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Mariupol. March 9, 2022

‘We're all war correspondents now’ How Russia’s full-scale invasion has changed Ukrainian journalism

Source: Meduza
Mariupol. March 9, 2022
Mariupol. March 9, 2022
Mstyslav Chernov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Russia’s all-out war on Ukraine has been deadly for reporters. The Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information has recorded 243 crimes against journalists and the media committed by Russian troops since the start of the full-scale invasion (as of the end of April). At least 32 journalists have died while reporting on the war or fighting on the front lines. Reporters have been tortured and kidnapped, and as of the end of April, at least 15 Ukrainian media workers had gone missing. Over 100 regional Ukrainian outlets have had to shut down due to threats from Russia. In early May, the Pulitzer Prize committee dedicated a special award to all Ukrainian journalists — for “their bravery, resilience, and commitment to truthful coverage” of the Russian invasion. Five Ukrainian journalists told Meduza about what it’s like to live and work in these unprecedented circumstances.

Vasilisa Stepanenko

Journalist at The Associated Press

I’ve always loved my work — you could say it’s been my life. So when the war began, and I realized there was a chance I might get killed, the choice was obvious: I would keep working. A soldier’s job is to protect his land, a doctor’s job is to save lives, and a journalist’s job is to show the truth. I understood that at a complicated time for my country like this, it was my duty to stay with the Ukrainian people and to keep them informed.

When I first saw the war, I was in Mariupol with my team from the Associated Press. You could hear thunderous explosions everywhere. I started getting calls from my family and friends in Kharkiv; they were crying with fear. Even then, I understood that covering this entire war would just be impossible — hundreds of war crimes were being committed throughout Ukraine. I knew a massive responsibility had fallen on my shoulders: that of showing the world what was really happening in Ukraine.

I think the day I learned what war actually means was when they brought a little girl with a piece of shrapnel in her heart to the hospital [in Mariupol]. When 10 doctors were trying to save her at the same time, and her mom was sitting in the hallway and begging them not to let her die. When the girl died, the doctors came out of the operating room with tears in their eyes, not knowing how to tell her mom. After that incident, it just repeated day after day, like a terrible dream.

I spent one night with a regular family from Mariupol. Six adults and two kids slept sitting up in the hallway. The children prayed all night amidst the sounds of shells exploding outside the building. Everyone shared a single blanket. I didn’t know these people at all, but there we were, trying to survive together. I felt I was a part of a regular Mariupol family, and I understood for the first time what it was like for them to live through this nightmare.

I’ve had to live and work under some fairly tough conditions. [In war,] you’re constantly in danger. You’re constantly in search of electricity and Internet connection so you can send off your materials. And that’s to say nothing of personal hygiene and food. Sometimes, it was impossible to wash up — all you had was melted water warmed over a fire. We usually ate just once a day, in order to conserve food. At peacetime, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine anything like that. My work wasn’t just my life anymore — it was a struggle to survive.

escaping mariupol

‘We comforted the kids, crossed ourselves, and bid our lives farewell’ Three Azovstal steel plant workers tell the story of their escape

escaping mariupol

‘We comforted the kids, crossed ourselves, and bid our lives farewell’ Three Azovstal steel plant workers tell the story of their escape

Martial law changes working conditions, because a lot of cities have put curfews in place, after which, according to security protocols, nobody’s allowed to be outside, even journalists. There’s also a ban on photographing military objects, equipment movement, army positions, and recent strike sites. That applies to both regular people and journalists. As a result, under martial law, journalists are required to listen to and observe all of the security rules that are in place; otherwise, you can lose your accreditation for putting you and the people around you in danger. I haven’t had to censor anything, but following the rules is a non-negotiable.

There are journalists from all over the world working in Ukraine right now. Everywhere we go, we run into representatives of practically every publication in the world. Naturally, we work together; we might give each other advice, or ask each other for it. We discuss the situation together. Right now, journalists are focused on Ukraine’s east. They often consult local journalists to help them better understand the situation. I feel a lot of support and empathy for Ukraine from other journalists.

When the war began, I gathered all of my strength, shut off my emotions, and made the decision to work no matter what. Even in stressful situations like this, I manage to tap into a second wind. I understand that the work I’m doing is very important. It’s my duty to my people. I understand that the entire world is seeing what we’re seeing. The entire world is empathizing and supporting us. People know the truth. And the most important thing is that they see these awful crimes against Ukraine. That’s my mission.

I was to emphasize how much this war has brought Ukraine’s journalists together. While everyone used to be in their own separate boats, competing against one another, we now find ourselves in one big battleship with a common goal: informing the people. When the war started, all of Ukraine’s TV hosts launched a single broadcast: the United News telemarathon. It keeps Ukrainians informed around the clock. Only the studios and the hosts rotate in and out. Even when the air raid sirens have gone off or shells have exploded, they’ve kept broadcasting. Ukraine’s journalists have adapted to military conditions very quickly.

