Brian Bonner, the editor-in-chief of the first and most popular English-language newspaper in Ukraine, told LDaily about the newspaper’s past and present, about the peculiarities of Ukrainian journalism and the specificity of the local media business.
LDaily: Mr. Bonner, how long have you been working as a journalist already? Why did you decide to be a journalist?
B.Bonner: Well, I was in high school, more than 41 years ago, in fact. It’s a sad day for me, because my mentor, who gave me my first job when I was in high school, died two days ago. I am 58 years old and in journalism I am since 1977.
It’s great to ask people questions wherever you want. But the more important reason is that you want to make the world a better place. Journalists, I think, great journalists, believe in people, call attention to problems, propose solutions. I see journalism as very much a part of any democratic society.
LDaily: How many years has the Kyiv Post existed?
B.Bonner: We started in 1995, the first front page dated October 18th, 1995. It will be 23 years this October 18th.
LDaily: Did you start your work from the creation of Kyiv Post?
B.Bonner: No, it only seems like it. I have been here 10 years from 2008 till 2018. I was also briefly the chief editor in 1999.
LDaily: Right from the beginning you have started on the position of chief editor?
B.Bonner: Always chief editor.
LDaily: In Ukraine it’s your first place of work? I mean Kyiv Post or there were other companies?
B.Bonner: Oh, no! I had other jobs. One was with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. As an election expert. So I worked in several elections for OSCE, including the 1999 presidential election in Ukraine, where I was stationed in Donetsk, and the 2002 parliamentary elections, where I was a political analyst. Further, I worked for a year for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, based in Washington, D.C. It is a public health organization, committed to reducing smoking, fighting smoking, controlling smoking and we had several accomplishments. My work with that organization came during a key moment when Ukraine banned indoor smoking, so that you have to go outside to smoke. We got rid of advertisements on billboards, if you remember it was crazy with billboards, Ukraine raised the cigarette tax, because higher taxes reduces smoking, makes more smokers want to quit. The higher price encourages them to quit. And then public education, so working for health here in Ukraine. So those were two other jobs while I was here in Ukraine
Quickly I fell in love with Ukraine, the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian story
LDaily: Why did you decide to work here, in Ukraine?
B.Bonner: It was a complete accident. I thought I would end up in Asia, I thought I would be an English-language copy editor at the Bangkok Post in Thailand. I was there working for my newspaper in America, the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, for nearly 24 years. But I was looking for a change. And the change started in 1996 through an exchange program. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there were a lot of exchange programs between Ukraine and America. One of them was sending Ukrainian journalists to America and the other was sending American journalists to Ukraine, I got to go to Ukraine, so I went to Kyiv, Kharkov and Odesa and taught journalism, talked about journalism and my experience in American journalism, through a translator, of course, because I didn’t know any Ukrainian. But quickly I felt in love with Ukraine, Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian story and I have been coming back ever since even when I didn’t work here. I always came back every year as a tourist or visitor.
LDaily: Recently the owner of the Kyiv Post hanged. How many owners have there been?
B.Bonner: We have been lucky to have only three owners in 23 years. And they all very committed to free press, very lucky. Jed Sunden is our founding owner and publisher from 1995 till 2009. He sold it to UK citizen Mohammad Zahoor, who had us from 2009 till March 21st this year. Now we are owned by a Syrian native who has lived here in Ukraine from 1980, Adnan Kivan. He is based in Odesa but he comes to Kyiv frequently. So we are very lucky. All our three owners are committed to freedom of speech, editorial independence, democracy, Ukrainian Western integration to the EU and NATO and so forth. So we were very happy, we were very blessed to have three owners, all of them, and I think it helps a bit that they are foreigners, because that gives us a little more independence and less political pressure.
LDaily: Is the Kyiv Post changing somehow with the change of the owners? May be some editorials and spheres of interviews had changed?
B.Bonner: Well, it’s a very good question. We haven’t changed, our principles don’t change, editorial independence. Every owner has his interests, for instance Adnan Kivan is interested in Syria, because he is a Syrian so we did the conference and the connections between the war in Ukraine and the war in Syria. Obviously the biggest connection is Russian interference, actually, some of the same people were fighting against Ukraine in Donbas later moved to Syria. They go back and forth. So there are a lot of similarities. And he is willing to invest in the Kyiv Post more than the previous owners, and he has invested. We have now a correspondent in Washington D.C, we have a Canadian correspondent and one in Brussels, who is traveling around Europe to covere the Ukrainian story. So we see a lot of investments, we think our best days are ahead, we are very much looking forward to our best days and the Kyiv Post is lucky to have such an owner.
