Amid a “been there, seen that” philosophy and a tinge of dark humor, Ukrainian journalists detailed their experiences covering the Russian attack on their country during a Zoom call March 29.
“The Russian army is using the same tricks it did in 2014” (the last time Russia invaded Ukraine),” said Valery Garmsah, the chief editor of the Slovyansk newspaper, through interpreter Olya Kostina. He relocated to Chernivtsi because of the fighting.
“There have been rapes and occupations. War is the only thing we’ve known,” Garmash said through the interpreter. “The only way for our nation to survive is to win. We are united as at no time before.”
While some reporters said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rallied support for the country and its government like never before, there are pitfalls. Olena Zvonareva, chief editor at the city site of Zaporizhzhya, said covering the war has been tricky. Several refugees fled to her city from the badly damaged city of Mariupol.
“Russia cut our social networks. They’ve detained our colleagues,” she said through Kostina’s interpretation. “It’s hard to cover what’s going on there. We’re working under war conditions. It’s the first time for a lot of us. But it’s important to cover everything that's going on. We’re basically doing what we can. We hope it’s not going to be in vain.”
Oleg Skrpnyk, the chief editor of the city sites newspaper in Kharkiv, said one of his colleagues had been taken to Russia by Russian forces but managed to escape and was now in Finland.
“Some of the threats we’ve received have been funny,” Kostina translated.”They say that according to Russian legislation, we could be shot for some crimes or something.”
“Any person with a camera looks suspicious,” Kostina interpreted for one reporter. “Whatever you’re filming, who knows where you’re sending the film. You could be an agent of the enemy.”
There’s also the question of how much information Ukrainian reporters can use.
“We don’t publish about 10 percent of the information we receive,” said Larysa Gnatchenko, chief editor of Slobisskyi Kray in Kharkiv, through the interpreter. “We have to think about the security of our people. We worry that we will attract attention to what we are doing. Our first priority is to take care of the safety of our people.”
Gennadiy Chabanov, chief editor of the Odessa Life newspaper, said once the Russian army takes control of an area, its members seek out local government officials and members of the press. Zvonareva said her colleagues had been detained and threatened with prosecution under Russian law,
“They do torture journalists and the representatives of local government”, Chabanov said through the interpreter. “We do take our security seriously.”
One of the rules of war coverage is not to give out specific addresses or locations. One journalist wished foreign news crews would follow that rule.
“That must never happen,” the reporter said through Zvonereva’s translation. She took over the interpreting duties about three-fourths of the way through the call. “Reporters are forbidden to give exact addresses. We don’t know what the Russians are trying to achieve. They could send three or four more missiles as follow-ups. We need to follow the ‘do-no-harm’ principle.”
Other reporters detailed stories of non-stop air raids that are apparently so common, people don’t take cover in shelters anymore. Some asked for more extensive coverage of the Western sanctions on the Russian government, fearing that some companies could change names and re-enter the international marketplace.
“This is not a conflict,” Zvonereva said. “This is a war.”
Chabanov noted that Odessa is known as a city of humor. He relocated from Odessa to Lviv because of the war. He’s spent much of the last month moving from city to city.
“In Odessa, we have about six air raids a day,” Kotsina translated. “We’re having an air raid now as I’m talking to you. We’re supposed to go to an underground parking structure. But here I am. Maybe I should go to Red Square in Moscow. Maybe the air raids will be focused there
“Their (citizens’) interactions are looking at a Russian warship shelling their city or watching the Ukrainian army shooing away the Russian army,” Chabanov said. “It would be funny if not for the damage and the casualties.”