In order to keep the information flowing in Ukraine, Angelina Kariakina and her team are going to the limit. We spoke to the Head of News of the Ukrainian public broadcaster UA:PBC about daily challenges for journalists.
Angelina Kariakina: The full-out invasion of Russia in Ukraine has changed our lives both as journalists and citizens in a way nothing has never done before. It is then and now, it is a certain division in our lives. It is an experience that has changed all of us forever. We need to combine work and survival – that is the main challenge. While you need to think about the logistics of your work, TV towers are getting attacked, as are radio stations and newsrooms. Our newsroom in temporarily occupied Kherson was mined and occupied by Russian troops.
In my situation talking about future business and distribution models or formats is, on the one hand, relevant, but on the other hand my challenge is to make sure that the team survives and that the team provides journalism to the people who need it.
Our news is about air raids and air alarms, about humanitarian corridors, where do you get food and medicine, how do you get out of a town that is under siege. Our news is about explaining to people where a safe space is. How to get around so many things. In Ukraine, journalism is a means of survival.
We do not have an option. You do not have the option to manage or not to manage, you just need to do it. It is the same with your basic survival skills. You are not sitting and thinking whether you should survive or not. Of course, we all had sort of contingency plans and security strategies and protocols and things like that. And of course, we had to revise them.
In the first weeks we found ourselves where we lacked basic things like body armor, vests, bullet- proof helmets. Of course, many war reporters and newsrooms who did war reporting had equipment, but when there is an all-out invasion across the whole country you do not have thousands of body armor. It took time for us to get all the necessary body armor to all of our field reporters. We now have the supplies and lots of our European partners – including German partners, including the European Broadcasting Union – and other media organizations, embassies and international organizations and funds helped us to get that. But now there are other things to keep in mind, like fuel.
Angelina Kariakina, UA:PBC, attended a panel on "Shaping the future of journalism in wartimes" together with other participants at DW's Global Media Forum 2022 in Bonn
The war is not taking place in certain territories, it is taking place in the whole country. We needed to understand how we can move people around. You cannot send a crew somewhere without a canister of additional fuel. In order to cover Donbas, you need to have a star link. There is basically no Internet, there is no mobile network. It is very hard to provide and even to keep in touch with the crews. Therefore, a normal crew going to report on Donbas has its own star link and WiFi. In order to sustain coverage of Donbas, you also need to make sure you have water and food, and a generator because there are electricity cuts and, in some cities and villages, there is no electricity. So basically, you are travelling there with a minibus with all the goods and things that keep your work running. You would never think about it normally, that you need so much with you.
We needed to understand how we really adjust to remote work, too. Many of our journalists are now working remotely and of course on the one hand, the COVID pandemic taught us some tricks. But it is different remote work. Some of our teams who come from Donbas, they do remote work, but they don’t stay at home anymore. They are changing places, they need to look for homes and places to work from. They need to look for kindergartens, for means of life.
"Taking care of people, making sure we are all safe, is a huge thing. We now have longer conversations about why we need to go there, do we need to go there, what do we need to take with us?" - Member of the press in front of a destroyed building in Kyiv, March 2022
Our days normally start with pre-planned things. Each afternoon we have an editorial meeting planning what we want to do tomorrow, knowing that these plans might be changed completely. But in order to keep things rolling, we need a plan, even long-term planning. Actually, the planning is what keeps us sane and focused. Probably one of the biggest daily challenges is coordination. Our journalism is regional, it is field journalism. That is why there is so much coordination, so many Google sheets, so many messenger chats, so many planning sessions.
Oh sure, I think it is very important that Ukraine is not only about war. It is a huge country, over 40 million people, around six million refugees but hundreds of thousands are coming back to Ukraine. What are those people doing? They are working, they are taking care of their families, they are taking care of their gardens, of their fields. And apart from a global food crisis that might be caused by Putin’s war in Ukraine and the problems with the supplies in agriculture, Ukraine is an operating state with people who are working at factories, going to their jobs and healing and taking care of people in hospitals, with kindergartens and communities trying to establish a normal life. Ukraine is a very vivid democracy, and that needs to be covered. So much is missing in the coverage, especially in the foreign media – apart from the context of the war that didn’t start on February 24. It started eight years ago, but it also started hundreds of years before with the Russian imperialistic oppression of Ukraine, with the Soviet oppression. It is a long story to cover, and it is a long context to give to the audience, just to explain what is happening and what the implications are.
Since 2017, the EU project "Support to the National Broadcaster of Ukraine" has supported UA:PBC in its transition from a state broadcaster to a modern public broadcaster. The project includes a new cross-media newsroom located in the heart of Kyiv that was launched in September 2021 with support from DW Akademie
Some newsrooms will not be able to survive. There are lots of other newsrooms and teams which share resources – crews, cars, fuel content. And we can share content because unlike many other media we have this opportunity and the privilege to have people on the ground across the whole country. Solidarity and cooperation are also means of survival.
