On Sunday, freelance journalist Tetiana Bezruk flipped open her laptop and looked at the Kiev court’s agenda for the week.
As a reporter covering high-profile anti-corruption cases for Ukrainian and international media, including the investigation of crimes committed against protesters by police during Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution, she would scour the list of hearings for possible stories.
But since February 2022, when the full-scale invasion of Russia began, Bezruk has not been brought to justice.
Now she is a war reporter.
“I decided to cover this war because it is in every aspect of my life,” she told Al Jazeera.
The past year has been training in front-line reporting, including working from Kharkiv, Dnipro and Kherson, where she witnessed heavy shelling.
“Never in all my assignments have I been so physically scared,” she said.
In December, Kherson Oblast was liberated and Bezruk spent time with survivors of the Russian occupation.
“I counted three or four buildings in the village that had not been destroyed or had their roofs intact,” she said. “These trips have hurt me a lot.”
Practical and safety considerations are learned on the job, such as paying attention to escape routes and having access to a car – crucial to getting yourself off the front line if things go wrong.
With his office in Kiev hit by rocket attacks on the city, staff at business publication League also became war reporters overnight.
The title focused only on war reporting for several months after the full-scale Russian invasion.
“We had no experience of reporting the war or any special training (in the beginning),” says Liga editor-in-chief Yulia Bankova.
The team quickly purchased helmets and protective gear from international organizations and learned how to beat war “on the job”.
Bankova also worked with experienced, insured freelance journalists for a number of first-line reporting.
For Ukrainian journalists with little or no experience in war reporting, safety is of paramount importance.
According to the Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information, 45 Ukrainian media workers have been killed as a result of the large-scale invasion by Russia and 21 journalists working in Ukraine have been captured and kidnapped by Russian forces.
Internews, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports international independent media, initially focused on the immediate security needs of journalists, such as relocating reporters from areas that had suddenly become front lines.
With its Ukrainian partners, Internews brought about 250 body armor and helmets and 550 tactical first aid kits into the country.
A year later, the work now includes replacing lost or damaged equipment and supplying power banks and solar batteries to support media operations during power outages caused by Russian attacks on electricity and power plants. It has also received requests for satellite internet to keep newsrooms online.
Independent research and culture agency Zaborona has moved its office in Kiev to a smaller space, so that 10 to 12 team members have better access to electricity.
Editor-in-chief Katerina Sergatskova co-founded the 2402 fund to provide safety and communication equipment and safety, security and reporting training to Ukrainian journalists.
‘Lack of realistic funding’
For many Ukrainian media there is “a lack of realistic funding to operate” and report on a battlefield dominated by “surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence,” an international media security expert who asked for anonymity and who has been in the field for many years told Ukraine works, Al Jazeera.
And according to Gillian McCormack, who leads the Internews team in Ukraine, “A year later, you also see high levels of burnout and stress.”
One member of the League team rescued his wife from occupied Severodonetsk and another spent at least 10 days with his family in a Chernihiv bomb shelter.
“Almost everyone has their own tragic experience,” said Bankova.
Staff therapy sessions have been held to address the psychological toll of living with and reporting on the war.
Freelancer Bezruk says journalist hair helps with the psychological toll. “You can communicate your thoughts; you don’t put it in you. You suppress your fear, your fear.
As for the commercial aspect of the Ukrainian media industry, an estimated 233 outlets in Ukraine have been forced to close temporarily or completely as a result of the war, whether due to confiscated or destroyed offices, occupation or economic challenges.
“Right now it’s hard to survive,” said Internews’ McCormack. “The advertising market has taken a huge hit.”
Bankova said Liga lost all of its advertising in one day — about 65 percent of its revenue. It now relies heavily on funding from grants and some support from reader subscriptions and donations.
At the same time, the independent media in Ukraine, in a country dominated by state news channels and TV channels owned by oligarchs, have experienced having to operate under pressure while holding the powerful to account.
With business models shattered by war and a workforce thinned by security concerns or journalists signing up, experts are concerned about the industry’s future.
“During the war, it is even more important (to have independent media) because Ukraine has a reputation for being corrupt,” Bankova said. “Only the Ukrainian media can cover this corruption.”
The Ukrainian media market has also lost “quality journalists” to international media covering the war, Bankova said.
“Foreign journalists have a great team and great insurance, but Ukrainian journalists are not as well protected and are doing dangerous work on the front lines.”
In March 2022, Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra Kuvshynova was murdered while working for Fox News.
At the time, there were concerns that Kuvshynova’s death had been overlooked because one international colleague was killed and another injured in the same attack.
While the treatment of Ukrainian journalists by international media has improved since the start of the war, Bankova said she has been repeatedly asked by foreign reporters if she can remain objective as a Ukrainian.
“It’s black and white,” she said. “As journalists, we focus on documenting people’s facts and stories, not personal feelings.”
Freelance journalist Bezruk has worked as a “fixer” for international media and said she learned a lot from foreign colleagues with experience in war reporting.
In the Kiev region, she saw mass graves for the first time and saw how a foreign colleague approached the relatives of the victims.
Involving Ukrainian journalists in international coverage of the war can provide context and help international media avoid Russian propaganda and disinformation, Bankova and Zaborona’s Sergatskova said.
“We know every city we go to,” Sergatskova said. “We know the history of the destroyed buildings. Russia has been our neighbor all our lives.”
Unlike international news, the media in Ukraine, especially local media, provide crucial, localized security information and enable internally displaced persons to follow the domestic news. It can also provide a lifeline of connection for those living under occupation, McCormack said.
Despite operational challenges, threats to physical and mental safety, and Russia’s alleged attacks on journalists and independent media, Ukrainian journalists keep going.
“People say they no longer see the point as a journalist. I never had these thoughts,” Sergatskova said.
“A journalist is one of the most important figures in the war because we can show what is happening. Russia does not want us to see the atrocities it commits. That’s why it’s so important that we keep going. We have to record it.”