Tatiana Kozak has been working as a reporter in Ukraine since 2010, but she considers covering the seismic protests on Kyiv’s central square, or the Maidan, her true baptism in journalism.
In late 2013 thousands of people took the capital’s streets to show their support for Ukraine’s EU integration. The rallies expanded into anti-government and anti-corruption demonstrations that would see the ouster of disgraced President Viktor Yanukovych early the following year.
Then in March 2014, Moscow’s seizure of Crimea was followed by Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine that ultimately led to an ongoing armed conflict between Russia-backed rebels and the Ukrainian army.
Kozak headed to the frontline to cover the fighting and has made regular reporting trips to Crimea, where she has family. She was recently questioned by the Russian security services upon trying to enter the peninsula and now says she must weigh any possible threat to her relatives in Crimea against the value of reporting from there.
The fighting in the east rarely makes headlines anymore, but Kozak continues to report on post-conflict issues in Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc countries, covering displaced people, prisoners of war, volunteer fighters, and the persecution of minorities and pro-Ukraine activists in Crimea.
Kozak also reports on current affairs and human rights for Ukrainian and foreign publications, including BBC Ukraine, Radio Svoboda, Hromadske TV, Hromadske Radio, and Transitions Online.
Recently she covered a case emblematic of the systematic repression of the Tatars, Crimea’s indigenous Muslim population, many of whom have opposed the Russian takeover. Four Tatars in Crimea were fraudulently convicted by a Russian court of extremism and membership in the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamist Party, which is allowed in Ukraine but banned by Russian laws. “It was the very first case but many more will follow as arrests and repressions are unfolding in Russia-occupied Crimea,” she says.
Kozak was among a small group of journalists and human rights workers to report on alleged secret prisons where human rights workers and others say Ukrainian secret services sent separatist fighters without a proper trial. Documenting the stories of several people who say they were detained there, the media forced the secret services to allow human rights organizations and journalists in to inspect detention facilities that had been closed to the public.
As an independent journalist in Ukraine, where most people want to move closer to Europe but Russia is fighting mightily to keep the country in its orbit, Kozak battles the stiff winds of propaganda, including fake news stories from Russia and tilted coverage from the government and from the oligarchs who control major media organizations.
“It’s propaganda and oligarchs that dictate the agenda for most of the media, especially TV,” she says. “There’s a lack of opportunities to do independent journalism.”
She also works in an uncertain environment. In its most recent Freedom of the Press report for Ukraine, Freedom House noted that attacks on journalists declined significantly in 2015, but Kozak says two subsequent events – the July 2016 murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in a car bombing and the recent protest resignation of the respected director of the country’s nascent public broadcasting system – have reporters wondering about their safety and the political class’s commitment to unbiased journalism.
For Kozak, reporting from Ukraine’s conflict areas alongside foreign journalists has been an education. She has learned the basic principles of Western-style journalism and the importance of balanced reporting and fact-checking, practices ignored in much of Ukrainian journalism but especially crucial in war reporting.
“Now, with the rise of propaganda one should learn how to ask complicated questions and say truthful, unpopular things,” Kozak says. “I believe in the power of balanced reporting, and peace journalism, which is so needed in war-torn Ukraine.”