On the frontline of Ukraine’s information war

On the frontline of Ukraine’s information war

Despite constant bombardment, Liga.net in Kyiv continues to inform fellow Ukrainians and the world about the full-scale invasion of the country by Russia. In a Q&A, Liga’s Kateryna Kistol explains the conditions for media working in Ukraine, how she fled to Slovakia and what international media can do to help.

Kateryna Kistol, Liga’s Project Manager

MDIF: Please tell me about your work in Ukraine before the full-scale Russian invasion

In the past half year, I have been working with Liga.net as a Project Manager. The official name of the project I managed is “Fostering an effort to resist disinformation in Ukrainian media”. Together with the team, I have been focusing on malign information narratives that compose a comprehensive system of Russian disinformation and propaganda. We have published lots of explanatory, analytical and investigative materials, and conducted training sessions for the media.

Now it is all paused due to the invasion, as everyone in the editorial and the whole company is working towards the most essential goals, which are the producing of the newsfeed, chronicles, actual analytical materials, and the stories to cover the heroes of Ukraine. In order to be flexible, we had to distinguish what are the key topics and materials we should work on now. One of the activities I’m currently engaged in is the English-language chronicles. We keep our audience updated about what’s going on live in the frontlines and in the world overall, working around the clock. And we do so in three languages – Ukrainian, Russian, and English – which is a rare thing in Ukraine.

Specifically, with the launch of the full-scale invasion, we realised the chronicles in English would be much needed too – as we have lots of information to share, the information that might not be reachable for people outside of Ukraine. We also have a team of volunteers who conduct translations from Ukrainian into English, working together with us. Everyone is doing a great job.

MDIF: How did you make your decision to leave Ukraine?

I was located in Kyiv when the full-scale invasion began. As many others, on that day, I woke up at 5 a.m. because of the sound of explosions and the text messages from my friends and family saying, “it has begun”. The funny thing is that I moved to Kyiv less than a year ago, after 12 years of living abroad. When the invasion started on the 24th of February, I decided I had to go to Dnipro, my hometown, to join my family. On the first day in Kyiv, I spent a few hours in the Kyiv Metro because we used it as a shelter. I didn’t have any shelter at my house and I had to make a five-minute run to the nearest station. I moved to Dnipro on the night of the 24th which was a wise decision because starting the next day onwards, there was little or no chance to move from Kyiv using public transport.

I spent some time in my hometown. The civilian infrastructure was not shelled there until this morning (11 March). Today, I woke up and saw that the Russian forces had already targeted three civilian buildings in Dnipro: a kindergarten, a residential house and a shoe factory. Of course, compared to other towns, the situation in my hometown is pretty normal as of today. If you happen to see the pictures of Mariupol, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Kherson, Irpin and other cities that were heavily attacked, you will know that there are thousands of cases of Russia’s war crimes and atrocities.

On my phone I still have a Telegram channel called “Dnipro alert”, which is the fastest and the most credible way to know there is an air attack alert if you can’t hear it. Each time there is an alert, you should go down into the shelter. Of course, these are not normal working conditions.

I had a chance to move, although I didn’t take this decision easily. A friend of our family was driving, so I decided I should take this chance. I left on March 5th and went through a really long and really hard journey, three days in total. Eventually I made it to the border of Slovakia, although this was not my initial plan. I had to change my route multiple times due to the traffic and security conditions on the road. Basically, I crossed the border by foot. Compared to other borders, the situation at the border with Slovakia is pretty stable and calm. For instance, the Polish border is very overcrowded now.

MDIF: Did you manage to cross the border easily and was the processing on the Slovak side relatively quick? 

After I crossed the border, everything went smoothly. There are people and services who help you. There are lots of international organisations like the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration, there are also public services provided by the government of Slovakia. So, as soon as you cross the border, groups of people help you and provide you with anything you need. There was no single time I felt abandoned. People are really helpful.

In my case, I came from an area which was not yet targeted by the Russian occupiers that much. But there were people coming from Kharkiv, for instance. There was a lady I met after crossing the border, she was crying all the time, she did not know what to do. When we arrived at Košice, she was even afraid to leave the bus. I’m telling you this because there are people who suffered, people who really needed support and psychological help. And in Slovakian territory, there were also people who provided this kind of help.

MDIF: What are the conditions like for your colleagues still working in Kyiv and other parts of the country? Do you stay in touch with them? 

Yeah, sure I do. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, everyone was working mostly from home. When the full-scale invasion began, we were all located in different places. Some people used to work from the central areas of Kyiv – and I know that these days many people work from the shelters. People managed to adjust their communications and have connection to the Internet, so some can work from the shelters underground. I couldn’t have done this – I was running up and down while I was in Dnipro because I had no connection in my shelter. If people work on the news feed, they normally have a schedule, and the timetable is divided into time slots. When there is an alert, everyone is advised to go to the shelter if it is possible at all.