Nobody knows what this war feels like more than a Ukrainian journalist in his own home. I think Ukrainian journalists' strong sense of empathy and sensitivity makes our reporting even better. I think Ukrainian journalism will continue to get stronger in the coming months. The war has changed it forever: every one of us is now a war correspondent. Full-scale war has become our new reality and our new life. After all, this is our home, and there’s nowhere for us to escape. Not that anyone wants to escape — that’s the strength of Ukrainian journalism.

Nataliya Gumenyuk

Former head of Hromadske TV, CEO of the Public Interest Journalism Lab

I can honestly say I’ve been preparing for this war forever. I’ve covered conflicts before and studied how to do it. I've always said that journalism is incredibly important and effective in wartime, though some of my colleagues believed it doesn’t affect the action directly as much as things like volunteering, for example. I disagree.

It helps me to have a goal: my duty is to tell the stories of inspiring people. From electricians who continue fixing things under shellfire to grandmothers who demonstrate an incredible level of humanity and empathy even to Russian soldiers.

The war will make Ukrainian journalism, as well as all Ukrainian people, stronger. The main thing is that after years of discussions about journalism’s future before the war, it’s regained its meaning for society and for the people.

Ukraine is a democratic country, a pluralistic one, and it remains that way even during wartime. In fact, it’s precisely because we're up against an authoritarian state like Russia that it’s become so important to journalists, to the authorities, and to all Ukrainians to emphasize this difference. As a result, it's become easier since the invasion to work with the authorities, with officials, and even with soldiers. We’ve been given more access. Before this, our relationship to the authorities was difficult; we came into frequent conflict with them. Now it’s become much more functional. It’s easier to ask questions to even the very worst elected officials now than at any time in the past.

On one hand, the authorities have realized why our country needs journalists: somebody has to verify information and deliver it to people. On the other hand, media employees themselves have realized that our number one job is to serve society. When there are problems, our job is to point them out and ask questions. We understand that above all else, we’re doing something valuable for our compatriots.

At the Public Interest Journalism Lab, we’ve launched a group dedicated to working on several projects related to war crimes. When we were assembling our team, we were horrified: at least five of our journalists (in Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and Irpin) had had their apartments destroyed. Another one was forced to leave Sievierodonetsk, another had to leave Kherson, and a camera operator hid in a basement in Bucha for several weeks before risking his life to escape. Another one was tortured when he was in Kakhovka. The war affects everyone; it leaves a stamp on every Ukrainian, and journalists are no exception.

In conditions like these, the biggest challenge is to keep editorial offices fully staffed and to rebuild them on a new scale. When there are important events happening throughout the entire country, you start to lose your mind a little bit, because you don’t know where you should be: should you go to Kyiv, the Kherson region, Kharkiv, or the Donbas? It always seems like you’re not doing enough.

It’s not possible to work on territory controlled by the Russian military. That’s a question of survival. In addition to the obvious fact that they treat Ukrainian journalists as their enemies, there are huge logistical problems. It’s very difficult to organize trips there.

There is a certain level of wartime censorship [in Ukraine], but nobody has banned me from saying anything. It’s more a question of limiting your liability; you don’t want to help the Russian army out by publishing photos that reveal the Ukrainian military’s location or that show its infrastructure.

I’ve written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and Die Zeit. [Their] readers want to hear local voices. The best international outlets are in Ukraine right now, and there are also some very bad ones. Some news networks come just to film stories against the backdrop of the sound of shooting. That’s how the industry works, especially television.

Because of the intelligence data that was published [in the fall of 2021], a large number of foreign journalists came before the war began. [In other words,] they didn’t come to a place that had already been bombed and assume it had always been that way. They saw how decent Kyiv was before the war, and that Ukraine was no different from a lot of Western countries.

This is a black and white war — it’s simple: there’s an aggressor and there’s a democratic country defending itself. As a result, it’s probably easier to cover from a [Western] editorial policy perspective. There are fewer choices to make. When you have a situation like Bucha, it makes everything clear.

Our interview with Nataliya Gumenyuk


Editor of one of Ukraine’s most popular Telegram channel (her real name and her channel’s name have been left out at her request)

I worked as a journalist in the Donbas in 2014-2015, when it wasn’t seen as a war: you would go to the front, do your work, and come home. Now the war is everywhere, and there’s no returning home. It’s a very stark contrast.

Since I’m currently the administrator of a Telegram channel, I often get threats in my private messages. Provocateurs, clearly from Russia, say a lot of unpleasant things. They insult me, they wish for “a repeat of Bucha,” and they say my children need to be dismembered or raped.