I think we are fortunate, because, English is an international language and I think to have an international newspaper in English is a big benefit to Ukrainians, because it has opened Ukraine to the English-speaking world and also opened the outside world to Ukraine.
LDaily: What does the Kyiv Post means for Ukraine?
B.Bonner: I think we are fortunate, because, English is an international language and I think to have an international newspaper in English is a big benefit to Ukrainians. Because it’s opened Ukraine to the English-speaking world and also opened the outside world to Ukraine.
Because the most of our online readership is from abroad — about 75 percent — while the other 25 percent live in Ukraine.
I think foreigners are not always able to read Russian or Ukrainian and they need to understand what is happening in Ukraine. I think we give them that, to the best of our ability, we certainly try to uphold the strongest Western standards of journalism, fairness and clarity, being concise and so on.
So we strive to be the newspaper that everybody wants to read, both in and out of Ukraine, and there is also a part of Kyiv Post mission.
We believe in Ukrainian statehood.
We believe in Ukrainian democracy.
We believe in the Ukrainian language and we also think that Ukraine’s future lies in speaking English, in opening to the world and joining NATO, joining the EU, in raising the prosperity level of Ukraine through free markets and a competitive economy.
Nations where you speak English, or where most people speak English, tend to be more prosperous and tend to be more open-minded, more compassionate and more sophisticated in understanding.
Ukraine is a good place. Ukrainians are masters at learning. Look how many languages they know – Russian, Ukrainian and many of them know a third language, whether it’s English, French or German.
LDaily: Recently, on your Facebook page, I saw your 10th anniversary present, it was a t-shirt, on which it was written: – 95% work and 5% the rest
B.Bonner: I think my staff is telling me to get a life. As you know in journalism, the hours are too long and I feel very committed. Sometimes I feel like I am married to the newspaper, like it’s my true love, but I should probably improve that percentage and get more rest and relaxation. But Ukraine is a tough place. If we want to stay in business, we have to work hard. We have been through two revolutions, one war that we are going through and advertising is not great because the economy is not great, so if you want to stay alive you have to work hard.
We are fighting for a better future and we want Ukraine to enjoy and Ukrainians to enjoy this better future, they deserve it.
LDaily: What do you do when you have this 5 percent of rest, maybe you have some kind of hobby?
B.Bonner: I try to travel, I love traveling, I love swimming, I love trying to work out, I love walking, my friends, my family and life has been actually very good to me. I would like to get out of here earlier and enjoying the summer, and Kyiv and Ukraine have a lot to offer to people.
But unfortunately, there’s still a lot of people are afraid to come here and invest and come here as tourists and that’s part of our mission. We would benefit greatly if Ukraine prospers, if it has two or three times more investments, if it becomes a tourism center.
I think it can! I think Ukraine’s best days are ahead. Obviously we have serious historical issues with Russia that are continuing to slow Ukraine’s development and obviously we have serious problems. But I think compared to when I first came here 22 years ago, Ukraine has now a much better position and we also see our role in the Kyiv Post as encouraging people to invest and to come to Ukraine.
We are not going to look at Ukraine with rose-colored glasses. We call attention to Ukrainian problems. Not because we are negative people or because we only see the downside of Ukrainian life, we call attention to them because we want them to be solved, we believe in Ukraine.
I am an American but most of our workers are Ukrainians. We believe in this nation, we live here, we fight here, actually we are even willing to die here. During the revolution I think everyone had had to make the choice – to stay and fight or run away. I think everyone here had made the choice to fight. We are fighting for a better future and we want Ukraine to enjoy and Ukrainians to enjoy this better future, they deserve it. I am an American and I am a guest here, but it’s been my home for 10 years and I have been coming and going for 22 years. But I feel like it’s my second home. I am proud to be an American, but Ukraine, this is the place I have chosen to live in.
The best newspapers are in countries where people support free press and it becomes more and more important
LDaily: What problems have you faced whilst the newspaper exists?
B.Bonner: Well, financially it’s not a good economic, advertisement climate. The best newspapers are in countries where people support free press and it becomes more and more important. So how do they support?
The advertisement, the subscriptions. The model now is to get most of its revenues from readers. To do this you have to get relationship with them and you have to give them what they want.
