Women Waging Peace Profile

Oksana Romaniuk

Ukraine, Europe

In 2013, Oksana Romaniuk was the victim of a cyber-attack that — given her job in Kyiv as executive director of the large nonprofit Institute of Mass Information (IMI) — was much more than a personal nuisance. A well-known opponent of government efforts to control the media, she reported the attack to the authorities. “The police responded,” she says, “by interrogating my parents and my colleagues; they took away my laptop, and tried to deprive me of my ability to work.” But Romaniuk refused to be intimidated and also shrugged off a documentary in which critics branded her an immoral person allegedly representing foreign (American) interests. Instead, she redoubled her efforts to strengthen democracy by promoting better journalism. “After I was hacked, we invited cyber security trainers, because I thought, ‘If I’m attacked today, others will be tomorrow.’” When revolutionary protests began in late 2013, many journalists were indeed targeted as they covered demonstrations. After 50 were severely beaten on December 1, Romaniuk’s organization immediately solicited protective equipment and assistance from the private sector and other organizations. The following day, they began handing out helmets – and although six reporters lost their eyesight after being struck by the government forces’ rubber bullets, many others escaped harm as the bullets bounced off their helmets. As the conflict escalated, more than 300 reporters were injured in various ways, but lives were saved because IMI expanded its efforts and provided bulletproof vests.

Since the revolution, IMI has led legislative initiatives and engaged in constant dialogue with the government to prevent restrictions on free speech, especially in conflict hotspots. As a result, five media reforms were passed by parliament in 2015. But Romaniuk emphasizes that strong laws are only a part of the battle; implementation is even more difficult. IMI also calls out gender imbalance in Ukrainian media, where research shows a low level of women’s presence (18 percent vs. 82 percent for men). Romaniuk stresses the need for women journalists who, ironically, “aren’t treated seriously or regarded as a big threat, so can often get more information.” She adds that, in Ukraine, analysis shows female reporters tend to resist hate speech and urge the use of neutral language, another reason IMI promotes increasing women’s participation in journalism.