Ukraine’s Oleksandra Matviichuk at WEXFO: The ‘Interconnected World’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

One of WEXFO’s most compelling presentations in Lillehammer came from a Ukrainian human-rights attorney, Oleksandra Matviichuk.

Ukrainian human-rights attorney Oleksandra Matviichuk speaks on May 30 in the opening sequence of the World Expression Forum in Lillehammer, WEXFO. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See also: WEXFO Opens in Norway: Victor Pickard on Technology, Free Speech, Journalism and At Norway’s WEXFO: The IPA’s Prix Voltaire Names Its Shortlist

‘Freedom of Expression Is Essential’
As timely as many events seemed in Kristenn Einarsson‘s inaugural World Expression Forum (WEXFO) in Lillehammer, the forlorn eloquence of the Kyiv-based human-rights attorney Oleksandra Vyacheslavivna Matviichuk has come into even greater relief with the publication Wednesday (June 1) of Andrew Exum’s Atlantic essay, Western Support for Ukraine Has Peaked.

Exum was the United States’ deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy between 2015 and 2017. At The Atlantic, he writes what seems inevitable: “We’ve likely reached the high-water mark of the grand alliance to defeat Russia in Ukraine. In the coming months, relations between the Ukrainian leadership and its external supporters will grow strained, and the culprit will be economic pain exacerbated by the war.”

Matviichuk, who leads the nonprofit Center for Civil Liberties, appeared two days prior to the publication of Exum’s prediction of the world’s fatigue with the ongoing Ukraine ordeal. She was one of the first of the speakers in the opening sequence at WEXFO and stood initially alone onstage, tentative yet determined, dwarfed by looming projected images of Russian war damage in Ukraine.

In what would be the first of several “spotlight” segments in the two-day event in Norway, Matviichuk read carefully from her notes, working to put across in English the profound urgency that motivated her comments. Despite the stark gravity of an earlier recorded message from the Russian Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist Dmitrij Muratov, it was Matviichuk’s painstaking, deeply felt delivery of her message that would be talked about by many at the conference long after she spoke.

We’re excerpting here some of her comments.

‘Putin Is Afraid of the Idea of Freedom’

Ukraine’s Oleksandra Matviichuk, who spoke at WEXFO in Lillehammer on May 30, heads the nonprofit Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv. Image: Publshing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

“Freedom of expression is essential,” she said, with a first-hand understanding of this that clearly surpassed what many of those present have experienced.

In making her way to Lillehammer, Matviichuk said, she had left Ukraine for the first time since the February 24 onset of Vladimir Putin’s entirely unprovoked assault on Ukraine. Matviichuk said that she had spent more than a month of the attacks in cities “unceasingly fired upon by the Russian troops.

“Vladimir Putin is not afraid of NATO. Putin is afraid of the idea of freedom.”Oleksandra Matviichuk

“Hundreds of thousands of people are escaping from shellings in the bomb shelters–having no food, no water, no electricity, and no medical care,” she told her rapt audience. “Russia uses war crimes and the madness of warfare. No military necessity can justify such actions. There is no need to destroy residential buildings, churches, schools, or theaters. There is no necessity to fire upon evacuation corridors, or forcibly deport more than 1 million people. There is no necessity to terrorize people in the occupied territories; to shoot people along the street; to break into houses and rape women and children; to abduct and torture civilians. Russia is attempting to break the resistance of the country by means of what they call the ‘immense pain of civilian populations.’ The Russians have only done these things because they could.

“Vladimir Putin is not afraid of NATO. Putin is afraid of the idea of freedom. Nine years ago, during the Revolution of Dignity, we fought for our freedom, for the right to live and build a country where everyone’s rights are protected. Where the government is accountable. Where the judiciary is independent. Where police do not attack and kill independent journalists.”

Matviichuk said that not least because a fight once fought is having to be fought again now in Ukraine, “This fight is significant for the entirety of Europe.

“If you do not stop Putin in Ukraine, he will go on.”

