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Interview: Ukraine's Journalists in 'Epicenter' of War

Kyiv Independent chief editor Olga Rudenko is seen in this undated image. (VOA screenshot)
Kyiv Independent chief editor Olga Rudenko is seen in this undated image. (VOA screenshot)

When she helped launch The Kyiv Independent in November, chief editor Olga Rudenko had no idea that six months later she would be on the cover of Time magazine.

But her team's reporting on Russia's war in Ukraine propelled their English-language site into the spotlight, with Time describing The Kyiv Independent as the "world's primary source for reliable English-language journalism on that war."

Rudenko feels a great responsibility to her audience, "to be the world's window into Ukraine."

That commitment to fact-based reporting has been essential in a war where disinformation is high and journalists find themselves reporting on atrocities happening so close to home.

In an interview with VOA's Russian Service, Rudenko talked about her team's efforts to provide objective journalism, and her view on the future for a free press.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: How difficult is it to report the news, especially in English, and how are your journalists coping?

Olga Rudenko: We were a little prepared because the war has been going on since 2014. Some members of our team had experience in war reporting with the Donbas war. But of course, what is happening now is different. It's much more intense. And we had to make an overnight switch.

We used to have departments in our newspaper like the business desk or the politics desk. Now all that is gone and everyone is war reporter. Each one of us also had to make decisions about safety. Some people had to move their family. That was the main difference for us compared with international journalists.

We and other Ukrainian journalists were in the story, in the epicenter of the war. We had people who had to report on atrocities in places where their families were.

That is taking a toll on all of us. But this is something we will have to process after the war ends. Right now things are so dynamic and everything is happening so fast, we are very focused on everyday reporting and don't really have time to process everything.

Our reporters amaze me every day with how well they are coping, especially when they are so young. But I know from experience how important it is to support each other in the newsroom and I know that it definitely will affect us all.

VOA: How does it feel to appear on the cover of Time and to know the Pulitzer Prize board commended Ukraine's journalists?

Rudenko: Those two things happened one right after another. The Pulitzer Prize special citation for Ukraine's journalists and then the Time magazine cover.

I'm fully aware that I was on the cover because I represent the Ukrainian journalist and Kyiv Independent. I don't read too much into that as I'm not a Hollywood star or a president or someone you may usually see on the cover.

But I think it was a very important recognition of the work of The Kyiv Independent and we're all proud of that. And the same with the Pulitzer Prize citation.

It was a very meaningful, very touching moment to see the journalists of Ukraine mentioned. Even though it is happening because of the war, I know many amazing colleagues in Ukraine who have been doing an amazing job for years.

VOA: Why do audiences need an English language news site in Kyiv?

Rudenko: It is of utmost importance to have a local source published in English. I have a lot of respect for any international journalist who comes to Ukraine, and a lot of them do a great job. But we bring something different to the table. We know the context well, we know Ukrainian and Russian languages. We are at the intersection of the Ukrainian and international news agenda.

International journalists say they use us as the primary source. I'm happy that we can do our part in informing the world and helping people get the facts right.

At The Kyiv Independent, we don't really add opinion to our reporting, it's very factual and even dry. We present facts. We don't do propaganda, we're not opinionated.

We are not neutral in the war of course. We are clear that we are Ukrainians and cheering for Ukraine to win. And this is why it is so important for us personally that we have this role to play and can do something for the country.

Many people around the globe have discovered Ukraine for the first time. Many are surprised at how brave Ukrainians are, but they've always been like this.

I cannot imagine this war happening with the absence of a trustworthy local news source in English. It is so crucial today.

VOA: How would you describe the state of the press freedom in Ukraine now?

Rudenko: The war is testing the boundaries between the government and journalists.

The government understandably is trying to set limitations on reporting things like precise sites hit by Russian missiles, the victims and disclosure of the military positions' location.

While some of that is justified, I know that many journalists in Ukraine feel that the government is overreaching.

We're watching it very closely and I'm personally a little concerned because even before the war, Ukraine was not a perfectly free country in terms of freedom of speech. Of course, it was doing much better than Russia, but we had our problems.

I was in journalism for over 10 years and the journalist community has always been watching closely any kind of limitations and pushing back. It's a very active community in that regard. And we are now vigilant about limitations that may come.

I don't think that the war environment benefits freedom of speech because the government naturally wants to set up limitations that they justify with national security needs.

I am concerned about how the relationship between the current government and journalists will be shaped after the war. Obviously now, the government is not scrutinized as much because we are in a survival mode, we are on the same team.

My concern is that the government might get used to that. I don't know how they're going to react when things go back to normal and when they start getting a lot of critical questions at press conferences.

But I'm sure that the journalistic community in Ukraine is capable of protecting freedom of speech.

VOA: How much is Russian propaganda affecting people in Ukraine, including territories that appear to be under occupation?

Rudenko: We've seen that people living in the occupied territories were subjected to Russian propaganda. It is working to some extent. We have spoken to people who have lived in the occupied territories since 2014. Some of them don't believe the propaganda being fed to them every day.

At the same time a lot of people are influenced by that propaganda with its key narratives about fictional neo-Nazis in Ukraine or the craziest narrative that Ukraine was preparing to attack and invade Russia.

It is so absurd that it's hard to debunk it. But we've seen that Russian propaganda can be extremely powerful.

A lot of Russians who don't support the government fell in a kind of trap. They have seen what is happening on the state TV with insane and aggressive propaganda narrative. They didn't take it seriously. But when the war happened, it turned out that over 70% of people in Russia supported the war, and propaganda all this time was more effective than many people, both in Russia and abroad, thought.

And as for what has happened with independent media in Russia: It is sad to see that the Russian government killed professional journalism in the first weeks of war, when they banned the last remaining independent media outlets.

This interview originated in VOA's Russian Service.