Our podcast: one year after Putin's invasion, how is Ukrainian journalism faring?
On 24 February 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, thousands of civilians and military personnel have been killed, cities have been turned to rubble and essential infrastructure has been destroyed. Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced and had their lives upended. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 15 journalists were killed in Ukraine in 2022, and the situation for news media remains incredibly challenging to say the least. In this episode of our podcast we discuss the profound impact on Ukrainian journalism including the extreme practical challenges of covering the war, the importance of upholding journalistic integrity despite challenging conditions, issues of press freedom, and support for Ukrainian journalism from within the country and the wider international community.
Our guest Olga Tokariuk is an independent journalist and non-resident fellow at CEPA (Center for European Policy Analysis). Her professional interests include international relations and disinformation research. Olga's work has been featured in international media including Time, the Washington Post and NPR. She is currently a Journalist Fellow at the Reuters Institute.
Our host Mitali Mukherjee is the Director of Journalist Programmes at the Reuters Institute. She has more than two decades of experience in TV, print and digital journalism and has held senior editorial roles at The Wire, Mint and CNBC TV 18.
On the breakout of war | On the need for news and the impact on journalism across Ukraine | On Ukrainians' attitudes to journalists | On practical challenges facing Ukrainian journalism | On press freedom in Ukraine | On combating Russian disinformation | On solidarity with Ukrainian journalists | On the future of Ukrainian journalism
On the breakout of war ↑
Mitali: Let me start by perhaps taking a few steps back. You know, it seems like a year and it seems like document after document just detailing the level of this crisis, the level of the humanitarian damage that's happened. But I want, if you can, for you to walk us back to the very early days of when this invasion began. Where were you at that time? What was happening with your journalistic life and what were your early thoughts really when this began?
Olga: Yes, thank you for this. You know, it's very difficult to actually think about what happened a year ago. And it's almost unbelievable that already a year has passed since Russia invaded Ukraine on a full-scale basis. And of course, there were so many challenges for Ukrainian journalists and for me in this year and for all Ukrainians who are still suffering under Russian occupation, Russian bombardment, Russian targeting of the civilian population.
So speaking about myself, you know, I was working as a freelance correspondent for international media when Russia launched its full-scale invasion. In particular, I was reporting for the Spanish news agency EFE. And you know, I've been reporting about the Russian troops build-up at the Ukrainian border for several months already. It started in late 2021. So it wasn't a complete surprise for me when Russia launched its full-scale invasion because it was already in the air.
There were warnings from foreign governments and intelligence agencies about an imminent invasion. So in fact, because of the fact that I was reporting on it, I was speaking to Ukrainian officials, I was speaking to foreign officials, to diplomats from different countries, I expected that Russia might launch this invasion. I didn't envision what scale it would be actually. It was surprising that it was such a huge scale. That was surprising for me. But in a way, I took precautions to protect my family and I left Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, several days before the invasion started. We moved to the west of Ukraine to meet my relatives.
And one of my motivations, in addition to protecting my family, my young daughter, was that I, as a journalist, maybe will be more able to report on what is happening if I'm in a safe place, because it was obvious that Russians would not easily get to the west of Ukraine. So I thought, you know, I will be there in a place which has an internet connection, where I'm safe from bombs if something happens. So I will be able to report. And that's actually what happened, that, you know, immediately after the invasion began on 24 February, I woke up at six o'clock in the morning, checking, checked the news, and I knew that Russia started the invasion.
I knew that there were explosions heard in Kyiv. And I told myself, now get to work. And I started to receive a lot of requests from different media all over the world to comment on what is happening, to report. And I told myself, you accept every single request. And you speak to everyone, because you have to let the world know what is happening in your country and what Russia is doing to your country. So that's, you know, how my first weeks and months since the start of the full scale invasion went. I was working 12 hours per day, writing pieces, reporting, giving comments, giving interviews to media from all corners of the globe: Africa, Australia, Europe, Asia, America, everywhere.
