By: Danila Galperovich
From the evacuation of Ukrainian journalists in occupied cities to legal support for independent reporters from Russia, a community of organizations is working to keep media safe.
In Ukraine, the February 24 invasion led to an unprecedented level of requests for assistance from the country’s National Union of Journalists of Ukraine.
Before then, the union had “hot spots” with journalists covering conflict in Donbas. But now, says union chair Sergiy Tomilenko, “every media worker in our country [has become] a front-line journalist. And it's clear that we weren't ready for that."
In the past year, the union has worked with journalists, including on evacuations for those in cities occupied by Russian forces and by providing support for those close to the front lines.
The union is also tracking deaths. As of November, the war has killed 43 journalists in Ukraine, including eight who were on assignment. The other journalists lost their lives in shelling or after signing up to the armed forces.
“Of course, we divide those who continue to work as journalists and those who went to war, but we still count our military colleagues who died on the battlefield among these victims, since the only cause of their death is Russian aggression," Tomilenko told VOA.
"If there had been no Russian invasion, the famous cameraman Viktor Dedov—one of the best, originally from Mariupol— would have been alive. But he died as a civilian under the bombing in his city. And Oleksandr Makhov and other journalists who died defending the country at the front would also be alive," Tomilenko said.
The union head said that Russian forces tried to intimidate and recruit Ukrainian journalists in occupied cities. They had lists of local journalists, and from the start “a campaign of individual pressure on independent journalists began,” he said.
In some cases, Tomilenko said, troops asked local media to become propagandists, broadcasting pro-Russian material. But, he said, “the vast majority” refused.
The arrival of the troops in occupied regions made life dangerous even for those journalists who had planned to stay. It was simply too “deadly to remain,” Tomilenko said.
But supporting media affected by Putin’s war involves outside help.
The union has been working with the London-based Justice for Journalists Foundation, or JFJ, and other groups to monitor attacks and to offer training.
When it comes to security workshops for reporting in combat zones, the requests “are nonstop,” Maria Ordzhonikidze, director of the JFJ told VOA.
But, she said, "We also help Russian journalists.”
In fact, attacks on Russian media are what led to the creation of the JFJ. It was founded after the killing in 2018 of three Russian journalists who were investigating mercenaries in the Central African Republic.
“In Russia, free journalism has ended, a lot of people tried to leave, many left. And here the role of our foundation is to continue to provide support,” Ordzhonikidze said.
For those journalists, that support often comes in the form of legal training, she said.
Lana Estemirova, who works with the JFJ, told VOA the foundation’s work supporting media and tackling impunity in attacks has opened up awareness of the scale of the problem.
A lack of justice is close to Estemirova’s heart. Her mother, Natalya Estemirova, a prominent Chechen human rights activist, was abducted and killed in 2009. Natalya Estemirova worked for the Russian human rights organization Memorial, which was banned by the Kremlin and was one of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
The European Court of Human Rights in 2021 ruled Russia had failed to properly investigate the murder. Work on a new podcast made Lana Estemirova more aware of the global spread of impunity.
"We began to look for interesting journalists from Belarus, Africa, South America to compare situations and find out what unites us all,” said Lana Estemirova. In doing so, she learned of the high rate of attacks on journalists in Mexico, where nearly all cases go unresolved.
More than 15 journalists have been killed in Mexico in 2022, making the country the most deadly place for media outside a war zone.
“When you start talking to journalists from other continents, you realize that there is no border to this problem," she said
Estemirova believes that those who work in an atmosphere of risk should do so in the knowledge they will have the help and solidarity of their colleagues.
"They believe that they have a mission: the search for truth. It is very important that journalists who are walking along this road – and this is a rather lonely road – have support.”
One way to do that is to publicize the work of journalists persecuted for their investigations.
Natalya Zubkova is a journalist in the small Russian town in the Kuzbass region, and she founded the website "News of Kiselyovsk" in 2017.
Zubkova covered issues including education, the environment, authorities and crime. But she also received death threats and was physically attacked.
After four years, the news website closed and Zubkova fled the country.
But her work caught the attention of filmmaker Alina Simone.
New York-based Simone applied for a JFJ grant to make a documentary, “Black Snow,” about how Zubkova tried to tell the world about life in a city of seven coal mines and 90,000 people.
It is a place where mining activity often turns the snow black and where citizen journalism requires remarkable courage.
“Natalya tried to protect the interests of ordinary people with her journalism, and was forced to leave Russia in the end," said Simone.
She was so impressed by the videos that Zubkova posted on YouTube that she decided to make a story about her Russian colleague.
"I had a very strong sense of camaraderie toward her. When I arrived in Kiselyovsk and Kemerovo, the atmosphere there frankly shocked me,” Simone said. “Everything looked much worse in terms of the attitude toward journalists, activists, and also foreigners. We were under constant surveillance. Our car was followed all the time … Already in August 2019, it was clear to me where everything was going."
Simone said the community of Russian journalists is under threat.
“These people are deprived of their profession, they are pressured. Often their lives are destroyed. It is very difficult to explain to the West what it means to be a citizen journalist in a region whose governor, Sergei Tsivilyov, has family ties to Vladimir Putin,” Simone said.
But organizations such as the JFJ are working to provide support and assistance to those on the front lines in Ukraine or under threat in Russia. (KB/VOA)