The political side is better, but still its better compared to what? I mean when I first got here, journalists were told what to write and what not to write, they had minders in government offices. So if you wrote something that they didn’t like, they would call you and there will be pressure to change and that still happens to some degree, especially now, during the elections, there is pressure to support this or that candidate.
We are going to resist this pressure. We believe our readers and advertisers and our subscribers want to know what we think the truth is, not what somebody else thinks the truth is.
Sometimes we are unpopular because of what we write about and because of the opinions that we have, but I think we have to do this.
If you want to talk about threats, during Yanukovych’s time, we had three threats, three big ones. I was fired twice. Once it was an attempt at censorship after pressure from the minister of agriculture, who is now in exile, under investigation for corruption, who put pressure on the owner to fire me. I got my job back. Thanks to God and thanks to Mohammad Zahoor.
The second time was an attempt to buy us, once from Sergei Kurchenko and another one from Dmytro Firtash, who also filed a lawsuit against us in London for libel, for a story that was just a normal story in my opinion. The aim of the lawsuit was to close the Kyiv Post.
The owner defended us. We won the case in court and so far it’s the extent of our problems.
So if you want me to answer, now there are more economical problems than political.
You know the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. If you want to have freedom of speech, there is always somebody who wants to close it down, and if you want it, you have to fight for it.
And if you see the trend in the world — democracy is retreating, authoritarism and censorship are rising. So I think all free people, and Ukrainians are certainly among those, in terms of what they want and how they want to live have to keep fighting for freedom, justice, fairness.
LDaily: How do you consider the investment climate to be in Ukraine?
B.Bonner: Well, objectively, the numbers are terrible. Ukraine has only attracted $2 billion in foreign direct investment last year, less than $50 billion since independence. It’s a figure that is way too low, especially taking into consideration the fall of the currency, which was great. What’s necessary? And way below many neighbours, like Poland and others who joined the EU. So we need to work on it. The only way to grow the economy is through investment and so we need to be attracting much more investment in Ukraine than we are now.
The oligarchs they don’t like competition, they want to keep all the economic pie to themselves and the sectors to themselves so they create these barriers of bureaucracy.
LDaily: How do you think, the main reason why investors don’t want to come to Ukraine? It’s the currency exchange of dollar or other reasons?
B.Bonner: No, no, no. Every poll after poll, it’s very clear – corruption, no rule of law, no property rights, bureaucracy. In ranking after ranking Ukraine needs to create a justice system that actually dispenses justice and punishes stealing. Has to remove the corruption and then immunity from members of parliament who think it’s OK to steal. They have legal impunity to barriers and it’s an oligarchic economy.
The oligarchs they don’t like competition, they want to keep all the economic pie to themselves and the sectors to themselves so they create these barriers to bureaucracy and an economy based on favourites, making money from state-owned enterprises and this has to be stopped. This is the part of ongoing struggle in many ways. In some ways it’s getting better but there is not that breakthrough yet.
In rule of law, in fighting corruption, in punishing people who are corrupt. That is required to make investors feel like it’s safe here, like their property and can be respected to take the billon to the banking sector. $20 billion were stolen from Ukrainian taxpayers in the last 10 years. So going back to Yanukovich times, $6 billion from one bank alone, no prosecution for bank fraud of Igor Kolomoyskyi, very little return of any stolen assets, as long as this goes on, as long as people can steal from Ukrainians within impurity, without punishment we are not going to get good investment climate. That’s not Brian Bonner’s opinion, that’s everybody’s opinion who is looking at this country.
We want to create better conditions. We want people to make money here in Ukraine. We want Ukraine to be a rich place. There is no reason Ukrainians should be a poor nation. They should be a rich nation and fully a part of EU
LDaily: You are an EBA association member, what was the main goal of becoming a member of it?
B.Bonner: You know the EBA association is a very large and powerful organization with more than 900 members. I think its power can even be greater and we can be a more effective voice for business. I ran for the board of directors and fortunately was elected. Because we had been in the Kyiv Post pro-business all along, pro investment, and we have been covering the issues of the challenges facing the business community. And I thought that was another way to have a debate that’s broader public policy because I think a lot of businesses, some businesses look at if they are making money, everything is fine.
That is not the way to look at it, we have to look at it as what is best for all of Ukraine and Ukrainians.
And this is a really good platform to observe influence on different sectors, to observe influence on politicians, to represent businesses, to understated for what the real problems are. There are not only downsides. There are a lot of people making money.