On the need for news and the impact on journalism across Ukraine ↑
Mitali: And anyone who's followed your work, Olga, has seen how vocal you've been about the impact on journalists, the irreparable loss of life for many, you know, in cases of this reportage from Ukraine. And I remember a conversation with you earlier, where you made the point about how, for many journalists in Ukraine, there is no choice or any option, you become a war reporter overnight, you know, your life has changed, and that's all you're going to report on for that period. Are there stories that stand out that you think are important for readers and listeners to look at to understand better the situation as it stands for journalists in Ukraine?
Olga: Yes, well, that's definitely my case. You know, it was not my choice to be a war reporter. I never went to the front line, I never had this dream, as many of my colleagues had, to report from a conflict zone. So I was reporting on international news. And in the last two years, I was reporting on Ukrainian politics for international news outlets, but I was never a war reporter, I didn't have this ambition. And you know, and I didn't feel like going to the front line and reporting from the front line. So I chose to be in the background, let's say, still remain in Ukraine, but not go to the most dangerous places, or go there when they become less dangerous. So after the de-occupation of Kyiv, Chernihiv region, I went there to report about the rebuilding effort.
So it wasn't a choice to be a war reporter. But this was something that was imposed on me by this Russian invasion of Ukraine. And many Ukrainian journalists found themselves in a similar situation. So they might have reported on culture or on sports or on social issues before. But since Russia’s full scale invasion, the only important thing to report was war. So we all tried to contribute in the ways we could.
And speaking about, you know, the impact on my colleagues, of course, the most kind of visible and heartbreaking impact was that so many of my colleagues have been killed in this war. Some of them were killed on the front line. Some of them were killed by Russian missiles in their homes, like in Mariupol, cameraman and photographer Viktor Diedov, or my former colleague from Ukrainian television, cameraman Yevhenii Sakun, who became the first victim of this war among journalists. He was killed by Russian missile in Kyiv in early March, close to a TV tower when Russians attacked the TV tower in Kyiv. And then, of course, a lot of journalists who lost their lives reporting from the front line in Kyiv region during the occupation, during heavy battles there in March and April, such as Maks Levin, one of the most famous and experienced photographers who reported on the war in Ukraine since 2014, who survived really very heavy battles, such as the battle in Ilovaisk back in 2014. But he did not survive the occupation of the Kyiv region by Russia in April and March of last year.
On Ukrainians' attitudes to journalists ↑
Mitali: And it's almost been two really seminal events that have changed people's relationship with news over the last few years, Olga. There's COVID and then there was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some of our own research at Reuters shows that there is a level of exhaustion when people consume this news. But when you speak anecdotally to journalists within newsrooms, they actually say something different, additionally, which is that perhaps people's attention has been drawn more keenly towards news coverage after these two events. One of our own fellows, Sevgil Musaieva, and I hope I'm pronouncing the name accurately, who's been editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda, actually said that people who are living in areas under Russian occupation are looking for this. They're looking for access to reliable information. Has the relationship of the Ukrainian public changed towards reporters and reportage and journalism generally, given the events of the last year?
Olga: Yes, absolutely. I think people started to appreciate more the work of journalists. And it not only concerns the people in the Russian-occupied territories, but also in the rest of Ukraine's territory. Obviously, one of the first things that Russians do when they occupy Ukrainian regions, they switch off Ukrainian media. So they jammed the internet, they jammed the mobile signal, and they disconnected Ukrainian radio and TV stations from broadcasting. So people didn't really have access to reliable information. And, for example, people who were under Russian occupation in Kyiv and Chernihiv region for more than one month, they were told by Russians that Kyiv has already fallen, that the Ukrainian government had been toppled. And they only found out that it actually was a lie and that it didn't happen after the liberation of these territories. And of course, people in Kherson that has been under Russian occupation for many months until its liberation in autumn of last year, they had it even more difficult.
