The following transcripts are from talks given by Olena Lysenko, Dariya Orlova and Yevhen Fedchenko during the Center for Media at Risk Spring Forum, How is War Changing Media Futures in Ukraine? They spoke on April 14, 2023 at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
Our film, I Never Had Dreams of My Son, is an example of documentary filmmaking made before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainians have been making documentary films about heightening Russian aggression for the least eight years. These films include stories about soldiers fighting in trenches (War Note), children growing up near a war zone (The Earth Is Blue as an Orange), female soldiers’ experiences (Invisible Battalion) and veterans dealing with PTSD (No Obvious Signs) to name a few.
Olena Lysenko and Jason Blevins
Today, I’m thinking about the Sundance Film Festival, which took place in January 2023. One of its competitions included the experimental Ukrainian documentary, Iron Butterflies, directed by Roman Liubyi. It tells the story of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was enroute from the Netherlands to Malaysia when it was shot down by Russian forces over eastern Ukraine in 2014, killing all the nearly 300 passengers and crew on board. At that time, people in Ukraine hoped that even if the world did not react strongly to the Russian annexation of Crimea or its military aggression in the eastern Ukraine, there would at least be global outrage over the deaths of innocent civilians from around the world. But it didn’t happen. The reaction to what Russia did, again, was not strong enough. Liubyi recreated the events when Russian forces shot down the plane using contemporary dance, stop-motion animation and other interesting visual media to shed light on Russian aggression.
Now, Ukrainians are looking for new creative ways to tell the same story over and over again – Russia continues to commit war crimes in Ukraine. We don’t want media, politicians and people around the world to get tired of hearing these stories. In the same Sundance category as Irons Butterflies was another Ukrainian documentary called 20 Days in Mariupol by Mstyslav Chernov, a Ukrainian journalist who works at the Associated Press. He filmed extremely brutal and horrifying war crimes that the Russian military committed against civilians in Mariupol. Both of these films were presented in the same program. I see this as a metaphor – when you don’t pay enough attention to the events of Iron butterflies, then the events of 20 Days in Mariupol can be the outcome.
Today’s war is far more unpredictable because of widespread missile attacks and intense fighting at the front. For media practitioners, everything is much more organized – there are more military checkpoints, stricter curfews, tougher media credentials and more roadblocks to reporting. This is typical in war zones, but you will notice there has been a shift in the types of films produced after the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022. There are more films in development that focus on civilians and refugees. There are also work-in-progress projects documenting war crimes committed in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories. This type of coverage is new, because it is the first time that Ukrainians have been able to liberate their territories and investigate war crimes on such a large scale. Directors are also looking for new perspectives and creative ways to depict the consequences of the war. For example, Ukrainian director Maksym Nakonechnyi [in collaboration with Resident Advisor] released a documentary called Ukraine: Nightlife in Resistance about the enduring nightlife in Ukraine throughout the war. Another short film by Nadia Parfan called It’s a Date is a homage to Claude Lelouch’s 1970 film of the same name. Even though it is a fictional short, it documents the streets of Kyiv early in the morning, just after curfew has been lifted.
Does anyone recall the images of the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014? The center of the protests was fire and ice. We interviewed the French photographer, Eric Bouvet, who took several of the iconic photos of the EuroMaidan protests, including on Instytutska Street in Kyiv during the sniper shootings. I asked him about how he knew if he was able to capture events truthfully. He replied, “What is the truth? I put on a 50mm lens, then I put on a 25mm lens, and you have two different truths.” What he meant was that the frame you create around the story will change how the viewer experiences it. A telephoto lens compresses the space, which can create a sense of more chaos than a wide angle lens that expands the space. The presentation of our story in I Never Had Dreams of My Son was a big question from the start. How were we going to present the story of Oleksii Shevluga and his father? We kept the story as narrowly focused as possible, but this required cutting interesting information that would have given a broader perspective of the story. As a documentary filmmaker, everything is a choice. We do not have to worry as much about informing. The experience needed to be emotional and rooted in our central character’s perspective.