Ukrainians are very smart, they are very entrepreneurial, they have many advantages in IT, agriculture, manufacturing. We do expect tourism will take off some day. We see that the hotel industry that is rising, the economy is getting better but we need to be a lot better. Because we are losing talented young people, who are leaving the country, because they see better opportunities, if let us say they are making 300 euros per month here and they go across the border to Poland and they make a 1,000 euros – it’s a very easy choice.
Patriotism is growing and a lot of people are going to stay but if the economic alternatives are not here, people are going to go where the economical opportunities are, especially if you are educated like many Ukrainians who speak more than one language and are hard working. So we need to create environment here, where the politicians are serving the public interest and not serving their private business interest. We need politicians who acts best in the interest of their nation and not their own business first.
We want to create better conditions we want people to make money here in Ukraine, we want Ukraine to be a rich place. There is no reason Ukrainians should be a poor nation. They should be a rich nation and fully a part of EU. We need to defeat the corruption, impunity, we need to create a rule of law, jurisdiction system, we need to create investor friendly environment, so we see the outside capital moving in. And this is what EBA is for. And also EBA defends its members interests, in fact we have 960 members. It means we know a lot about the economy and the problems the businesses are facing and once we have this knowledge then we can be very effective in lobbying the people who are blocking the progress, whether they are on Bankova, the Presidential Administration, or in Parliament or in Cabinet or somewhere else.
LDaily: How do you consider your position in EBA association to be?
B.Bonner: I am just one of the 16 board members. We meet once a month and we hear from people inside government, sometimes we meet as a group, with the president. I should be the advocate for doing what’s right. I also wanted to join them, because they didn’t have any representative of media among them. I am a journalist and I think our sector is important. Unfortunately the oligarchs dominate in terms of the ownership of TV stations and unfortunately it’s not profitable but it’s an important sector. Look at the problems we are facing – with propaganda, false news. The more reliable information we have and the more ways we can make the Ukrainian media sector a real business, even a profitable business – the stronger freedom of press will be and the strongest freedom of speech will be and the more accurate information will be.
LDaily: How do you think, which were the best years in Ukraine for making business?
B.Bonner: These years are much better than the 1990s, I think there was a fake bubble with the easy credit in 2006, 2007, 2008, if you look at that people’s incomes were rising for no real reason and then we had the crash. Then we built back up a little but it was also a false bubble. The highest GDP was $183 billion.
Ukraine is richer than the official statistics because 33% or 40% or even 50% of its economy is in the shadows. It means it’s not counted.
But from the Yanukovych period when it was $183 billion we crashed down to $90 billion in 2014 and now we are getting back to $100 billion and a little more. It’s too small for a nation of 42 million people. For example, Denmark has less than 6 million people but it has GDP $316 billion, three times Ukrainian size, and Ukraine has 7 times as many people. We can’t live like this. We have no reason to be poor. The people who block the positive changes have more power than those who want to bring these changes. But we know that Ukrainians, when they are not happy about something, they will revolt.
LDaily: Mr. Bonner, very often you go abroad, what do people in those countries know about Ukraine?
B.Bonner: They know more since the revolution, war. So we are moving in the right direction, but the Ukrainian sense of identity still needs to be developed greater internally and externally. That’s what the Kyiv Post is helping to do, because people who read English have to know honest Ukrainian history, the honest economic situation, why we are different from Russians. What role Russia is playing here?
I am from the generation when it was the Soviet Union and all it was together, but it definitely was not united.
So many Ukrainian-Americans, Ukrainian-Canadians, those who live abroad kept alive the dream of national independence. We had different times with Russia, and now its Putin’s time, who views Ukraine and Russians as one people. Sorry but that’s not the case.
The more and longer the war goes on, the worse it will be. The war needs to end tomorrow, because Ukraine is being hurt badly, but the longer it goes on the more Ukrainians will show their backs to the Russian model and the Putin model has nothing good to show to Ukraine.
I think the best model for Ukraine and Ukrainians is democracy and to do this we have to get our voices up there and I think Ukrainians are very good at it. Ukraine got visa-free travel so Ukrainians travel more around the world, more Ukrainians speak English. They are putting their messages out. They can say – Ukraine is a nation, they can tell Ukrainian history, Ukrainian dreams.
And we try to reflect as much as we can here at the Kyiv Post, these values and improve the identity of Ukraine.