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Reputation is finally a thing in Kharkiv and Kharkiv oblast media – Olena Leptuha

26.10.2022, 14:15

We discuss the changes to Kharkiv oblast's media community brought on by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with Olena Leptuha, editor-in-chief of the "Nakipilo" project and the representative of the Institute of Mass Information in Kharkiv oblast.

"What were Kharkiv oblast journalists talking about on the eve of February 24?"

"All officials in Kharkiv city and the oblast were convinced that there would be no war. I believe they held a big press conference on February 22 with all the security services, the head of the oblast, the Kharkiv Mayor, the State Emergency Service staff, the police, the SBU – everyone. There was a briefing, and each of them was convincing the people (that the Russian Federation would not attack – Ed.). That is, there was a certain tension and foreboding about the war among the journalists. I understand that having a foreboding is one thing, but planning what to do in the event of a war is quite another. I know that Suspilne, the central office and, subsequently, the regional branches, were making some preparations and planning out their work. In fact, "Nakypilo", where I am the editor-in-chief, listened to IMI's advice, among everything else.

"For several months, our editorial office was a shelter not only for our journalists. We had another editorial team living with us. And the residents of the building where our office is located were also there."

"We have developed some protocols: who will be where. On the last relatively peaceful Saturday, I gathered the team. Everyone reported where they would be, what they would do (evacuate or stay), they listed the addresses where we could find them if something happened. For example, one of our colleagues lived in Pivnichna Saltivka. She said – if they start something, I will come to 'Nakypilo' (to the editorial office – Ed.) and stay there. Overall, everything depended on the editorial team's approach, because after the start of the full-scale invasion and as I was helping provide journalists with armored cars, Starlinks, first-aid kits, there was some confusion. I know that the "Objektyv" TV channel has evacuated. They relocated and stopped appearing on the air for some time. The same with ATN. Their office has not been fully restored yet. Their director had been under occupation for a long time. Everyone knew it, but kept this information a secret because they were afraid to harm him. He was there with his family and was forced to leave through Russia, because there was no other way out in a situation when you are cut off from Kharkiv for several months. And it was impossible to help him in any other way.

"So, there was indeed a foreboding about what was about to start, and the journalists were asking questions at this briefing, and tried to get some comments about this."

"Did everything go according to plan as to who will be where? For your team specifically."

"It partially did."

"So, it was not in vain?"

"Not in vain for sure. Of course, they said, "Olena, you're just panicking." I said, "Cool! But let's do it nonetheless." For example, our literary editor said something like, "I can't handle this situation. I'm leaving." A week before it started, she went to Lviv – to take a break from what was happening. We bought stocks of medicine and food for the editorial office, withdrew some cash. But it was for such a cohort of people. Because for several months, our editorial office was a shelter not only for our journalists. We had another editorial team living with us. And the residents of the building where our office is located were also there. We have a kitchen, a shower. Luckily, it was the basement floor. But that food and medicine did not last us a long time – we had not prepared for daily, several times a day airstrikes, for artillery and street battles. Of course, we were prepared for nothing of this scale.

"But in terms of evacuation, we had several options as to how we would drive, which routes we would take. And it all worked out. We reached the place we planned to reach. And it helped to keep working, not stopping even for an hour. Our media outlet kept working.

"I saw that Suspilne resumed its work very quickly. That is, many online media were covering the events there and then."

"Did you leave?"

"Yes. You see, Kharkiv has been through 2014, when people with bats would come here on buses. The ATN office was badly damaged back then. Therefore, we understood – if these people came here, journalists would definitely suffer, including our journalists specifically. We are already receiving warnings from Roskomnadzor, because we have been covering the war all these years. At first, we moved to a hotel near Ivano-Frankivsk and thought that, just as in 2014, everything would be over in a few weeks. Then, if you remember, they hung a tricolor on the administration building, and there were clashes back then, too. But of course this does not compare. However, we had an irrational hope that this would be the case.

"As everything seemed to drag on, we started looking for rooms, and that was certainly a problem. And, at the same time, you would be looking for a place for yourself, and trying to somehow help your colleagues from other media so that they have somewhere to stay. It was a difficult time. And, to be honest, the fact that the Institute of Mass Information was quickly responding to journalists' needs (financial assistance, armored vehicles) was a huge help to regional journalists specifically, to Kharkiv journalists, who are effectively still in the combat area."

"When did you come back after relocating?"