Going back to Eric Bouvet’s quote, in this story, we show the truth throughout the film. Anyone watching carefully can see Vitalii’s face on YouTube, we show him many times before the final reveal. We do not want to hide that this person is not the son. If you had hope it was, this is because of your desire, not because of what is shown on screen. Editing the film was the biggest challenge because we needed to give the audience enough background to understand the story. Until February 2022, the war was far away, even within Ukraine. By 2019, it was in the background compared to 2014. Then, Zelenskyy was elected on a promise to end the war, because people were tired from it. When making I Never Had Dreams of My Son, we wanted to capture the stillness of the father’s life and of the war. We also chose to shoot the entire film using old Soviet lenses – imperfect but beautiful and with a lot of character – but it also related to the story we were telling and the legacy it has over Ukraine.
This leads us to the next point; the Ukrainian government financed many films between 2014-2022 about the war, both fictional and documentary. This funding has now gone to finance Ukraine’s military defense, eliminating or drastically reducing opportunities for Ukrainian filmmakers to obtain co-production financing with other European countries. A requirement for co-production funding is that your country, in this case Ukraine, must contribute money to the production. Ukrainian filmmakers now must rely on grants. Ukraine’s GDP has also decreased and many Ukrainians have left the country. Many of Ukraine’s most talented filmmakers now work as fixers or crew for international media, where their voices are not as loudly heard. Many filmmakers have joined the army.
In addition to YouTube, TikTok and Telegram are popular platforms used by people to document and distribute stories and experiences. These platforms have decentralized storytelling and do not cost users anything more than what they already have – a cell phone and internet. As good as many films from Ukraine are, none can compare to the posts by a teenager living on the front line documenting her experiences. We often don’t view social media stories as “documentaries” with the same seriousness, but for the reasons Olena mentioned earlier with financing, we might want to rethink this. For example, my journalist friend posted a video of kittens rescued by soldiers in Bakhmut who needed a home. This post received far more engagement and had more impact than anything he’s written on the war. I’m invested in what happens to these cats. What has changed since 2014 is that social media is far more developed. Ukraine has always been ahead of the curve on social media trends, from live streams during their revolution, to TikTok mini-docs. I recommend following Ukrainian and foreign journalists in Ukraine, filmmakers, artists, activists and ordinary people. Their stories are all interwoven by the same experience – war – but reveal more complexity than you can show in a film, because film still has the same problem of “what is truth” when you’re capturing it with a lens.
Journalism Practice and Scholarship
The central theme of today’s event is framed in terms of future, or rather futures. I usually find it challenging and even a bit uncomfortable to talk about and make predictions about the future. The only certainty is that the future is uncertain, especially in times of war. The fog of Russia’s war in Ukraine is, unfortunately, still very thick. On the other hand, identifying the silhouettes and outlines of something in a thick fog can be more than an analytical exercise. It can mean constructing the future to some extent.
I will focus on journalism or, more broadly, on media scholarship and practice in Ukraine, by addressing what can be found in the present and then by projecting into the future. The present, as you might guess, is quite tough both for media practitioners and scholars in Ukraine.
To illustrate the point, I’ll start by sharing a few figures. A Ukrainian NGO, The Institute of Mass Information, has been documenting Russia’s crimes against journalists and recently published a report indicating the different ways Ukrainian media suffer as a result of Russia’s aggression. According to its estimates, over 500 crimes or violations took place against media and journalists in Ukraine during the first 13 months of Russia’s invasion. Eight journalists have been killed while performing professional duties and 41 more died because of other war-related circumstances. Some were killed as soldiers in combat, others have died in missile attacks. Fourteen journalists are missing. There are documented cases of kidnapping and torture, especially in the occupied areas. Sixteen TV towers have been shelled. Nine editorial offices are known to be either seized or destroyed. For instance, in Kherson, the Russian military basically took over the office of the public broadcaster and used it as one of its headquarters. When the soldiers retreated, they looted the office and blew up the TV tower.
