Director of RISU Taras Antoshevskyy: “The churches are beginning to treat the mass media more constructively”
February 1 marked 9 years of existence of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU). Today it is one of the main sources of information about religious life in Ukraine. Amongst others, it is unique for it is a multi-confessional project, even though it exists as part of the Ukrainian Catholic University.
Taras Antoshevskyy heads RISU. He is a native of Lviv and is very proud of his city. He is married and has three children. A Greek Catholic, he was active in the Christian laity movement as student. He majored in history and was academically engaged in the history of the Christian community movement. In school he attempted to make a hand-written newspaper, and his first professional journalistic experience was with the radio Voskresinnya in the middle 1990s. His political conviction is Christian democracy; he has participated in elections, and worked in a party office. After sociologically monitoring religious processes, he accepted a proposition to work on the creation of RISU and since February 2001 he has been closely tied with this portal.
- RISU was launched for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ukraine. What do you see as the main goal of the service?
- The idea of an informational agency which would objectively inform about religious life in Ukraine in all of its manifestations had already existed, that is even before talk about the visit. The world often knew about religious life in Ukraine from sources outside of Ukraine, and thus usually manipulated for a certain goal. We all most likely understand that such sources like the Russian Interfax-Religion are examples of completely subjective and biased sources. Unfortunately, there still did not exist reliable religious-informational projects as part of the most dominant information agencies. Thus, the inspirers of the idea of RISU used the sudden interest in the religious situation in Ukraine that emerged as a result of the visit of the pope to Ukraine. At the beginning we only had an English version. And for a long time the basis of our readers were foreigners and the Ukrainian diaspora.
From that time neither our idea, nor our goal, nor our task has changed. What has changed is the size of our work (now there are five versions in different languages), accordingly the number of people who work on the project has increased, and our plans have grown. We continue to maintain our goal to objectively inform about everything that is occurring in the religious life of Ukraine. If to glance over the pages of the editions on the portal, then there still is the motto, unchanged for the nine years of RISU’s existence: “Keeping a hand on the pulse of the religious life of Ukraine.”
- Representatives of what confessions work at RISU?
- I would say not at RISU but on RISU, thus not only in the editorial office, but overall on the project. In the editorial office, which is located in the Ukrainian Catholic University—the owner and founder of RISU—work six people. Among them are Greek Catholics, Orthodox, and a believer of the Christian Evangelical Church. As for permanent correspondents, then among them predominate Roman Catholics, but there are also Protestants and Orthodox. Among the regular authors Orthodox believers predominate. We actively cooperate with Baptists, other Protestants, and Jews. In a word, the confessional palette is very diverse. We never paid much attention to the confession of a person, but first and foremost we tried to find a professional, who, having journalistic experience, understands religious subjects and wants to participate in the project.
- RISU is often reproached for popularizing Islam in Ukraine…
- In Ukraine, few write positively about Muslims. Because we have such a stereotype. When a Muslim does something bad then immediately attention is placed on his religion. Perhaps all of our crimes are committed only by representatives of non-Christian or so-called untraditional religions?
We write the truth about Muslims, not always that which they want to hear about themselves. We write about their holidays, customs, calendar, and so on. After all, Muslims have been on Ukrainian lands since before the official acceptance of Christianity as the state religion. When Prince Volodymyr was choosing a religion, he also met with Muslim envoys. And in the 14th-15th centuries in southern Ukraine formed a Crimean Muslim state. Today in Ukraine live quite a few Muslims. They count themselves more than one million. I’m sorry but no Evangelical church can say that they have that many faithful. Do we have the right not to turn attention to them? Then how would this be from our side an objective look at religious life in Ukraine?
One of our bloggers is a Muslim. All of her articles under the general title “Breaking Stereotypes” provoke the most interest and reaction of the readers than any of the other bloggers. And there truly are interesting discussions. Unfortunately, no one else is as active in defending their views as this woman.
