What It’s Like for Ukrainian Journalists Reporting on the War in Their Country

Morning that The shelling beganIn Kyiv Olga RudenkoIt was a difficult decision. Editor in Chief of The Kyiv Independent, she had already arranged for most of the outlet’s staff to get out of the capital and continue reporting from safer locations in Ukraine. She didn’t make any plans yet for her, partly because she believed she was more capable. “My plan was to stay in Kyiv as long as it wasn’t directly threatened or attacked, which we kind of assumed would not happen immediately,” she says. “But as soon as Putin finished his TV speech, we started hearing explosions over Kyiv.”
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Even then, she was hesitant to leave, and actually went into the office on Feb. 24 before realizing, after about half an hour alone there, that it wasn’t safe. Although she didn’t want to accept a train ticket from Ukraine, she did so reluctantly and acknowledged that it was the right decision. But that hasn’t removed the guilt. “Even though rationally I understand that it makes more sense for me to be where I am,” the 26-year-old Rudenko says, “ I’m also feeling like Kyiv is my city and my home and I should be going through this with the rest of the people who stay there.”

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The difficulty of balancing safety with the demands of the job is one that all war correspondents face, but for Ukrainian journalists—many of whom never intended to cover conflict but have found they have no choice—it is complicated by the fact that what they are reporting on is a violent assault on their own country. This simple fact can add an additional layer of anxiety and distress to their professional problems. This makes their journalism even more impressive. “I think it’s fair to say that it is more difficult for us than, say, for foreign journalists,” says Rudenko. “We’re not just telling the story, we’re living the story.”

Courtesy Olga RudenkoRudenko, February 24, tried to get work done from the Metro station that was being used by Ukrainians as a bomb shelter.

Journalists are at grave risk simply by doing their job. Photographer Yehvenii Saun was murderedA missile attack was launched on March 1, targeting a Kyiv television station. Some journalists have fled to safer countries or to avoid reprisals from the Russians. Those who stayed have found it difficult to secure body armor; at the war’s outbreak, there simply wasn’t any available to journalists, according to Jakub Parusinski, a media consultant and acting chief financial officer for The Kyiv Independent. Some outlets have broadcast from secret bunkers in fear that they will be attacked and targeted.

On March 4, Russia intensified its long-tightening restrictions on independent media at home by passing a law that penalizes journalists who spread “fake news” about the military and the Ukraine invasion (including by calling it an invasion or a war) with up to 15 years in prison. The Putin regime in Ukraine has made it clearer than ever that they are targeting journalists. Sky News crew will be on Friday to cover the event Evacuated from the country after their car was intentionally attacked—and two journalists shot— by a suspected Russian “death squad.” In addition to the Kyiv tower attack, the Russian military has attacked two others elsewhere in the country, and seized one in the now fallen city of Kherson, reportedly It can be used to broadcast Russian TV. According to V, Kherson iseronika MelkozerovaThe executive editor for the independent New Voice of Ukraine, “they are preparing numerous false flag and propaganda operations.” On Thursday, her outlet was subject to a DDoS attack from hackers that took down its website for six hours; a second today disabled it for another six.

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It is difficult to verify information because of the dangers associated with reporting from areas that are under active attack. Ukrainska Pravda has added a line below its headlines to identify the source for all its news. This is done in order to reassure readers. Most times, that source–as it is for many local reporters—was found through Telegram, which has become the preferred communication medium of government officials and other authorities.

But even those can be unreliable, says New Voice’s Melkozerova. “Ukrainian government officials are constantly updating what’s happening on Telegram and Facebook. However we still have to be very careful when we’re searching for information on their channels because the Russians are creating fake profiles for officials.”

Carlos Barria—ReutersA blast at the television tower in Kyiv, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on March 1.

It’s because of those complications that Rudenko says she reminds her reporters daily to keep trying to get to the original source of anything they see on Telegram, and to keep verifying.“It’s basic journalism,” she explains. “But it’s very easy, when emotions are flying high, to forget that.”

Thirty journalists, who previously worked in English for the Kyiv Post (26 years old), founded the Kyiv Independent in November. After disputes with its owner, they were abruptly dismissed from the Post. Since the beginning of the war, the Kyiv Independent’s readership has seen a tremendous increase. “On Twitter last Monday we had I think 30,000 followers and today we have 1,600,000,” Rudenko says. “So we’re capturing the world’s attention and establishing ourselves as the source of news from Ukraine on the ground.”

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They will still get it wrong. “We make mistakes almost every day. Apart from our regular stories, we’re doing a digest where we prioritize speed,” Rudenko says. All “that means we do make mistakes, and every day we have to make qualifications and corrections.” Based on information the mayor of Kherson had published on Telegram early on Thursday, for example, The Kyiv Independent published a news item saying that the city had been occupied by Special Forces. That was not yet the case—Kherson at that time was still just surrounded by Russian troops and the mayor had agreed to certain conditions—and the outlet issued a correction. (Kherson would later fall in the day.