UA:PBC is a public broadcaster, a big media company with thousands of employees but because of the war and lack of finances we needed to cut down on many shows and departments. And many people needed to readjust their work – not in the news department, of course news is the basic operation. There are lots of talented people who joined our news team.
Many other newsrooms, for instance many other investigative projects in Ukraine dealing with anti-corruption investigations, with crime stories, they refocused; they are looking for the Russian soldiers, brigades and regiments who could be responsible for war crimes. What they do is investigate work with databases, look at the meta data of video and audio and look for the perpetrators. This is a huge job. And it is an ongoing process, it is work in progress. But many newsrooms jointly started doing it and it is great work.
I think one of our challenges now is to realize that this is our new normal. I mean, we will be living in this new normal way of war probably a long time and we need to adjust our operations to it.
"Our news is about air raids and air alarms, about humanitarian corridors, where do you get food and medicine, how do you get out of a town that is under siege. [...] In Ukraine, journalism is a means of survival."
In our case, it is rather about giving truth rather than balancing information or debunking myths. Of course, there are lots of people who are vulnerable to Russian propaganda and conspiratorial propaganda, but on the other hand it is really important that we provide facts. We have joined our efforts with the Ukrainian fact-checking organization VOX Ukraine, in order to make sure that, for example, some complicated stories about war crimes, very specific stories about victims, were verified. We were able to verify a story about a woman who was brutally killed in Bucha. It is a world-famous picture of her fingernails with red polish and she was recognized by her manicurist, because she did this manicure just shortly before the war. We were able to establish with the video that this woman was killed by Russian troops on a certain date, on a certain street and that was very important for us to verify and to provide this information.
Those were the days: UA:PBC's newsroom team in the newly established newsroom before the all-out Russian invasion
It is not different in the way it is spread, even the messages are not really different. The difference is probably the scale at which the Russians are operating with propaganda. For instance, what they did in Mariupol: It is a completely destroyed city with tens of thousands of dead people in the streets. And one of the first things they did in occupied Mariupol was to put a bus with a TV box in it spreading lies among people who are completely cut off from information. There is very bad internet connection in Mariupol, there is basically no mobile network there, no WiFi. And people want to know what is happening in the rest of Ukraine. Quite frequently what they say is – this is also what they told some of the captured Ukrainian soldiers – that the rest of Ukraine is already captured, that Kyiv is under siege or is already captured. Things like that. This is an immensely powerful instrument they use and while the war is in progress, it hits harder and harder.
War tears families apart, forever: A boy looks at his mother's grave, while his father prays during her funeral in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine. The mother died while the family sheltered in a cold basement for more than a month during the Russian military's occupation
I have to say it is not hard. If you are doing journalism, if you are doing TV reporting: What could you be biased with? When you see hundreds of bodies, when you see people with their hands tied behind their backs, when you see dead kids, when you see destroyed towns. I mean, what could be your possible bias?
When you cover crime – and this is just a huge crime against humanity – it is not really hard to stay unbiased. The truth is out there, what you need to do is just go, see and check. We as Ukrainians, we knew that terrible things might happen in Bucha. We heard stories about Bucha while the occupation was still there, I received messages from people saying that “our neighbours told us that some people in Bucha are being killed” – but until I could see it with my own eyes, I could not really believe and understand the scale of it. So, it is really crucial that we are in the places. We talk to the witnesses, we see the bodies, we see the destruction with our own eyes.
"When you see hundreds of bodies, when you see people with their hands tied behind their backs, when you see dead kids, when you see destroyed towns. I mean, what could be your possible bias?" - A dog wanders around destroyed houses in Bucha close to Kyiv, Ukraine, April 2022
Taking care of people, making sure we are all safe, is a huge challenge. We now have longer conversations about why we need to go there, do we need to go to certain places, what do we need to take with us? Sure, there needs to be more security around our reporting. But at the same time: it is war. In order to make our lives safe, the war should end, and the Russians should be stopped.
I am scared, each day. I am scared for myself, I am scared for my loved ones, I am scared for my colleagues. But at the same time, we are highly mobilized, and I know that there is so much support among the people whom I love and trust and whom I respect, and my work really empowers me. This is why it is a tricky situation in which you physically get so exhausted and at the same time you know that you are doing the right thing. It brings some peace in your heart when you report the terrible things.
DW Akademie editor Jasmin Rietdorf spoke to Angelina Kariakina, Head of News, UA:PBC, on the sidelines of DW's Global Media Forum 2022 in Bonn
UA:PBC, Ukraine’s public broadcaster, launched its newly designed multimedia newsroom at the end of 2021 with the support of DW Akademie and BBC Media Action as part of the largest EU and German-funded media development project ever implemented in Ukraine. The Ukrainian audience can expect independent, reliable and multimedia news on all channels, away from state-controlled media. DW Akademie has worked with UA:PBC in its reform process since it started in 2014. DW Akademie sees public broadcasters as essential to democratic societies and continues to support UA:PBC and regional journalists with its partner Canal France International (CFI) through the recently launched "MediaFit" project funded by the EU and co-funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.