More than 200 media outlets have shut down because of the war and dozens more have had to relocate. As a result, media organizations have faced critical managerial challenges because of the need to re-structure work, organize complicated logistics, manage stress and locate essential resources. Most are dealing with serious financial hardships. Foreign donor organizations have been helpful in many ways, including providing quick financial aid to some Ukrainian media outlets, but the majority have been functioning in survival mode. And they still find themselves in that survival mode.
Another pressing issue is the shortage of human resources. I have been interviewing journalists and editors who say they lack people to do the work. Many male journalists were either conscripted into the army or joined voluntarily, some female journalists as well. Many professionals (in this case, mostly females) fled the country due to the danger. Many left the profession due to stress and burnout. As a result, a lot of media lack a workforce, even those media that can offer competitive salaries, not to mention those that cannot.
The changes in social structure have also impacted universities. One figure is quite telling: in 2022, there were fewer than 11,000 applications to journalism programs from school graduates across the country, four times less compared to 2021. This figure coincides with statistics estimating that around one fourth of Ukrainians have left the country since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.
Kharkiv University suffered immense damage to its facilities due to its proximity to the Russian border. Even though the city wasn’t occupied, its outskirts were the target of artillery strikes. This year, the school recruited 16 first-year undergraduate students compared to 50 last year. I’m citing these numbers because they reveal the huge shifts brought about by the invasion, including changes on the most fundamental level of human presence, human flow. On one hand, the figures may seem quite depressing or alarming, but, on the other hand, it is impressive that Kharkiv University was able to recruit any new first-year students and that it continued to operate and educate despite attacks. In fact, the school resumed work just one month after the invasion started, like the majority of universities across Ukraine. It is also worth mentioning that while many universities and colleges have lacked students, universities in western Ukraine have become inundated with internally displaced students, overloading faculty there. As with media outlets, journalism departments and universities at large are operating predominantly in survival mode. They do their best to continue teaching and providing framework for study, but one can hardly expect them to have the resources to enable generative scholarship at this point.
Ukrainian society has been credited for demonstrating impressive resilience since the first days of the invasion. Manifestations of such resilience are abundant across media and related sectors. Local outlets have opened their newsrooms to colleagues from other regions, sharing spaces, equipment and other resources. Kharkiv University held courses on Zoom amidst the war. Strikingly, those Zoom classes often connected students from Kharkiv, who fled to Poland or elsewhere abroad, with students who remained in the occupied areas at the time of the classes.
Ukrainian journalists and educators have managed to survive and carry on in the fog of war. Survival, although a necessary precondition for growth, does not equal growth and development. How can Ukrainian journalism and media scholarship develop and grow and what are the likely directions of this growth? These are huge questions, and again one can speak of contours or shapes that are emerging now, but much will depend on when and how the war ends.
The human dimension of the war is certainly crucial. The number of displaced people is distressing, but we can also observe a variety of experiences and the very flows of people that are more complex than simply from Ukraine to elsewhere. Many people come back and forth. Many others are waiting abroad until it is safe to return. The scale of Ukrainian citizens’ exposure to foreign experiences is incredible and likely to generate new visions and new expectations for the future. Student mobility has increased manifold times. In a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine, a number of European universities have reached out with proposals to Ukrainian institutions. Even though most faculty are preoccupied with urgent tasks and lack time to produce research, this might change. There has also been an increased openness to interdisciplinary approaches and research projects that transcend traditional academia. The most dynamic departments and schools have been developing connections with civil society and other sectors, feeling the urge to do something meaningful in a faster way than the academic setting usually allows.
In terms of research and scholarship, the overall environment and wartime experiences of Ukrainian citizens, organizations and institutions suggest unique material to work with. Wartime journalism and mental health is one of the fields that attracts more and more attention. Public communication and the conditions of pervasive mediatization and war is another research field where Ukrainian scholars might generate substantial knowledge. The use of digital technologies in war and communication between family members torn apart by the conflict are also interesting emergent research fields. What happens to the media consumption diet when people become displaced?
Finally, Ukrainian scholars, who have long been relying on predominantly western concepts and theories, now have the ability to reconsider and develop the very conceptualizations of war reporting. First-hand experience can and should become a material for profound thinking and theorizing among Ukrainian media scholars.
