Running a news agency amid bombs, power outages and disinformation

By Lilia Kovalyk | Catholic News Service

LVIV, Ukraine (CNS) — The war has turned Ukrainian journalists into inventors.

We all understood Russia would attack, but no one wanted to believe this. Before the war began, in the editorial office of Religious Information Service of Ukraine, we never discussed how we would work in wartime. Now we have adapted to the new realities of war: explosions, destruction of infrastructure by Russian missiles and, as a result, power outages.

Initially, several vital questions arose: how to keep working to provide religious information daily in full, despite the lack of electricity and the internet; how to avoid emotional burnout, maintain self-control and cope with stress and emotions after the rumble of rockets overhead and ground-shaking explosions.

Lilia Kovalyk, editor of Religious Information Service of Ukraine, is pictured in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Lilia Kovalyk)

The war with Russia presented us, Ukrainian journalists, with new challenges, particularly concerning journalistic standards. During the last months, the editors of RISU had to decide how to publish photos of the bodies of the dead and whether to publish them at all, how to write about Russian atrocities, war crimes and genocide, taking into account religious correctness.

In the conditions of a full-scale offensive, Ukrainian readers and viewers have increased demands for media. They want the media to be informative and speak frankly and truthfully, even when the truth is bitter and scary.

All this imposes a lot of responsibility. This is the crucible in which new Ukrainian journalism is being forged, particularly religious journalism.

Currently, RISU, like many other Ukrainian media, is in a crisis caused by financial problems on the one hand and the restrictions of martial law on the other.

So, with the beginning of the full-scale war, the rules of work in our editorial office changed.

Today we have to work in particular conditions. There is a real problem with access to information when it is difficult to get answers to requests because people are fighting at the front or because of rocket attacks. People are left without the internet. Now, in our line work, we don’t pay attention to things like working hours, days off or time. We work 24/7, trying to seize the opportunity to use the internet and electricity and find correspondents, many of whom work on the front line or in regions previously occupied by Russia.

Today, in war conditions, one of the professional challenges is finding an expert, a human rights defender, who will help to systematize information and summarize it.

This war is terrible, and it has changed the rules and approaches of journalism. We have already learned to publish sensitive content so that the world knows what it is dealing with, as well as the atrocities, genocide, and mass murders Ukraine has faced.

Journalistic standards stipulate:

This is a screenshot from the website of RISU, the Religious Information Service of Ukraine. The editor of RISU, a former intern at Catholic News Service, gave a first-person account of keeping the news service running during the war. (CNS photo/Religious Information Service of Ukraine)

“During a conflict, a journalist’s main duty is to check information from independent sources thoroughly. A journalist must stay out of the conflict, no matter how difficult it may be. Even if there is a war in your country.”

I must admit the standards of Ukrainian journalism changed during the war, and religious journalism did, too. Before, when writing news about the work of the clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Russia, we had to contact the accused person and take their comment to clarify their position. Now we state the fact of collaboration based on information from official state sources.

Before, I did not have the right, according to the standards of journalism, to give my assessment of the actions of the collaborators. Now I allow myself to give a condescending evaluation of the traitors of Ukraine in cassocks. Some “proper journalists and editors” might scold me for this, but I will say frankly that in the conditions of war, journalistic rules and standards regarding compliance with the balance of thoughts are no longer applicable. Not when my people are suffering and dying, when turncoats in robes help the enemy’s rockets find their target. I am done with all that. The war made me like this. And it wouldn’t even occur to me to call others and ask: “Why did you do that?”

We show “white and black” in this war.

Of course, we also write a lot about the life of Catholics, about the invaluable help that the Catholic Church — in particular, the Catholics of America — provide for Ukraine. We covered Cardinal Konrad Krajewski’s visits to Ukraine; prayers of Archbishop Gintaras Grušas, president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, and Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Borys Gudziak of Philadelphia.

Cardinal Krajewski, the papal almoner, has traveled frequently to Ukraine to bring help to the people and show the pope’s closeness to all there. Nine months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pope Francis wrote a letter in which he expressed his sorrow and closeness to “the noble and martyred” Ukrainian people. The pope’s help for Ukraine is limitless. Ukrainians appreciate it — and we wrote about it.

In the first weeks, my fellow journalists hoped we would tell Russian citizens as much as possible about the horrors unfolding. We hoped they would take to the streets, overthrow Putin’s government, fight against injustice, and see the insidiousness of the “Russian world” and its ideological satellite — the Russian Orthodox Church headed by Patriarch Kirill, who blessed the war against Ukraine. We hoped it would end soon. Although this enthusiasm still drives us, we eventually realized that it is an illusion, and many Russians support the atrocities committed by their army.

This became a disappointment, but we continue to share information about Russian crimes. We continue to show the graves with bodies in Bucha, Borodyanka and Irpin. We call on religious leaders to see these atrocities. And it works. The world was horrified, and politicians and religious leaders of the world condemned the brutality of the Russian occupiers. This is to the credit of RISU, among others.

If there is no information from Ukrainian sources, people will read Russian ones. This happened during the times of the Soviet Union when religious life in Ukraine was presented to the foreign reader through Moscow’s prism. It was a twisted and embellished religious life of Ukraine, where the Russian Orthodox Church alone was allowed by the Soviets and overrun with FSB agents. At the time, no one in the world knew about the religious persecution of the Eastern and Latin Catholics and Protestants by the Soviet Union. And only when Ukraine became independent did the truth about the repressions come to light: The Greek-Catholic priests and Protestant pastors were tortured in Siberian prisons. Such is the “truth” of Russians. They keep feeding the world such untruths.

The world must understand the price Ukraine is paying in the confrontation with Russia.

Every day, Ukrainian families receive news about the deaths of their relatives. War is not far away, and if it is not stopped today, it will influence everyone. The world must understand and know the truth. So RISU writes about this because the information is also a weapon.

Yes, RISU keeps its finger on the pulse of the religious life of Ukraine. Now, this life is military, and the word is our weapon.

The coronavirus epidemic taught us to work and communicate via Zoom and editorial chats. The RISU team has an algorithm of actions, sources of communication, energy supply and communication between the editorial office and those who work on news in case of internet and mobile communication disconnection.

Everyone who either had no electricity or communication or people who had those tools only periodically used every opportunity to get involved in the work. The editorial chat has turned into a kind of roll call: who is doing what.

We try to coordinate all the work through chats. On the day of a power outage, we try to proofread everything and set it up at the first opportunity. And the best opportunity occurs at night, when the voltage in the power grid is more or less stable, making it possible to work.

Our editors and translators in Kyiv try to find a place with electricity during power outages: metro, coffee shops, coworking spaces.

And thank God generators are running at the Ukrainian Catholic University, which helps us immensely. However, due to long-lasting alarms in the morning, it is not always possible to get to UCU.

I must say I was preparing for a total blackout, probably immediately after the first rocket hit the electrical substation in Lviv. There are always warm clothes, a power bank and a thermos at home. An emergency suitcase with documents is packed and ready. Since the beginning of the war, I have replenished my stocks of rechargeable flashlights and candles. The most important thing is to diversify the sources of communication. This is what all Ukrainians do now.

We can also go to the “Points of Invincibility,” opened in every Ukrainian city. There, people can have access to the internet and warm up. We cannot be broken. We will overcome these trials, for God is with us, as is the truth. Evil must be punished, for such is God’s truth and the truth of life. The world should hear and know about the life of Ukraine during the war, particularly religious life. Such is the primary mission of RISU.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

Leave a Reply