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Journalists Covering Ukraine War Often at Crossroads Between Story, Safety

Ukrainian journalist Andriy Tsaplienko covers clashes between Ukrainian and Russian forces some 150 kilometers northwest of the capital Kyiv, March 23, 2022. (Courtesy photo)
Ukrainian journalist Andriy Tsaplienko covers clashes between Ukrainian and Russian forces some 150 kilometers northwest of the capital Kyiv, March 23, 2022. (Courtesy photo)

As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its third month with details of atrocities mounting, journalists covering the conflict are taking a more cautious approach.

Several journalists—foreign and Ukrainian—have been killed since February 24, and dozens more have been wounded, either by incoming fire or being shot at while on assignment, according to media groups including the International Press Institute, or IPI.

The national union of journalists in Ukraine reports as many as 20 reporters could have been killed—a figure that includes those victims where the circumstances of the deaths have not been determined.

For those who experienced near misses, such as Andriy Tsaplienko, the dangers of this conflict are making them reassess their approach.

Tsaplienko, a correspondent for the Ukrainian 1+1 news channel, was hit by shrapnel March 25, when he was covering a humanitarian corridor near the northern city of Chernihiv.

Speaking to VOA from Kyiv, Tsaplienko said he has “become more cautious, because a dead journalist has little use.”

Getting the story for journalists is the most important part of the job, but to do that they must stay alive, he said.

“What I have realized is that the approach to filming the stories should be different at war conditions,” he said. “A journalist must not just be cautious, but also fast, as quick as possible while filming and move around much faster.”

Advice for the wounded

Tsaplienko said he didn’t stay at the hospital long enough for his wounds to fully heal.

“I rushed to the border with Russia to film the flight of Russian troops, I rushed back to Chernihiv, the city where I was wounded, I went to Bucha to film the search for the dead, went to Zdvyzhivka, where a large camp of Russian troops was situated. After all that, I started to have side effects and had to go to the hospital again,” he said.

And because of that, he has one piece of advice for fellow reporters wounded in Russian attacks: “Your life is more important than your story.”

“I highly recommend getting well, getting in shape, and only then returning to work in full force,” he said.

New responsibilities

The nature of reporting has also shifted.

“In the beginning, most of us were just reporting on what was happening on different front lines and the movement of Russian forces, but as Russia carried out more attacks, we became more focused on what Russian troops have done against Ukrainian civilians,” said Dima Replianchuk, a reporter with the Slidstvo, a team of independent journalists.

The investigative reporting website, along with other local and international organizations, has been collecting evidence from places such as the town of Bucha, near the capital, Kyiv, which Russian forces occupied for more than a month.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine. And rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are on the ground, working to collect evidence of alleged crimes.

According to Ukrainian officials, at least 400 bodies were found in Bucha following the Russian troop withdrawal.

“This is one thing that we didn’t have to work on in the early days of the invasion, because it was still unfolding and we didn’t know what was happening in those places occupied by Russia,” Replianchuk told VOA.

But now, he said, a lot of work needs to be done.

“Take Mariupol, for example,” the 27-year-old Ukrainian journalist said, “Civilians that have fled from the city are still shocked, but we have a duty to interview them to document what they witnessed in the city.”

Others, like Rola Alkhatib, who arrived in Ukraine just over a week ago, are trying to assess the situation on the ground.

“Kyiv seems safe for now, but the problem is the situation is so fluid that we don’t know what’s safe and what is dangerous,” said Alkhatib, a Lebanese correspondent with the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiya TV channel.

“I’d like to go to eastern Ukraine and report from there, although I know it is very dangerous for journalists and everyone else to be there,” she said.

Russian forces have pulled back from some areas to focus on controlling eastern Ukraine, increasing their bombardment campaign of the besieged southern port city of Mariupol. Ukrainian officials expect more Russian attacks in the eastern part of the country.

Growing censorship

In Russia, authorities have sought total control over news coverage, issuing laws and directives to local media on how to cover the war and forcing the few remaining independent outlets to shut down or go into exile.

The Russian investigative news site Agentstvo estimates that more than 150 journalists have left Russia since the end of February. The government last week announced stringent visa rules on foreign media entering the country.

Yevgeny Ivanov, a deputy Russian foreign minister, said the decision was in response to moves by the European Union and other countries to make it harder for the Russian business to obtain visas.

“We have responded by making it harder for journalists from unfriendly countries to obtain visas,” he said. “They will now get a single-entry visa and pay a higher visa fee.”

The country's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has blocked access to many news networks, including VOA's Russian Service, the BBC and others.

Moscow in March passed a law that carries a 15-year prison term for those found to have spread what it deems false news about the military. Authorities have already charged journalists and activists under the law.

Virtual Private Network, or VPN, use and other approaches including shortwave, however, are in play to try to counter those blocks. For example, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, has given mirror sites to several blocked news sites in Russia to keep access to the information flowing. Mirror sites are copies of original websites that are used through certain VPN services to circumvent blocking and censorship.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.