At one point during an exclusive video interview you can watch here, a clearly energized-but exhausted Jakub Parusinski turned slightly from his laptop camera. His eyes began to move back and forth as he explained that he was checking messages — a common distraction for a journalist.
He apologized to me. But if anyone has the right to check his email in an interview, Parusinski’s the guy. He’s being inundated with messages, many from colleagues still in Ukraine as well as those who have fled. He follows the news closely, incessantly, and not necessarily because he has deadlines to keep. Rather, he has a cause to follow through on, one that would not exist without him.
As the Kyiv Independent’s chief financial officer, Parusinski started the extraordinary GoFundMe campaign to save independent Ukrainian media in the wake of Russia’s made-for-war-crimes offensive. He is Polish-Australian, but started his media career in Ukraine and has deep ties to the country.
He may not have anticipated how his efforts would take on all the momentum of a media movement. But Mark Rice-Oxley of The Guardian gave his cause a huge boost on March 1 when wrote about the campaign, “Keep Ukraine’s media going.” And so, a global outpouring of support began.
Donors smash through the million-dollar mark
On that day, I reported that Parusinski had raised more than £150,000, equivalent to $200,000. Fast forward less than a month and that total now stands at about £911,000, or roughly $1.2 million. Every time Parusinski sets a goal, donors barrel through it. When I reached Parusinski in London last week, he sounded every bit as focused on the campaign as ever.
It makes sense, given that he cited media fatigue for the war as potentially a greater enemy to Ukraine than Russia’s tin-can tanks and ruthless, civilian-bombing thugs. (Yuriy Matsarsky, a native Ukrainian journalist I’ve interviewed, insists that the Russian soldiers who decry the war after being captured are the very same cretins who revel in the slaughter — a contention he bases on many intercepted Russian communications.)
As for Parusinski’s English-language outlet, the Kyiv Independent continues to do yeoman’s work with an occasional nod to the cheeky Ukrainian sense of humor; this is, after all, a country that elected a comedian as its president. If you scan the news feed today, you’ll see a story atop the left column with the headline “Chill Ukrainian cat Stepan raises $10,000 for animals suffering from Russia’s war in Ukraine.” (Here’s an Instagram link to the cute kitty’s feed.)
That said, there can be no turning away from the horrors of Mariupol — where the 160,000 shell-shocked residents who remain may all need to evacuate — or the bracing images of destruction, evacuation and world protest collected by the Independent in a month’s worth of photos.
A war Russia has already lost, big time
In exercising its media muscle, Ukraine exposes Russia — at least on one battle front — as weak and atrophied, its output lacking in courage or substance. Just muttering the word “war” or “invasion” in the Soviet, er, Russian press can now land you in jail for 15 years. But what matter is that? In being muzzled, Russian reporters — the cowed and the kowtowing –already inhabit a prison of a different sort.
And a good measure of them do not deserve our sympathy. They saw press freedoms eroding over years and years but did little or nothing to stop it. Russia, it seems, lacks the guts to end its decades-long love affair with dictators. With freedom comes responsibility, and it’s worth pondering whether some otherwise fine Russian journalists abdicated theirs.
Or, if you prefer: They simply refused to fight.
“One of the things that distinguishes Ukraine is the existence of a free media,” Parusinski told Qwoted. “That’s something that Ukrainians have fought for time and time again. It’s not without its challenges but it’s completely heaven-and-earth difference between what’s happening in Belarus and Russia.”
When Parusinski mentioned Belarus, my thoughts immediately went to Roman Protasevich. Remember him? (Of course not; we’re all too busy trying to get inside the head of Will Smith after he bitch-slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars.) Well, at a time when the freedom of his nation stood in the balance, Protasevich was a young dissident scribe determined to expose and expunge a ruthless strong man who loves his power more than his people.
The thing is, Protasevich became the first journalist in history to be skyjacked into a forced landing. A hostile government and ruthless dictator took him into custody and threw him into prison as KGB agents stood by. It made worldwide headlines.
And that, friends, was in May 2021. Nearly a year ago.
If the headlines surrounding Russian brutality and Ukrainian bravery fade from view, danger lurks. Parusinski called on journalists everywhere to keep the news fresh, the stream of stories vigorous and substantive. I couldn’t agree more — especially when Will Smith is massively trending.
Don’t let Ukrainian media die
Back when Protasevich was forcibly abducted, I predicted: “Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko has drawn up the blueprint for other such leaders to do the same. And, I believe, get away with it.” And he did. Last anyone heard from him, Roman was under house arrest in July and awaiting trial, sending unsupervised but slight Twitter messages to his followers. Meanwhile, Lukashenko was hosting Russian soldiers in advance of their antichrist holiday in Ukraine.
Think about what Protasevich, or free journalists in Belarus and Russia, might have been able to report if they hadn’t been so brutally silenced. It argues to a large extent why Ukrainian media must be supported, protected and defended. The loss of press freedoms just a missile lob from its borders could indeed happen there — and in a world where autocracy is right outside your door. “Fake news,” anyone?
Parusinski put it best: “A free media is a key part of having a healthy democracy, a healthy society. I think it’s really important that we are able to support Ukraine, to overcome in this challenge but also to support its media: to not let them die, because they are the carriers of a legacy in this region. ”
To donate to “Keep Ukraine’s media going,” click here.