Before the war, Serhiy Dibrov (49) liked to write about science, local politics and municipal finances. Now he gets very different questions from readers. Is it true that a Russian attack is coming? Do we have to go to the bomb shelter tonight? Isn’t it time to run?
Dibrov works for Dumskaya, an online news medium in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. The website receives no support from oligarchs and regularly criticizes the government and the municipality. Because of that independence, many Odessites now rely on Dumskaya for their information.
“A huge responsibility,” says Dibrov in his office in Odessa. Six colleagues have already fled abroad, he and seven others have stayed behind and are reporting. In a candid conversation with NRC Dibrov explains how this works in practice. “We are journalists, but also Ukrainians in wartime. Sometimes you have to find a balance between that.”
How do you get information about the course of the war?
“We are in close contact with the Ukrainian army and the authorities in Kiev. But sometimes the army lies, for example to mislead the enemy. That’s why we compare what the military says, for example, with what our correspondents see at the front and what civilians in besieged areas tell us. We also talk a lot with individual soldiers, so that we are not only dependent on the army spokespersons.”
Is the military trying to control what you write in other ways?
“Due to martial law, many civilian agencies fall under the authority of the military, but we don’t notice it much. Police or municipal sources talk as easily as before. There are, however, restrictions on military subjects. We can’t just write down where missiles land, where our troops are, or exactly how our air defenses work.”
But how can you, as a journalist, report on the war?
“Sometimes you have to wait until certain information is less sensitive. To give an example: last week there was a rocket attack on the port of Odessa. In such a case, we don’t immediately go to the harbor to film what happened, because the Russians can use that footage to see how successful an attack was and possibly carry out a second one. We’ll report when the military says it’s safe.”
Isn’t that frustrating for a journalist?
“No, I think it makes perfect sense. Those rules are there for a reason, it’s about human lives. Besides, I haven’t noticed the military taking advantage of it yet. In the end, we were just able to report on that missile attack.”
Do you still keep a sufficient distance from the authorities?
“I think the line between the state and society in a war is much blurrier anyway. Now that the state is under threat, everyone comes to the rescue. Government agencies are full of volunteers, the army works together with the vigilantes. And Ukrainian journalists also take a different position. Before the war we were always busy criticizing the government, now we think: we can do that later. After all, we are Ukrainians too, and we have to get through this together first.”
Do you see any differences between the working methods of Ukrainian and international media?
“Of course, because our audience is different. We both report as accurately as possible, but we take the mood of our readers much more into account. Take the rocket attack on the military barracks in Mykolaiv last month. Like the BBC, we reported on how extensive the damage was and how many people died, but we’re not going to film all the corpses the way the BBC does. That’s bad for morale.”
Do you sometimes withhold information for the same reason, for example about Ukrainian victims?
“If our army suffers major losses, we report honestly. The military does not object to that, they are grateful if we inform them of victims they did not know about. But we do sometimes take certain sensitivities into account. An officer was recently killed by friendly fire. We didn’t mention that – it would be a gift for Russian propagandists.”
We’re not going to film corpses like the BBC does. That’s bad for morale
On your website, Russians are invariably referred to as ‘Russian Nazis’. Don’t you lose any form of objectivity that way?
“The Russians are bombing hospitals, raping our women and looting our villages. Russian state media are talking about a ‘final solution’ to the Ukrainian question and fantasizing about the erasing of the Ukrainian people. It is precisely when you know the history of the Second World War that you understand that the term Nazi is appropriate.”
And crimes committed by the Ukrainian army, do you speak out against that too?
“Yes, of course. Recently, a military doctor said he would not treat POWs. We criticized that until the authorities came up with an apology. And in the past, Ukrainian journalists have denounced Ukrainian war crimes. Take the militiamen of the ‘Tornado Battalion’, which massacred civilians in the Donbas in 2014 and 2015. After reporting in Ukrainian media, an investigation was launched and the members of the battalion disappeared behind bars. They are still stuck.”
So if you were to discover Ukrainian war crimes, would you report it?
“Absolute. That is precisely what distinguishes us from the Russians. It’s that freedom we’re fighting for.”