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From Bomb Shelter Studios, Ukraine’s Media Keep Reporting  

FILE - Editor Natalya Lutsenko, ICTV, during a during a live segment broadcast from a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 25, 2022. (Photo courtesy: Natalya Lutsenko)

By the second day of the Russian invasion, it was clear to Ukrainian journalist Natalya Lutsenko that life for the country’s media had changed.

As explosions rocked the capital, Kyiv, the 32-year-old editor and her co-workers rushed to a bomb shelter in the building where her station, ICTV, is located.

Deep underground, in a dimly lit room with bare brick walls, Lutsenko faced the camera and addressed ICTV’s viewers.

“I was trying to pull myself together,” she told VOA via phone. “In that video I was showing how we work right now and that that’s our reality right now: hiding in the bomb shelter to record and to go on air.”

As she reported that first segment, Lutsenko struggled to grasp the new reality unfolding in her country.

“I was almost crying in front of that camera that day because I was devastated,” she told VOA. “I was trying to accept the cruel reality that was happening.”

ICTV is not the only news network in Ukraine using bomb shelters — many of them built after World War II — as backup broadcasting studios.

“Almost all the TV channels now have two studios; their main, usual studio and an additional one located in the shelter in the same building,” said Olha Mykhaliuk, a correspondent with the Ukraine 24 news network.

FILE - Olha Mykhaliuk of Ukraine 24 channel while reporting on food prices in the country shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. (Photo courtesy: Olha Mykhaliuk)
FILE - Olha Mykhaliuk of Ukraine 24 channel while reporting on food prices in the country shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. (Photo courtesy: Olha Mykhaliuk)

Before the invasion, Mykhaliuk was a general assignment reporter in Kyiv, covering anything from food prices to the top trending beauty products and entertainment.

“Of course, now all of us have become war correspondents,” Mykhaliuk, 37, told VOA. “Some are on the front lines, while others report from relatively safer places.”

Coordinated coverage

At the outset of the war, the heads of Ukraine’s four largest networks met to discuss how best to cover the conflict.

Their decision: form a 24-hour news service, News United. Through it, each network has a set of allotted airtime to produce and broadcast uninterrupted news about the war.

“All the media realized it was going to be completely horrible and really complicated to be on the air 24/7, but it’s necessary,” said Lutsenko. “So in order to do that, they just united from the beginning.”

The collaboration includes ICTV’s parent company StarLightMedia; Media Group Ukraine, which manages several channels, including Ukraine 24; the Inter Media Group; and the 1+1 news channel.

“Each TV channel has about five hours of airtime to broadcast its programming,” said Mykhaliuk.

The Ukrainian government has officially backed the initiative, calling it a “National Marathon,” and paving the way for the Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine (Suspilne) to join the effort.

On March 18, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a decree that formally requires all national TV channels to broadcast programing through one platform.

Published on the presidential website, the decree said the government would provide funding for the measures and for security of broadcast facilities.

The initiative allows for the country’s networks to pool resources. At editorial meetings, the individual stations share what news stories they will cover, allowing the other broadcasters to use that content.

“We're just dividing our responsibilities,” Lutsenko said. “Sometimes we share reports, especially when it’s a report from abroad, from Poland about refugees. We just use it a few times when our anchors are on air, and later when (other networks) are on air, they use it too.”

And while the reporters work to keep audiences informed, their networks work to keep their teams safe in a war zone.

"All the reporters are informed about basic safety plan measures and what to do in case of imminent danger,” said Olena Shramko, head of communications at Media Group Ukraine. “We monitor their location, relocation and inform them about possible safe routes in or exits out. If needed, we assist with evacuation.”

Scott Griffen, deputy director at the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), says the flow of information is essential at a time of conflict.

The IPI has set up a database tracking violations against media in Ukraine and Russia.

“We know the truth is the first casualty of war. We’re seeing that already. And that is why we're mobilizing our resources to track down all of these cases and to try to redress them where we can,” he told VOA.

Five journalists have been killed since the start of the invasion, and several others wounded, including a TSN correspondent hit by shrapnel Friday, while reporting on a humanitarian corridor.

Propaganda war

In addition to the collaborative broadcasting effort, Ukraine’s major networks also set up the multimedia project, Freedom.

With a focus on Russian-speaking audiences in Russia and elsewhere, the project strives to counter Kremlin propaganda about the war.

Ukraine Minister of Culture and Information Policy, Oleksandr Tkachenko, told the press recently that the project is also designed to reach Russian forces in Ukraine.

Journalist Mykhaliuk told VOA, “This project targets Russian occupation troops, and I should add, their mothers too.”

Moscow has severely curtailed how Russian media can cover the conflict, passing a new law that carries 15-year prison terms for reporting “false news” on the military and issuing directives on how to describe the conflict.

Access to some news websites and broadcasters, including VOA’s Russian service, are blocked in the country and others were forced to shut down.

This aspect, the IPI’s Griffen says, needs to be carefully observed.

“The Russian public is being denied access to information at a mass scale that we haven't seen since Soviet times,” he said. “There are very few independent media [that are] able to operate in Russia, and those that do operate under Orwellian terms, but they're not able to call a war a war.”