By Natalie Gryvnyak
I had never thought of becoming a war journalist or a war producer. Yet, in the last nine years, I have become a person that has experienced direct shootings and killings of people on Institutskaya street during Maidan. I saw “little green men” and the military in Crimea during the “referendum” and wounded soldiers in the East, where I was regularly coming for almost six years.
In 2022, I witnessed explosions in front of my window in Kyiv, slept in the metro station bomb shelter, and eventually became a refugee with my mother. All of that while I was a journalist, producer, and media consultant. A war journalist. Many Ukrainian media professionals did not think of ever becoming one. Yet 2014 made corrections in plans. And thus, everyone started to learn how to professionally deal with the war situation: how to speak to soldiers and affected civilians with PTSD on the one hand, and how to treat your own PTSD and calm your anxiety on the other. What it is like to explain to foreign media the current situation and start working as a fixer. How to work without proper protection or insurance. And how to divide your civil position and life from your reporting and the war.
Journalists started to learn how to divide their civil position and life from their reporting and the war.
Right now, many Ukrainian journalists are learning how to report on war crimes and have taken the responsibility to document them for future trials. But how does one conduct investigations in danger of death while caring for themselves and their family? To cover up their war crimes in Ukraine, it seems the Russian army is targeting journalists in various ways. Leon Willems from Free Press Unlimited believes that Russians deliberately target Ukrainian journalists. According to the logic of the occupiers, they interfere with objective coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The killing of journalists with the words “press” on their clothes and helmets shows that the Russian armed forces are indeed waging an all-out war on news and truthful information. The Disinformation Counteraction Center at the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDC) stated that the information campaign, which has now begun in the occupied territories, is also “aimed at reducing the level of resistance of the local population to the Russian occupation.”
Yet, despite the danger, reporting war crimes became a new reality. Law enforcement agencies have registered over forty-seven thousand war crimes in Ukraine committed by the Russian military. During the six months of the war, public activists and investigative journalists collected 148,631 profiles of the Russian military in the Russian war criminals register. Almost thirty thousand rashists have been fully identified.
Reporting war crimes became a new reality. Some investigative journalists and initiatives have focused entirely on war crime investigations.
Collecting and reporting on them is a special skill that journalists now need to master well because it is easy to “spoil the evidence”: to harm the acceptability of the material by prosecution or courts. Currently, there are many workshops for Ukrainian journalists, training them in this skill. Experts urge us to be careful not to harm the crime scene, not touch anything, or violate the scene’s integrity. Some investigative journalists and initiatives have focused entirely on war crime investigations and started working with the prosecution. Slidstvo Info, a well-known Ukrainian journalistic investigative group, joined Ukrainian surveillance to help identify the members of the Russian military involved in the war crimes. They have worked on thirty thousand soldiers and identified two hundred perpetrators.
For a journalist, the first step is to provide investigators with the contacts of victims/witnesses of war crimes who have given consent to share their data with human rights defenders. Journalists can record such consent in different ways, said Oleksandra Matviychuk, a well-known human rights defender who founded an initiative Tribunal for Putin. Documentaries or journalists videotape a person’s consent and then ask permission to pass their contact to organizations that are dealing with the collection of war crimes. These stories/evidence can be used by international courts. In the second step, journalists transmit photos and videos likely to contain information about war crimes. The third step is to transfer the results of journalistic investigations to human rights defenders or organizations collecting evidence for the court investigation. Usually, these organizations work closely with the prosecution: they provide documents, audio or video recordings, and other information that help identify war criminals or testify to their crimes.
The head of Slidstvo Info, Anna Babinets, noted that even when journalists help investigators by identifying criminals – without naming their sources – they stay within the limits of journalistic ethics. After all, proving Russian war crimes and legally punishing the perpetrators is an almost globally shared goal. Thus, documenting war crimes is a must. Staying autonomous and independent of the Ukrainian army and government, filming and sharing images of people’s faces ethically, and understanding how to use these images is a fine mix that needs a balanced perspective.