"Some of our journalists did not leave at all, some did and came back. I work in Kharkiv and Frankivsk. I will do it this way for now. We have developed a comprehensive approach, a shift system, so to speak. We understand that the journalists in Kharkiv are having severe burn-outs, so we employed a method of forced vacations so that a person can rest for a week, because we have seen such burn-outs happen. Our video editors work remotely. Then one of the journalists came back. On the one hand, the person is there in Kharkiv, and on the other hand, after the Russians hit the critical infrastructure, he has no Internet access and cannot work. I saw once again that relocating had been the right decision. We have a lot of video content and we are focusing on it. It is important for us that it is of high quality. So, we have on the ground reporters in Kharkiv. Our colleagues go there and bring back a lot of content once every two or three weeks. They look at Kharkiv not as insiders, but the way Western or national journalists do – they come and "pick out" some very interesting stories. Because when you live in Kharkiv, you may not be able to see them. So, we work both here and there. And I like this method so far."

"I want to make vacations and rest their own question. I will share my experience as the IMI representative for Luhansk oblast and the occupied territories – I have a difficult time persuading my colleagues, especially men, to go on some kind of retreat, or vacation, even though there are enough options for that. Do you encounter people who refuse to go on vacation?"

"Yes, of course. For example, there was one of our journalists, who is from Donetsk oblast herself. I sent her to some event. I think it had something to do with the Defenders' Day. There were flares to make things loud. When she came back, I realized she wasn't having a panic attack per se, but that it had scared her. And when after February 24 I told her, "Come on, leave!" she just packed her things and that's it. She said, "It's easier for me there."

"Recently, a colleague arrived from Kharkiv and said, "I want a break." And we are finding places to go for a walk. Another colleague said that they would explore Ukraine and go to various cool cities. Such distraction helps stabiliz the work, because sometimes the pace is crazy, and then – a drop. That is, a person is unable to do anything during this period. Then we try to "pick something up" for them. And we've been doing it this way for a long time, even before February – if you can't come to work at all, just say how many days you need. All this, let's say, upon agreement not to break deadlines or throw the people on the timeline under the bus.

"Some people said, "We don't need it ourselves, but let me offer it to this or that team." And these were media outlets who, before the invasion, were not exactly in conflict, but not exactly friends either, so to speak."

"The men, I will tell you honestly, are not at all in the mood to rest. You know, it's still that old Soviet thing: "A man must serve." I had a very serious talk with each of them. Being involved is very important for them. Pauses of this kind can even make things worse. This is about men, because they are mobilized to the max. We are happy to welcome those who come to Frankivsk from Kharkiv. We take walks to the river, we talk. That's something that resembles the team we would work in the past, when we would always take an evening to chat or watch a movie, with some wine or without. The movies don't really do it for us now. But I see that everyone has become more open now and there is no point in hiding something. Everyone is the way they are.

"When my dad died, I also felt such crazy support. They simply didn't allow me to work. And this was also a form of mutual help.

"If we go beyond "Nakypilo", there are Kharkiv journalists who decided not to leave at all and did not go anywhere during this time. I know that there is one journalist, Anya Chernenko – you may have seen her post, she wrote that she went on a retreat and came back. This is one of those cases when you can't have it any other way. Same with Masha Malevska. She relocated her parents to Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, so she visits every now and then. But she's, you know, very private. She is not big on hanging out, she would rather stay by herself for a while. So, everyone chooses their own way to take a break."

"To what extent did the war unite Kharkiv journalists? Because outside the war, we all can discuss or judge one another for something – for some material or other, for the approach to work."

"It brought us together very much. This situation when they say, "If you left, you are a traitor, and if you stayed, you are a fool" – I don't know if you have seen this kind of discourse on Facebook, but I saw none of that among Kharkiv journalists. There was support. Even with the distribution of armored vehicles, first aid kits, and so on. Some people said, "We don't need it ourselves, but let me offer it to this or that team." And these were media outlets who, before the invasion, were not exactly in conflict, but not exactly friends either, so to speak. At the same time, many journalists were volunteering and helping one another. I don't know how things are going to be after the victory and whether everybody is going to argue as to who's got the biggest medal, but there is no such thing yet. There is a healthy competition – who filmed a story better and so on, but, you understand, this is not about bad relations.

"Being unable to get some information from the military administration or access the liberated territories was another thing that united journalists. Here, the thing was that some places were really out of the question, but to some other places they would admit foreign journalists. Regional reporters are always jealous about this."

"Did you manage to establish contact with the law enforcement agencies? Have they become closer to journalists?"

"I will try to answer this step by step. Of course, in the first two months there was some confusion. Of course, the press office of the State Emergency Service was providing information promptly, and the police was trying to provide information too. The problem was that we had to agree on what we should publish, when we should publish it. Here, journalists and editors of different social media groups agreed on how much time should pass before we publish the "hits". There were requests from both the military and the SBU, "Let's maintain a pause here." The head of the regional military administration, Oleh Syniehubov, was reporting daily on what was happening, the city's mayor Ihor Terekhov also tried to do that. That is, you could obtain information. It was more difficult with information about going somewhere in Kharkiv oblast. This caused certain waves of anger, because, again, why are foreign journalists going and local ones cannot.

