Ukraine: “It happened more than once that you no longer ask questions, you just listen,” Ukrainian journalist Hanna Chernenko
Hanna Chernenko is a Kharkiv-based journalist and a member of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU). She comes from the Luhansk region in the Donbas, where the armed conflict against Russia began in 2014. For one year, she has been covering the war in her country for local media Visti Television News Service and Hromadske Radio and, from time to time, assists international media crews that report on the conflict. Hanna shares with the International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ-EFJ) how her journalistic work has changed throughout the last year, and reflects on the role of journalists in conflict zones, the current needs of Ukrainian media workers, and how solidarity has crystallised amongst the Ukrainian journalistic community.
You are now covering the war with Russia from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Were you a war reporter before the Russian invasion one year ago?
Actually, I was not when I compare my work with the work of some other colleagues. Since the beginning of the war with Russia in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in 2014, I have made two trips to the region. Everything started there. I made one of the trips to the Luhansk region, located in the Donbas with soldiers of the 92nd brigade. As I come from that region, it was such a strange feeling, that for the first time in many years I was so close to my hometown. The second time we travelled with volunteers to the frontline from the west of Ukraine. We did a story about the quality of body armour.
In Kharkiv, we reported on problems related to the war: displaced people from Donbas, soldiers who needed treatment, families of the perished, and achievements of servicemen. However, this is not comparable to what war journalists do, reporting under fire on the front lines.
What are the major challenges you are facing as a journalist reporting from the front line? Are there any particular challenges you are facing for being a woman journalist?
I filmed reports from the front line in the months when Kharkiv was a front line city. At that time, villages in the suburbs of Kharkiv were occupied, and the Russians were standing a few hundred metres away from the places where we were working. I also went to the city of Kupiyansk, within the Kharkiv region, when half of it had already been liberated in September 2022, and the rest was still under Russian occupation. In the trenches, however, we did only a few shots.
The problems that I faced were primarily related to personal fears and emotions. A city, a village that was safe just yesterday, that you used to consider a pleasant hinterland, where you dreamed of building a house by the lake, suddenly becomes a place of harsh battles. To be able to carry out your work in these conditions, you had to accept and overcome your fears and apprehension.
A difficult challenge that I am not sure I have yet overcome is the need to learn how to communicate with people who have experienced loss. Unfortunately, it happens that you arrive at a scene, and everything is chaotic, civilians are scared and in a state of shock… And I find it hard to go and interview people in these circumstances.
Once, on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a shell hit a private house. A crew of journalists were there to cover the attack and we approached the man who was sitting in the neighbouring yard. I was convinced that he was a neighbour, and I started a conversation with him. It turned out that he lived in that destroyed house. The shell exploded in the room next to him and killed his mother. I regretted starting this conversation, but he kept talking and talking. He needed to talk. It happened more than once that you no longer ask questions, you just listen.
Another time, I wrote an article about the city of Izium in the Kharkiv region. About fifty people had died in the shelter under a destroyed house, which was home to a very friendly family. They had invited their family members to hide in their shelter. And in the end, a family of seven was killed, and only one man, the oldest of them, survived. The man survived thanks to being thrown by the shock wave and did not fall under the rubble. And so, he told me about his perished relatives: three grandchildren, a daughter, his wife, his son-in-law, and his wife’s aunt. I asked him some questions, but did I have the right to do so? Is it ethical? These were the questions I was asking myself during the conversation. However, the man did not stop speaking, he needed to talk. As a journalist, you definitely play a role in these situations. Therefore, I wonder what is the correct name for our role? Are we confessors? Psychologists? Or just a pair of ears that listen and a soul to provide support?
Ukrainian journalists also have technical problems. They need to learn a military dictionary in order to understand and correctly name a projectile, a weapon, or a soldier’s position. It is necessary to learn how to ensure our safety (first aid, self-assistance classes) and to understand how and when you can cover the enemy’s attacks. For example, you do not have the right to report an ammunition strike right away, so that the enemy does not find out where he hit, and does not hit again the emergency services working at the site or at their own position. All of this had to be learned quickly in the first weeks of the war. It was important to understand that the information you provide must be safe for people.
Thinking about the difficulties that women journalists might face, fortunately, I did not encounter any. I have not experienced any discrimination or disrespect towards me as a woman journalist. My relationships with male colleagues and military men are always based on mutual respect and support. Some journalists say that the military is more concerned about us than about themselves. Maybe too excessively at times. But should this be considered a problem? In addition, I personally perceive it as an “excessive” concern not for being a woman but for being a civilian.
How has the war affected your work as a journalist? Could you tell us some examples of things related to your job that have changed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022?
In the first days, it became clear that to leave the house, I needed protective equipment: a bulletproof vest and a helmet. By then I did not have them, and such equipment was critical to go to the northern outskirts of Kharkiv, behind which the Russians were already standing, or later to go to the freed territories bordering the front. I am very grateful to the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU) and Hromadske Radio, which provided me with everything I needed to feel safe.
However, now we never feel safe in the way we used to before the war .And this is also a change that affects our work.
