Efforts underway to evacuate journalists, boost safety in Ukraine

A journalist reports in front of a memorial to children killed in the war in Lviv, western Ukraine. [Shutterstock / Dmytro Golovchenko]

As covering the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly dangerous for journalists, media organisations are scrambling to offer aid and assistance and in many cases are turning to the public to extend support to those on the ground. 

At least five journalists have been killed since the war began and substantially more have been detained, injured or gone missing, many despite having identified themselves as members of the press. 

There is also increasing concern that the media may be being intentionally targeted by Russian forces.

Two separate complaints have been filed against Russia at the International Criminal Court by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which alleges that the country’s military has been directing their attacks towards Ukraine’s media infrastructure in an effort to disrupt access to information. 

Journalists, NGOs warn on reporting from Ukraine as death toll rises

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, reporters already on the ground and international media organisations sound the alarm over journalists actively seeking routes into a war that they may not be prepared to cover. 

Since the onset of war, efforts have been ramped up by international media organisations to provide assistance not only to journalists heading to or staying in Ukraine to cover the war but also to those forced to flee from it. 

There is a substantial presence of international news teams on the ground and, while the events of the past month demonstrate that this offers no inherent protection from attacks, freelancers and journalists based in Ukraine remain in particular need of equipment such as bulletproof vests and helmets. 

“There are roughly 2,000 foreign reporters [in Ukraine],” Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary-general, told EURACTIV this week. “Ukrainian journalists are among the most exposed ones to risks, as they were not prepared to cover the war, as the latter came suddenly to them.” 

Even the most basic protective equipment comes with a significant price tag. A single bulletproof vest can cost over €1000, making the mass provision of them a challenge. 

Earlier this month, the International Federation of Journalists/European Federation of Journalists (IFJ/EFJ) announced a partnership with UNESCO to provide these vests, helmets and training for journalists on the ground, but in order to locate materials on the scale needed, a number of organisations have turned to crowdfunding campaigns.

Efforts are also underway to relocate or evacuate Ukrainian journalists who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the fighting.

For the moment, many have moved to the west of the country, to cities such as Lviv, which has so far been spared direct attacks and is home to RSF’s new press freedom centre, a hub for many of the country’s displaced journalists. 

Speaking at the Free European Media Conference in Gdańsk last week, Adrien Collin, the EFJ’s finance and projects officer, said the organisation had been working with Ukrainian journalists’ unions to organise evacuations and relocations for media workers. 

Many journalists, he noted, want to remain in Ukraine and have chosen to operate out of the west of the country, but it is uncertain how long it would be safe to do so.

The task of organising evacuations, he also said, was made even more difficult by the fact that contact with some local union branches, in the besieged city of Mariupol for example, had been lost entirely. 

Other organisations have adapted existing programmes to accommodate the sharp increase in the need for assistance.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) is expanding an existing journalists-in-residence programme it runs, which offers temporary relocations to journalists whose safety is under threat, providing them with housing, healthcare, financial support, and professional networks.

The programme has so far mainly served journalists from Turkey and Belarus, Laurens Hueting, senior advocacy officer at ECPMF, told the conference in Gdańsk. Under an agreement signed earlier this month by the ECPMF, the EFJ and the government of Kosovo, it is now set to be extended to provide shelter for an additional 20 Ukrainian journalists for six months.

However, the volume of evacuations that could be needed if the situation worsens would be substantial.

If the invasion reached the whole of Ukraine, for example, EFJ’s Collin said, more than 5,000 journalists, along with their families – possibly totalling more than 20,000 people – could be in need of rapid evacuation, followed by financial, social and psychological support. 

What is needed, he said, is international coordination and a collective response as well as for other countries to ensure that their journalists and media organisations are prepared for potential crises.

“There are other countries that may be at risk and we need to prepare better so that what is happening now doesn’t happen again”, Collin said. “Even though there’s not an immediate threat, it may come one day and you should always prepare for the worst and the unexpected.”

*Eleonora Vasques contributed to the reporting.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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