"As for the threats, all newsrooms in Kharkiv were getting them via email."

"We also had a media hub in Kharkiv and they took up the coordination, they were working with fixers. On the one hand, they succeeded, but on the other hand, they did not, because in such cases the authorities may outsource some of their responsibilities to journalists. That is, the hubs were basically responsible for the communication between journalists and all the departments. And, of course, somewhere things would drag. At the same time, I cannot say that there were any obstacles in obtaining information. We have a fairly reasonable police press secretary, Olena Barannyk. She is a former journalist and she understands how things work. So, there weren't all that many obstacles. At least no one turned to me as an IMI representative. There were problems when they changed the press officers, because we had only just gotten used to it, just figured out how to work together, and boom – a change. But none of it went beyond journalistic group chats – everything was accumulating there."

"Are there any recorded cases of threats and abductions of journalists in Kharkiv? Perhaps there are colleagues who have gone missing?"

"Journalist Ihor Grin was considered missing in our country for a long time. He went missing on February 25. He had no family, and his sister had left. For a long time, we did not know what had happened to him, and then, in March, we started searching for him; his last video was released on the channel on February 25. He was in Pivnichna Saltivka. We sent inquiries to the prosecutor's office and learned that they had found him in that district, but with no signs of a violent death. Maybe he had a heart attack. There are journalists who went to fight. Some of them are dead. There have been no kidnappings. As for the threats, all newsrooms in Kharkiv were getting them via email. When I asked about it in the journalist group chat, I received many smiley faces in response. Then my DMs were flooded with screenshots of russkies writing about what they would do to us. A classic – they were saying that we spread fakes and so on."

"Olena, I can not skip the question about the colleagues who sided with the Russians. Are there any?"

"I was thinking whom I should mention. The media whose offices were occupied all left. Those journalists who stayed tried not to tell anybody who they were. They did not keep in touch at all, some deleted their accounts for safety reasons. I know that the SBU detained an employee of some channel, but he was not a reporter. He was making merch with "Z" on it and so on. But I haven't heard of anyone in Kharkiv or the oblast siding with the enemy. It's just that Kharkiv got a feel of the war back in 2014 and 2015, when many people fleeing it were coming here. And after the terrorist attack in 2015, when four people were killed, I remember many people being arrested for separatism. And many traitors left for Russia and, as far as I know, are still there. The security service worked to more or less clear Kharkiv of such things."

"To sum up our conversation, how did the Russian aggression affect Kharkiv oblast's media space? To what extent it has been damaged and how to restore it?"

"First of all, it is necessary to rebuild those districts of Kharkiv oblast that had been under occupation for over six months: Izyum, Kupyansk, Balaklia. Izyum is a semi-ghost town. There is almost no communication, all TV and radio towers there have been destroyed. In Izyum, everything must be done from scratch. And it must be done right now. It seems to me that after 2014, in Kharkiv oblast specifically we lost the information war, because radio towers were not installed where necessary, and many people in the areas near the border were watching Russian TV via satellite. Kharkiv oblast did not welcome the invaders with flowers, but I realize that in some places, the poison has seeped deep into the brains.

"Therefore, I think, now, after these liberated territories are restored, it is necessary to restore the media space as well. I would focus on Kharkiv oblast primarily. Moreover, Kharkiv oblast has some journalists who are absolute desperados – from Zolochiv village, from a hromada that borders Russia, and the Russians destroyed the office of their newspaper "Zorya" and treated this village and the surrounding ones as cruelly as possible, because they were trying to get closer to Kharkiv through those places specifically. Therefore, I repeat once again, we need to focus our attention on Kharkiv oblast.

"Politicians still have money left, and yet there is no political jeansa when it comes to issues that used to be full of jeansa to an ungodly extent, as they say."

"As for how Kharkiv was affected... Ukrainian language is now everywhere. If earlier, there would be options for bilingual websites, now the vast majority of them has a home page in Ukrainian. Despite the fact that our mayor still hasn't switched to Ukrainian, but that's not a big deal... Of course, compared to previous years, more attention is being paid to topics related to volunteers and the war. The question is how it is covered. Not only when it comes to "hits", but there are also stories of soldiers, stories of people who joined the Territorial Defense. That is to say, the content has changed after all. I realize that now there is no advertising market and the fact that there is little to no jeansa – neither commercial nor political – has to do with that, but we must understand that politicians still have money left, and yet there is no political jeansa when it comes to issues that used to be full of jeansa to an ungodly extent, as they say.

"Some media are working at the limit of their capabilities and have downsized their staff. On the other hand, an independent media outlet "Dumka" emerged. I see that reputation is finally a thing in Kharkiv and the oblast. That is, people trust the media that have not tarnished themselves yet, they are getting lots of views, and this is a big plus, as it seems to me. It seems to me that in this respect, the media realized how powerful they are."

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