They only had access to Russian propaganda. It's not even media, to Russian propaganda, TV stations, to Russian propaganda channels. And they had completely no idea about what was happening on the rest of Ukrainian territory. They had difficulty getting in touch with their friends and relatives in other parts of Ukraine. And of course, they were very thirsty for the information, for reliable journalism, for reliable news to understand what is really happening. But as I said, even on the territories of Ukraine that were not occupied, I think people kind of rethought the importance of journalists, especially in the documentation of Russian war crimes. Journalists were often the first to discover what had happened in the occupied territories. Journalists were among the first to report about Russian atrocities in Bucha, about all the civilians who have been killed and executed there by Russian soldiers. Journalists later did a lot of very important investigations, collecting the evidence, satellite images and other sorts of evidence to confirm that indeed Russians committed these crimes after Russia initially denied and said that all these images were fabricated, were fake.
So I think that, yes, absolutely, the audience started appreciating journalists more, but also questioning and approaching critically the work of journalists. Because there were also cases when journalists' behavior raised questions. There were instances when, for example, journalists reported from a position of the Ukrainian armed forces or from a defense industry facility, like a factory that was repairing tanks. And then these objects were hit by Russian missiles in the following days. And there were questions raised. Did journalists disclose the location of the sensitive objects? Did journalists actually expose them to being targeted? So there is also a lot of scrutiny and I think a lot of responsibility, additional responsibility that is added to the work of journalists in the condition of war.
On practical challenges facing Ukrainian journalism ↑
Mitali: Absolutely. And I think it's interesting you say that because there are any number of such similar episodes that have occurred across different parts of the world when it was a conflict zone area and journalists had to tread a very, very careful line. I want to talk more about that, the impact on the industry itself. But before that, any practicalities or practical challenges for reporters covering the events of the last 12 months, Olga? Because there is a similar thread to it, you know, in terms of reporters covering war in Afghanistan or parts of Africa. Safe passage is an issue. Support from your central newsroom is an issue. But what were the sort of unique experiences in terms of practical challenges for reporters in Ukraine?
Olga: Yeah, well, I think that Ukrainian and international journalists, they can move almost, you know, unhinged and limited without any obstacles on their work in the territories that are controlled by the Ukrainian government. While, of course, it is difficult, if not absolutely impossible, in the Russian occupied territories because journalists are not allowed to get there. They are also under threat if they work there. So it's very difficult to get the information out of the occupied territories, what is actually happening there. People who stay there, they face persecution, they face torture, they face sometimes rape and they are being executed by Russian soldiers, by Russian occupying forces. So they might not want to talk to journalists, even remotely, even anonymously. And very often the full extent of what is happening on the occupied territories only emerges after the liberation of these territories. So that's one of the challenges.
Then of course, there were other challenges, especially for Ukrainian journalists. Initially, in the first weeks and months of war, there was a shortage of protective equipment that was resolved and with help also that was coming from international organisations, international journalists’ unions. So now that is not an issue. There are training courses for Ukrainian journalists that help them to navigate, to work in a hostile environment. And actually many Ukrainian journalists already had this experience because the war didn't start in 2022. The war started in 2014 and many Ukrainian journalists have already reported from the war and had the experience of working in a conflict zone.
But speaking more broadly, the challenges that have been added to the media in general in Ukraine since 2022 is of course a huge drop in advertising revenues for the media. This is a crisis that Ukrainian media has never experienced before. Advertisement revenues fell by 81% for TV, 79% for print and 61% for radio. This is information coming from the Ukrainian Advertisement Coalition. And of course, under these conditions, many Ukrainian media had to rethink their business model, had to rethink how do they get funding, maybe switching more to relying on funding coming from abroad, from donor agencies. They had to rethink their subscription model in the situation when many Ukrainians found themselves in economic hardship and were not able to pay for the subscription anymore.
