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Fleeing War or Repression, Exiled Media Keep Reporting


People walk with their belongings, as they flee Ukraine, at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, March 5, 2022.

On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, broadcast journalist Viktoryia Panchenko had just 15 minutes to pack.

It was 5.30 a.m. and the TV presenter was at her Kyiv apartment.

"I heard shooting or a rocket," she said. "It was really terrible. We had 15 minutes to pack our stuff and clothes and go," she said. "I didn't get my toothbrush, but I took my perfume! I can't remember how or why I did that."

For the first day of the war, Panchenko reported for the independent Ukrainian network LIVE.

"We were talking about war, of course. I remember I heard sirens, rocket and shooting," she said. "It was really terrible."

Later that day, the 34-year-old left Kyiv and hasn't been home since.

Like other Ukrainians who suddenly found themselves in a war zone, Panchenko crossed the border into Poland.

FILE - A Polish woman sells Ukrainian flags at Warsaw Centrum Subway Station, Warsaw, Poland, April 6, 2022. Poland has offered its support for Ukrainians who have fled their country. (Tommy Walker/VOA)
FILE - A Polish woman sells Ukrainian flags at Warsaw Centrum Subway Station, Warsaw, Poland, April 6, 2022. Poland has offered its support for Ukrainians who have fled their country. (Tommy Walker/VOA)

In doing so, she and the others joined Belarusians who have been fleeing repression and mass arrests since President Alexander Lukashenko — a close ally to Vladimir Putin — claimed victory in a disputed 2020 election.

But from Warsaw and other cities in Poland, these journalists have sought to continue providing news for the millions displaced by fighting or unrest.

When Panchenko spoke with VOA at a cafe in Warsaw, she was adjusting to her new life in Poland. But her mind was still on Ukraine.

"It's a really hard situation in the media in Ukraine now. A lot of people are leaving. But a lot of people still stay in Ukraine and work in the media," Panchenko said.

"I hope to go back [soon]. I have my apartment," Panchenko said. But "it's in a hard place. A lot of people were killed by the Russian army."

Panchenko is freelancing in Poland for a Ukrainian media outlet that runs commentary and talk shows on YouTube. But she told VOA she was more excited about her work with a new venture set up by a Polish company to reach Ukrainians resettling in Poland.

The channel, UA24.tv, has not started operating, but its website says programming will be broadcast in Polish and Ukrainian. Presenters from Ukraine will focus on resettlement, assistance for refugees and others affected by conflict, and providing live news coverage.

"We focus on positive news. It's a TV (outlet) for Ukrainian immigrants who came to Warsaw or Poland after the war began. So, we will talk about the war, we want to tell our immigrants how to live their lives in Poland," Panchenko said.

The new venture is an example of how media are adapting to the war. Inside the country, Ukraine's top networks quickly created a 24-hour news service, News United, to provide uninterrupted coverage.

And organizations such as StopFake and the Eyes on Russia Project are working to combat an onslaught of Russian disinformation about the war.

Media refuge

Over 4.6 million Ukrainians have fled since Russia's invasion, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But Poland and neighboring countries have also provided a refuge for Belarusians.

After Lukashenko claimed victory in the August 2020 election, in which the main opposition candidate was forced into exile and others were jailed, authorities took a hard line on dissent.

As of March 4, more than 1,000 people had been detained on politically motivated charges and at least 32 journalists had been arrested since 2020, according to a United Nations report.

Authorities even diverted a passenger jet enroute to Lithuania to the Belarus capital Minsk, to arrest a blogger.

Zmicier Mickiewicz, a journalist at the Poland-based Belarusian station Belsat TV, moved to Warsaw soon after the disputed vote.

Two years later, he says, press freedom in his home country no longer exists.

Mickiewicz, 32, had no choice but to leave in October 2020.

"I and the people who helped me to make livestreams during protests were accused by Lukashenko's occupant administration of 'coordination of mass riots.' That's how they call independent journalism after August 2020," he told VOA via email.

"There is no freedom left in Belarus at all, let alone the freedom of the press."

Thanks to a network of citizen journalists still in Belarus, Belsat can still report.

Mickiewicz calls it "user-generated content."

"People send us information, pictures, videos, documents, etc. Telegram and some other means of communication give a possibility to provide us with the information safely," he said.

Mickiewicz was able to escape, but some of his colleagues at Belsat were not so lucky.

Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova have been in jail since November 2020. They were arrested while covering a Minsk protest sparked by the death of an anti-government activist.

Both reject the charges of "actions breaching public order," saying their detentions are politically motivated.

Authorities earlier in April added a charge of treason to Andreyeva's case just as her two-year prison term was coming to an end.

Journalists with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have also been detained. Like VOA, RFE/RL is an independent news network under the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

Pattern of repression

Suppression of the media has been a regular occurrence during Lukashenko's near 28-year presidency, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. But it ramped up in the past two years.

Mickiewicz says the government has always harassed independent journalists. He was first targeted while in school, after he took a course that enabled him to work for a local newspaper.

FILE - Journalists of Belarusian TUT.BY media outlet hold banners reading "I don't protest but work", "This is me at work", "Freedom for journalists!", from left to right, as they stand in front of police station in Minsk, Belarus, Sept. 2, 2020.
FILE - Journalists of Belarusian TUT.BY media outlet hold banners reading "I don't protest but work", "This is me at work", "Freedom for journalists!", from left to right, as they stand in front of police station in Minsk, Belarus, Sept. 2, 2020.

"Being an independent journalist in Belarus has always meant to be an enemy of the regime. That's why my career choice is the choice of values and a political position at the same time," he said.

Although he is at risk of arrest if he returns to Belarus, Mickiewicz has hopes for a democratic future.

"Returning to Belarus is one of my main goals because it's the wish for a better future for my country that made me start journalism. I call my coming to Warsaw a 'tactical retreat,' not an exile," he said.

Panchenko, too, is determined to return to her home country, saying she wants to keep Ukrainians informed of Russian military atrocities.

"I want to say to a lot of people the truth about what the Russian army did with my country, my people, Ukrainian children and women," she said.

"But sometimes at night I can't sleep after I realized what they did, watching all the videos and photos from Ukraine."

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