Ukraine: Women Journalists Face Routine Sexual Harassment
Over half of female media workers have been affected, but few dare to speak up.
In her 20s, Olga (not real real name) used to be a journalist in a TV channel in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. Ambitious, she threw herself into the job and appeared to be a rising star. One evening, the editor-in-chief, who would occasionally drive her home after late shifts, hinted that her “career would go up” if they went to Italy together.
“Everyone will be pleased,” Olga recalled him saying. Scared and disgusted, she refused, quickly falling into disfavour. “I slipped from the ‘hope of Ukrainian journalism’ to talentless mediocrity in a week,” she told IWPR. She decided not to tell anyone and resigned.
Women journalists in Ukraine say that they are all too familiar with unsolicited sexual attention, often accompanied by the promise of some kind of help in their career.
Research published in 2022 by the NGO Women in the Media and Ukrainian Women's Fund found that 53 per cent of female media professionals have been subjected to sexual harassment at work. Another 33 per cent said they had witnessed colleagues being sexually harassed, although only nine percent defined themselves as victims.
Psychologist Natalya Pashko, who works with survivors of violence, noted that women tended to avoid the word “victim” because of the prejudice which surrounded the issue.
"The stigma and [the public] judgment means that many women… are reluctant to speak up and seek punishment for their perpetrators. Our society still imposes shame and guilt,” she said. “It seems [that the woman] is the one to be blamed; they think ‘what I was thinking of?’”
Like Olga, it took years for Kateryna Ivanova to speak up about the abuse she suffered as an aspiring teenage journalist.
Aged 15, she contributed to the local newspaper and was invited to develop an idea for a youth programme and host it on local television.
“On the very first day, the TV station head, whose children are five years older than me, turns off the lights in the office and tries to touch and kiss me,” she recalled. “Along the way, he tells me how my career will blossom if I am more cooperative. I ran away. My television career ended without starting.”
Ivanova said that she had not talked publicly about the “shameful and scary” incident, adding, “I was afraid.”
Indeed, those who speak out are often victim-blamed instead.
In the summer of 2021, journalist Iryna Sampan came out publicly about being harassed three years earlier by well-known Ukrainian actor Volodymyr Talashko after an interview. She told her story on her Facebook page after Talashko had been accused of sexual harassment by former students at the Kyiv National IK Karpenko-Karyi University of Theatre.
“After the interview, he invited me home to show his photos…the awards, then poured some liquor and started to pursue me,” she wrote. “I left his apartment, closed my mouth, and never told anyone. It turned out that it was neither the first nor the last case. [His former] students told terrible and disgusting stories about his courtship, how he manipulated his influence and ‘help’ to arrange the lives of future actresses and announcers.”
In August 2021 the 77-year-old actor, who denied all accusations, was suspended, but no case was opened.
Sampan said that in the 18 months since she publicly denounced the harassment, she had received countless offensive comments and messages online, like “it is your fault”, “why have you been silent for so long?” and “you have doused a decent man in dirt”.
Ukraine’s legislation on sexual harassment lags behind European countries, experts note. It is defined as any act of a sexual nature, expressed verbally or physically, humiliating or offending individuals who are in a relationship of labour, administrative, financial or other subordination.
The protection mechanism against it allows for complaints to the Ukrainian parliament commissioner for human rights or a specially authorised central executive body on equal rights and opportunities for women and men.
But lawyers note that these routes very rarely work, and the criminal code’s provision for sexual violence is complicated to prove because definitions are vague and prone to interpretation.
"Apart from brutal rape, the process is difficult and, most likely, hopeless, except if there is video evidence and a lot of eyewitness accounts,” lawyer Roman Rodin told IWPR.
Both lawyers and human rights’ defenders warn that progress was unlikely without more survivors of sexual abuse speaking out and pursuing offenders through the courts.
“Together with their defender…victims must insist and seek justice,” Rodin said, adding, “Journalists should at least report such cases loudly in order to protect themselves in situations of sexual harassment, because nothing good happens while everyone is silent.”
Natalyia (not her real name) left Ukraine in 2022 in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion and resettled in western Europe where she has been working for a TV channel, covering the war in her country. During a trip back to Ukraine, a colleague some 20 years her senior showed unsolicited affection, including physical contact. When she reported it, the company reacted swiftly, separating them and canceling joint business trips.
“It is a healthy corporate journalistic culture,” she toldIWPR, comparing it to an experience she had years ago when a colleague in Ukraine “touched her below her waist” in the TV channel cafeteria. When she complained, people present pretended that nothing had happened and the colleague alleged that she was “strange” and “made it up”.
Rooted patriarchy also means that awareness remains low.
“We are little aware of what sexual claims really are, and what forms there are. Sexual harassment is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature, it is not just rape,” explained Liza Kuzmenko, who leads the Women in the Media NGO and is a member of Ukraine’s Commission of Journalistic Ethics. “[The harassment] can be expressed both physically and verbally and non-verbally, for example by showing pornography or gestures… The responsibility lies entirely with the offender; unfortunately, victim blaming is still common.”
Media organisations lack processes and policies to address the issue. Codes of conduct are mostly absent, and existing ones rarely followed.
“I do not like the rhetoric placing all the responsibility solely on journalists [who] have to try not to get themselves into a situation of violence,” Kuzmenko continued. “We must understand that zero tolerance is a complex problem that must be solved comprehensively.”
She said that law enforcement agencies needed to respond seriously to accusations of harassment and newsrooms must create a safe environment where reporting discrimination or sexism was the norm, as was taking measures against offenders. Media and human rights organisations also had to develop safety protocols and ad-hoc training.
“Unfortunately, the war further narrows the space for upholding equality policies,” she acknowledged. “It seems to be less relevant, but statistics show that discrimination and violence only increase during such times of crisis.”
This publication was prepared under IWPR's Ukraine Voices: Protecting the Frontline project funded by UNESCO. The authors are responsible for the choice and the presentation of the facts contained in this discussion and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organisation.