Ukrainian media organizations and journalists have been facing crises on many levels, prompting them to seek creative solutions or even reconsider their areas of work. For example, some major investigative media outlets or projects shifted their focus from investigating cases of corruption to documenting and investigating war crimes. These outlets include Slidstvo.info, Skhemy Program by Radio Svoboda, among others. Kyiv Independent, an English-language outlet, opened a special department for investigating war crimes. There’s also an entire new network of journalists documenting war crimes within the framework of the Reckoning Project under the guidance of prominent war reporter Janine di Giovanni.
There are also indications that Ukrainian media are reconsidering audience relationships, with more reciprocity in the modes of interaction and agenda-setting. In response to public demand, a growing number of media outlets started producing educational content on the history of Ukraine. There are compelling examples of creative formats being used to construct a collective memory of Ukrainian lived experiences since Russia’s invasion. Competition with social media platforms has stimulated some media to develop content and formats that stand out, a slower yet more profound journalism. For example, a leading weekly magazine NV switched to monthly issues to enable more elaborate, longer stories.
Fatigue is pervasive and conditions are still quite grim, but Ukrainian journalists remain engaged in professional conversations about what is acceptable and what is not, on the boundaries between necessary restrictions in the light of martial law and the dangerous implications of those restrictions. The ongoing conversations about the future of media and journalism in Ukraine have not yet generated definitive answers, but they are still essential for creating frameworks where the new answers are to be born.
The Futures of Factchecking
I would like to start by thanking the Center for Media at Risk for keeping Ukraine in the focus for this event about media futures. It is important because at this stage of the war, when global audiences become tired of hearing about it, media can look more and more for a ‘problematic agenda’ – i.e. what is wrong with Ukraine, politicians and policy-makers. Experts in different countries are trying shift gear and push Ukraine (not Russia) to concede and to establish a ceasefire and freezing of the conflict.
To give a sense of what I am talking about I will start with a tweet published today by the Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki:
The Evil Empire has been reborn in the East. Russian barbarians threaten not only Ukraine. They threaten all of Europe and the whole free world. This is no mere incident, no coincidence, no maniac’s impulse. Putin has been building his Evil Empire for 23 years, in preparation for this conflict. New Europe understands this. It is time that Old Europe understood it too.
What is significant is not the recognition of Russia as The Evil Empire, as this has long been a position held by Poland and other Central European countries that were under Soviet Russian occupation and understand what it entails: killings, sending thousands of innocent people to The Gulag, the disappearance of whole families. The Evil Empire indeed, and again, that’s exactly what is now happening in Ukraine. But what was significant for me was a response to Morawiecki’s tweet from a foreign policy expert [Emma Ashford] who replied with the tweet, “Honestly? This type of overblown language from an ally worries me more than Macron’s gaffes.”
To her, this all looks overblown, despite the facts. She is not worried about war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine that are well-documented, but about language, how we talk about this. Aren’t we too radical? This is a new fake normalcy constructed around Russian crimes and Russia’s war, in spite of all the known facts. Does this new normal undermine the role of facts and the future of factchecking?
My work and the work of my colleagues from the StopFake team is all about fighting for facts and setting the record straight. During the last nine years of Russia’s war against Ukraine, I have thought a lot about one important aspect of debunking the Kremlin’s lies and finding facts among the slew of disinformation pieces: is it still important and relevant? What we can change by knowing facts? Can facts still have impact on the decision-making process and things on the ground? Or are people happy to live inside their information bubble believing only what they want to believe – despite what factcheckers are saying?
I still believe in the power of factchecking. In Ukraine, factchecking not only helped to set the record straight, but to save lives – literally. I will give a few examples of stories that have been debunked by StopFake. If not debunked, these stories could have had serious consequences and reinforced Russian disinformation narratives, further justifying aggression against Ukraine and transforming online clashes into offline on-the-ground conflicts.
- Ukrainian soldiers shooting a car with mother and child for allegedly speaking Russian. Factcheck helped to geolocate the video, which was taken in the occupied part of Donbas by Russian forces. So, the Ukrainian armed forces are not shooting at Russian speakers and there is no line of conflict between those who speak Ukrainian or Russian. This conflict is an invention of propaganda to justify war.