Popularization foresees purposeful activity. For us more interesting is to purposefully show the peculiarity of religiosity of our people, how it historically developed, what stages existed, what was unique and unrepeated. I think that popularization of something should be found not in the news of RISU, analyses, interviews, or similar material, but in completely different divisions. :)
- RISU is more of a place for informing and discussion, or an attempt to form certain religious traditions in Ukraine?
- RISU is first and foremost an information agency which has its large portal, where there is space for both informing and discussion. We definitely do not form some religious traditions, because this is supposed to be done by religious organizations, by the churches. We can form certain social-worldview traditions, because as the mass media, we in one way or another have influence on the society. So to say, we form a tolerant view on the surroundings on others and their rights to believe something different. In this matter we often meet opposition. And significant is that often it is those who until quite recently were so-called non-traditional on Ukrainian lands (as some say “sectarians”), who now try to spread intolerance to those confessions that today are not traditional on the religious map of Ukraine. For example, Evangelical Christians often are angered that there are certain organizations, adherent to Orthodoxy, that believe that Protestants are sectarians and fight with them. But often apologists of Evangelical teaching make the same mistakes and try to influence legislation to limit the activity of new religious movements. Then I think of the following question: do they not fear that immediately after those with whom they fight, they themselves are included as a sect? I, let’s say, am for the firm execution of the existing law, without leniency for those religious servicemen who have VIP-parishioners and who can violate a law unpunished in one or another form. We by tradition adhere to the law, but are for the freedom of expression and views.
- Since you actively work with the press departments of the churches, I ask the following: can you ascertain the recent increase in the professional level of these press services? Is there some specification – regional/confessional?
- We absolutely ascertain an improvement in the work of the church information services. We know that the leaders of the churches themselves began to place more consideration in this matter. And this was not called only by the need to operatively respond to the reproaches of the community, though this was a significant factor. I feel that the churches are consciously beginning to treat the mass media more constructively, finding the ability which can be used for the benefit of missionary activity, evangelicalism, especially in the service of the youth, intelligentsia, and so on.
We also noticed that the churches understand the necessity of a professional approach to the media service. Thus, journalistic departments are opening or specialties in the religious educational institutions (for high professionalism they still have a lot of work to do, but the first steps have already been taken), young theologians are obtaining journalistic education in secular colleges. Some are even going abroad for this.
In particular, the Roman Catholic journalist school has a significant experience. No church in the world has produced such a large quantity of pastoral documents for the mass media as the RCC. And they are used not only by Catholics.
Churches are approaching us for help in media education, and we see perceptible results after this. Also, more than a year ago we created as part of RISU the School for PR Technology for church organizations. Our specialists, who lead this field, in the past year traveled all over Ukraine giving dozens of courses. They taught in inter-confessional groups of interested people, and also took part in seminaries and special church conferences. It’s pleasant that the youth, pastors, and priests of the church are interested in this theme. Even some hierarchs, bishops were listeners of our courses. Sometimes in our editorial office we call this “awakening of the top,” when the church leadership understands the importance of media education and give blessing to the creation of press organs in the centers and in the regions. And we don’t seek out interested persons, because this is not a main area of work of RISU; however, they themselves come forward and offer their help. In the absolute majority these are representatives of Evangelical churches. And here is a big advantage in inter-confessional cooperation: when trainers from different confessions work in unison, then this also shows that we can cooperate and help one another. This helps break the numerous infer-confessional stereotypes.
And what do we have as a result? Better news and press-releases, much better possibility to contact church newsmakers when needed, and also friendly, mutual relations with religious organizations.
We are often invited to church events for informational support. We even have an example when our colleague helped one church find understanding with the mass media, which from the beginning treated the events of the church openly militantly. The professional approach of the journalists helped not to quarrel with the newspapers, not to buy from them columns, not to sue them, but find friends in them. I, in particular, am strongly against churches buying columns in the mass media to place articles about themselves. It’s one thing to advertise about some event, but another thing to order a place for yourself. It’s simply because it was bought and that’s all. But Christ did not offer money or other material goods so that people would listen to Him.
