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Reporting from a war zone

Posted on Jul 20, 2022 by FEED Staff

News broadcasters have mobilised and are reporting from Ukraine, to get the truth of Russia’s illegal war out to the Ukrainians – and the world

Words by: Neal Romanek

It has been a little over eight years since Russia invaded Ukraine, in response to itsEuromaidan protests and the overthrow of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych. In a month, Russia had taken the CrimeanPeninsula and moved into the Donbas region in the east of the country. Western coverage of the invasion was often lacklustre, even confused. A situation exacerbated by Russia’s dominance in information warfare – especially online.

In particular, its relevance to future global security – let alone that of Europe – was almost completely missed. In 2021, with a drastically different political landscape – one in which disinformation and distortion of the truth reverberated almost everywhere – news agencies aggressively monitored every hour of Russia’s escalation. Not to mention the struggle for Ukraine to defend its own existence, and the response of the international community, or lack thereof.

At the end of 2021, as Russia prepared for its February assault, Ukrainian news organisations started to mobilise. New entrants appeared in the space, too. The Kyiv Independent was launched in November by former staff of the Kyiv Post, after the paper suddenly closed. Its English-language journalism, funded by donations, has been an important clearing house for information on the war and the country’s welfare.

When 1+1 is more than two

Made up of seven Ukrainian TV channels, as well as several online news platforms, 1+1 Media Group is one of the largest media conglomerates in Ukraine. The 1+1 news team has, of course, covered the war since it began in 2014. In that time, it has been joined by military correspondents that were regular visitors to combat zones in the Donbas. When the full-scale war broke out on 24 February, the channel had already built up expertise on covering combat, and how dangerous things might get for the channel itself.

reporting from ukraine
BREAKING NEWS Yegor Gordeev and Volodymyr Rabchun, TV hosts for 1+1 Media Group

Journalists from the network operate in every region of the country that’s not currently occupied, with a number of studios, including backup locations where broadcasting can go ahead, even in an emergency. Live reporting is widely continuing, despite the destruction of infrastructure. This is in no small part due to connectivity provided by Starlink satellite internet receivers. Elon Musk sent thousands of these kits to Ukraine in March.

Staff on the front lines are risking their lives every day to cover these stories. Reporters Without Borders reported five journalists killed in the first month of fighting alone. In May, a team from 1+1’s TSN daily news programme came under direct fire from illegal cluster munitions in the town of Maryinka, Donetsk region.bJournalists Oleksandr Zahorodny, Ivan Holovach and Vitaliy Ovsyannikov survived, capturing footage that fully documented the attack.

“We must remember, the war in Ukraine has been going on since 2014. The events that began on 24 February 2022 should be called a full scale invasion, by no means is this a conflict,” says Tatiana Tregobchuk, 1+1 head of corporate communications.

Getting the language right has been a key feature of reporting the war. The most obvious example was the global press quickly adopting Ukrainian spellings for place names, rather than Russian ones. In copy around the world, Kiev became Kyiv almost overnight. 1+1 is specific about not saying ‘the so-called LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) or DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic)’ when referring to the territory occupied by Russia since 2014 – even with the ‘so-called’ prefix. The preferred term is the ‘occupied territories of Ukraine’ (ORDLO). Crimea, too, is always prefixed with the word ‘occupied.’

Rapid mobilisation

“There is no sphere or branch of business that has not been affected by the war,” says Tregobchuk. “Company executives were forced to reconfigure most processes within a very short time, and learn to work under war conditions; 1+1 Media was not an exception. Moreover, television is an area of critical importance to the state.

We must remember, the war in Ukraine has been going on since 2014

“We are a powerful team that comes together very quickly and flexibly. During this time, we have opened two new studios and offices.We’ve also relocated people, providingthem with equipment, accommodation and facilitating working conditions. Our team is one of the few that stayed to work in Kyiv, as did our president and government.”

The February invasion sparked rapid mobilisation of the press. Six editorial boards now work together at 1+1 to broadcast the news, with a team of journalists from numerous projects collaborating to produce its flagship United News. Additionally, the 1+1 PLUSPLUS children’s channel now broadcasts cartoons continuously. It has initiated an educational project called Learning Without Borders, allowing young people to watch video lessons on TV channels and platforms throughout the week. On the company’s TET TV, morning show Breakfast has resumed, with stories of everyday Ukrainians in its Diaries of War segment.

reporting from Ukraine
MUSIC MATTERS Svyatoslav Vakarchuk of Okean Elzy

The media group has also implemented several large-scale social TV projects with its partners, including a charity TV marathon, Save Ukraine — #StopWar, a series of football matches, Match for Peace #StopWarInUkraine, and a concert by popular Ukrainian band Okean Elzy aimed at helping children. The concert was taken up by more than 20 western platforms and ten TV channels.

“We’re now a powerful production unit that creates international-level products aimed at helping Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s 1+1 rapidly boosted social media offerings to cope with the war.

“Social networks are helping us tremendously,” explains Tregobchuk. “There are news projects where the number of subscribers has grown by 70% since the beginning of the war. Currently, all our social network pages are clearly segmented — there are news resources whose task is to report on events taking place in the country. They are available in Ukrainian, Russian and English, and have a total coverage of more than 15 million readers.”

Instagram account @war_stories_ in_ukraine presents an unvarnished chronicle of the destruction caused by the war, and an English language Twitter account @truth_about_war publishes in excess of 150 tweets every day about the shifting current events. The network is also duplicating the most interesting content in English, and many other languages, on YouTube.

