Interview with Nieman Fellow Tanya Kozyreva: Navigating Conflict and Truth in Ukraine

By Vishal Manve, alumnus of The Fletcher School

Tanya Kozyreva, a distinguished journalist and a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize, has dedicated her career to investigating hidden truths and high-level corruption in geopolitics on a global scale. Hailing from Kyiv, Ukraine, Kozyreva has published articles in The New York Times and recently completed a transformative chapter as a 2023 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. 

Kozyreva’s experience also includes a stint at BuzzFeed News, where she immersed herself in the enigmatic world of President Donald Trump’s inner circle and revealed questionable business dealings. Her role in the BuzzFeed FinCEN Files project not only earned accolades but also contributed to its distinction as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. Her work then extended further to the Pandora Papers investigation led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), delving deep into global corruption. 

Kozyreva also reported on the 2016 U.S. presidential race, where her work for the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda revealed a web of questionably sourced funds and offshore accounts wielded by Ukrainian politicians to engage American lobbyists.

Journalists have been called “stenographers to power,” and Kozyreva’s experience has borne that out. She bore witness to the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the heart-wrenching military conflict in eastern Ukraine. Her voice resonates through Hromadske, a journalist-owned Ukrainian broadcaster, and found expression in posipaky.info, a platform she co-founded that meticulously traces the business interests of Ukrainian Parliament members.

Amid the tumult of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kozyreva emerged as a strong voice providing coverage for eminent platforms like The Telegraph, Sky News, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and The New York Times

After a candid dialogue at a luncheon with the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program on April 13, 2023, Kozyreva shared insights into her Nieman Fellowship experience, perspectives on Ukrainian journalism’s challenges amidst conflict, and the dynamic intersection of technology and conflict reporting.

Below is a condensed transcript: 

VM: How has your experience been as a Nieman Fellow?

TK:  My Nieman Fellowship officially commenced in September 2022. It’s been quite an intriguing journey and the fellowship has provided me with an international perspective, courtesy of the opportunity to attend classes at Harvard. I’ve utilized this time to gain a broader understanding of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from a global standpoint. I’ve taken classes that have given me a bird’s-eye view of the situation, examining how various countries are involved or not involved, the potential for their involvement, and the reasons behind these dynamics. I’ve explored subjects like international humanitarian law in times of war and peace, new technologies in law, and the broader implications of the conflict in Ukraine on the international stage.

It has been a fascinating exploration of the global order, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. This conflict challenges not only the United Nations as an organization, but also various international agreements. The U.S.-Russia agreement on the denuclearization of Ukraine signed in the 1990s has faced significant challenges. The commitment to maintain peace in Ukraine following the removal of nuclear weapons hasn’t been effectively upheld. This raises questions about the role of external forces and countries in addressing the ongoing conflict.

It’s perplexing to observe that despite the prolonged duration of the conflict, there seems to be a lack of concerted efforts to bring it to an end. In my research, I’ve delved into the role of cryptocurrency, investigating how it can facilitate financial embezzlement and corruption. Concurrently, I’ve explored its role in cybersecurity matters, including cyber-attacks and malware incidents. Initially, my project revolved around studying crypto’s impact, and while that remains a core focus, the onset of the war has prompted me to examine the intersection of conflict and technology–particularly how crypto can be a tool both for corruption and in conflict scenarios.

VM: What steps could be taken on a global scale to support Ukrainian journalism? 

TK:  I would encourage supporting Ukrainian media in any possible way. The most impacted by the war are clearly regional media, especially small media, as well as TV journalists. Many TV channels had to halt their original broadcasts and join collective efforts due to financial constraints. This has led to job losses, and many people’s salaries were cut. Another significant issue is that male journalists are being drafted into the army. For those media outlets that are still holding up, I think their sources are important, but the lack of professionals in the market is a major challenge. There’s a shortage of capable human resources, which I consider the primary issue, followed by the lack of financial resources. There are numerous ways to support Ukrainian journalism, not just financially, but also in terms of mental health. Working in the field for more than a year, many journalists are facing significant mental health challenges. They can’t even leave the country due to martial law, and for them, there are no weekends or holidays. To support Ukrainian journalists, several key areas need attention, such as providing professional training, addressing mental health, and offering specialized training for covering the war. Very few Ukrainian journalists had experience in conflict coverage before 2022, so most of them were unprepared. Right now, for most journalists, wearing a flak jacket and helmet has become routine. But at the beginning of the conflict, many were unsure how to proceed, and work was not a priority. Other challenges include inconsistent internet and electricity, with constant blackouts. A potential form of help would be providing satellite internet and generators to Ukrainian media. 

VM: Could you speak about the challenges of reporting from the front lines? 

TK: I was somewhat prepared for this, as I had covered the events of 2014. In 2015, I traveled to Donbas and occupied Crimea with Hromadske TV. I received comprehensive training from professionals worldwide, covering topics like first aid and using personal protective equipment (PPE). This preparation, along with closely following the news cycle since the first reports of war in autumn, allowed me to mentally prepare for the conflict. 

When the war officially began, my colleagues and I from The Telegraph had already been covering the imminent invasion since January. We were reporting the country’s readiness for war and the reasons behind certain decisions, like why people were not being evacuated. This groundwork helped me understand that the war was impending and that it was only a matter of time.

In terms of the broader industry, only a few Ukrainian journalists were covering the war from day one. Many were disoriented and skeptical, despite being informed about the situation. Some even believed that Russia’s actions were mere blackmail, and the war wouldn’t materialize. This skepticism had an impact on the industry’s initial response. The first couple of months were marked by a sense of confusion and disarray. It took until around April or March, when Russian troops began to withdraw, for many journalists to return and resume their regular work. Some had evacuated to other countries and continued reporting from there.

VM: Could you shed some light on the disinformation ecosystem focused on Ukraine?

TK: Ukrainians are quite aware that Russian misinformation is predominantly spread through social media. This trend is evident, and even on the first day of the war, there was a significant amount of disinformation circulating on platforms like Telegram. Verifying such information was extremely challenging, given the chaotic situation in Kyiv at the time. The city was experiencing heavy traffic as people tried to leave, making it difficult to move around and verify facts. Telegram and Twitter were major sources of this disinformation, particularly in the case of Kyiv. Due to the circumstances, one couldn’t simply hop in a car and check the situation in different parts of the city. Fortunately, measures have been taken in Ukraine to block certain social media channels and Russian media outlets. While people don’t have direct access to these sources, social networks remain significant sources of misinformation. It’s an ongoing issue that persists.

VM: What are your future plans?

TK: My focus will definitely remain on Ukraine. The main question for me is whether I will return to investigative journalism or continue with reporting breaking news and day-to-day stories. It’s a significant decision because when news of the imminent invasion broke, I put aside my investigative projects to shift toward covering breaking news. Now, I find myself at a crossroads. I’m contemplating whether I can strike a balance between both aspects. I need to determine where I can be most effective as a journalist and a professional—whether it’s in the field of investigation or continuing to tell the stories of those suffering in Ukraine. Investigative journalism is my true passion, and there’s a pressing need for it.

I plan to continue primarily working for international media, as it provides greater freedom. When I investigate and report on influential figures in Ukraine, Russia, and the United States, working with respected international media outlets offers a layer of protection. If powerful individuals attempt to suppress a story, international media organizations are less likely to give in to pressure.

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