One day you wake up to find your country is at war. The world is breaking down; you are still trying to talk sense into your relatives in Russia, but propaganda and fear seem to have damaged their ability to think logically. You realise that the lives of all Ukrainians are changing drastically, including those of us journalists, because we now perceive ourselves, at least to some extent, as soldiers.

It all started eight years ago, when Russia first invaded Ukraine. Between 2014 and 2018, the country as a whole and the press went through hard times, as the Kremlin used propaganda to justify its deeds in multiple ways, calling Ukrainians Nazis and convincing Russians that the people of Donbas and Crimea needed their protection. 

Afterwards, however, the situation stabilised somewhat. Following the Revolution of Dignity (2013-2014), journalists enjoyed freedom of speech. It became much easier to arrange interviews, politicians stopped running away from the press, and the media would never imagine, for example, that filming an establishing shot of some location – be it a railway or a metro station, or even a bridge – could put the country at risk. 

Nevertheless, Ukrainian society had been expecting a full-scale invasion by Russia at least since December 2021. There were several signs of it coming: Russian rhetoric and propaganda getting tougher, foreign embassies from Kyiv to Lviv being evacuated, and foreign nationals being strongly encouraged to leave Ukraine by any possible means. The Ukrainian president and government answered questions around a possible war evasively, so all we could do was guess when the full-scale strike would come. 

After Putin's address to Russia on 22 February, Joe Biden's multiple warnings to Americans and Ukrainians, and the arrival of military aid, it was clear it could start any day. Yet when it did, on 24 February, we were disappointed. As we heard the sound of explosions all over the country and people began fleeing Kyiv and other cities, towns and villages, we realised that war was a tragedy one could never be fully ready for. The first day the media tried to film everything, thinking that the war would end soon, but there were also misgivings that we were in for a long marathon. 

The Ukrainian press has experience in covering anti-terrorist operations. A strong pool of correspondents have cut their teeth on the Donbas frontline. In late 2016, the Ministry of Defence arranged training for journalists wishing to be accredited to the war-zone, providing information about our military forces and teaching the principles of tactical medicine. Reporters had to follow strict rules, for example wearing protective equipment such as bulletproof vests and helmets, and know what to do if caught up in shelling. They had to coordinate themselves with Ministry of Defense press officers and inform them daily about their route on the frontline. They were not to display the locations of our military. Some fighters would ask for their faces or tattoos to be blurred on video so as not to be identified by the enemy. The number of deaths in the military was to be taken only from reliable official sources. We became more careful when interviewing the local population, as many people in frontline towns and villages had relatives in the occupied territories and were afraid of retaliation by the quasi-republics of Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR).

Since 24 February 2022, these have become the rules for all Ukrainian journalists. We have to take extra care of those who share their experiences. People in liberated territories often cry or tell us stories they would never have shared in their pre-war life, so we must know how to talk to people carefully so that the stress will not be enhanced

We have to think not just twice, but three, four, even ten times before showing something, without becoming paranoid or falling into self-censorship. We must remember that it has taken several Ukrainian revolutions to secure freedom of speech, and we must never lose it. 

However, free speech should always go hand in hand with the highest responsibility. Let me give you an example. In those early days, when Russia bombed Ukraine non-stop, there was a strong temptation to show people's tragedy and pain with no filters – airing it almost in real time, with the traditional live broadcasts that our audience was waiting for. How unpleasantly surprised we were to hear that the enemy could use our footage to adjust their line of fire! Now we avoid reporting from the location for several hours. Other limitations include a ban on filming the movement of military equipment and soldiers on block-posts.

The topics we cover have changed drastically. The war and its consequences are in each and every story. We report on evacuation, destruction and the pre-fab towns that are replacing the more upmarket and ordinary houses that Russia has left in ruins. We talk with fighters, heroes who have supported our army, and their neighbours, despite the occupation; we help volunteers collect money for our armed forces and for tactical medicine. We are experts in de-mining processes, but most of the time we cannot recall what day of the week or month it is. We are in it for the long haul.

Our work has become a source of constant stress, a test of our physical and mental strength. Our TV channels (ICTV and STB) have set up a studio in a shelter to broadcast non-stop for six hours – our slot in the TV United News Marathon set up by the Ministry of Culture and Information, which gathers together six TV channels (both state and privately owned) to ensure around-the-clock wartime broadcasting.

Ukraine has been trying to fight fake news for at least eight years. We journalists can easily spot Russian input because we are a dab hand at understanding Russian propaganda after so many years. We check most news reports against reliable sources, responsible officials mainly emanating from Ukrainian civil society. We also talk to experts in many fields of Ukrainian life. We double check news reports with official websites, social media pages and, of course, with the people we talk about. 

Russian or pro-Russian channels are not being aired in our country. Their websites can only be accessed through a VPN connection (except for official ones). We can still monitor Russian telegram channels – these can be easily accessed and, of course, to some extent they have an impact on the Ukrainian population, but our government and the Council of National Security and Defence have done a lot to spread truthful information among viewers and readers. 

The United Marathon is aired on at least 10 channels and can be accessed via smartphone through the DIYA application. The state sends alerts through multiple channels and social media, although there are many problems in occupied territories, which are cut off from our internet and mobile connections.  

There is one more problem that is common to all post-Soviet states. People are suspicious of TV news. They remember how the press was censored in Soviet times and often say it is manipulated. This is good on the one hand, because it pushes them to look for and compare information from different sources to form their own opinion. We understand that our neighbours, the Russian and Belarusian people, were too trusting of official information and have lost the ability to think critically. That is why democracy and freedom of thought is one of the strengths of Ukrainian viewers, readers and journalists.

Olga Chaiko, Ukrainian journalist at the "Fakty" news programme, ICTV, SLM News