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Ukraine ‘Still Dangerous for Journalists’

US-based journalist Ruslan Gurzhiy pictured in Irpin, Ukraine, on May 12, where he is covering the aftermath of a Russian bombardment. (Photo courtesy: Ruslan Gurzhiy)

For Ruslan Gurzhiy, keeping the audience of his Russian-language news website informed on Ukraine means getting close to the action.

As editor-in-chief of U.S.-based website Slavic Sacramento, Gurzhiy for months has been working from his desk in California to provide news and analysis on the invasion of Ukraine to a large Russian-speaking diaspora.

His coverage has not gone unnoticed. Moscow’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, blocked access to Slavic Sacramento in Russia earlier this year, along with several other news networks, including VOA’s Russian service and the BBC.

Gurzhiy says that the best way to deliver credible news about the war in Ukraine is to get exclusive content. Earlier this month, he swapped the comforts of home in Sacramento for life on the road, traveling first to Poland and then across Ukraine to search for stories.

On the day he spoke with VOA, Gurzhiy was on the road to the southern city of Mykolaiv, one of the first battlegrounds between Russian forces and Ukrainian troops.

Russian forces were pushed back, but the city still gets hit by shelling. And the road is studded with Ukrainian checkpoints: Gurzhiy three times broke off from the VOA interview to pass through heavily manned posts.

But the chance to speak firsthand to those affected by the invasion drives him.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: When did you arrive in Ukraine and where have you been so far?

Gurzhiy: I arrived on May 7, coming via Poland. I first went to Lviv in western Ukraine. Then I visited Kyiv, Bucha and Irpin. Now I’m in southeastern Ukraine, close to the front lines. I’m headed to Mykolaiv. My goal is to visit as many cities as possible to get a better picture of what happened and what is still happening in this country. I’m talking to a lot of people and taking a lot of footage.

I’m planning to produce a documentary based on the interviews and footage I have.

VOA: For weeks you reported on this conflict from overseas. How different is it now that you are on the ground?

Gurzhiy: It amazed me how much support Europeans continue to show for Ukraine. You see Ukrainian flags everywhere, at the airport and elsewhere.

In Warsaw, Poland, I saw even more support for Ukrainian refugees, and when people found out that I was going to Ukraine, they expressed all kinds of support. These are the things that make reporting different if you’re physically closer to the conflict.

I took a bus from Poland to Ukraine and met Ukrainian refugees going back home, because they felt it was safe enough for them to do so. That was my first impression when I first stepped in Ukraine on this trip: many people are starting to feel like things are getting better in some parts of the country.

VOA: Were you prepared to cover the conflict inside Ukraine? Did you receive any safety training?

Gurzhiy: I have experience in covering the conflict in Ukraine. I have been here many times since 2014. But, of course, it is always good to be fully prepared. So before coming here, a Ukrainian friend who is a chaplain volunteering with Los Angeles sheriff’s department, gave me advice on how to navigate the country during this conflict. He also gave me a bulletproof vest. He gave me good advice on how to watch my back while in Ukraine.

VOA: Dozens of journalists were killed or seriously injured covering the first few weeks of the war. Is it safer now for journalists?

Gurzhiy: The situation in Kyiv and the western parts of the country is pretty good now. It is much safer than the east, obviously. But the entire country remains a conflict zone, so it is still dangerous for journalists to be here. We are civilians and we don’t have weapons, so it is extremely risky for us to be near front lines.

For someone like me, the risk of being on the ground in Ukraine isn’t just Russian shelling. I have reported on government corruption in Ukraine in the past. Under the circumstances, one doesn’t feel entirely safe.

VOA: As a U.S.-based journalist born in Belarus to a Ukrainian father and a Belarusian mother, has your background affected how Ukrainians see you?

Gurzhiy: This is a good question. I understand Ukrainian very well and I speak it a little. But I primarily speak in Russian. And for Ukrainians, Russia is the enemy right now.

Ukrainians don’t like Russians these days. This is a fact.

In Poland, for example, I met a Ukrainian refugee that I wanted to interview. He refused to speak with me in Russian. I offered to speak in English or German, but he still refused to talk. But when I explained to him that I love Ukraine and that I’m a journalist who reports on what’s happening there, he understood and only then started to talk to me.

I was born in Belarus, which is equally hated here in Ukraine, because the Belarusian government is an ally of Russia. So, I make sure to tell people that I’m partially Ukrainian and that my father was born in Crimea. It helps because they start to trust me more.

It also helps a lot when I tell people here that I come from America. People in Ukraine love America so much. They easily open up to Americans, whether they are journalists or anybody else.

VOA: You’ve been reporting from Ukraine in both Russian and English. What prompted that decision and how are your readers reacting to the reporting from Ukraine?

Gurzhiy: It is true that we target Russian speakers in Sacramento and other parts of California, but most of the children of Russian, Ukrainian and other Slavic immigrants speak English as their primary language. So, we try to reach different audiences in their languages.

People react very positively with my stories and videos from Ukraine. I have seen a spike in our reach to audiences, particularly through Facebook.

When my audience sees a familiar face on the ground, they start to trust our reporting even more than before. So being here definitely helps increase our credibility.