Ukraine: one year after the liberation of the town of Kherson, journalism still under Russian pressure
With constant Russian shelling, a lack of professional journalists and mental exhaustion, the media in the southeastern city of Kherson are still struggling to exist one year after its liberation by Ukrainian troops. Four journalists report on their work to gradually restore the local media landscape ravaged by the Russian occupation.
“We’ve been subjected to Russian strikes every day since Kherson’s liberation,” said Ivan Antypenko, a Kherson native who freelances for several media outlets including the local newspaper Most. One year after the Russian army’s withdrawal and the Ukrainian army’s return on 11 November 2022, Kherson has just 60,000 inhabitants, as against almost 300,000 before the Russian invasion, and its media are operating in a security environment that is still dangerous. “Kherson is not a safe city, the Russian army is just on the other side of the river, the Dnieper.” said Olena Lishenko, the Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne’s correspondent in Kherson.
Part of the Kherson region remains under occupation. Russian forces are located on the opposite riverbank, just 2 kilometers away, and the city itself is subjected to Russian artillery bombardment almost every day. Local reporters must avoid traveling at night and must avoid certain places, such as villages in the “grey zone” – currently located around 15 kilometers from Kherson – that are the focus of clashes between the two armies. In Kherson, they must take cover in basements during the daily alerts and must always wear helmets and bulletproof vests. “It’s not easy when we interview civilians who lack protective equipment even though they live here just as we do,” said Most editor, Serhiy Nikitenko.
A weakened professional sector
Most is one of the only ten or so local media outlets still operating in Kherson. The war has clearly weakened the media sector. During the nine months that Russian forces occupied the city, many journalists moved to other parts of the country or even abroad due to the threats from the Russian forces. Others were enlisted into the Ukrainian army. “It’s a major problem,” said Ilona Korotitsyna, the head of the media platform Vgoru. “We lack professionals who understand the regional context.” The risks inherent in reporting in Kherson do not encourage local journalists to return.
Those who have remained in Kherson told Reporters Without Borders (RSF) that they travel to the nearby Odessa or Mykolaiv region every month for a few days’ break. “I went to Kyiv on 31 December 2022 to spend some time there. It was no longer possible for me to live and work under bombardments that have become very intense. How long will we work under this stress?” said Olena Lishenko, Kherson correspondent for the public broadcaster Suspilne. Everyone seeks a way to release the pressure, in order to be able to keep going.
Becoming a war reporter
Ivan Antypenko returned on 13 November 2022, two days after the city’s liberation. “I couldn't believe it, there was a euphoria in the city,” he said, still showing emotion. On his return, after taking refuge in the nearby Mykolaiv region for several months, he had to adapt quickly to the new context and to the new stories. “After the Russians destroyed the Kakhovka dam on 6 June, we covered the evacuations, we swam in flooded streets, and some of our colleagues found themselves being shelled by the Russians,” he said.
The hardest thing for Olena Lishenko was turning herself into a war reporter. “I had to get used to covering military issues, the war, collaboration and so on,” she said. War reporting can lead to difficulties with the Ukrainian armed forces, who limit access to certain areas. As well as the official procedures for obtaining information, local reporters also put questions directly to soldiers in order to flesh out their stories.
The Russian disinformation steamroller has also been a major challenge for local media since the occupation. And Kherson’s liberation has not solved the problem. Local media place special emphasis on fact-checking to combat the Russian propaganda machine. The common challenge for the local media is to produce quality information despite the environment and to reconnect with their public on a lasting basis, although much of their public is now scattered throughout the country and abroad. Their strength lies in their familiarity with the region and the context.
“Kherson’s journalists are demonstrating an admirable degree of resilience. They are working in extremely difficult security conditions, with limited human and financial resources and under a great deal of emotional stress. RSF urges the international community to actively help the local media on a long term basis and to promote the restoration of a viable media environment in areas liberated from Russian occupying forces.
According to the Institute of Mass Information (IMI), RSF’s partner in Ukraine, 233 media outlets have had to close since Russia launched its large-scale invasion. Revenue from advertising, their main source of funding, has plummeted. The situation of local media is particularly precarious, even if some have received funding from international donors that has given them a few months of increased visibility. Like national support for the media, most international financial aid is channelled towards major outlets that cover the entire country. “Compared with the larger media outlets, small news organisations and local freelance journalists have fewer funding opportunities allowing them to go and cover the remote areas that are bearing the brunt of the war,” Ivan Antypenko pointed out.