Some journalists and media outlets in Ukraine have taken a stand against activism, given the high stakes. Zaborona independent newspaper, already known for its honesty, has published several articles about how to make Molotov cocktails and maintains an international blacklist of companies doing business in Russia. Since launching in 2018, Zaborona has published in Ukrainian, English and Russian—but it ceased the latter soon after the invasion. “We have decided,” its editors wrote, ”that we can no longer and do not want to translate our materials into the language of a country that is killing civilians and our soldiers.”

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All journalists find it hard to get away from the story, whether they are activists or not. “The person who did a story about Ukrainian refugees crossing the border into Poland for us is a refugee herself right now,” says Rudenko. “There’s someone living with me in the house here who was an editor, and she is putting up news about one northern city being shelled, and her whole family is in that city. It’s all very personal.”

Illia PonomarenkoTen days prior to the start of war, staff from Kyiv Independent attended a Monday morning gathering. The staff had just arrived in their new office, which was opened in February.

The pressure of deciding whether to stay in a specific area or leave is exacerbated by the uncertainty. Melkozerova is currently working from her grandmother’s apartment in Kyiv, where she translates stories from Ukrainian journalists and publishes her own daily chronicle of events in the country. When Russia attacked the thermal plant in her neighborhood, Melkozerova had to move. In the case of an attack by missiles, she now sleeps on her floor under the taped windows. “From my window, I can see the evacuation trains constantly going back and forth, taking people to safety,” she says. “But I know I can’t go because of my elderly relatives. I don’t know how to leave them here.”

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Fear for her young daughter’s safety led journalist Olga TokariukTokariuk, a journalist for the EFE news agency and others, came to an opposite conclusion. She left Kyiv just days before the invasion to be with her small family. “When I had to make this decision,” Tokariuk says, “I understood that the safety of my child prevailed over my professional duty.”

She is still uneasy about her decision, especially when she compares it with what she describes as the “incredible courage” of colleagues who have chosen to stay. Now she’s based in Western Ukraine. Although an air raid siren caused her to delay her interview, as she ran to find a shelter for bomb debris, she claims she is safe. She was initially concerned that she might have to quit her job if she left the capital. But she has found a way to do some reporting from her new location—covering the atmosphere inside a bomb shelter, for example, or visiting a volunteer center collecting donations of food, equipment and clothing. She is a freelancer fluent in several languages and has been very sought after for interviews by other media. “I’m just trying to defend Ukraine in my own way,” Tokariuk says, “by talking to the world and spreading information about what is happening here.”

Melkozerova feels the same passion for her purpose. “If I didn’t do this work, I would constantly feel guilty,” she says. “Because I still have this idea—and maybe it’s very naive—but I’m still trying to show the world that Ukraine cannot be used as a shield against the Kremlin.”

To help both his own and other Ukrainian journalists continue to do their work, Parusinski, Kyiv Independent’s chief financial officer, has set up two GoFundMe campaigns. Two GoFundMe Campaigns were created by Parusinski (Kyiv Independent’s chief financial officer) to help journalists in Ukraine. 1., established before the invasion, was originally intended to launch It Kyiv Independent, but has since been partly adapted to get its reporters the kind of equipment—body armor and satellite phones rank high—they need in wartime.

The SecondThis fund supports independent Ukrainian media outlets. “Our thinking was that it’s entirely unpredictable how things will go but it was clear overall that the media will need huge support,” he says. “Their market is gone, their government may be gone, their civilization is gone.”

Both funds have received strong support: far exceeding its initial goal, The Kyiv Independent’s has nearly met its new target of 1.2million pounds ($1.59 millions). Other funds, for use by media vetted, are doing nearly as well. Parusinski identifies the highest priority as money. is to develop the kind of technology solutions that will keep those media viable even if they’re attacked: cloud storage, server migration, hosting, debugging. “But we’re also trying to be a stopgap for expenses, logistical support, emergency supplies—getting all of them to the media before the cities are cut off.”

Local journalists will be set up in nearby capitals Warsaw and Vilnius to continue covering the events in Ukraine. The Kyiv Independent already has backup plans for when they are unable to access the internet. “We have people across the border who have access to the website and know that if something happens, and we get cut off, they need to pick up the website,” says Rudenko. “We have people in North America who have all the passwords and they know what to do too.”

Rudenko was buoyed up by the support she received through the crowdfunding campaigns. She is thankful for being able to perform her job despite the stress, pressure and guilt. “We are lucky to be doing something where we feel like we’re helping the Ukrainian cause, like we are fighting on our own front. We’re lucky to have this profession where we can make a difference and do the right thing. As much as it’s taken a toll on us, we’re also lucky at this time to be journalists.”


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