Getting to the facts

Disinformation has become a powerful weapon worldwide. One technique rolled out by Russia early on was accusing Ukraine of committing acts they themselves were preparing to carry out. Among the most grotesque of these was Vladimir Putin’s insistence that he was liberating Ukraine from fascists. When these information attacks are piled one on top of the other across multiple outlets – often inflammatory and contradictory – the information space can collapse very quickly.

If no source is mentioned, that's a reason to question its credibility

As a result, the international press has been particularly diligent about fact-checking incidents and reports before going public. Declarations and battlefield speculations from both sides are treated carefully until they can be independently verified. This is a process that takes dedication and integrity, in an era where social media pushes for hot takes and instant sensationalism. For example, when it was all but certain to most of the public that the Russian flagship Moskva had sunk, numerous western outlets still only reported it was on fire, until it could be officially confirmed the ship was lost.

“We understand that the Russian aggressor is waging war on the information front line as well,” says Tregobchuk. “When the enemy realised they were losing on the battlefield, the amount of inaccurate intelligence increased significantly. The first thing we do is pay attention to the source. If no source is mentioned, that’s already a reason to question its credibility. All of our information related to the hostilities and losses comes from the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Office of the President and the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine.

“For example,” Tregobchuk continues, “if the enemy hits a certain target, we first call the spokesperson for the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, who either confirms this information or immediately refutes it. If we need facts about the scale of damage or the number of dead and injured, that comes from the rescue service workers and police. And we use various tools to check photo fakes.”

In the west, cybersecurity and the information war are regularly treated as different disciplines, but in Russia these are often coordinated and run by the same department. 1+1 has already encountered several Russian attacks on its systems, maintaining a situationally aware IT team that repels the attempts and continually monitors the company’s security.

UNDER FIRE Oleksandr Zahorodny was one of three journalists caught in a Russian cluster bomb attack in Donetsk Oblast

Despite the catastrophe enveloping its country, 1+1 has embraced the fierce inspiration the war has ignited – not just in Ukraine, but worldwide.

“Our common goal is victory, and we’re doing everything in our power for this. An invincible team spirit is felt now, especially when people are 1000% committed, sacrificing sleep, comfort and safety for this purpose. When all those who were not involved in the news production process learn new things very quickly, and can then help others, it toughens everyone up and unites us!”

Staying connected

At the same time as many western news agencies left Russia, they were sending units into Ukraine. Broadcasters and their technology teams ramped up quickly, to manage an unmanageable situation.

“The threat of war in Ukraine meant we had to plan for massive changes in workflow for the whole team,” according to Jamie Keddie, the location engineering manager for tech operations at UK news production company ITN.

In recent years, news teams have become increasingly reliant on the internet – both fixed broadband and mobile networks – for those working in the field. Where journalists previously had to rely solely on satellite (DVB-S2) connectivity, or land-based feed points such as foreign agency offices, ITN can now send material directly as files over FTP, or via live feeds on LiveU and Aviwest units.

“It was important to consider that an invasion could well come with immediate strikes on the infrastructure behind both high-speed hotel broadband, and also the readily available 4G signal in Kyiv and across Ukraine,” says Keddie. “We needed to consider how to work in the event of power loss to the national grid.”

Our common goal is victory, and we are doing everything in our power for this

Most major news broadcasters had to return to a more traditional set-up of flyaway satellite dish equipment – ITN used the Advent FlyDrive 120cm – and portable generators. ITN also took an IP satellite terminal based on Eutelsat’s satellite IP network on a Karbon-75 antenna.

“On the morning of the Russian invasion, our Eutelsat dish stopped working, and the modem was unresponsive. I found out this had happened to other networks, too. All we had for backup was an old Hughes BGAN terminal. This was a backup ISDN for comms, with a functioning FlyDrive dish for main vision. As it turned out, the fixed internet and cell network has continued to work well, right up until now. It’s thought that this is because they’re both actually needed by the invading forces for their communications.”

Beyond the call of duty

One of the biggest challenges has been in transport and logistics, with swapping staff and transporting kit to location sometimes near impossible – or at best long and slow.

“Where before, Kyiv was a 2.5-hourflight from London, we now fly into a neighbouring country and travel in by road or rail. With the roads in a terrible state after winter – they would usually be resurfaced in spring, but obviously not this year – and roadblocks at every village, even a 300km journey can take days,” explains Keddie.


STILL FIGHTING Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko talks to reporters on the streets of the city

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an ongoing story. Coverage will evolve as the war does, and even the best reporting is only going to capture a fraction of what is occurring – or what already has. Newsgathering, data collection, testimony and legal action are all essential for documenting as muchof the factual landscape as possible, so the truth can be better revealed over time. There will be moments of this war known only to the people who experienced them. But the more truthful details news agencies are able to produce and make widely available, the more time we will have to delay – maybe even prevent – the next global catastrophe.

“Working in a war zone is never easy,” Keddie continues. “Shortages of food and water, air strikes and the risk of siege are very real. It is hard to find a positive among this mess and horror, but one thing I can say is how proud we should be of all the teams working in difficult circumstances. Whether ITN, BBC, Sky, CNN or any of our colleagues across the industry, I can say with pride that we have brought stories of the Ukrainian people, and had a real-world impact on the international response.”

“If we had relied on agency pictures or voices unfamiliar to our viewers, it wouldn’t have had the same impact as being told in ways easily related to by our own reporters and camera crews. At ITN, it’s stories of ordinary people that matter, and we have been able to tell them to the world. Of that we can be very proud.”

This article first featured in the sumer 2022 issue of FEED magazine.

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