In Ukraine’s occupied zones, “the Russians let us choose between collaboration, prison or death”
They are hunted down, threatened and forced to disseminate Kremlin propaganda... Six months after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is exclusively publishing the accounts of journalists in the south and east of the country who describe what it is like to work under occupation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprecedented offensive on 24 February 2022 with the aim of taking control of Ukraine. Six months later, a fifth of the country is occupied and Ukrainian cities are still being bombarded. Journalists are on the front line.
“Journalists who stay in the occupied territories are systematically hunted down by the Russian military, who want to disseminate their own propaganda and eliminate those who could contradict the official Kremlin line,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “In the occupied zones, the Russians try by force to reproduce the disinformation bubble constructed in Russia. RSF is documenting these cases so that the Russian authorities can be held accountable for their war crimes against journalists.”
“Every day, we had to post three ‘articles’ that had been released by the LNR news agency,” said a journalist in the Luhansk region, referring to the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ by its initials. This 37-year-old journalist, who we are calling Olena, told us how she was arrested and then forced to collaborate with the Russian occupier.
“We were reduced to disseminating this propaganda celebrating the occupier’s ‘successes,’ such as the inauguration of this or that administrative service.” she said. “A soldier approved our decisions via a joint Telegram chat channel.”
Vladyslav Hladkyi, 44, told RSF about the five months he spent working clandestinely in Kherson, an occupied city of 300,000 inhabitants in southern Ukraine, where he lived with his wife, Yevheniia Virlysh, the editor of a local media outlet.
“From the start of the occupation, they looked for journalists, as well as activists and elected officials, in short anyone likely to hinder the Russian state’s propaganda efforts,” he said. “Our names and our faces are relatively well known in Kherson, and we were afraid of being denounced.”
He finally left Kherson at the beginning of July, at the end of his tether after being forced to keep changing his location in order to be able to continue reporting, while the only fate awaiting him was “at best, a Russian Kalashnikov bullet and at worst, torture.”
“Mass graves in the courtyards of buildings, neighbours burying their neighbours, destruction and looting... Despite the risk of being killed at any moment, I observed, photographed and filmed for three weeks, sometimes running under fire with my 6-year-old son on a scooter by my side.” This is how Yuliia Harkusha, 42, described being hunted in Mariupol, with no Internet connection but wanting at all costs to document the Russian army’s crimes and the constant horrors in the besieged city, although her brilliant career and professional ties meant she was high on the Russian occupiers’ list of targets.
RSF is exclusively publishing these three accounts, which shed light on the workings of the information war in the occupied territories.
Olena, a Luhansk region journalist – “They gave me three choices, prison, ‘deportation’ or collaboration”
“An explosion woke me at 5 a.m. on 24 February. It was a Russian missile. Neither my three colleagues nor I went to the newspaper. The final issue, which had been prepared the day before and printed overnight in Kharkiv, was never distributed.
But we continued to work from home during the days that followed. Partners located in the free zone took control of the newspaper’s website. Meanwhile, we posted on our Facebook and Telegram pages, providing daily information about the situation at the front, the protests against the occupation, and the shops that remained open.
The Russian army occupied the town at the beginning of March. Mobile phone communications were cut and Ukrainian TV was replaced by Russian channels broadcasting propaganda. We only had landline Internet. When you're a journalist in a small town like ours, everyone knows you. It was impossible to keep working as before, impossible not to succumb to self-censorship. I avoided anything that might be considered anti-Russian. I was really scared. I barely went out.
'Follow us, we need to talk to you. Your job, you understand…’ On 1 April, I was stopped as I was leaving my home by a man in military uniform, a uniform I didn’t recognise as there are so many different Russian troops. Three or four of them entered my home. I had to give them my laptop and my phone. But I was allowed to send a message to my mother on the Viber app to let her know. I was in such a state that I don't remember what I wrote to her.
They took me away in their car, which had no licence plate, making me cover my eyes with a surgical mask. After we arrived at a building – which I later learned was the headquarters of employees of the MGB [Ministry of State Security of the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’] – they made me sit in a chair facing the wall. Then I was transferred by minibus to Luhansk. Through the side of the mask still covering my eyes, I recognised the scarf of one of my colleagues. I was paralysed with fear and my mind went blank.
In the waiting room before interrogation, the supervisor was briefly absent. Although my eyes were still covered, I just had time to tell my colleague that she must refuse to collaborate. Then for six and a half hours, they questioned me alone, about my life and my work. Trivial details! My place of birth, what I studied, my salary... The same questions over and over. There were four of them, one ‘nice’ one, two who kept bursting into the room with aggressive questions and, finally, a fairly tipsy one whose comments were incoherent. I don't know how I managed to keep my composure. I was hot, but they wouldn't let me take off my coat. No water either.