And unfortunately, it also led to many media, especially regional media, going bankrupt. So more than 200 regional media in Ukraine had to shut down because of the economic concerns, but also because some of them happened to be under Russian occupation where they couldn't operate normally or their equipment has been looted or destroyed when the region where they worked was for some period of time under Russian occupation.
On press freedom in Ukraine ↑
Mitali: This also becomes a double-edged sword when you look at it through the lens of press freedom and how much space there is to criticise things within the region, isn't it Olga? For instance, there was a loosely held coalition of many Ukrainian channels, which then has come under some sort of scrutiny for not being as independent as they want to.
I understand there is a law being considered for later in this year that might clamp down a bit more on media freedom. Give us a little bit of a contrast. The financial distress, as you highlight, is quite clear, but has there been an impact on how much freedom journalists have in terms of looking at things and criticising things?
Olga: Well, we have to understand that Ukraine is a democratic country with a very vibrant media scene and it was the case before the Russian full-scale invasion. So while there are TV stations that are run by the oligarchs and there is a public broadcaster, there are also a wide array of media that are independent or that are not controlled by people with political affiliations or rich oligarchs. So there is a possibility still, I would argue, for many Ukrainians to get their news from an unbiased source and also to get their news from different sources and to compare the information they receive from different sources. So there is no mainstream one line of reporting. Still of course, there are issues with this United TV marathon that you mentioned. Just to explain a little bit of a background, that in the very first days of war, several Ukrainian TV channels, most of them belonging to oligarchs, launched the so-called United TV marathon. So they united their newsrooms to report about the Russian invasion. It was difficult to do that for every TV station separately because Russian troops were moving towards Kyiv. It wasn't clear how long Kyiv will stand. Many journalists actually fled Kyiv like I did. So they moved out of the capital to save their families, to bring them to safety. Many of my colleagues moved abroad, especially female colleagues. They took their children and they just fled abroad, they became refugees, journalists after all, are humans as all the others. And some of them prioritised their safety over their work and their reporting.
So in these conditions, the shortage of staff, the very big uncertainty over what would be happening, it was decided by several TV channels to unite their forces and to create this United Newsroom to report on what has been happening. And while it was a really good idea in the first weeks and months of the invasion, because it also helped Ukraine to repel a lot of disinformation that was circulating around a lot of Russian attempts to poison the information space, to sow panic in the Ukrainian society, to somehow prevent Ukrainian resistance from happening and gaining force. This United TV marathon also became a source, a target of criticism as time went by, because more and more the reporting was very much in line with the official government position, which is understandable in the conditions of war when media operate, let's be frank, differently, especially if we're speaking about the national media, who, you know, nationals and citizens of this country are working for this media and they care about their country's survival. And of course, their reporting would be very different in a condition of war than in a condition of just normal life. But there are concerns now about the government, let's say, maybe not control, but let's say government influence over the content of this marathon that very rarely there is any criticism or a second opinion, and also about the presence of some questionable figures in this marathon, some journalists and presenters who are considered as not really professional, maybe who displayed some pro-Russian attitudes before or worked on TV stations that were owned by oligarchs with connections to Russia. So there are a lot of controversies about that.
On combating Russian disinformation ↑
Mitali: One more reason to reflect back on this period for journalists and journalism generally, Olga, will be the capacity of this war to have been fought online and offline. As you said, it was tremendous, this tsunami of disinformation that hit across social media platforms and otherwise. Is it your sense over the last few months, though, that people, generally, and readers and viewers have become more adept at sifting through disinformation, as also have journalists and organisations themselves become sharper at cutting through a lot of that disinformation and false news?
