On the second day of the Russian invasion, it was clear to Ukrainian journalist Natalia Lutsenko that the life of the country’s media had changed.
As explosions rocked the capital, Kyiv, the 32-year-old editor and her colleagues rushed to a bomb shelter in the building where her station, ICTV, is located.
Deep underground, in a dimly lit room with bare brick walls, Lutsenko faced the camera and addressed ICTV viewers.
“I was trying to pull myself together,” she told VOA over the phone. “In this video, I was showing how we’re working right now and that’s our reality right now: hiding in the air raid shelter to record and go on air.”
As she reported that first segment, Lutsenko struggled to grasp the new reality unfolding in her country.
“I was almost crying on that camera that day because I was devastated,” she told VOA. “I was trying to come to terms with the cruel reality that was happening.”
ICTV is not the only news network in Ukraine to use bomb shelters – many of which were built after World War II – as backup broadcast studios.
“Almost all TV channels now have two studios; their usual main studio and an additional studio located in the shelter in the same building,” said Olha Mykhaliuk, correspondent for the Ukraine 24 news channel.
Prior to the invasion, Mykhaliuk was a generalist journalist in Kyiv, covering everything from food prices to the hottest beauty products and entertainment.
“Of course now we’ve all become war correspondents,” Mykhaliuk, 37, told VOA. “Some are on the front line, while others are reporting from relatively safer locations.”
At the start of the war, the heads of the four largest Ukrainian networks met to discuss how best to cover the conflict.
Their decision: to create a 24-hour news service, News United. Through it, each network has an allotted set of airtime to produce and broadcast uninterrupted information about the war.
“All the media realized that it was going to be completely awful and really complicated to be on the air 24/7, but it’s necessary,” Lutsenko said. “So to do that, they came together from the start.”
The collaboration includes ICTV’s parent company, StarLightMedia; Media Group Ukraine, which operates several channels, including Ukraine 24; the Inter Media Group; and the 1+1 news channel.
“Each TV station has about five hours of airtime to air their programming,” Mykhaliuk said.
The Ukrainian government has officially backed the initiative, calling it a “national marathon”, and paving the way for the State Broadcasting Corporation of Ukraine (Suspilne) to join the effort.
On March 18, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a decree that formally obliges all national television channels to broadcast programs through a single platform.
Posted on the presidential website, the decree says the government will fund the measures and security of broadcast facilities.
The initiative enables the country’s networks to pool their resources. At editorial meetings, individual stations share the news they will cover, allowing other broadcasters to use that content.
“We are just dividing our responsibilities,” Lutsenko said. “Sometimes we share reports, especially when it is a report from abroad, from Poland on refugees. We just use it a few times when our anchors are on air, and later when (other networks) are on air, they use it too.
And while journalists work to keep the public informed, their networks work to keep their teams safe in a war zone.
“All journalists are briefed on the basic measures of the security plan and what to do in case of imminent danger,” said Olena Shramko, communications manager at Media Group Ukraine. “We monitor their location, relocation and advise them of possible safe routes into or assist with evacuation if necessary.
Scott Griffen, deputy director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), says the flow of information is essential in times of conflict.
The IPI has set up a database tracking violations against the media in Ukraine and Russia.
“We know that the truth is the first casualty of war. We already see it. And that’s why we’re mobilizing our resources to track down all of these cases and try to fix them where we can,” he told VOA.
Five journalists have been killed since the start of the invasion, and several others injured, including a TSN correspondent hit by shrapnel on Friday while reporting on a humanitarian corridor.
In addition to the collaborative broadcasting effort, major Ukrainian networks have also set up the Freedom multimedia project.
By focusing on Russian-speaking audiences in Russia and elsewhere, the project strives to counter Kremlin propaganda about the war.
Ukrainian Culture and Information Policy Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko recently told reporters that the project was also designed to reach Russian forces in Ukraine.
Journalist Mykhaliuk told VOA, “This project targets Russian occupation troops, and I should add, their mothers as well.”
Moscow has slashed the way Russian media can cover the conflict, passing a new law that provides for 15-year prison terms for reporting ‘fake news’ about the military and issuing guidelines on how to describe the dispute.
Access to some news sites and broadcasters, including VOA’s Russian service, is blocked in the country and others have been forced to close.
This aspect, says Griffen of the IPI, must be carefully observed.
“The Russian public is being denied access to information on a mass scale that we haven’t seen since Soviet times,” he said. “There are very few independent media [that are] able to operate in Russia, and those who operate on Orwellian terms, but they are not able to call a war a war.