The concept of teamwork has changed. Public transport did not work for a long time, and we had to wait for hours to take a taxi. The cameraman with whom I work, Volodymyr Pavlov, and I live in different parts of our big city. And it so happened that he worked in his corner of the city, and I did in mine, which could be reached by foot. Due to the circumstances, Volodymyr became a journalist, – he learned to process information and speak in front of the camera-, and I learned to film. I did it first on my mobile phone, and then I became a fully-fledged cameraperson and photographer.
In this regard, the journalistic community in Kharkiv was pleasantly surprised. It was quite friendly even before the war, but now all signs of competition have disappeared. It turned out that you can work with a cameraperson from any team.
In addition, the topics that we report on have changed too. Nowadays, almost everything you write about or film is related to the war. We have all learned to talk about death. Due to the conflict, the number of deaths grew significantly. I saw the first wounded person on February 24, 2022, and the first people killed, -there were many-, on March 1, when a building of the regional administration was destroyed. When Kharkiv was at risk of being occupied, my editors insisted that I worked anonymously. It was strange for me to be reporting on television as an anonymous person. The day they started calling me by my name again, it was very joyful. It was a feeling of victory. I remember telling myself: “There is no more danger, we are not occupied, and the occupied territory will be liberated!”
What are the most urgent needs of Ukrainian journalists a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Probably, for many, the most urgent need is to receive technical material to meet extreme conditions. When your hands are shaking, you can easily drop the camera. In addition, many have outdated equipment and it deteriorates faster working in such extreme conditions.
Also, many journalists need to be trained, and not only on safety and psychological effects of covering the war. Most of us have already been through such training sessions. Another important need is to learn English and other languages in order to cooperate with foreign media reporting on the ground.
Local media are really in need of help. Several television and radio stations have closed in Kharkiv. But the situation is extremely difficult for newspapers too. They, especially those who moved to territories that have today become front-line or freed ones, are the first to need assistance. Many local newspapers found themselves on the verge of survival, and many were shut down. Unfortunately, in the conditions of war, their readers often do not have a decent news source alternative.
How has the protective equipment provided by NUJU, with the support of the IFJ-EFJ Safety Fund and partners such as UNESCO, been useful to cover the war?
As I mentioned, for a certain time in Kharkiv, it was not possible to go outside without body armour and a helmet. It is easier now, but it is obvious that bulletproof vests are still needed today – for example, when you cover a story about the work of sappers [combat engineers] or the military in general.
When the large-scale Russian war against Ukraine began, journalists reported. as much as they could. Some took out their old bulletproof vests from the days of filming in the Donbas, but they were extremely heavy.
Then, with the assistance of the IFJ-EFJ, UNESCO, and the NUJU, modern protective equipment began to arrive. Today, I have two sets – one from NUJU and the other from Hromadske Radio. They are slightly different and I use them for different occasions.
You are currently coordinating a group of local reporters and fixers. Could you let us know more about the work you are doing, and why local reporters and fixers are especially important in war times?
Cameraman Volodymyr Pavlov is more involved as a fixer. I help him and cover him when needed. Fixing in Ukraine is an extremely necessary type of activity because foreign journalists who travel to the country often do not understand local realities. Some are even engaged in pro-Russian ideas, and what is really happening here becomes a real discovery for them. Of course, the local shades will be best explained to foreign journalists by a local fixer who works in Ukraine.
In recent months, according to my observation, trust in journalists, especially local ones, has increased significantly among Kharkiv residents. That is why they are open to talk with local journalists with pleasure. And when you introduce a colleague from a foreign publication, people treat him or her with more trust. In general, people are grateful to foreign journalists for being interested in our problems and covering them.
In addition, foreign journalists need to clarify security realities – what is safe and what is not. Employees of our emergency services do not always speak English well. Spanish, French, and Japanese are an even bigger problem. So, fixers help foreign journalists to avoid possible trouble.
Finally, local fixers help foreign journalists solve everyday issues. For example, at the beginning of the war, it was absolutely impossible to find a hotel opened without the help of a fixer, as well as identifying where the district of the city was and how to get there.
A media hub was created in Kharkiv, and it became a great support for foreign journalists in their coordination so that people understood who was responsible for what. In addition, there is a Reuters office which helps foreign journalists transfer information.
Disinformation as a weapon in conflicts has always existed. However, the social media landscape has increased its reach. How do journalists cope with Russian propaganda and disinformation in the context of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine?
Ukrainian and Kharkiv journalists stopped believing in information from pro-Russian publications and social networks a long time ago. We have learned to verify the information. For example, the Russians spread “news” about the capture of this or that settlement through their Telegram channels. But this information is often false. Therefore, we can trust only news coming from official sources. Communication with local residents is also an important source of reliable information – for this, of course, you need to be on the ground
Kharkiv journalists, including those who run local Telegram channels, have reached an agreement among themselves not to spread unverified information under any circumstances. In addition, we strictly adhere to the rule of not submitting photos of destruction immediately after the hit of an enemy missile. You need to wait a few hours, at least three so as not to endanger yourself, residents of the area, and emergency services specialists.
In the Kharkiv region, journalists have long lived under the Hippocratic principle of ‘do no harm’. For a journalist, the main thing is not to cause trouble, not to harm, and thus not to lose one’s name.
*We thank the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU) for translating the interview from Ukrainian to English.
Find the interview on the IFJ’s website.
Please donate to the IFJ/EFJ Safety Fund for Journalists in Ukraine to support Ukrainian journalists in need.