The RE:Cover Conference – How Russia’s War in Ukraine Changes Journalism

ECPMF

20 December 2022

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“This story of resistance – and of how Ukrainian journalists behaved – will teach everyone a lesson but I do not wish anyone will experience it. We had no choice. We were attacked and we had to react. And this is what we did.” – Sevgil Musaieva, Chief Editor of Ukrainska Pravda

From 09 – 11 December, more than 150 journalists, experts, and politicians gathered in Bratislava, Slovakia for the RE:Cover Conference, organised by ECPMF, the former coordinators of the project Scoop, and the Regional Press Development Institute.

 

For three days, the conference shone a spotlight on every aspect of war reporting in Ukraine – from ensuring journalist safety on the frontlines to fighting disinformation and dealing with psychological trauma. If you missed the conference, below you can find some key talking points from the event and links for further information.

Day 1

Ukraine, the War and the Media. What’s at Stake?

The conference opened with a keynote speech from Sevgil Musaieva, Chief Editor of Ukrainska Pravda, introduced by Rebecca Harms, Vice Chair of ECPMF and former Member of the European Parliament.

 

Throughout her virtual keynote, Musaieva drew attention to what it’s like to be a reporter on the ground in Ukraine – the light hum of a generator in the background paying testament to the challenging conditions. The speech painted a picture of 289 days of war; and 289 days of uncertainty for journalism. With that, came images of Ukrainian journalists’ determination, through the story of Ukrainska Pravda’s designer planning to start work again one day after being released from Russian captivity.

 

Against the bleak backdrop of the full-scale invasion, the keynote evoked loose feelings of fleeting hope for the future of Ukrainian media:

“When people ask me how I am, and how Ukrainska Pravda works under this circumstance – I say it’s all about love. We need to love what we do. We need to love our country. This is what helps us get our act together. We, the journalists, are needed in Ukraine. That’s my universal answer – we’re needed.”

Read all the key quotes from the keynote speech in our Twitter thread here.

Sevgil RECOVER

Journalists in Flak Jackets. War reporting February 24.

The first panel of the conference brought the emotional toll of the war sharply into focus. Moderated by Andriy Kulykov of the Commission on Journalistic Ethics, journalists Tomas Avenarius (Süddeutsche Zeitung) and Anastasiya Stanko (Hromadske) discussed their differing approaches to covering the conflict.

 

Questions of objectivity and impartiality in reporting were raised, as Avenarius highlighted the challenges of relying on official Ukrainian data:

“You rarely ever see killed Ukrainians. How about the exact number of Ukrainian soldiers being killed or injured? There are few postings about this. It is a military secret.” – Tomas Avenarius (Süddeutsche Zeitung).

Anastasiya Stanko’s intervention outlined the extraordinary difficulties faced by Ukrainian journalists, who must both live and report on the war:

“The life of Ukrainian journalists is extraordinarily difficult. I have always thought that I am just a journalist, I did not go to cover the war. The war came to me. I had to cover the war, starting in 2014.”

The discussion concluded with remarks on the importance of – and controversially contested need for – true objectivity in reporting, with Avenarius pondering the value of reporting from both sides of the conflict, regardless of which side one is on.

 

More key quotes from the session can be found here.

The full conference livestream recording for Day 1 – including sessions on the changing media landscape in Ukraine and support for Ukrainian journalists – can be found here in English and Ukrainian.

Day 2

Disinformation and propaganda in a war

For the second day of RE:Cover, speakers jumped right back into in-depth discussions about the numerous challenges brough about by the war in Ukraine. To start, Anne Haubek, journalist and Editor of Europa Lige Nu magazine moderated a discussion with Alexander Zamkovoi, fact checker & journalist, Serhii Odarenko of Behind the News, Vladimir Snidl, Founding Editor of DennikN, Stanislav Ivashkevych of the Belarusian Investigative Centre, and independent author Michal Horecky.

 

The group discussed the impact of Russian disinformation on their work, and on society more generally in the context of the war in Ukraine.

 

Throughout the discussion, it became clear that Russia is not only fighting a physical battle, but also a battle of information. As the violence began in Ukraine, so too did the disinformation – in fact, speakers reminded the audience of the fact that the propaganda and disinformation significantly predated 24 February. This was done by Russia with very effective and malicious intent:

“The narrative is to demoralise Ukrainian people […] Spreading fakes about victories of Russia on the frontlines. They try to use the Russian attacks on our energy system as a pain point. They try to divide our society from within.” – Alexander Zamkovoi

As well as having an impact in Russia and Ukraine, it became clear from the discussion that the Kremlin’s disinformation tactics were affecting other country’s opinions towards the war – namely Slovakia and Belarus.

“When we take a poll, you can see that in Slovakia Vladimir Putin has the biggest preferences in the region […] According to surveys, half of the population before the war was considered “Putin positive”.

 

One of the key factors in Putin’s popularity in Slovakia is social media – one of the main playgrounds for propaganda […] Many of these people think that they love Russia, but the point is that they have this sentiment towards the imagination of Russia.” – Vladimir Snidl

Reporting about ‘peace’: Georgia and Kosovo

What can journalists covering Ukraine now learn now from those who came before them? In the next panel of the day, Milorad Ivanovic, Editor-in-Chief of BIRN Serbia moderated a discussion with journalists Una Hajdari, Temur Kiguradze, and Alina Radu about lessons learned from reporting on war in former Yugoslavia and in Georgia.

