Like the U.S., Ukraine is a country that gained its independence from a larger power; it separated from the Soviet Union in 1991. However, unlike America, the eastern European nation is a war zone, still fighting Russia for its sovereignty.
In the early 2000s, the transition from having state-owned newspapers across Ukraine to having independent ones began; and the change has been a challenge. While America has a long-standing freedom of the press, Ukraine is still trying to figure out what that means for them.
So what does a country more than 5,000 miles away have to do with Williamsburg? Both communities are on the water, have a large military presence in the area and have small local news outlets.
Journalists from the Ukrainian newspaper Bilopilshchyna visited the Virginia Gazette and Daily Press from Oct. 15-19, to learn about how the newspapers interact with their local governments.
Bilopilshchyna is a weekly newspaper for a town only 10 miles from the Russian border. The staff is about the same size as the Gazette’s. Nataliia Kalinichenko, Bilopilchyna’s chief editor, said the paper covered the fighting between Russia and Ukraine along with local affairs.
Bilopilshchyna’s Nataliia Kalinichenko, technical and social media manager Bohdan Kalinichenko and reporters Yuliia Yaroshenko and Serhii Nadiarnyi made the journey to Virginia.
The Gazette and Daily Press have participated in the program for nine years, and Marisa Porto, publisher and editor-in-chief of both newspapers, said originally the papers worked with a news team from Sevastopol in Crimea.
“We were chosen as their partners because of our similarities,” Porto said. “We’re surrounded by water and the military. They are located on the Black Sea and are home to a Russian navy fleet. It was a fascinating professional and cultural exchange.”
When Porto was asked to host another news team, she said she didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“Journalists love talking to one another,” Porto said. “No matter how different the circumstances, I believe these discussions help us learn about journalism, each other and our communities.”
The four Bilopilshchyna journalists came to the U.S. through the Ukrainian Media Partnership Program which has been in place since 2002. The program is run by the International Research and Exchanges Board, which helps promote leadership education through international partnerships.
Virginia Gazette reporters Rodrigo Arriaza, Jack Jacobs and Amelia Heymann took the Ukrainian journalists with them on tours and story assignments.
Jacobs took journalists on to a meeting of James City County’s Affordable Housing Task Force. He said the journalists were very genuine and eager to learn about the local government and politics of the area.
“I think that the Ukrainians liked to see (what) an American government meeting looked like and being able to compare it to their experiences,” Jacobs said.
Arriaza said when he took the journalists to a talk Rep. Rob Wittman was giving to a veteran's group, they were surprised to see Wittman unaccompanied and talking to people casually. Arriaza said the Ukrainians told him in their country politicians were always accompanied by bodyguards and the atmosphere was more formal.
Jacobs said the visitors were also surprised he could walk around a government building and walk into the conference room the Board of Supervisors use at will.
“They kind of marveled at that, that there’s no police officer to check you in,” Jacobs said. “I think having this sort of interaction with our colleagues in Ukraine is eye-opening for everyone.”
Even when on a tour of James Blair Middle School, Yuliia Yaroshenko, a journalist with Bilopilshchyna, said she was shocked by how much free movement students had in the school.
Porto said the Daily Press and Virginia Gazette have hosted small newsrooms that have few resources.
“They don’t have strong laws to protect journalists, and they are doing what they do under challenging circumstances. I have a great respect for their commitment to freedom of the press,” Porto said.
By the end of the journalists visit to the Gazette, Arriaza and Jacobs said they realized that about their Ukrainian counterparts as well.
Jacobs said at the core its all about how freedom of the press and freedom of speech works in both countries and how they should work in both countries.
“I think we can learn from each other. They can learn from us what it should look like to some extent … but we can also learn from them about how they are fighting for freedom of the press.”
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.