As for specifics, in the first place I would recognize the work of the press service of the UOC-MP, which is involved in the best religious media projects in Ukraine. The UGCC and some of the dioceses of the RCC have good working information services. Also, some of the eparchial press secretaries are good models; in these churches exist wonderful church printed publications, internet resources, or television projects. The press services of the UOC-KP and the biggest unions of Evangelists are always active. But even small churches can have quality media projects or skilled work in the local media. It is hard to recount all of them because we may not know them all personally.
- In what research projects is RISU involved? Maybe, in partnership with UCU…
- Research, which we do, has a journalistic characteristic. For many years we are working on a project monitoring religious freedom in Ukraine with the aid of the Fund for the Support of Democracy of the US Embassy in Ukraine. Our steady partners in this sphere are the Department of Religious Studies of the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and the Institute of Religious Freedom. We research the Ukrainian spiritual heritage together with workers from the Institute of Liturgical Studies of UCU and from the National Museum in Lviv. We began to work on popularizing religious tourism and pilgrimage in Ukraine and already found some interesting partners, including some from abroad.
There are plans for some other projects, which will probably be successful, but it’s too early to discuss them now.
Certainly, on of our biggest partners is the Institute of Religion and Society, the project of which is RISU. This academic research institution is working on a few interesting projects that do not focus on just one confession, and so we help them with information. For example, the publication of contemporary social education of various churches of Ukraine and social education of the Church Fathers. We work together with the Institute of Ecumenical Studies of UCU, in particular, experts from RISU teach a few subjects for students specializing in religious journalism.
I am sure many have already heard about the round tables of RISU dedicated to the theme of “Religion. Mass Media. Society.” We plan to continue holding them and develop them in regions where it will be needed. But above all, our priority is to objectively inform about religion in Ukraine.
- Your project “National Reporter" is a great opportunity for young journalists. Do they take advantage of this opportunity?
- This project was created for the news items which are not included in the main news of RISU, but are nonetheless interesting. For example, in each city, in parishes there occur some interesting events which people, who don’t even have any journalistic skills, want to cover. As a rule, the “National Reporter” is not supposed to include official press-releases. There students can practice. And during the summer of this year young journalists sent their material.
In truth, we hoped for more active correspondents. But maybe these news items are not very well-known, so not all potential authors know about them yet. However, we will actively develop and popularize this area in the format of the new portal of RISU, work which is gradually being completed.
By the way, about the new portal. It took us much effort, time, but we are more and more pleased by our new child. The new portal opens huge opportunities to better represent the religious palette of Ukraine. Gradually, a few of our subdivisions will be transformed into separate portals. For example, a library or a division dedicated to religious tourism. Our blogs in a short time have become rather popular and we have dozens of new authors. By the way, we only at the request of authors open new blogs on RISU, and what comes next is entirely their “canonical territory.”
Now we have two important tasks before us: to as quickly as possible transfer material from the old portal to the new one (thousands of articles), and also an “advertisement” portal (due to the technical difficulties on the old portal and due to the transfer to the new portal our rating has dropped a little).
Thus, on RISU both young journalists and experienced aces can find a place for themselves for self-realization!
- What does Christianity mean to you personally – is it just a component of your profession or something more?
- I am a Christian since birth, I was raised as one. Even during Soviet times I didn’t hide my views, in particular, I never took part in the subbotniks, which were organized in school on the Saturday before Easter, because I went to bless the Easter basket. Thank God the teachers understood this. Furthermore, when my classmates and I went Christmas caroling (this was in the 1980s), we often began at the homes of some of the teachers. And to this day I most often run into them on Sundays at church.
At one point I even thought about entering a seminary to become a priest, but nevertheless I ended up pursuing history, which I don’t regret. Now I combine journalistic activity with teaching of history (for a long time I taught the history of Christianity in a seminary of a monastery, and now one of my former students is the dean of my parish).
At work I try not to be a representative of some confession, but a journalist, editor, and administrator. And I also ask this of my colleagues.
Thus, Christianity for me is a very important component of my private life, and one of the forms of self-expression is professional activity. I can say that I engage in work only for a certain though large part of my life, while I always strive to be a Christian.