 

Not for the first time during the conference, speakers asked the question of objectivity during times of war, especially for journalists from a country directly involved in the conflict. However, despite this inevitably and understandably morbid conversation, the panel ended with on a slightly positive note. BIRN Serbia’s Milorad Ivanovic reflected on one possible positive outcome from the conflict, and its impact on journalistic communities:

“There is one good thing called trauma growth. Some nations have used trauma for their growth – the best example is Bosnia. They have been going around in circles talking about the same issues for 30 years. For Ukrainians, once the war is over, try to overcome the problems, try to have trauma growth elements.”

Psychological recovery and avoiding trauma as a reporter

Up to this point in the conference, much had been said about the physical impact of the war on journalists – both Ukrainian and foreign. The next two sessions of the day drew attention to the psychological and emotional effects of the war, with Gavin Rees, Senior Advisor for Training and Innovation at the Dart Center, leading a workshop and panel on dealing with trauma.

 

One key takeaway from the session was that the consequences of experiencing trauma vary dramatically from journalist to journalist, sometimes having no impact at all. Gavin Rees also underscored an often-misunderstood fact: you do not necessarily need to be present in a traumatic event to experience trauma and its effects.

“To have a potentially traumatic event, you don’t have to be there. If someone gets a telephone call and finds out that a loved one has been injured, that can be a potentially traumatic event.”

As well as outlining potential ways to mitigate the consequences of trauma, the sessions illustrated how the often frenetic pace of journalism can further contribute to them:

“We’re not bulletproof – as journalists we’re not only living the story, but you’re also reporting on it. That reporting on it can make us more resilient. But if you’re working and not taking breaks, it’s possible that the stories can increase the sense of impact you experience.”

A full recording of Day 2 of RE:Cover can be found here in English and Ukrainian.

Day 3

The big and the small picture: How will the new Iron Curtain in Europe influence politics and daily life

The final day of RE:Cover kicked off with a discussion of what organisers called “the new Iron Curtain” in Europe. Throughout the conversation, Börge Nilsson, a journalist covering Russia, Eastern Europe, and Sweden spoke with Rebecca Harms former MEP and Vice Chair of ECPMF, Thomas Ubbesen of Scoop and author Michal Horecky.

 

From early on in the discussion, it became clear that the term “new Iron Curtain” in itself was hotly contested, as were the potential implications of any such borders within Europe:

“Based on the European reality, I would say that most western EU citizens have not yet understood what the new borders with Russia or Belarus will mean. They have been understood pretty well in the Baltic states.” – Rebecca Harms

As well as this, the conversation circled around what any new borders in Europe would mean, specifically for the division of power across the continent:

“We see now a shift of the balance and a new structure of Europe. I believe the victory of Ukraine and the return of Russian soldiers back to the Russian federation will see a new balance in Europe […] with Eastern Europe playing more of a role.” – Michal Horecky

Finally, as the session drew to a close, it became evident that the diverse group of panellists were envisaging particularly varied futures for Europe as it grappled with the “new Iron Curtain”. With that said, it was clear that there would be an inevitable influence on Russia and the countries it shares a border with:

“This new Iron Curtain is not built by the Russians, but by Finland, the Baltic countries etc. I am totally certain that when Ukraine wins the war, we will see an Iron Curtain on the border with Russia on a scale that we have never seen before. 

 

The European Iron Curtain will be physical and real. The Russian Iron Curtain is going to be in the minds of Russians.”

Investigating and covering Ukrainian refugees and IDPs

The closing session of RE:Cover touched on a topic close to the hearts of many of the conference’s in-person participants – working with and reporting on Ukrainian refugees. The panel was made up of Olena Demchenko of the Regional Press Development Institute, Oleksandra Horchinska, journalist with NV, Olena Semko of TEXTY.Org.Ua, Olha Omelyanchuk, Reporter with RFERL Ukraine, and Kyrylo Ovsianyi, journalist at Схеми, an investigative news project run by Radio Svoboda.

 

The conversation focused on many of the speakers’ own personal stories with displacement after the beginning of the war:

“Living in the occupied town was more and more dangerous. We had more information about journalists being taken to prison. If they take someone, you have 3 options: drop all journalistic activities, collaborate with the occupied forces, or just leave. So in May, together with my son, we left.” – Olena Semko.

These conversations slowly shifted to the challenges faced by journalists looking to report on these topics, mainly with regards to respecting the sensitive nature of the issue and the potential trauma faced by the subjects. It was noted that covering such heavy stories can inevitably have an impact on the journalists themselves:

Emotionally it’s very difficult […] I have been working with these tough subjects for a while. I have managed to distance myself and don’t let it in. If you take everything close to  your heart you will burn out. – Olena Semko.

However – as was a recurring theme through the conference – the bleak nature of the discussion was broken by a hint of positivity, and a belief in the undeniable value of these journalists’ work:

“[In response to my writing about my experiences] Other women started writing about their stories, about their hardships. Everyone wanted to say something about their experiences […] There were many people reviewing and responding to my articles, many women saying they relate to what I wrote.” – Olena Semko.

There was no denying or hiding from the depressing and raw content of the discussions held throughout RE:Cover. However, the resilience of these reporters shone through, as did their belief in their people and the value of their profession. Despite the ongoing brutality of war, the conference’s participants painted a future of hope for Ukraine and for its media.

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