Espreso. Global

Radio Liberty CEO Steve Сapus on freedom of speech in Ukraine and how journalism can survive in post-truth era

3 March, 2024 Sunday

In an interview with Espreso, Radio Liberty President Steve Сapus expressed his opinion on whether freedom of speech exists in Ukraine and described the reaction of Western media to the situation in Ukraine, in particular to Russian aggression and war

So we'll talk a little bit about Radio Liberty's presence in Ukraine. With offices in both Kyiv and Lviv, can we say that Ukrainian offices are becoming a kind of journalistic hub for Radio Liberty in post-Soviet countries?

I think that's an excellent description. Radio Svoboda has been in Ukraine for 70 years; this year marks our 70th Anniversary. We're proud to have Ukraine as the home for our largest operation within the Europe Radio Liberty organization..

Radio Svoboda is incredibly important right now given everything that's going on here. We think it's crucial to have representation both in Kiev and in Lviv, with correspondents covering the entire country. They do frontline reporting and tell the stories of Ukrainians, showcasing the resilience of the Ukrainian people and providing timely information. They've forged a vital partnership with the audience for 70 years.

And it's good, but still the main office will remain in Prague.

Correct. We are headquartered in Prague in the Czech Republic. We operate in 23 different countries all across Europe and Central Asia. We operate in 27 different languages. But this is the biggest operation that we have and right now given everything that's going on. It's of vital importance.

Let's talk a little bit about freedom of speech, particularly in Ukraine. You've been here for a few weeks already and have a good understanding of the current situation. Can you say that we have freedom of speech here in Ukraine? I ask this question because you're aware that some Ukrainian channels are banned from the digital network here in Ukraine, including our Espreso TV channel. So, do you believe we have freedom of speech in the general sense?

I believe freedom of speech is a vital part of any country that adheres to democratic principles. Certainly, there's a lot happening here, and we recognize that we are in a time of war. However, during my recent meetings with President Zelensky and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, we emphasized the importance of press freedom. We believe it's of vital importance as Ukraine continues to strive for EU status and further develops as a democracy. Despite the challenges of wartime, we must remember that journalists are respectful of matters of national security. However, it's crucial to speak up on behalf of press freedom and uphold the responsibility to operate independently without censorship.

Thank you. Speaking about the freedom of the press, there is freedom of the press in Western countries. I know it. But what is the reaction to what is happening in Ukraine right now, to the Russian aggression, to the Russian war? Has the focus been reduced a little bit because as global news journalists, I noticed that for about a year, there is not a big focus on Ukraine in some Western media. What do you think?

I'm going to let other newsrooms decide how they want to cover the news. Yes, I've noticed that some news organizations have given less prominence to the Ukraine story. Frankly, that's something that we don't understand and it's the total opposite of what our journalists have done. We have made Ukraine our biggest base of operations outside of the headquarters. It is vital right now that we continue to do it. And so while there are struggles, efforts, and various stories going on here, the total mix of the story of Ukraine is at the very core of Radio Svoboda every single day. And it's not just radio; it's on all platforms. We're not going anywhere. Others may lose interest, but we think that's a dangerous thing, quite frankly, because of the severity of the issues that are taking place here.

You already said that you had a meeting with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky when you were in Kyiv a few days ago, during which you discussed Ukrainian journalist Yesypenko. I will tell our audience about this journalist in Ukrainian. So is there any news about this Ukrainian journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko who has been illegally detained in Russia for almost three years?

Yes, he's detained in Crimea, and Russia has occupied this. Now all of this would not have happened if Russia had stayed out of Crimea. It is a part of Ukraine, as the world knows, but because Russia has had other notions of what Crimea should be, illegal notions, they viewed a journalist who was telling the stories of Crimea as a threat. And there, he has paid a very steep price for this. It's been nearly three years that he's been in prison. We did discuss this with the president, and we were grateful to the president and to the office of the president for letting us know what is being done to release our colleague.

And it's complicated by a number of factors. But everybody agrees that he should be freed. And the president did tell us that he intends to bring up the issue of our detained colleague this spring during the summit that is going to take place, we believe in the springtime, and that matters of Crimea, that include the detention of our dear colleague, will be brought up at that time. And that's the direct words of the president, and we were grateful for his sharing that information.

Did you discuss with President Zelensky the possibility of exchanging the Ukrainian journalist for some Russian individuals or simply securing his release?

We did discuss this issue, but we didn't receive any specific information from the president about it, and frankly, we didn't expect to. It's something that he needs to sort out, and we respect the complexity of the situation. However, the bottom line is that Vlad is a citizen. He's not a member of the military. His only "crime" is being a journalist and telling the stories of Crimea, and he needs to come home.

This week, I had the privilege of meeting not only with the president but also with Vlad's wife, Kateryna. She's a very strong woman, as is Vlad himself. That family needs to be reunited, and we're working towards that.

