Oksana Sokolova: “We are broadcasting live news from a bomb shelter in the basement”
December 14, 2022

Oksana Sokolova: “We are broadcasting live news from a bomb shelter in the basement”

In the framework of the European Journalism Symposium, which took place on 24-25 November, a panel discussion was dedicated to disinformation narratives about the war in Ukraine and foreign interferences in the media landscape. Here we publish an extract from the speech of Oksana Sokolova, journalist and Head of the Documentary department at the leading Ukrainian TV channel ICTV.

I am sure that what is happening in my country right now will affect the future of the whole world. That’s why truthful information about Russia’s war against Ukraine is so important. 

My name is Oksana Sokolova, I am a journalist, TV producer and presenter. I have been working in television for 30 years. But it was the war that opened a whole new experience for me as a journalist, which I want to share with you.

Let me start with a story. My friends found themselves in a village occupied by Russian soldiers this March. This village is near Bucha, which you may have heard about. My friends stayed under occupation for two weeks. Food and medicine were scarce.

But the biggest problem was that they had no information. The occupiers cut off communication: mobile phones, internet, television. Nothing was working. People didn’t know what was happening. Was it possible, for example, to go out to buy bread – and stay alive? The sound of gunfire could be heard from somewhere and shells were flying above them.

And then my friends found an old radio in the attic and caught the radio signal. It was a public radio station in Ukraine. Its staff, young women, came to the studio on 24 February and just started telling people what was going on around them – in detail.

When Kyiv started to be heavily bombed, they continued to go on air from their flats. Thanks to this information, my friends learned that there would be an evacuation from Bucha and that the Russians had allowed it to proceed for one day only and only via a specific route. My friends used the opportunity and were rescued – thanks to information from those radio journalists.

Informing the public is a basic function of a journalist. But in times of war, it becomes the most important function – to inform in every possible way. There is an opinion that radio is dying, that no one is interested in it any more. But in times of war, it plays a big role. I know small regional editorial offices, which resumed printing newspapers and delivered them to people in the areas where other types of communications did not work. For 7-8 months of occupation, people found themselves in an information vacuum. They did not understand what was going on around them.

The format doesn’t really matter now. We used to work in technologically advanced studios. Fareed Zakaria from CNN came to us and marvelled to find studios in Ukraine studios as modern as those in the USA. But now we are broadcasting live news from a bomb shelter in the basement of our building. There’s just a table, a camera and brick walls. But that only adds to the credibility because our viewers sit in such bomb shelters too. No one cares about the studio set up. What really matters is verified information. 

We are now looking differently at another important indicator – speed of information. I would even replace it with another word – timeliness. In the first days of the war, we tried to be as quick as possible to report, for example, where the Russian missiles hit. But then we understood that the enemy used these videos to coordinate their fire, make it more efficient. That’s why now we do not chase breaking news. We do not report casualty numbers from the scene of explosions until the relatives are officially notified. We understood that national security issues are more important than speedy news delivery. 

There is another interesting point. Residents of the occupied territories say that Russian soldiers often asked them to translate what the Ukrainian media were saying. I cannot claim that this changed their minds. But I think that alternative information – not the kind spread by Russian propagandists – planted a seed of doubt in the soldiers’ minds.

Our company has very large digital media platforms. Our YouTube channels have a total of 4 million subscribers. On one channel, ICTV, we use content in Russian. When Russia announced the mobilisation, Russian viewers started massively coming to this channel. In the first week of mobilisation, we had 46% of total traffic from Russia. We saw comments under the stories. These were not bots. These were real people who just wanted to know alternative information. They often didn’t believe our stories, they got angry – because their propaganda tells a very different story. But their interest testifies to their doubts.

It is very important to inform people about the real situation because the Russian media distorts reality. For example, when Russian troops shelled Kyiv in October, they wrote that it was a strike against the Ukrainian authorities, the decision-making centres. The Russians said: “Here is the video footage showing the Ukrainian parliament building on fire, and you can even see its famous dome”. But in fact, it was the dome of a different building. The missile hit a completely different place, several kilometres away from the parliament. It was the National University and Teacher’s House. This historic building, indeed, has a dome like that of parliament, only smaller. So, the Russians did not strike the decision-making centres at all. They hit civilian targets.

We report on events in Ukraine, translate them into Russian and put them on our YouTube channel. We are ready to translate these stories into English and other languages and share them with other TV companies. We understand that not everyone can afford to send a special correspondent to the war zone. But we have quality content, and we are ready to share it so that people get first-hand information not distorted by Russian propaganda.

Oksana Sokolova was speaking at the European Journalism Symposium, which took place in Brussels on 24-25 November, bringing together around 150 speakers from more than 25 different countries, and offering an unprecedented opportunity for networking and professional exchange between some 800 participating journalists from the Eastern Partnership region, the Southern Mediterranean and the EU.

The programme included sessions on a wide range of topics, including propaganda and fake news, threats to journalism, media literacy, cyberattacks, and press freedom, as well as a special evening on ‘Telling the war in Ukraine’.

ICTV, where Oksana Sokolova works, collaborated with the EU NEIGHBOURS east project to produce a series of EU news digests which aired in May and June this year, highlighting EU support to Ukraine.

The EU supports independent media in Ukraine through a number of initiatives, including the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), which offers grants to help sustain and develop independent news outlets, assist journalists and media outlets operating in repressive environments, or support new media. The EU also funds the European Union for Independent Media (EU4IM) project, which works with media across the Eastern Partnership with a focus on editorial standards, newsroom management and financial sustainability.

The EU also tackles the issue of disinformation with the EUvsDisinfo project, which aims to increase public awareness and understanding of Russia’s disinformation operations, and to help citizens in Europe and beyond develop resistance to digital information and media manipulation.

Author: Oksana Sokolova


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