She laid out for the WEXFO delegates a series of three challenges, amounting to what might have been adopted as a list of goals by an assembly like the one seated in Lillehammer. In her formulation, these three points involve a trio of expressive dynamics and must be protected and promoted to defeat authoritarianism. They involve the right of the people to speak, the responsibility of the state not to control information, and the importance of those who gather and produce the information needed by a free culture.

  • “Challenge One,” she said, is the passive form of informational suppression in which social media cannot overpower or outrun state control. “We live in a world where information prevails. Every person is turned into an information medium with the help of the social media networks.” And yet when the state can suppress the information, muting or changing its meaning, she said, banishing independent reporting as Moscow has done, “No one can find out about your view,” Matviichuk said. “How are people supposed to know what is happening to you?” she asked.
  • “Challenge Two,” as she laid it out, lies in the active side of expressive perversion: “Several years ago, the minister of defense of Russia stated that the word had become ‘one more type of weapon of mass destruction.’ Russian journalism, with a few brief exceptions, is nothing but a part of the military-industrial complex in Russia, inciting hatred of the Ukrainian people. And in the West, it spreads conspiracy theories and attempts to convince people that no one can be credited–that the truth simply doesn’t exist.”
  • “And Challenge Three is the work itself.” At this point, Matviichuk had trouble speaking, referencing, “my friend and colleague Maksim Levin,” who had gone missing on March 13 until his body was found and identified on April 1 north of Kyiv. An accomplished and much appreciated photographer and videographer, Levin was a contributor to Reuters and was working for a Ukrainian news outlet at the time he was killed, leaving behind a wife and four children.” By Matviichuk’s count, she said, “Now 22 journalists have been killed since the Russian invasion began in February.”

To her credit, Matviichuk said that Ukrainians cannot afford to defeat the Russian assault and then devolve, themselves, into the kind of vindictive and punitive state operated by Vladimir Putin.

“The internal challenge,” as she calls it, is one that Ukraine will carry forward, she said, and must handle in a way that distinguishes that democracy from the totalitarian darkness of the Putin regime.

Calling on the world community to cut off Russian gas and oil purchases and to provide military aid to Ukraine, she at last looked up from her notes and gazed at the audience.

“This freedom is worth stepping out of our comfort zone,” she said to her audience.

“We dwell in an interconnected world, and only spreading freedom can make that world safe.”

‘This Horrible War Going on in My Country’

An early discussion at WEXFO on May 30 in Lillehammer with, from left, Burhan Sönmez; Barbara Trionfi; Irene Khan; and Oleksandra Matviichuk. Laila Bokhari, right, moderated the conversation. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

After she spoke, Matviichuk joined the first panel of the day to discuss issues with Turkish author and PEN International president Burhan Sönmez; International Press Institute executive director Barbara Trionfi; and United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan. Even comfortably seated among the others, Matviichuk never seemed to lose a slightly other-worldly remove from everyone around her. She might have been a hologram, someone there and yet not quite.

This may be a product of the trauma she has experienced, of course, the crushing weight of her message. It may also be something that we project upon her because we see her as a representative victim of so much that’s wrong. There are so many severe crises at play, and a sense, even militarily, of a futility imposed by unthinkable nuclear nightmares. Maybe we’re the dazed ones.

What Matviichuk wanted to put across was something more difficult and demanding than many other comments, some outright blandishments, that would be heard during the course of the inaugural WEXFO.

When she speaks with representatives of various states about the crisis imposed on Ukraine, she said, “I don’t feel an understanding of their responsibility. They say, ‘We are okay. The problem is in Russia.'”

Until it’s understood that “This horrible war going on in my country is a push for the whole world to change the international system of human rights protection,”  Oleksandra Matviichuk said, there will be no change in the fact that the prevailing international community today “has no legal instrument or mechanism to release one single person from captivity.”

More on WEXFO is here. More on the freedom to publish and freedom of expression is here, more on the International Publishers Association is here, more from us on Kristenn Einarsson and his work in the freedom of expression is here, more on the Prix Voltaire is here, and more on the Norwegian publishing market is here

Follow our coverage of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and its impact on the country’s publishing players and international industry reactions. 

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s global media partner.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.