for his courageous journalism.
But in Ukraine’s heavily industrialized Donbas, the recognition that comes with writing about government corruption and abuse of authority is not always welcome or even safe. Matsuka has received anonymous threats for years. In July 2011, someone set fire to his apartment and left behind a funeral wreath with a note: “To Oleksiy, from grieving friends.”
Last year Matsuka reported that he and another reporter in the city had come under daily surveillance by unknown men after receiving a grant from the Kyiv-based International Renaissance Foundation, a pro-democracy group funded by philanthropist George Soros, to pursue investigative reporting.
Days after masked, pro-Russian militiamen seized government buildings in Donetsk last month and declared a Donetsk People’s Republic, someone torched Matsuka’s car, destroying it. His photograph – labeled “Attention, traitor!” – was circulated throughout the city. So two weeks ago, Matsuka left his family behind and moved to Kyiv. “I wanted to stay,” he told Foreign Policy last month. “I wanted to build freedom of expression in Donetsk, however improbable or crazy you think that is. But they’ll kill me and they’ll kill my colleagues if I go back.”
From Kyiv, Matsuka now reports to a national audience, presenting an evening program of Donetsk news on Hromadske TV. Hromadske (or Public) was organized by some of Ukraine’s best-known journalists as an internet television channel that could remain editorially independent in a country where commercial TV is dominated by the country’s super-rich oligarchs, each with parochial and business interests. Amid the protests of last winter on Kyiv’s Maidan, Hromadske became a hit, and Ukraine’s state television channel has picked up its programming.
Matsuka’s April 30 newscast offered a picture of the conflict in Donetsk. The masked militiamen who occupy government buildings do not clearly hold public loyalties in a city of one million people. On April 28, a couple of thousand residents paraded to support a unified Ukraine, waving the country’s blue-and-yellow flag. Dozens of militiamen in camouflage fatigues and face masks attacked the marchers, beating them with sticks and iron bars.
In his broadcast, Matsuka interviews Oleksandr Yaroshenko, a local politician with the Batkivshchyna party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The militiamen “beat people up just because they were carrying Ukrainian flags, singing Ukrainian songs. I’m ashamed for my country, I’m ashamed for Donetsk,” says Yaroshenko.
Police officers mostly stood to the side, Yaroshenko says. Only “when you were on the ground and five or six masked goons were pummeling you with bats and truncheons, they might finally intervene.”
“Two or three months ago, no one would have thought what is happening today in Donetsk could be possible,” Yaroshenko tells Matsuka mournfully. “This cannot be allowed to continue. Two days ago my knees were shaking from horror. I saw an elderly woman, a Ukrainian flag draped over her shoulder. She was lying on the ground bleeding and these snotty teenage hoodlums were beating her with sticks. This is what we have sunk to in Donetsk and this must stop.”
Two days after the attack, a group of residents scheduled another demonstration at a downtown park. The city authorities, still in office and co-existing with the Russian-backed militias, denied them permission.
In a telephone interview, Matsuka asks the mayor’s press secretary why the rally was banned. “Because the militia (police) wrote to city hall and said they’re not able to guarantee people’s safety” answers the spokesman Maksym Rovynsky.
Matsuka presses: “So what’s the solution here, where are people supposed to assemble to express their viewpoints?”
“If I knew the solution I would have a different job,” Rovynsky answers. He explains that the separatist militants from the Donetsk People’s Republic had circulated leaflets in the city threatening to beat those who dared to rally for Ukrainian unity. To prevent further bloodshed the demonstration was banned.
“But why are these Donetsk Republic people so aggressive?” asks Matsuka. “We never saw anything like this on the Maidan. Where does this aggression come from?”
“These people have created a picture of an enemy for themselves in their minds. They are not fighting real problems, they are fighting virtual enemies” answers Rovynsky.
Matsuka’s next news item is no happier. A local church has set up a tent at Constitution Place, a central square in Donetsk. Priests and lay people have gathered there to pray for unity in Ukraine. Matsuka reports that ten young men in track suits armed with clubs and sticks broke in, threatened the priest and other participants, tore down a Ukrainian flag and a banner calling for unity, threw them into the river, and ran off. This is the fifth or sixth time that this tent church has been attacked.
Then Matsuka interviews Roman Lyagin, the man responsible for preparing the May 11 referendum scheduled by the Donetsk People’s Republic as a vote on seceding from Ukraine. “This referendum is being prepared according to European standards, according to all the laws and canons of referendums,” Lyagin says. While he assures viewers that the referendum will use the same polling stations and voting officials as in the nation’s presidential election on May 25, his comments make clear that he has had no communication with the country’s election commission.
Matsuka asks Lyagin: “How does your people’s republic govern? Who is the president, and how did you get your position?” Lyagin responds a bit testily now. “The people’s republic gave us power and we took power ourselves,” he says.
Finally, Lyagin describes the question on which the Donetsk People’s Republic will ask residents to vote. It will read “Do you support independence for the Donetsk People’s Republic – yes or no?”
The ballot will be printed both in Ukrainian and in Russian, Lyagin says, “because we are tolerant and respect those, who live side by side with us.”
Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.