Maria Ponomarenko has my respect, my admiration and full attention.
Last March the Russian Air Force bombed a Ukrainian theatre in the town of Mariupol, with 1,200 civilians inside. The Russian defense ministry denied the attack. Ponomarenko, a 44-year-old Russian journalist, told the truth about it in a social media post. This is all according to the BBC.
Ponomarenko is no fool. She knew what was coming.
She was detained last April 24, just weeks after the bombing, and sentenced Feb. 14 to six years in jail for spreading so-called fake news, “under laws introduced aimed at stifling dissent about the invasion of Ukraine,” wrote BBC reporter Paul Kirby. “She was also barred from activities as a journalist for five years” after her release.
“Some 1,200 civilians were seeking shelter inside the theatre when it was bombed by Russian fighter jets,” Kirby wrote. Ukrainian authorities believe 300 people were killed but an Associated Press investigation said the number was closer to 600. Many of the bodies were found in the basement.”
Residents had spelled out the Russian word meaning “children” in front of the theatre, in an attempt to dissuade the attack.
“Amnesty International said it was a war crime carried out by Russian forces and the international monitoring group OSCE said it had not received any indication to back up Russian allegations that a Ukrainian battalion had blown up the theatre.”
Ponomarenko, who works for RusNews online media, was tried in a court in Barnaul, Siberia.
“Addressing the court ahead of her sentence she stressed that under Russia’s constitution she had done nothing wrong: ‘Had I committed a real crime then it would be possible to ask for leniency, but again, due to my moral and ethical qualities, I would not do this.’”
“Declaring herself a patriotic, opposition pacifist, she ended her address by saying: ‘No totalitarian regime has ever been as strong as before its collapse,’” Kirby wrote.
Russian authorities objected to Ponomarenko’s use of the word “war” in describing the Russian invasion.
“I have the right to say the word ‘war’ because I am being judged under the laws of military censorship,” she said.
“The journalist and activist, who has two young children, has suffered mental health problems in jail, according to her lawyer, and last year compared her conditions in pre-trial detention to torture.”
As a Cold War Midwestern American kid growing up in the 70s, I had the benefit of Walter Cronkite on CBS News and dozens of seasoned reporters at the major newspapers and magazines to get to the bottom of things for me. I leaned that Pravda, the name of the Soviet mouthpiece newspaper, actually means “truth” in Russian.
That made me think something was defective morally about Russians in particular. It would take me a few years to learn that lying, abuse of power and totalitarianism can travel freely in the air, like birds of prey, without stopping even to consider trivialities such as international borders.
Now I look at my small-town, small-time journalism awards. I remember the day I thought a hockey dad was going to take a swing at me because of how I covered a big rivalry game. Small stuff. I never faced anything like Ponomarenko has, never got close to what journalism is all about.
I used to call myself an unblinking champion of the truth. Ponomarenko is an unblinking champion of the truth.
I wonder how she is doing in detention today. The BBC story doesn’t say whether appeals are possible or what her employers can do to help.
And I wonder what I would do in her place, facing her choices. Would I tell the truth or be silent?
More than this, I wonder if I won’t get my chance to find out, sooner rather than later.
The freedoms that Americans have enjoyed, such as freedom of the press, came at great expense. They were maintained by a courageous and literate population that knew what was at stake.
I take none of these things for granted any more. In fact, I believe the great American experiment in democracy is over. It’s just that the papers have not yet been signed.
I am of course eager to be found wrong about this latter. In either case, I salute Ponomarenko for doing the right thing.
I always admire those who make a stand like this.
Tracy Duffy email@example.com
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