- Russian media are circulating a video purporting to show Ukrainian “radicals” burning down an Orthodox Church belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate. The video was actually taken in Russia ten years ago in 2013 and is another untrue narrative created to incite domestic conflict within Ukraine, grow tensions and potentially to transform them into street violence.
- Ukrainian refugees in Spain were trying to burn Russian flags but instead they burned down a forest. These kinds of narratives sow distrust and create conflicts between Ukrainian refugees in different European countries and receiving communities. If not debunked, they can potentially lead to physical offline conflicts and crimes against displaced persons.
These are just three examples of how important factchecking can be in times of war. Especially in the case of Russia’s war against Ukraine when the whole narrative was constructed through the use of fakes, manipulations and historical lies. Days before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Putin was speaking about his vision of ‘history’ to justify this aggression. His vision was full of lies – that Ukraine never existed, it was an artificial creation of Lenin, that Ukraine committed genocide in Donbas and wants to possess nuclear arms.
Factcheckers from Ukraine and many other countries debunked those lies many times but that did not prevent Putin and the Russian government from using it as a pretext for the aggression. We still see numerous instances when people around the world use Russian fakes to justify this war or to say that Ukraine is ‘also to be blamed.’
Does this mean we should abandon factchecking if we cannot stop the flow of the fakes?
No, we need to continue the fight for the truth and look for the new audiences and new ways to reach out to them. That’s why the StopFake team is not only working hard for audiences in Ukraine, but we are increasing content production for global audiences. For example, in the Global South, the impact of Russian disinformation is not only visible but growing. Russia has not faced many obstacles to its presence in Africa and Latin America, the Middle East and South-East Asia. That’s where the focus of disinformation efforts is shifting and that’s where more factchecking content must go. Since March 2023, we started to collaborate with Radio Marti (a division of the Voice of America) to reach out to audiences in Cuba and other Spanish-speaking countries to explain how disinformation works, its main narratives and how to effectively fight back.
What is the criteria for us to consider factchecking a success story? First, I believe our activities helped build more resilience among Ukrainians before this full-scale aggression started and helped them survive Russia’s ‘fog of war.’ According to a recent poll conducted by Internews, StopFake is the most recognised factchecking brand in Ukraine – with 10% of respondents aware about its existence and 16% using it.
The second important piece of criteria is if our stories are used by traditional media outlets and become viral. When that happens, it means that our debunkings have bigger impact and visibility, are of general interest and can make a difference.
One such example is a story about ‘French blogger’ Adrien Bocquet, who was invited by different French media to say on air that the crimes in Bucha were not at all the work of the Russian occupiers but were “war crimes of the Azov regiment.” He also claimed that American journalists who were in Bucha with him filmed staged videos, while Ukrainian soldiers used dead bodies of civilians to stage the “massacre in Bucha.” To support his ‘version’ he promised to reveal thousands of photos and videos. But in reality he never had any of them. This is the kind of a story where factchecking can have huge a impact.
So we combined our efforts with our French colleagues to find out who Adrien Bocquet really is, what’s wrong with his narrative and finally we were successful in proving that he was a liar, helping Russia to whitewash its war crimes. His reputation was ruined, he was disinvited from all media (except Russian agitprop) and finally he was awarded Russian citizenship and almost disappeared from the media.
To finish, I want to quote one of the leading experts on Russia’s war against the West: Keir Giles who in the preface to his book ‘Russia’s War on Everybody’ wrote that ‘measures to deal with Russia’s long-running and less obvious campaigns against Russia’s adversaries are still patchy – in part because in contrast to the clear and undeniable nature of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, those other campaigns are far harder to detect and understand’.
That’s why it’s important to increase efforts to de-mask real Russian intensions. The weaker Russia would perform on the frontline in Ukraine, the more it would increasingly concentrate its efforts around disinformation and fake news, cyber attacks and intelligence leaks – non-kinetic instruments – to ruin the unity of Ukraine’s support, to normalize Russia’s position vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and in coordination with other rogue states to do undermine democracy.