Tetiana Bezruk, a freelance journalist from Kyiv, used to spend her Sundays checking the court schedule for potential stories. She was a reporter on high-profile anti-corruption cases for Ukrainian and international media, including the investigation into crimes committed against protesters by police during Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution. However, since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022, Bezruk has not been to court. Instead, she has become a war reporter. “I decided to cover this war because it is in every aspect of my life,” she told Al Jazeera.
The past year has been an education in front-line reporting for Bezruk, including working from Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Kherson, where she witnessed heavy shelling. “Never in all my assignments have I been so scared physically,” she said. In December, Kherson oblast was liberated, and Bezruk spent time with survivors of the Russian occupation. “I counted three or four buildings in the village that weren’t destroyed or had their roofs intact,” she said. “These trips hurt me a lot.”
Practical and safety considerations have been learned on the job, such as paying attention to exit routes and having access to a car – crucial for extracting yourself from the front line if something goes wrong. With its Kyiv office affected by missile attacks on the city, staff at business publication Liga also became war reporters overnight. The title focused only on war reporting for several months after the full-scale Russian invasion. “We didn’t have experience covering the war or any special training [at the beginning],” says Yulia Bankova, Liga’s editor-in-chief.
For Ukrainian journalists with little or no war reporting experience, safety and security are of paramount importance. According to Ukraine’s Institute of Mass Information, 45 Ukrainian media workers have been killed as a result of the full-scale invasion by Russia, and 21 journalists working in Ukraine have been captured and kidnapped by Russian forces.
Internews, a non-profit founded in San Francisco that supports international, independent media, was initially focused on the immediate safety needs of journalists, such as relocating reporters from areas that had suddenly become a front line. With its Ukrainian partners, Internews brought about 250 flak jackets and helmets as well as 550 tactical first aid kits into the country. A year later, its work now includes replacing lost or damaged equipment and providing power banks and solar power batteries to help sustain media operations during power outages caused by Russian attacks on electricity and power stations. It has also received requests for satellite internet to help newsrooms stay online.
Independent investigative and culture outlet Zaborona has moved its Kyiv office to a smaller space, so 10 to 12 team members have better access to electricity. Editor-in-chief Katerina Sergatskova co-founded the 2402 Fund to provide safety and communication equipment and safety, security, and reporting training to Ukrainian journalists.
For many Ukrainian media, there is “a lack of realistic funding to operate” and report on a battlefield dominated by “surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence,” an international media safety expert who requested anonymity, who has worked in Ukraine for many years, told Al Jazeera. And according to Gillian McCormack, who leads the Internews team in Ukraine, “A year on, you are also looking at high levels of burnout and stress.”
At the same time, in a country dominated by state-run news channels and TV channels owned by oligarchs, Ukraine’s independent media have experienced operating under pressure while holding the powerful to account. With business models devastated by war and a workforce thinned by safety concerns or as journalists enlist, experts are concerned about the future of the sector.
“During the war, it’s even more important [to have independent media] because Ukraine has a reputation for being corrupt,” said Bankova. “Only the Ukrainian media can cover this corruption.” The Ukrainian media market has also lost “quality journalists” to international media covering the war, said Bankova.
Despite operational challenges, threats to physical and mental safety, and Russia’s alleged targeting of journalists and independent media, Ukraine’s journalists keep going. “People say they don’t see the sense in being a journalist any more. I’ve never had these thoughts,” said Sergatskova. “A journalist is one of the most important figures in the war because we can show what is happening. Russia doesn’t want us to see the atrocities it commits. That’s why it’s so important we continue. We have to record it.”