«In Ukraine we now fully understand what “Information saves lives” means»

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Information, whether generalist, humanitarian or judicial, is crucial for those affected by the war in Ukraine. Local independent media need support to survive. We discussed the new realities media are facing and our work with our coordinator in Ukraine, Oleksiy Soldatenko.

Could you briefly describe the situation faced by local media in Ukraine, and the main challenges for journalists today?
Oleksiy Soldatenko: For Ukrainian media, it is a very challenging period. Not only because of the conditions journalists are learning to work in, but also because of the capacities that are required to work effectively. “Public interest", "balance", "ethics" and other basic norms of the profession are now acquiring a new meaning, with many nuances, for Ukrainian journalists. The main challenge is on how reporters can provide information to their audiences safely, without harming themselves and the people who are working and fighting in the field, but still sharing useful information with the population, because there are a lot of needs.
In Ukraine, now we fully understand what «Information may save lives» means. For example, information about how people can safely evacuate from dangerous areas, or where can they get humanitarian aid or what kind of transport is working in the city, are crucial in those times.
Journalists require new skills and knowledge as well as technical and financial assistance. Many of them are from occupied territories and have moved to safer locations in Ukraine,  but they are still trying to operate in the Russian-occupied territories, so their audiences can get news and not feel completely isolated.
That’s why many journalists are changing their ways of working. This especially applies to media serving people in occupied territories. If they previously published in a newspaper or broadcast on a TV channel, they are now broadcasting on Telegram or on social messengers so that people with a poor internet connection may still get some basic information to keep abreast what is happening not only in their region, but in all regions of the country.
Another big challenge is that many journalists now work on a voluntary basis. They don’t receive a regular salary anymore. That is why the emergency funding we can provide to newsrooms and independent journalists is so important. We help media to survive.

"In Ukraine now, we don’t only have war in a military sense. There is an information war, which is war for people minds and people’s trust."

Under such circumstances, how is it possible for Ukrainian journalists to maintain their professional independence and to avoid war propaganda?
That is a good question. We discussed it a lot among us media professionals and during the various trainings we attended, even before the war started. It has generated a lot of debate around the question : « can journalists stay neutral when they witness war crimes committed in their country?». It is very difficult to keep neutral in such context as you can understand.
The key thing is to keep the trust of our audiences. In Ukraine now, we don’t only have war in a military sense. There is an information war, which is war for people minds and people’s trust. Ukrainian journalists, even though they can’t always stay impartial, are still trying to provide information based on facts, based on reliable sources and avoid rumors and misinformation.

Can you present yourself, explain what you were doing before the war and what you are now doing to support local media and journalists with Fondation Hirondelle ?
I used to work as the Program’s Director of the Institute for Regional Media and Information (IRMI), which is a Kharkiv based CSO. It was founded by several experts from Ukraine and EU countries who worked a lot on training journalists in Ukraine. We provide mid-career education and training support for media professionals and public information officers as well as civil society organisations in terms of building low cost and high impact campaigns. We work in all regions of Ukraine.
The project we built with Fondation Hirondelle has two components. The first one is to support journalists who cover war crime trials. With the editorial team of JusticeInfo.net, Fondation Hirondelle’s website on international and transitional justice, we support a network of Ukrainian journalists who cover these issues and we help them with capacity development. We also provide some equipment to them. JusticeInfo’s team delivered a training in Kyiv in July, which was really appreciated (read more about this training here).

"The better journalists do their job, the more chances people have to organize their lives safely"

The second component of Fondation Hirondelle’s project is to provide flexible emergency support funding to a group of independent Ukrainian media. We were able to involve many different stakeholders to inform our decision on who to support. Beneficiaries were not designated by Fondation Hirondelle alone, but in partnership with several Ukrainian media organisations and independent experts. We support both national and regional media. Nine of 16 we have supported are from the worst-affected regions (6 are originally from occupied territories). Nine of 16 are completely or partially relocated. As the result of our 6-month support these media managed to stabilize their financial conditions so they could pay salaries to their reporters. Futhermore, 11 of 16 media were able to hire additional staff members. A valuable result is also that mostly all media have increased the amount of content produced and improved its quality. Most of them increased their audiences as a result.
Our new project started in October. It is built on our experience during these last six months, but also on what journalists are requesting now based on the needs assessment we have done here. We try to be very reactive and to build our project designs based on real current media needs. We are thankful to our donors (Swiss Solidarity and private Swiss donors) because they allow us the flexibility we need to be effective in such an uncertain and sensitive context.

Why is it more important than ever to support journalism in the face of the war in Ukraine ?
People need information. They need information to survive. The better journalists do their job, the more chances people have to organize their lives safely, especially in occupied territories. Where people live isolated, where they are exposed to a lot of mis and disinformation, it is very important that they know that they are not forgotten by their country. It’s also vital that they have access to important, reliable information that helps them to understand how to behave in such a situation, how to save their lives, how to evacuate if there is a possibility. Information helps them to live and to survive, so for journalists it is all the more important to find new channels and new ways to provide this information. And this is where we also help them and provide our support.