What we have found out is that the truth is a real threat to Russia. Otherwise, they wouldn't be taking such drastic actions. Currently, Russia holds two of our colleagues, one in Crimea and one in Russia, and this tactic of arresting journalists simply for telling the truth must stop.

And you've already mentioned your journalist, Alsu Kurnasheva, from Radio Svoboda, who was detained in Russia a few months ago. She was also convicted of crimes she did not commit. Do you have any updates or information about her current situation?

There are several developments concerning her, and we are actively exploring every possible avenue to secure her immediate release. Alsu is a valued colleague, a devoted wife, and a mother of two. Additionally, being an American citizen has opened up other options for us to pursue. As I mentioned earlier, we are committed to exploring all available options to bring home all our unjustly detained colleagues, including Alsu and Vlad, as well as those held in Belarus. They are in our thoughts every day.

Recently, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office declared Radio Liberty an "undesirable organization" in the country. Does this change anything for Radio Liberty, considering that you were previously recognized as foreign agents?

It means that our journalists are very good at doing their jobs because we clearly are irritating the Russian government. Designations like this can have a chilling effect on journalists and journalism. They're trying to portray the profession as illegal activity, which is a preposterous and dangerous notion. They can make these designations, but we can say emphatically that the work is going to continue.

We may not have offices inside Russia anymore, but we still continue to cover Russia. Our reporting reaches deep inside Russia every day, and we're going to continue those efforts. It really strikes me that as they take these acts, as Navalny is silenced forever, as we receive a designation like this, as bombs fall on Ukrainian civilians every day, there seems to be a growing level of desperation inside Russia. It's against free people, those who long for freedom, those who want to live in a sovereign country, those who want to express themselves as journalists, those who simply want to be able to travel back to Russia to visit their ailing mother, which was Alsu's situation. So, simply put, we will not be deterred, and we will continue to do what we do.

Speaking about the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, how might his death affect global journalism in general, and perhaps even Russian journalists in particular, if it does?

It underscores, as I said before, that the truth is a very powerful tool. I don't call it a weapon because we're not in a war. We're not trying to exercise power. We're just simply trying to tell the truth.

Of course, what they want is to have a complete chilling effect. They want to silence journalists. Journalists are murdered inside Russia, journalists are imprisoned. You know, there's a Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan and it's been almost a year now that he's been unlawfully detained, wrongfully detained.

But there's still a great deal of journalism being done focusing on what's going on inside there.

You mean Russian journalism?

There's journalism taking place that covers what's happening inside Russia. I think it's a fallacy to think that they can just seal off Russia from the prying eyes of journalists. It's not going to happen.

So it's not just propaganda in Russia. Are there also some pieces of journalism?

Well, I'm saying that the outside world continues to keep focused.

Outside and not inside.

I believe there are still some brave individuals who are doing their best to get the truth out there. Despite the challenges, they continue to do their work. However, we're up against a well-funded state media that often promotes propaganda and disregards basic facts. For example, Russia has made it illegal to use the word "war" to describe what is happening to Ukrainian civilians. This is both absurd and dangerous. People who are open-minded can see through these tactics and know the truth.

Mr. Capus, you mentioned that journalists from Radio Svoboda are actively reporting from the front lines to provide an accurate depiction of the situation. However, my question pertains to a different aspect. Should Western journalists consider reporting from the front lines on the side of the Russians in certain instances, given that there have been such occurrences?

It's a very interesting question. I'm not sure that it's safe to do that these days. I think that Russian officials and the Russian military view Western journalists as the enemy. They see them as a target. So we can see what the Russian military is doing. Yesterday, I was in Butcha and Irpin, and I witnessed firsthand what the Russian military is doing. We don't need to be reporting next to the Russian military.

Is the interview of American journalist Tucker Carlson with the president of the Russian state, Vladimir Putin, a piece of journalism?


Can you elaborate on that?

I mean I don't think that shed any new light or provided much factual information. People are certainly able to interview Putin, but I didn't find much news value in that particular interview at all

Okay, thank you. And my last question to you for today would be about the post-truth era. I will say a few words in Ukrainian to tell our audience about this…….

How can journalism survive in the post-truth era?

I perhaps have an old-fashioned notion that the truth will prevail. There's so much being done right now to pollute the information environment, much of it disinformation. It is one of our missions at Radio Svoboda to battle disinformation, to do our best to illuminate bad information, to separate fact from fiction.

I would just say that journalism is a noble calling, and right now, we need people who are committed to telling the truth. We should not surrender simply because there are forces who do not want the truth to be expressed, shared, or viewed.

But with our own eyes, we can see what's happening. We know what the truth is, and I believe, as I said, that journalists are in an incredibly important position right now to tell the world what's happening, and especially what's happening right here in Ukraine. It's of vital importance.

We should not surrender and we will not surrender.

No surrender.

Thank you very much for coming today and answering my question. Thank you very much.

Of course, thank you for having me.

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