Amid war, Ukraine media verify, make sense of news, and help keep people from despair

By Greg Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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How to help Ukraine? “The country needs weapons to defend itself, and the media need to be able to support journalists so they can continue to work,” a news publisher said in an interview with INMA.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last week, I sent a message to Oleksandr Chovhan, former member of the INMA Europe Division Board: “How are you holding up?”

“We are fighting,” he responded.

Oleksandr Chovhan, chairman of the Association of Independent Regional Publishers of Ukraine, speaking at the 2021 conference in Kyiv
Oleksandr Chovhan, chairman of the Association of Independent Regional Publishers of Ukraine, speaking at the 2021 conference in Kyiv

Chovhan is the chairman of the Association of Independent Regional Publishers of Ukraine. AIRPU represents 20 publishers across Ukraine, with 100 local news brands.

We met for the first time more than 10 years ago when I was with Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza. I spoke at the AIRPU annual conferences in Kyiv and trained local journalists in Lviv, Kharkiv, and Odessa.

We became friends. Our families spent one vacation together in the Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea, now occupied by Russia. We ate Tatar plov from one bowl.

Oleg Horobets is the CEO of RIA Media, a local news publisher based in Vinnytsia in central Ukraine. It publishes four newspapers, all named “20 Khvilin” [in English, 20 minutes], in different regions, and it employs 48 journalists.

We met again on a video call Wednesday morning, March 3. This interview is translated from Russian and edited for clarity and length.

Greg Piechota: Firstly, may I ask how are you, guys, holding up? Where are you? Are you safe?

Oleksandr Chovhan: I am in Vinnytsia. I sent my family abroad, and they are now in a refugee camp. Never in my life I thought my family would be war refugees, but it is what is. 

Oleg Horobets, CEO of RIA Media, with a special print edition of his newspaper headlined “To the victory,” Vinnytsia, March 3.
Oleg Horobets, CEO of RIA Media, with a special print edition of his newspaper headlined “To the victory,” Vinnytsia, March 3.

Oleg Horobets: I am at home in Vinnytsia, too. It’s 250 kilometers southwest of Kyiv [the capital of Ukraine]. The city is calm now. We are all working remotely from our homes.

Piechota: How are the Ukrainian media holding up? Are all of the 100 newspapers and sites associated with AIRPU live?

Chovhan: Yes, all publishers are up and running. People are very passionate, but the problem is they won’t work long fed only by passion. The revenues from advertising and copy sales went down to zero overnight.

Most newspapers stopped printing. There is no newsprint supply, and the distribution network has shut down. 

Horobets: We have a printing business in Vinnytsia. We used to print 100 different titles a week. In the first week of the war, we printed just one title.

Even if you’d like to buy a newspaper, it’s impossible. Newsstands are closed, debit cards are not working all the time. Anyway, people are afraid of shelling and go out as little as possible.

Piechota: If there is no printed press anymore, where do Ukrainians get their news? 

Chovhan: Web sites and social networks are working fine. The best news coverage right now is on Telegram [a social network] and on television.

All major TV companies united and broadcast one newscast across all the channels. Journalists from different channels stopped competing and are working on this one news product. The quality is very high. Everybody watches it.

Iryna Shevchuk, a reporter of Kazatin.com, works in a bomb shelter together with her 5-year-old daughter Veronika. The nearby military stock was hit by rockets on February 24 and 25.
Iryna Shevchuk, a reporter of Kazatin.com, works in a bomb shelter together with her 5-year-old daughter Veronika. The nearby military stock was hit by rockets on February 24 and 25.

Piechota: You mentioned Telegram is another source of the best coverage. Whose channels do you follow?

Chovhan: There are many channels: by the media, by the government, and by individual journalists. It’s partly professional and partly user-generated content. In our city, even the emergency sirens were replaced by Telegram notifications.

Horobets: Telegram is the people’s home page. When there are links, people can, of course, continue reading articles on publishers’ Web sites.

Before the war started, the Telegram channel of our “20 Khvilin” newspaper had 1,000 followers. Today it has 10,000 followers. Before the war, our Web site was generating 50,000 daily page views. Today it is 100,000. 

Piechota: What news and information people are looking for?

Horobets: The most-read content today is community announcements. People in Vinnytsia formed dozens of volunteering groups, which collect the goods and provide services for the city’s self-defense, the wounded, and refugees: bulletproof vests, boots, food, medicines, rides from one place to another. People announce what they have or can do, and others announce what they are looking for. They match up online.

20 Khvilin [in English, 20 minutes] in Vinnytsia is one of four newspapers published by RIA Media in Ukraine
20 Khvilin [in English, 20 minutes] in Vinnytsia is one of four newspapers published by RIA Media in Ukraine

Secondly, people seek verified news about the war’s development in their city, their region, and the country. 