I act as the filter for a huge stream of information. I certainly can’t post every single photo. I’ve been most shaken by the events in Bucha, Irpin, and Mariupol. It’s impossible to put into words. All that’s left are emotions.

a family escapes

‘We were lucky. Only two mortar shells hit our house’ A survivor of the siege of Mariupol tells the story of his family’s escape

a family escapes

‘We were lucky. Only two mortar shells hit our house’ A survivor of the siege of Mariupol tells the story of his family’s escape

I can talk forever about fake news. There’s a lot of information with attention-grabbing headlines that requires thorough verification. It’s especially widespread on Telegram, because a lot of it is sent from the followers themselves. That includes a lot of information sent by people who are clearly sympathetic to Russia and are consciously sending disinformation. For example, they’ve sent a photo of a ship that sank in 2008 somewhere in the Aegean Sea and claimed it’s a Ukrainian warship in Odessa. I end up having to recheck every piece of news 20-30 times and search for evidence. The war isn’t just happening on land — it’s happening in the information space, too, and it’s no less fierce.

Larisa Gnatchenko

Editor-in-chief of Slobidskiy Kray, Kharkiv

After February 24, it became more difficult to work with the main newsmakers [government officials], because we’re from the Kharkiv region, and several municipalities are still occupied. There’s still fighting going on. For three months, our print newspaper stopped being published, and only in June will we be able to start releasing it again in certain areas. It’s very important, because the occupiers are distributing fake newspapers full of false information.

In temporarily occupied territories, they completely blocked all Internet connection to prevent people from getting information from free territories. But we managed to get the news literally through word of mouth. My main goal was not to harm our armed forces and to help ensure that civilians wouldn’t be harmed. You might call it an internal censor that’s just necessary right now: I don’t want to produce any popular material that’s going to get somebody shot on occupied territory. How could I live with myself afterward?

Because we evacuated fairly early, at the beginning of March, we didn’t encounter any physical violence from the Russian army. They did launch frequent DDoS attacks, though. They would overwhelm our sight, and in March St. George’s ribbons, tricolor flags, and the Z symbol appeared on many Ukrainian media sites.

We work very closely with people from the American media. Several years ago, we went to the U.S. for a training program, and our American colleagues were the first to chip in to relocate us. It’s thanks to them that I was able to give my colleagues enough money to evacuate. I’m constantly in touch with them, sharing information back and forth. In 2019, an American boy came to stay with us for an exchange program, and we went with him to the Russia border. Recently, he asked me, what happened to the border guards who were there after the invasion? I told him, and he started crying.


Journalist from Mariupol. The newspaper where she worked shut down when the occupation began. Her name has been changed and the publication’s name has been omitted at her request.

On February 2, we gained an understanding of our profession’s particular importance: to provide people with the information they need, whether that’s about shelters, where to seek help, or evacuation train schedules.

At the same time, people started leaving messages in our work chats like, “I’m going into a basement. If anything happens, cover for me.” We started having Internet outages. We were constantly moving from one place to other, safer places, shifting between different apartments. Eventually, we were all cut off from one another. We would do our work under fire, under the shaking walls of our buildings. It always felt like you were about to get hit. It was horrible.

Fortunately, the Russian troops didn’t threaten me. Still, many journalists destroyed their certifications on their way out of Mariupol. I ripped mine up into tiny pieces and threw it out the wind in front of the first checkpoint. Because if they caught the slightest wind that I was a journalist, it would be over. Journalism in Ukraine is a vulnerable profession right now.

three months of war

‘Reality has become darker’ Photographer Mikhail Palinchak shows how the war has changed Kyiv

three months of war

‘Reality has become darker’ Photographer Mikhail Palinchak shows how the war has changed Kyiv

When we lost connection in Mariupol, an information headquarters appeared in the city; they would get information using a satellite, print it on paper, and distribute it to residents in the humanitarian aid packages. That started about a week after we lost service. Nobody knew what was going on. There were all kinds of rumors: on one hand, they said Ukraine had liberated Horlivka; on the other, they said [Russian troops] had captured Kyiv.

A lot of my colleagues in Mariupol realized they couldn’t keep doing this work. It was just psychologically traumatic: the city was being bombed, you had nothing, and you were in the dark, unarmed, the whole world collapsing and everything breaking around you. When I returned home (that’s how we refer to people going from Mariupol to Ukraine), I started working fairly quickly. The work came back. Initially, every piece of news about the destruction gave me a feeling of fear and pain. Now, I still feel it, but not as acutely.

I’ve written multiple articles with tears in my eyes. Three times, I’ve had to report on the deaths of people I knew personally. The first time, it was my journalism professor: she was hit by a shell when she went out to boil some water. People had started cooking outside by then.

There have been times when I’ve called people to get information for somebody’s obituary, and they haven’t known yet that the person is dead. It’s really hard to be the person to tell someone that their loved one has died.

Interviews by Boris Kemanshev

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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