Few jobs are as dangerous as covering a war.
As Russian forces besiege Ukrainian cities and the number of human casualties mounts (including local and international journalists), the ICIJ is celebrating World Press Freedom Day with two of our Ukrainian partners who valiantly report the invasion of their country.
Independent Investigative Journalist and 2021 Pulitzer Finalist with ICIJ Tanya Kozyreva and Anna Babinets, editor of Slidstvo.Info and editor of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) discuss the extreme dangers and rewards of their unexpected new roles.
Babinets has worked with the ICIJ on several investigations, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pandora Papers and Panama Papers, while Kozyreva has worked on the Pandora Papers and the Fincen Files. Both journalists believe their work is now more important than ever, but fear that the valuable press freedom gains made since the Maidan revolution in 2014 could be another casualty of Russia’s open hostility.
What has your work focused on since the start of the war in Ukraine and are you able to do investigative reporting?
Kozyreva: My work focuses primarily on reporting on Russian atrocities in Ukraine, interviewing living witnesses of war crimes across Ukraine, children who have lost their limbs, parents whose children are missing or trapped under rubble, families whose loved ones were kidnapped from Ukrainian towns and villages under Russian occupation and those who buried loved ones in the backyards of their family homes. I do my best to tell their heartbreaking stories to the world.
Often I have to go to extremely dangerous places near the front line like Sloviansk or Lysychansk, but I feel it is my duty to take this risk. I think it’s the duty of journalism to tell the truth no matter what.
Previously, I devoted all my time to long-term international investigations, but the war changed my schedule. And I don’t really know how long I won’t be able to return to the job I love the most: investigating the financial crimes of high authorities, oligarchs and representatives of organized crime. For now, the most important story for me is the Russian aggression in my own country. In the short term, I will try to focus on the investigation of Russian filtration camps on the territory of Ukraine, where Ukrainians are tortured and killed for no reason.
Babinets: Fortunately, I can continue to do investigative journalism. But a lot of things have changed. Slidstvo.Info is an investigative agency based in Kyiv, we have been exposing corruption and high level crimes for almost ten years. We have participated in the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers and other international projects.
We started preparing for the possible war a month before [it started]. Our OCCRP partners purchased vests, helmets, and other gear for wartime work. Bellingcat colleagues organized a special training for our team [on] how to identify people and places in social networks, especially Russian networks. Top American trainers explained the difference between weapons and ammunition that the Russians can use against Ukraine, told us about working under fire and basic medical aid in critical situations. Of course, we couldn’t imagine all the hell we would encounter during the war, but basically we were prepared.
On the morning of February 24, when Russia started bombing Ukraine, we at Slidstvo.Info had a long editorial call – we were talking [about] the best we can do. We are professional investigative journalists who know how to find criminals or politicians’ secret real estate or uncover tricky offshore schemes. All our knowledge seemed useless for the circumstances we found ourselves in. [in] February 24. At the end of the editorial call, we decided to continue our work even though it seemed that investigative journalism was not necessary for war. Some Slidstvo.Info journalists were considering joining the army or volunteering, to help with logistics and other things. But I believe that, even in times of war, we must work in the field in which we are professionals. We know how to collect evidence of crimes and show it to people.
War is a huge crime, we have a lot of work to do. Our team decided to collect evidence of war crimes, identify Russian soldiers and generals, name them and show them to people. Now I see that our findings are very useful for official investigators. Ukrainian prosecutors ask us to help them identify Russians and they use our stories for official criminal cases, they can indict criminals using our evidence that we have been publishing for two months.
When did you realize you had to leave your country?
Babinets: I decided to leave Ukraine at the beginning of the war, when Russia started to bomb kyiv. The main reason: my 7 year old daughter. His father is serving in the Ukrainian army now, so I’m the only person who can care. [for] his. If I had the opportunity to stay and work in Kyiv and be sure that my daughter is safe, I would prefer to stay in Kyiv with my team. But I didn’t have that option.
Could you describe the work logistics at this time? What are your working conditions?
Kozyreva: I mainly freelance for international media now. One reason is that the coverage is the most unbiased. The other is that my knowledge on the ground is now valuable like never before, because many foreign journalists who report from Ukraine have no experience of covering Ukraine, they don’t speak the language, they have no contact, they don’t know the geography and the history of the region. Some of them arrive with the scripted stories in mind and refuse to face reality. At the same time, my expertise gives me the opportunity to work with the best news media, BBC, New York Times, CNN, Sky News, etc. I do live television and radio interviews, write articles and produce stories for print and television.
I mainly report across the country and haven’t been home for two months already. My desk is my phone. When I need a short break, I go to Poland for a few days to sleep without sirens.
As journalists and as citizens, we want to help our country win in this war and punish war criminals using evidence we obtain and publish every day. -Anna Babinets
Babinets: I can’t complain about the conditions. I have enough space to work and focus on editing stories. I work from the apartment where I live with my daughter: she does online lessons in a separate room, I edit and I have calls with colleagues at the same time.
Every morning we have an editorial call with the Slidstvo.Info team. For two months, we work without days off or weekends and publish two to three stories a day. We’ve never published so many stories before, usually it’s two to three stories a month. Our audience has nearly doubled in the past two months. We do extensive research, analyze data, talk to our sources and report hotspots in Kyiv region. Part of the Slidstvo.Info team stayed in kyiv, part moved to Ukraine, and some journalists left Ukraine. The people on my team, even in these difficult circumstances, believe that our work matters, we can change something, we can help save our country.
Regarding your work as a journalist, what are your biggest fears or worries?
Kozyreva: I think the war has already had an impact on Ukrainian journalism. Some of the best Ukrainian journalists are already dead. Some joined the Ukrainian army. Some were abducted by Russian forces. The others mock the facts and create space for propaganda. Ukrainian independent media have lost their financial support and are struggling to survive. In the long term, I think Ukrainian journalism can lose everything it has gained over the past eight years.
Babinets: As I see it now, working in wartime circumstances has made our team stronger. As journalists and as citizens, we want to help our country win in this war and punish war criminals using evidence we obtain and publish every day. I worry about the hard work that my reporters do every day, I worry that they don’t get enough rest and they fear that they will burn out. I realize that war can last a long time and I really hope that we can do a good job for months or years, if necessary.
What motivates you to continue doing investigative journalism despite the dangers?
Kozyreva: When I see old people who have lost everything, women with children who have nowhere to go, injured children whose lives are changed forever, when I interview the relatives of [those] tortured or killed, I feel like I have no right to stop reporting their stories. It’s the best I can do for them. It’s the best I can do for democracy. I knowingly take a high risk because I believe the truth can make the world a better place for everyone.
Babinets: Because we see that our work is important. Many people send text messages asking for help or to tell their story. Ukrainian officials are asking us to help them. We see that the things we do are useful and have an impact in the real world. We want a bigger impact, that’s why we keep going. Our main objective [is] to collect evidence of war crimes that can be used to punish criminals in Russia.
This interview has been edited for clarity.