MDIF: How important do you think it is that your colleagues at Liga and elsewhere continue to report what’s happening in Ukraine?

Well, it is of the utmost importance. At Liga, we are motivated by the idea of bringing objective and verified information to the people. You probably know that Liga firmly holds its position among the top 10 most credible and most reliable media sources in Ukraine. Also, we lead the ratings of the Ukrainian media which keep up to the highest journalistic standards. And we do our best to keep it this way. Especially now, in these hard times.

Honestly, not everyone in Ukraine puts much effort into verifying information before publishing. Many choose being quick instead of providing verified information from official sources. This creates an opportunity for misinformation to be spread. I am proud that at Liga, we are tied to our obligations to provide truthful and verified information.

Several colleagues of ours are now defending Ukraine within the Territorial Defence Forces ranks, fighting with arms. For those who continue working on the information warfare frontline, the truth is the weapon. Personally, I believe what we do is crucial. In particular, I’m glad that we also work on targeting English-speaking audiences, as that is the way to spread the word about the Russian invasion and the war crimes in Ukraine for a wider audience.

MDIF: What kind of support do you think Liga and other media and journalists in Ukraine need at the moment? What is it that people outside the country can do to support media inside the country?

Let me be straightforward. Since the invasion, Liga lost almost all of its revenues that allowed it to keep staff in peaceful times. Now, we have launched channels to collect funding that could support us.

I am really proud of all our team members who worked hard on the project. Now we have these channels, so people and organisations can donate in several ways to support our activities. Because, as I told you, I’m safe here in a European country, nothing can happen to me and I have a normal Internet connection – but many colleagues of mine actually work from the shelters, under the air attacks. Many of them have little kids. We are doing our best to find additional sources of funding to be able to produce high-quality content in the future too. No one knows for how long it will last. My personal forecast is that it will probably last for months. We do have funding for the time being, but do not know what will happen next.

MDIF: Do you have any kind of message you’d like to share with the international media community?

Yes, unfortunately one of the biggest problems we face in terms of information warfare is that many Western media are influenced by the Russian agenda. Starting from 2013, when Maidan took place, many prominent Western media which had their offices in Moscow have sent their journalists from Moscow to Kyiv to cover the events. And that’s how the narratives have been formed since then. So, since 2013 we have been facing this problem – that many international media are influenced by the Kremlin’s malign narratives. Basically, they retransmit the Kremlin’s agenda.

Even now, when the whole world is watching the full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine, the bombings of the kindergartens and maternity houses, we still have to explain that there is no “Ukraine crisis”. Can you imagine, we have to fight against the incorrect definitions which compose a larger “battle of the narratives”? In Ukraine, we work hard to convince the international audience to avoid using these Russian-originated terms, such as the “conflict in Ukraine” or “Ukraine crisis”, which of course affect Ukraine’s image-formation abroad. It is Russia’s war against Ukraine, and we fight for our freedom, we defend ourselves. In fact, we are involved in defensive warfare, which we, without any doubt, will win.

To sum up, my message would be: stop assisting Russia in the information warfare, stop playing its playbook.

Another advice I would like to address to the broader public is to follow official sources. Today, many Ukrainian governmental institutions and the bodies under the Ukrainian Armed Forces provide information in English, and there is actually a list of official sources. Also, they provide daily reviews, daily briefs. There are lots of updates on social media because most of the government institutions, including the Armed forces bodies, do a great job communicating with people on social media, mostly Facebook and Telegram. The information in English is available too. My advice would be to follow these pages.

There is something else I can mention to address the Western audience. I will try to be as specific as possible, because just saying “support Ukraine” means nothing. I mean, I really appreciate all the cultural themes of the supportive actions received from abroad. For instance, here in Bratislava, I can see all the buildings in blue and yellow lights, lots of flags on each and every corner. And it is indeed nice to know that people support Ukraine. It is truly important.

But when talking about support, we have to be as precise as possible. The key message we address to the world is: we need a no-fly zone. Or at least we need jets and weapons so we can close the sky ourselves, and so protect ourselves. And to protect Europe too. Each day takes people’s lives. Each time we hear a vague, really weak reaction from the international community means the lives that could be saved were not saved. That is basically the main message I would like to voice once again.

We have no illusions that NATO will come and save us. We are well aware of the fact that we are fighting on our own. Our main security guarantee is the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Yes, we do receive support from our partners, we are thankful for any kind of support, including financial and military. In terms of manpower, we are also extremely grateful for the people who come to join the International Legion to fight for Ukraine and for freedom. But at the end of the day, we have a clear understanding that in this fight against Russia, Ukraine is fighting on its own.

Read MDIF’s statement of support for independent media in Ukraine at the onset of the war.