Olga: Well, I think, Ukraine has developed immunity to Russian disinformation and propaganda a long time ago, because Ukraine has been bombarded by that since 2014, at the very least. And over all these years, there were a lot of initiatives in Ukraine actually exposing disinformation such as StopFake and others, fact-checking initiatives. And then the debate about how disinformation operators act and what techniques they use and how it works, it has been there in Ukraine. So I would argue that there is awareness about the dangers of Russian propaganda and disinformation and there is immunity towards it. Also because Ukrainians live this experience of war. They live the experience of being bombed, of being shelled, of being killed, of being tortured, of Russia attacking civilian targets and destroying energy infrastructure. So if you have that lived experience, how can you possibly believe in Russian disinformation narratives saying that Ukraine needs to be de-Nazified or that Ukrainian civilians actually are to blame for what is happening because they behaved in a way that somehow justifies all these atrocities that Russia commits.
So being a Ukrainian, being inside Ukraine and living through this experience, well, it's impossible to believe in Russian disinformation and Russian propaganda anymore. And, I think Russians, they themselves, the Kremlin, they realize that. That's why they, I would say, channeled their efforts to target audiences outside of Ukraine, to target audiences in the West with a goal to undermine support for Ukraine, because Ukraine is really heavily reliant on the support of the Western countries, both military, financial, political support.
And also increasingly, I would say, that Russian disinformation is targeting audiences in the Global South because Russia wants to preserve its status as a global power. It still portrays itself as an alternative to the imperialist West, as it says, although Russia itself is an empire and its war in Ukraine is an imperial war of conquest. However, I would argue that these efforts in the West have largely failed in the last year, also because of a very good Ukrainian communication strategy, because of very efficient communication by President Zelensky, by the Ukrainian government, but also because of very efficient communication of many Ukrainian grassroots actors, taken to Twitter, taken to other platforms, producing viral humorous content, ridiculing Russians, exposing the absurdity of their disinformation, exposing the falsehoods and their claims about Ukraine. So I would say that largely thanks to this, Russian disinformation effort in the West has failed as well.
But I don't think Russian disinformation efforts are failing in the Global South. And that's, I think, where we should be looking to, because Russia uses the anti-Western sentiment and its deception in presenting itself as an alternative to NATO, to the imperialist West as a tool, as a very useful narrative to reach those audiences, to build cooperation with those countries, to continue trading with them, like with India, for example, with Brazil. And it gives a lot of revenues because of its trade with these countries and the revenues that help it fund this war against Ukraine. And disinformation is a tool in maintaining this war machine, keeping it afloat. So we should be very mindful of that and should be looking into these efforts to reach the audiences and change the public opinion outside of the Western world. There is certainly something to be explored there, and even perhaps the back and forth in terms of sanctions that are imposed and announced by Western countries, but then other sort of backdoor agreements that seem like a ‘two steps back’ rather than ‘two steps forward’ situation for both the Global North and the Global South.
On solidarity with Ukrainian journalists ↑
Mitali: Much of the focus up until now, Olga, has of course been on strategic efforts by some of the Western countries, where they themselves perhaps crossed a Rubicon in their own minds by providing arms and ammunition. But how does this role extend to the broader journalistic community across the world? How do you think there can be better support or increased support for Ukrainian journalists?
Olga: Well, as I mentioned, the support of international journalists, organisations has been fundamental in providing Ukrainian journalists with protective equipment in the first weeks and months of war when there was a shortage of such equipment. And that still goes on. There are several foundations in Ukraine that receive this aid and then they redistribute it to Ukrainian journalists in need. You know, I think, in order to both keep Ukraine in focus and also counter Russian disinformation, the presence of journalists on the ground is crucial. So probably the most important thing how journalists from other countries can support Ukraine is to be present on the ground in Ukraine, is to continue reporting in Ukraine, which is now, of course, done in very difficult conditions.
In addition to the threats associated to war and the risk of being hit by a missile or a mortar or a shell, there are constraints related to the disruption of electricity supply that Russia is intentionally imposing on Ukraine by bombarding its energy grid. So very often there is no Internet or there is no electricity. And journalists also, it makes their reporting very difficult. They have to operate in harsh conditions of war, in conditions where they might have little access or no access to these basic needs that need that, you know, that have to be there for them to do their job. There's still winter in Ukraine, so harsh winter conditions.