As in a prison, they asked me to hand over all my valuables and they led me to the infirmary, where I had to fill out a form provided by a nurse. She took my blood pressure and then gave me blood pressure medication. In another room, they took my fingerprints and my photo, as if I were a criminal. I finally found myself in a cell with my colleague and our editor, who had been arrested a few days before us.
The occupiers gave us three choices – prison, ‘deportation’ or collaboration. Our joint response was expected the next morning. For me, 'deportation' [the term used by the occupying forces] was not an option, because I didn't know what it meant, where we would be released, and because we could easily be left at one checkpoint only to be arrested at the next one. And our editor was only given the ‘choice’ between collaboration on the one hand and life imprisonment or the death penalty on the other. Really scared, we “agreed” to collaboration.
As soon as I had been conditionally released, I messaged the partners who were managing our site so that they could warn other media in the area, because they were probably next on the list. I deleted my message as soon as I had sent it. Even on the street, soldiers could grab your phone and check it.
A week or two later, three men in uniform, one of them hooded, came to the newspaper’s office to photograph our equipment and search through our computers, in order to ensure that we were disseminating their ‘information’ on our newspaper’s Facebook and Telegram pages – a real intimidation operation. Every day, we had to post three ‘articles’ that had been released by the LNR news agency. We were reduced to disseminating this propaganda celebrating the occupier’s ‘successes,’ such as the inauguration of this or that administrative service. A soldier approved our decisions via a joint Telegram chat channel. I was devastated. How could we accept this? But we lived in fear of taking a wrong step and being arrested. The pressure was unbearable. I knew I had to flee, but how? The person who interrogated me in Luhansk had implied that there was a list of people banned from leaving the occupied zone.
When a former colleague collaborating with the press service of the Russian occupying forces wrote to me, I guessed that it was to offer me a job and I declined the offer. Five days later, a man in uniform arrived in my neighbourhood looking for me and he questioned my neighbour. For my safety, I could no longer stay there and I had to protect our newspaper. Our partners, as usual, supported me and they begged me to leave. Shortly thereafter, I fled with a ‘transporter’ [someone providing an evacuation service that is expensive and risky because of screening at Russian checkpoints]. Since then, I have been working as an editor at another Ukrainian media outlet.”
Kherson-based journalist Vladyslav Hladkyi – “I was tempted to give up, all this work for at best, a Kalashnikov bullet and at worst, torture”
“When the fighting began near Kherson on 24 February, I really wanted to go there, to livestream on Facebook, to bear witness to this invasion. But it was impossible to get there because there was no more public transport, taxis refused to go in that direction, vending machines were out of service and landline phone services were cut off. The mobile network was still working, but public services were unreachable. I went to the evacuation of the regional prosecutor’s office on 24 February.
The city was surrounded on the 28th and then occupied. On 2 March, an army base was set up near our house and I watched the ballet of armoured vehicles under my window, in a murky light against a backdrop of dirty, melted snow. They could shoot at us at any time. I covered the windows with sheets, I avoided turning on the light and I remained discreet. These precautions were absolutely useless because armed men were soon pounding on the door. My wife, who is also a journalist, has gone out to collect a food parcel from a friend. She had spotted these men and called me right away to tell me not to open. They went straight up to our apartment, proving that we were targeted. I waited 20 long minutes without moving, in silence. Panicked, I reset one of my work phones to erase all the data. After this incident, we left the place. But the Russian soldiers went back four times in all to question the neighbours and try to find out where we were.
From the start of the occupation, they looked for journalists, as well as activists and elected officials, in short anyone likely to hinder the Russian state’s propaganda efforts. Our names and our faces are relatively well known in Kherson, and we were afraid of being denounced. On 27 February, I shut down access to our photos and our relations on Facebook. I replaced the profile picture with a photo of bronze dwarfs taken in the Polish city of Wroclaw. Everyone thought we had gone there.
This “cover story” allowed us to keep working actively, almost as if we had found a refuge, my wife with her news organisation and me for my online media. I gathered information from social media, checked it with other sources and published summaries on my Telegram channels. I reported that the Russians were cleaning up the news media domain, shutting down radio and TV stations in particular. I analysed their propaganda, I profiled those 'collaborating' with the occupying forces, I reported the abduction of activists after protests, including Spanish humanitarian Mariano García Calatayud and the activist Iryna Horobtsova, who is still held by the Russians. Besides informing the public, my objective was to draw the Ukrainian government’s attention to the difficulty of the situation in Kherson.
The hardest moment was when communications were cut off. First from 30 April to 4 May and then on 30 May again. Without the Internet, without a phone, we had no choice but to listen to Russian radio. As my Telegram channel remained silent for several days, I was afraid that it would be noticed, that people would realise that I had stayed in Kherson, and that this would jeopardise our reporting. And when the Internet was restored after the second cut, it was the Russian Internet, in which most Ukrainian sites, Facebook and Instagram are censored and users are monitored. To continue working, I risked using this Internet but did so via a VPN [Virtual Private Network, which encrypts the connection].
