When I met Lyubov Rakovitsa, she was coming off a 12-hour workday at the Kyiv office of the Donetsk Institute of Information. Tall, with stick-straight blonde hair and a resolute air about her, Rakovitsa is 40 but looks much younger.
“We’re a Russian-speaking media,” Rakovitsa told me as we settled in at the lobby bar of the InterContinental hotel in central Kyiv, now a hub for foreign journalists reporting on the war as the world looks on. Born and raised in Mariupol, Rakovitsa is also in the business of storytelling, but her audience is closer to the action than most.
The Institute’s online newsroom, News of Donbas, is aimed at people in Ukraine’s Russia-occupied territories.
“In order to reach our audience, we don’t use hate speech,” Rakovitsa told me. “We use the principles of conflict-sensitive journalism, and we don’t label people as orcs and Rashists,” she said, referring to the slang epithets that many Ukrainian media now use to describe Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
As the war grinds on into its second year, Ukraine’s news organizations have worked hard to showcase the brutality of Russian military forces and to keep the war on the international agenda. In the reporting of smaller media based in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainians who have Russian sympathies or are apathetic about living under Moscow’s hand are still somewhat present. But they have all but disappeared from coverage by outlets that are considered mainstream.
Rakovitsa’s organization is working to show how people in eastern Ukraine are experiencing the war and to counter the relentless tide of pro-Russian disinformation. They do this by reporting straight facts in a style that is bone dry, in both Russian and Ukrainian.
Among Ukrainian media, their approach stands out. And it is exactly what some people are looking for. Since the invasion, News of Donbas and its sister YouTube channel have seen their audience numbers skyrocket. People living under occupation have engaged with the newsroom’s mix of news updates and short features. And Russians hungry for facts have driven traffic to the YouTube channel in particular. More than 70% of the channel’s 169,000 subscribers are logging on from Russia, although some portion of this figure is likely Ukrainians who were forcibly moved to Russia over the course of 2022.
In the past, the organization’s divergence from the norm has led to criticism or doubt from other media outlets. Before the war, much was made of News of Donbas’ decision to publish photographs of Denis Pushilin, the Russia-backed leader of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic. The site also ran a photo of the region’s unofficial flag, a move that some saw as legitimizing Pushilin’s initiative. But since the war began in 2022 Ukraine’s journalists have united around a common enemy.
“The journalists in this country started a marathon of coverage over a year ago,” Rakovitsa told me between swigs of her non-alcoholic beer. “24/7 we’re covering this story and in so many ways it has brought us together. At times, yes, there are people who still criticize us, but I understand that they are also suffering from this war.” Ukrainian journalists, she said, are living with “nerves with no skin,” covering a war that is challenging their very existence as a people.
The Institute first launched in 2009, with a goal of shining light on corruption and life in Donetsk. In 2014, the work expanded to a YouTube channel, which focused on the Maidan revolution and human rights violations that proliferated as fighting erupted between Russian proxies and the Ukrainian government. With the majority of its reporters from eastern Ukraine, the newsroom became adept at obtaining and explaining information about what was happening inside occupied territories.
Now funded by major Western donors like the Council of Europe and USAID, the non-profit has developed various arms, including a think tank, the annual Donbas Media Forum and Crimea Today, a separate news outlet that focuses on communities in the annexed peninsula. “Our audience there watches us, trusts us, knows we are pro-Ukrainian media,” said Rakovitsa. “We don’t say they are fools and blame them for Russia’s actions,” she said.
This, too, sets them apart from the norm. Further west, many believe that a lack of local resistance to Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea helped set the stage for the 2022 invasion.
Rakovitsa sees her organization’s work as integral to Ukraine’s future and thinks that discussions about what to do after the war need to start now, even as the battles rage on. People liberated from the occupied territories will have to be weaned off a robust diet of Russian propaganda, she told me.
Indeed, the Ukrainian information sphere has become highly charged, with people quick to judge one another and seemingly eager at times to define who has betrayed Ukraine and who has not. In the occupied territories, people are also experiencing wartime fervor, but for many, it is mediated instead by Russian propaganda. Rakovitsa expects that whenever the war ends, those who have only been fed the Russian side of the story will have a deeply distorted view of what has happened. She worries that this clash of narratives could result in a whole new round of conflict.
“We need to ensure that there is no second war after the first one,” she said to me, a few times over.
In February 2022, the organization’s offices moved west following the invasion. In total, 50 staff members work under Rakovitsa. Most are now working remotely, due to the constant threat of shelling. And new obstacles arise each day. But the sense of mission is palpable and sustaining.
“The people we are reporting to, they are our people,” Rakovitsa said to me, as we walked out of the hotel doors and onto the street. “We’re fighting for them.”
CORRECTION [04/28/2023 10:20 AM EDT]: The original version of this story said that the offices of the Donetsk Institute of Information moved west amid the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The editorial offices moved west in February 2022.