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Realnaya Gazeta: Life in limbo for Donbas media

From a printed newspaper to undercover online media — the only way to survive in occupied territories

Editors note: To learn more about the reality of running media in the occupied territories check out Andrey Dikhtyarenko’s presentation from the #MediaRevolutions Conference.

Few places are as difficult to report from as the occupied territories of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Despite this, Realnaya Gazeta manages to persevere, delivering important information about life in the war-torn land. 

The region is run by a mix of paramilitary, ex-security and criminal forces. According to Freedom House, no independent press has officially been able to operate within the territories since the conflict broke out in 2014.

Back then, Russian-backed separatists took over Ukraine’s Eastern fringe, creating the unrecognized People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (two separate entities). Amid widespread violence armed men raided local newsrooms, forcing independent journalists to flee and newsrooms to shutter.

One of those outlets, Luhansk-based Realnaya Gazeta, remained in print until July 2014. Then Andrey Dikhtyarenko, Realnaya Gazeta‘s chief editor, moved to Kyiv after staying in Luhansk as a journalist became too dangerous. 

“My journalist colleagues were imprisoned or became hostages, and it was extremely hard to get them free. The last printed edition of our newspaper was made undercover and at high risk”, Dikhtyarenko told The Fix.

While in 2014 the main focus of Realnaya Gazeta was covering the beginning of war in Donbas (as the region is commonly referred to). Afterward, they shifted their focus towards producing analytical reports and in-depth stories to improve the understanding of what is happening on the ground of the occupied territories.

Newsroom in limbo

After the move, the team had to rethink its strategy, developing their digital capabilities. The goal was to continue investigating in a region where even a simple social media post can be enough to land someone in prison

One of the challenges for Realnaya Gazeta’s is that their target audience includes both those who stayed and those who fled. That’s not an easy feat, as the audience from occupied territories has unequal access to the websites. 

For instance, in 2016, local internet providers in the occupied territories blocked the outlet, making it impossible to access the site without a VPN. The team diversified its approach, paying more attention to different channels of communication. For instance they started creating more video reports, which were shared via YouTube. 

Recent video report from Realnaya Gazeta

The lack of a physical newsroom is a constant burden for the team of Realnaya Gazeta. That changed with the arrival of the global pandemic. While other media outlets were struggling to adapt, the Realnaya Gazeta was ready. 

“Since 2014, we have been betting on mobile filming and a remote office. It helped to avoid time spent on restructuring”, the chief editor noted. 

Nonetheless, working in the occupied territory is a life in limbo. Journalists are often forced to work under the local government’s observation. Team members on the ground operate under constant pressure. 

‘Our journalists often work undercover, as we highly need their materials”, said Dikhtyarenko. “This is just a part of our model to survive in these circumstances. Our sources from [in the occupied territories] never leave a digital footprint. If there’s any raid, nobody will find any connection with us. We use special telephones, coded mail. And no social media.

News topics often come from the people living inside the occupied territories. However,  the team must verify every piece of news, which is a big challenge of itself in these circumstances. 

“For example, we receive information about an explosion from one of our sources”, said Dikhtyarenko. “Local media will probably accuse Ukraine of doing that, but it can simply be a gas explosion. We must check the facts and provide our audience with the truth”.

Discrete video content production is the biggest challenge. “We stay away from military objects, usually film undercover and always hide faces“, said Dikhtyarenko. 

But the value of this content is worth the risk: In an environment teeming with disinformation, people trust videos more than text. 

Turning to readers

Realnaya Gazeta currently has multiple sources of funding. Firstly, their income comes from grants received from various international institutions, including the European Union and Open Intelligence Partnership. Secondly, they produce and sell exclusive content to other media. Lastly, their journalists and editors also work with foreign media as consultants and reporters. 

To make itself more sustainable, in 2021 Realnaya Gazeta aims to build a membership model, focusing mainly on readers from international organizations, civil society and international experts interested in the region.

 “We plan to create a monthly discussion club for members, where we can talk about the current situation in the ORDLO”, said Dikhtyarenko, using a common acronym to describe the occupied territories. “This way, we can learn more about the interests of our audience, and in turn they can have a say on the content we create”. 

In order to build additional touchpoints with readers, Dikhtyarenko is launching a newsletter. A Telegram channel is also in the works

More from The Fix: What news media need to know to get started on Telegram

The realities of work for Realnaya Gazeta include a high level of hatred and scrutiny from pro-russian and pro-soviet people. So far, the piece that got the most attention (from both regular viewers and haters) was the video report on the idea of unified Novorossiya state (that would have included both DNR and LNR) and why it failed. This caused a storm of hateful and even threatening comments from the pro-Russian population. 

Nonetheless, Andrey and his team keep working.  “The community of displaced people do support us, as well as international organizations and experts. As a chief [editor] of Realnaya Gazeta, I am the communicator between them and the occupied territories”.

More from The Fix: Mass crackdown on human rights defenders, journalists in Belarus

Photo by Murai .hr on Unsplash

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