But despite all that, I see that, you know, there are still journalists, international journalists reporting from Ukraine now because of the anniversary. There is a renewed spike in interest towards Ukraine. Everyone is back, all the international reporters are back to Ukraine to kind of reflect and sum up what was this past year and, you know, what's the situation currently. You know, I really want to praise work done by my colleagues from different countries in Ukraine, because I think in this past year, they've really managed not only to tell the story of the war on Ukraine that Russia unleashed, but also tell the story of Ukraine, to tell the story of this country that has been democratising itself, that has been transforming itself in the past 30 years, to tell the story of the Ukrainian people who have shown incredible resilience, resistance, vitality, you know, creativity and willingness to fight for the values that they share with democratic countries. So I really want to commend this effort of my colleagues from all over the world who've done a tremendous job to tell the story of Ukraine, not only of the pain and suffering, but also of courage, of bravery and of the fight for what is good and for what is, you know, the progressive and civilized, for the human rights, for democracy, for freedom.
On the future of Ukrainian journalism ↑
Mitali: A final question then, Olga. You know, Gideon Rose, the author of How Wars End, talks about two outcomes for most wars as we've documented them through history. You know, either there is a clear outcome where there is a winner or a loser, or there is some kind of mutually agreed peace, negotiated peace, exhausted stalemate. I think what it doesn't cover is the mental and physical exhaustion for journalists who are documenting things as they unfold. What are your hopes for journalists and journalism in Ukraine over a longer term basis? As you mentioned, many tectonic shifts have happened by way of a financial crisis and other changes. How do you think it will emerge at the other end?
Olga: Well, you know, how it will emerge for journalists and how journalists will be able to work in Ukraine in the future, it directly depends on the outcome of this war and on whether Ukraine will be able to win this war, because we are seeing that Russians, what they do on the occupied territories, they, as I said before, they close all access to information for the population, but they also persecute journalists. They put them in jails. They, you know, they torture them, they kill them, they force them to flee in the best case scenario. And that’s actually what Russians have been doing with journalists inside Russia for so many years, for decades already.
So in order for journalism in Ukraine to survive and for journalists to continue to report safely and, you know, do their job properly, Ukraine needs to win and all Ukraine's territory needs to be liberated. The main threat to journalists in Ukraine is currently Russia. Ukrainian journalists have been very good in somehow coming to terms with and, you know, changing and really doing their job properly with the Ukrainian governments, with consecutive Ukrainian governments. Even now, in the conditions of war, there is no unanimity in the journalistic community that we should keep silent about problematic issues. Just recently, journalists reported on a scandal in the Ministry of Defense exposing potential corruption with the procurement of food for the soldiers. So there was a lot, of course, of debate, you know, whether we should report on these issues while there is a war or should we just, like, keep quiet and wait somehow for the war to end to address this. But the consensus is that, no, we have to report about these things because Ukrainians are also fighting against corruption. Ukrainians are also fighting for a transparent state and transparent government. And the war is no excuse to censor ourselves, not to report on that. And I think that tells you a lot about also, you know, the courage and the professionalism of Ukrainian journalists, that they are still able to put the standards of their profession in the first place and to be guided by them, even in the situation of an existential threat to their profession, to their work, to their country. But as I said, the existential threat is Russia. Ukrainian journalists and Ukrainian society will be able to bring their own government to account if it does any wrongdoing. But the most important thing is to win the war, is to clear the house, kick Russians out and then deal with our internal problems without any external interference.
Mitali: Indeed, and at this point where 12 months have passed to this invasion, I think the overarching hope is justice. Let justice be done where justice is due. Thank you so much for joining in today.
Olga: Thank you
Mitali: It's been a pleasure hearing your thoughts and hearing you articulate them, and I hope all of what you say reverberates and has ripples across the world for journalists.