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Sudden Closure of Kyiv English-Language Newspaper Worries Ukraine Media

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FILE - Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner, right, and other journalists work at their desks in Kiev, Ukraine, Dec. 8, 2017.

Depending on whom you ask, the sudden closure of the Kyiv Post is either an attempt to wrest editorial control from its journalists or an internal dispute between the owner and the paper's staff.

But one thing is for certain: Without the renowned English-language newspaper in circulation, audiences who closely follow politics in Ukraine are left without a credible, independent source of information.

The Kyiv Post's 26-year run in Ukraine came to an abrupt end November 8, when the paper's owner, businessman Adnan Kivan, announced that the publication had been suspended.

In a statement issued at the time, Kivan did not provide a reason, saying only, "One day, we hope to reopen the newspaper bigger and better."

But the paper's journalists say they believe the move was an attempt to remove "inconvenient" journalists, and in a statement, they accused Kivan of trying to interfere with the paper's editorial independence.

Government pressure?

Brian Bonner, who worked at Kyiv Post for 13 years, most recently as executive director and editor in chief, told VOA he believes Kivan may have come under pressure over the paper's coverage.

"Like his predecessors, some in President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's administration are thin-skinned. Although Zelenskiy's people and Adnan Kivan insist that he faced no outside pressure, I suspect there was, or at least that recurring complaints about our coverage factored into his decision to close us down," Bonner said.

The paper has taken on big stories in its history, most recently reporting on the Pandora Papers — a massive leak of documents that shone a light on how the world's powerful elite, including Ukraine's president, allegedly used secret accounts to hide property worth trillions of dollars. Zelenskiy denies any wrongdoing.

And it has also received complaints, including from "presidents, oligarchs and prosecutors general, to name a few," Bonner said.

But, the veteran journalist says, the president's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, recently called to say that the administration wants the Kyiv Post to be open and "very independent."

"That was a welcome message and encouraging sign. I hope it is true," Bonner said, adding that the best thing Ukraine's government can do now is "protect not only journalists but owners of media organizations from harassment."

Blaming staff dispute

In an interview with VOA, Kivan denied being pressured and said a dispute with the paper's staff over plans to expand had left him no choice.

"I feel very sad for that situation," Kivan said. "I was pushed to that corner."

Kivan said he planned to have the paper back up and running soon. "God willing, within days, maximum weeks, we will be open again with a new energy, with the same principles," he said.

Analysts viewed the closure and claims of editorial interference as the further decline of Ukraine's media.

Rights groups including Reporters Without Borders say that while the country has made some positive steps, oligarchs retain a tight grip on the country's news industry, which affects independent reporting.

The shuttering of what was Ukraine's largest English-language news outlet will also impact the ability of the international community to stay informed of events inside the country, analysts say.

The European Union's ambassador to Ukraine, Matti Maasikas, tweeted: "It was the first English-speaking source for most foreigners — something Ukraine now risks losing, with consequences."

The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine called it a "sad day for Ukrainian media."

Others saw it as a repressive move.

"Zelenskiy and Yermak are quickly moving towards an authoritarian road. I know Adnan Kivan, and I can't believe he's done this on his own intention. … He must have been seriously threatened," Anders Åslund, an economist and Ukraine expert, told VOA.

Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council said that without the Kyiv Post, there will be fewer avenues of independent information.

"As a result of the Kyiv Post going under, the Western community is going to have much less information about Ukraine," Haring said. "Why is it a big deal? It means Ukraine continues going down a wrong path as it seems to be doing now — that there will be fewer voices to help Ukraine engage in a course correction."

Changes in ownership

The newspaper has had three owners since American Jed Sunden launched it in 1995. In 2009, it was acquired by businessman Mohammad Zahoor, a British citizen and native of Pakistan, who sold it to Kivan, a Syrian native and Ukrainian citizen, in March 2018.

As editor in chief, Bonner has steered the paper through changes in ownership but has managed throughout to keep a steady hold on the paper's editorial independence.

"It remains hard to own and run a news organization in Ukraine," Bonner told VOA. "There's still hostility within the Ukrainian power structure toward independent journalism. Financially, the business is brutal. I don't know of any major news outlets that are both editorially and financially independent."

Kivan says the paper's principles will not change. Bonner, however, seems less certain.

"In the end, [Kivan] may have simply concluded that his business interests and supporting independent journalism just don't mix. We'll see," Bonner said.

In the meantime, some journalists who were fired from the paper have started their own newsletter.

Iryna Matviychuk contributed to this report. This article originated in VOA's Ukraine Service.

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