It became harder and harder for us to maintain our “cover story.” Acquaintances began to wonder why we didn't meet mutual friends in Poland, why we didn't post any photos other than those of the bronze dwarfs. Questions were asked. Once, in one of the many places where we hid, my wife heard through the window someone asking neighbours if they had seen her. Fortunately, we had arrived very early in the morning without meeting anyone and we had covered the windows. To avoid going out, food was brought to us. The streets were now deserted.
This permanent cat-and-mouse was trying. At times, I was tempted to give up everything, to withdraw into a corner and cry. I felt that I was not doing enough, that my work had no meaning. The only outcome I could expect was at best, a Russian Kalashnikov bullet and at worst, torture. To hold on, I had to keep writing.
At the start of July, a new occupation police force began knocking on all the doors in the building where we were hidden. Through the peephole I saw a man with an automatic weapon, in a black T-shirt, green pants and no other markings. He tried to open the door, which was locked, pulling it towards him. I was so scared that I held the handle from the inside. At that moment, I realised that I would not be able to hold on anymore psychologically. We left soon afterwards, crossing about 40 checkpoints. I dressed simply, wore glasses and a cap, and shaved my beard. On my lap, the cat drew the soldiers' attention away from my frightened face. We were lucky.
Mariupol journalist Yuliia Harkusha – “I had to destroy everything when I left the city but those reports will remain etched in my memory”
“On the fifth day of the war, everything suddenly disappeared in Mariupol – water, gas and communications. We were completely isolated. No one had any information – that was the hardest part. It was impossible to know what was happening in the country, what we should do, whether we could evacuate the city.
On 5 March, a friend gave me a pocket radio that received Ukrainian frequencies. I went to the window at noon and 6 p.m. to listen to the news and then pass it on to neighbours who wanted to know. One day, I learned that an association – I know not by what miracle – was receiving a TV signal. For two hours, I crossed the city on foot, risking my life under fire, to watch the news.
I had worked for seven years for a TV news programme. I thought I had seen it all – accidents, fires, even brain matter scattered on the sidewalk. I thought this professional cynicism, this shell, would help me endure the horrors of war. But it was impossible to prepare for what the Russians did to us. Mass graves in the courtyards of buildings, neighbours burying their neighbours, destruction and looting. Despite the risk of being killed at any moment, I observed, photographed and filmed for three weeks, sometimes running under fire with my 6-year-old son on a scooter by my side. Circumstances did not allow me to leave him alone. I was convinced that it would be useful to document these crimes. And this helped me to unburden myself psychologically. To be able to get out, I had to destroy everything when I left the city – but these reports will remain etched in my memory.
I was a prime target for the Russian army. Because of my job, I knew many local soldiers. You could easily find my articles on the Internet. I had also been a fixer for foreign journalists, taking them to the port and to see the positions of our troops before the siege. The Russians could extract a lot of sensitive information from me and could imprison me for the sake of the media impact. I lived in a cul-de-sac with just 20 houses. I was easily identifiable there. All the neighbours knew that I was a journalist.
I managed to leave Mariupol – still under siege and fighting – on 19 March. As soon as I found a mobile connection, in an occupied village where we had taken refuge, I participated in live broadcasts on Radio Svoboda [the Ukrainian offshoot of the US broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty], describing the situation along the occupied Azov coast. But then, communications were cut there too. I had focused on sending my colleagues information and videos, and I’d had no time to send my address. I found myself stuck under occupation for another month.
Shortly thereafter, five armed men, members of the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] police, entered the place where we were staying and took down the details of everyone present. I pretended to be a stay-at-home mother who had broken her mobile phone. Later, in desperation, I resigned myself to queuing to make a phone call at the local market, where some Russian soldiers [the only people with Russian SIM cards and therefore a mobile connection] lent their laptops and enabled residents to phone their relatives in Ukraine. I contacted a smuggler, who told me to delete from all my devices – phones and so on – all information that might attract the attention of the Russian soldiers at checkpoints and to wait for him to come and get me.
A few days later, we crossed 20 Russian checkpoints. I was scared. I prepared myself mentally to pretend that I had to evacuate my son for medical treatment. Russian soldiers didn't search women at that time, but my friend who worked for an international humanitarian NGO had to undress. To flee, I had to leave all my professional equipment behind. My laptop sleeve caught their attention, but finding only children’s underwear inside, they let us go. Not everyone was so lucky. Russian soldiers arrest anyone if they don't like the look of you. At the last checkpoint, I saw a young man get out of the bus. He was alone, haggard, in a trench with his suitcase. The bus left. He stayed.”
These accounts by journalists who experienced the occupation in three different regions were obtained by telephone in early August by RSF, which verified their backgrounds with its partners and other local sources. Some are speaking publicly for the first time, while others have already spoken to Ukrainian media.
Some details have been omitted for security reasons, although the journalists are now in the free zone. In order not to endanger relatives who have stayed behind, one of the accounts has been anonymised.