A resident stands on her balcony after her building was damaged by shelling as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 14, 2022. (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

‘Hard, emotional and painful’: Journalists in Ukraine on covering Russia’s invasion

The shooting death of U.S. reporter Brent Renaud in Irpin, outside Kyiv, on Sunday, March 13, underscored the extraordinary dangers facing journalists covering Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Renaud was the second journalist killed since Russia’s February 24 invasion; other reporters have been shot at, shelled, robbed, and detained by Russian forces as they cover the war and the ongoing humanitarian crisis it has caused.

As the invasion continued into its third week, four journalists spoke with CPJ about the physical and emotional toll of covering the conflict.

CPJ emailed the Russian defense ministry for comment about the military firing on journalists and emailed the Ukrainian military for comment about press access but received no responses.

Antoine Boddaert, documentary filmmaker with France’s Hikari Media, reporting for European public service channel ARTE

I’ve been working in the Lviv area. We made one little documentary about the information war between Russia and Ukraine. We wanted to show how Ukrainians are confronting Russian propaganda and how they cover the war. Our second documentary is about a small Ukrainian village of fewer than 200 inhabitants. [In other media] we have seen almost exclusively stories set in cities, and we wanted to show Ukrainian life in small villages and rural areas. We met almost exclusively women, children, and old men as the [other] men were mobilized [in the Ukrainian forces]. We met a family with nine children and the mother was home schooling them. My goal is to tell the story of the war through a different lens, to tell the stories that other journalists don’t because they are obsessed with being near the frontline.

The main difficulty we confronted was that people suspected that we were spies, which is understandable in wartime. Building good relationships with our subjects wasn’t easy at first, but as they began to get comfortable with us, their testimonies were really precious. We also faced problems accessing certain areas from [Ukrainian] police, but once they saw our press cards, our passports, and our mission letters [from the news organization] they let us work. Military [press] accreditation is really difficult to obtain. I think it can help you a lot on the ground but it’s not essential – we were able to work without it. 

Benas Gerdziunas, reporting for Lithuania’s National Radio and Television (LRT)

[Covering this war] is a repeat of the experience I have had in the Donbas area [in eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed rebels] the last seven years — if you don’t have personal contacts, you get nothing. This time, after coordinating an embed with one [Ukrainian] military unit and spending two days waiting – during which we had two meetings, including with the commander, discussing all the possible ways of working together — they backtracked and refused to take us along. The military simply does not provide access. As you can probably see from the pictures in the media, most of the fighting has been captured as an “aftermath” story. Importantly, when access is denied, journalists take risks. Most of the teams I know have worked on a “Let’s go and see” basis. For me, in the last few years in Donbas, this has led to dangerous situations – I was fired upon more than once, including one time when our vehicle was almost hit by an anti-tank missile. At present, it seems that many media crews are forced to operate this way – arriving onsite, interviewing people, capturing the footage that they need, and leaving [rather than coordinating with the Ukrainian army].

Oleksandr Ratushnyak, Ukrainian freelance photographer

I work with Ukrainian and foreign media. I started working as a photographer covering the military during the Revolution of Dignity [the Maidan Revolution of 2014 when protesters ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych], and later I took photographs in eastern Ukraine. When the first explosions took place over Kyiv on February 24, I did not sleep. I realized what had started. Those first two weeks of real war, I had so many different internal reactions — panic, fear, danger, [the need for] security and protection, pain, anger, love. War exacerbates many feelings. So far, I have not faced any significant obstacles from the Ukrainian authorities in filming. With experience, you understand where you can take pictures and when you can’t, when to remove the camera and hide it. So far, my experience as a military photographer is limited to my country, which makes it twice as hard and painful. Surprisingly, some foreign correspondents sometimes behave too cynically [about the toll of the war]. During [my first two weeks of coverage], several shells flew nearby. Despite the fact that my colleagues and I were wearing clothing marked “PRESS,” once Russian troops fired at us near the destroyed bridge to Irpin [a city in northern Ukraine that has seen heavy Russian attacks]. I have a small scratch on my leg from a shell fragment and a hole in my pants. Civilians died at the same place.

Adam Bihari, reporting for Hungarian news site HVG.hu

This war has been totally unpredictable from the start. [After arriving in Kyiv on February 23] I was planning to go to the frontline [in eastern Ukraine] on the 24th, but instead, the frontline came to me. It is absolutely different from my experiences during the contained local war in the Donbas [between Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine]. [Now] every corner could be the next frontline, there are barely any safe areas in Ukraine. I knew the sound of constant sirens from [covering] war in Israel, but I felt much, much less safe in Kyiv, without an Iron Dome [Israel’s missile defense system] and with one of the largest armies in the world [Russia] against the city.

I have witnessed three floors of a residential building blown to pieces by a rocket in Kyiv, thousands of innocent civilians living underground. I saw human remains after a fierce fight at the Beresteiska metro station [in Kyiv]. And I have experienced the mental state of being under constant siege for a week. Yet, I have also witnessed the determination of civilians, soldiers, and volunteers across the city.

Even though my two colleagues and I are from Hungary, and our government is close with Russian leadership, we never heard even the slightest slur against us and everyone was super helpful. [Now back in Hungary] I work as a volunteer to help [Ukrainian] refugees.  

Today when working as a volunteer, I met an elderly woman at the railway station in Budapest, who is a refugee from Kyiv. She didn’t speak English — I showed her a photo I took at a residential building that was blown up in a rocket attack near Boryspil [airport]. She said through an interpreter who suddenly appeared that her friend’s son lived in that building. We looked at each other for just one second, with no common language — at that moment, we didn’t need any.