Thirdly, people are looking for updates about any changes to everyday life. Public transport schedules changed completely. Drinking water is delivered only at certain times. Shops open just for a few hours, and many goods are missing. There are problems with card payments. Fuel and medicines are running out.

Chovhan: Many people are following the president, [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy. His media team is broadcasting daily news shows on Telegram. 

It’s not propaganda. It’s fact-based coverage, honest and straightforward, but also humourous. For example, the government ordered the removal of road signs and landmarks to help disorientate Russian troops, and now many direct them to “go f*** themselves.” 

During World War II, the war chronicles were dead serious and solemn, and now they are entertaining while informative. The war is a show — horrific but also in some odd way funny. Humour helps to release the tension of the nation. Zelenskyy is making people fear less.

Piechota: We see two wars unfolding in Ukraine: one is the military invasion, the other is the information war. What role do you see for the independent news outlets? 

Horobets: Verification of information is the single most important job for journalists today. We are flooded with fake news, and we need to help people show what is a fact and what is not. 

Making sense of the news — summaries and analysis — is the second most important job. News coverage on Telegram and news sites is very fragmented. Major channels release thousands of notifications every day. Literally, my phone buzzes every minute. The news media need to filter and provide a bigger picture to audiences. I think this applies not only to Ukrainian but also foreign media.

The newsroom of 20 Khvilin [in English, 20 minutes] in Vinnytsia in early 2021. Reporters (left to right): Myhaylo Kurdukov, Nikita Panasenko, Anna Kovaliova, Vadim Pavlov, Yulia Yelnyk, Volodymyr Scherba, Nataliya Piskunicheva, Aliona Ryabokon, Vitaliy Korolischuk, Nataliya Honcharuk, Valeriy Chudnovskiy (sitting).
The newsroom of 20 Khvilin [in English, 20 minutes] in Vinnytsia in early 2021. Reporters (left to right): Myhaylo Kurdukov, Nikita Panasenko, Anna Kovaliova, Vadim Pavlov, Yulia Yelnyk, Volodymyr Scherba, Nataliya Piskunicheva, Aliona Ryabokon, Vitaliy Korolischuk, Nataliya Honcharuk, Valeriy Chudnovskiy (sitting).

The third job of journalists is to keep people away from despair. We need to show them not only all the bad news but keep balance and show that the country still works. Authorities work. Soldiers fight. There are heroes, and there are successes. 

Last but not least, the fact that media outlets still send messages is important, too. When people get an alert from Ukrainska Pravda [in English, Ukrainian Truth, the major national outlet] or their local newspaper, they know the country and the city still holds. “Ukraine has not perished yet.” [It’s the first verse of the Ukrainian anthem.].

But even if Vinnytsia falls and Ukraine falls, we will continue publishing. We’ll go underground, or we will publish online from abroad. We will publish forever. 

Piechota: Many Western publishers are looking for ways to support Ukrainian media and journalists. What help is most needed today?

Horobets: We are facing many challenges. The cities face electricity blackouts and the publishers’ servers may go down quickly. Our back-up generators can keep the servers up for two days and that’s it. 

We appealed to the Western tech companies to help us move the Web sites to the cloud, and thanks to our media colleagues from all over the world we got connected with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. All of them responded quickly and offered help. This problem is now being resolved.

Chovhan: One thing, though: The Russian government is trying to intimidate Western tech companies and make them block the Ukrainian Web sites. 

For example, our member in Odessa, Odesskaya Zhyzn [in English, Odessa Life], received a warning from a German hosting provider to stop spreading “false messages” or face a take-down. Germans acted on a complaint filed by the Russian Prosecutor General. Basically, Russians are trying to censor the war coverage in Ukraine using the Western hands. It’s outrageous! 

The access to safe data servers in the West is critical for the survival of the free press in Ukraine. Tech companies cannot assist Russians in terrorising Ukrainian publishers.

Piechota: Anything else we can do?

Chovhan: The best way the West could help Ukrainian media is to help us pay salaries to journalists. An average monthly salary of a local journalist in Ukraine is just €400, but as publishers have no revenue, they won’t be able to keep the staff. We are not oligarchs. We don’t have dollars stashed in the basement.

We don’t need more training from the West. We know how to do journalism and how to stay safe. The country needs weapons to defend itself, and the media need to be able to feed journalists so they can continue reporting.

Want to help Ukrainian media?

• Donate to the Association of Independent Regional Publishers of Ukraine via Patreon, or connect directly with Oksana Brovko, CEO of the association at brovko.oksana@gmail.com.

• If you’d like to team up with Western publishers that organise institutional and individual support for Ukrainian media, contact Joanna Krawczyk of the Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation in Poland at joanna.krawczyk@agora.pl. They coordinate with publishers, journalism associations, and foundations across Europe.

About Greg Piechota

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