As a part of the Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, Roman Vintoniv, the leader of the Toronto Television YouTube project and the author of the character of Michael Schur who currently serves as a press sergeant of the 112th Brigade of the Territorial Defence, and actress Marharyta Burkovska, who works as a fixer and TV producer for international journalists and documentary filmmakers as well as an interviewer for the Ukraine War Archive project, discussed the relations between press officers and journalists or fixers. Here is an abridged transcription of the discussion.
Tetyana Symon, moderator: Roman, what is your job about? To what extent does it overlap with your previous work? Which aspects of your old work really help you today and which, on the contrary, really interfere with what you want to do? How helpful is your previous experience?
Roman Vintoniv: I work for the public relations service of the 112th Brigade. Roughly speaking, I am a press secretary. Since 24 February and until I was transferred, I was a rifleman in a squadron. In July, I was transferred to the public relations service, which is much closer to what I was doing before the war.
In addition to the information work, we create merchandise for our brigade. Together with Dodo Socks we made the Trample the Russkies socks. They were very popular, especially after the NATO Director for Strategic Communications wore them to his speech at a serious conference. The Russians were pissed, and we were so entertained. Right now Dodo Socks and I are discussing a children’s socks line called Tlample the Lusskies. In addition, together with the brands Gorgany and Turbat we are currently developing a Very Scary Balaclava. We tested the first samples on various people. The Balaclava really is scary because our partner sewing company that makes things for Gorgany and Turbat refused to sew it. It was the best test for “scariness.” Plus sometimes we make materials on our own when we go to the front line to visit our units. But it was possible before the counteroffensive. Many, maybe even everyone has switched on self-censorship now. We clearly understand that it’s better to be safe than sorry, it’s better to show less to be sure that this place won’t be targeted, the guys won’t be killed. The difference from my previous work is that sometimes we forbid to film something more often than we allow it. You can’t claim that a news story can become the only source of information to shell a position. But it’s 100 percent an additional proof of the presence of troops.
Many journalists understand this new reality we’re in. I’ve never seen anyone be contrarian: “No, I’ll show it anyway.” Everyone meets us halfway, and we try to meet them halfway.
Tetyana Symon: You have access to events which are often not shown due to security reasons. But sooner or later we will win this war. And in 5–10 years, it would be interesting to see and analyse the things that seem ordinary and mundane to the military. Do you film all this history for the future?
Roman Vintoniv: Right now we just record things. We don’t analyse, we don’t pick it apart—all of that will come later. Right now my colleagues and I just film everything. Maybe many of these things aren’t interesting in terms of documentary footage or evidence. But we’d rather film too much than too little. So we have many photos and videos. We don’t publish everything, but at some point it will have value.
Tetyana Symon: You said, “with your colleagues.” Do you have an entire team?
Roman Vintoniv: The Brigade has its own public relations service. The battalions, which are units within the Brigade, have their own public relations officers. Since everyone has a phone, everyone can be a cameraman or a documentalist. My job is sometimes just to get people to send me photos and videos.
Discussion "The Dept of Truth. Aspects of covering the war" within The 19th Docudays UA Special Edition
Tetyana Symon: Ryta, you currently film evidence of war crimes…
Marharyta Burkovska: I don’t just record evidence of war crimes for the Ukraine War Archive, I’m also a fixer for international media. It’s a weird job because none of the fixers has a clear definition of what a fixer is. It’s like a producer in the field, but in practice everything turns out to be more interesting.
Many reporters for western media have insurance. I, as their fixer, don’t have it. We know cases, for instance, in the Kyiv Region, when fixers died, but the media that worked with them did not react to it in any way, unfortunately. There’s also an enormous difference in pay between a fixer who helps a reporter at the frontline in Ukraine and a fixer at the queen’s funeral in the UK.The main change, in my opinion, should be to build trust between the media and the military. We must understand why the media come to the liberated areas. Why stories must be told. All kinds of fantastic media come here, they write articles, film videos. There could also be very talented documentary photographers. But we have major problems with access to the liberated territories, and I don’t know why. Tell me why. Problems with covering the work of the majority of the military. It’s a rather significant problem. This question is, of course, not for you specifically, not for the 112th Brigade.
Roman Vintoniv: Not for me, of course, because you never came to me. But I can try to find answers to your question.
Marharyta Burkovska: I recently spent an hour persuading one of the military press offices to give me soldiers who could tell one of the best media in the world the story of Ukrainians who fought in a surrounded city. We overcame that, we made a story. But for some reason we constantly face these challenges. Why don’t they let journalists in?
Roman Vintoniv: So you don’t die.
Marharyta Burkovska: It’s not their first time in a warzone for these journalists, especially military journalists. They’re aware and not stupid, they don’t want to die for no reason. I can’t speak for everyone, but the majority for sure. These journalists constantly take paramedic courses, they also have special equipment. Most of them have people responsible for safety. We can’t ban people from covering the war!
Roman Vintoniv: Yes, yes. Journalists and the military are allies. And all press offices say that when they try to say “no” in a polite way.
The military does not always need something to be covered. Because it’s connected to the lives of the people who fight there. Journalists showing up on a certain line can overlap with manoeuvres which often happen there. And they don’t want to be seen publicly, even by accident. This can spoil a strategy or tactic which has been under preparation for a long time. Everything hangs by a thread here anyway, and when a group of journalists shows up, this can threaten an operation or even a simplest evacuation even more. If you take your duties responsibly, the appearance of journalists means that you must ensure that they are accompanied, maintain communication, know where they are. I understand you when you say “we are prepared, we’ve taken medical courses.” But when an artillery shell hits, taking or not taking medical courses won’t help. As a result, the group of journalists or their bodies will have to be rescued by soldiers.
Marharyta Burkovska: Yes, I understand what you mean. But I recall a situation that happened in March in Kyiv. When we were passing checkpoints, the military—I don’t know whether they have the right to do it—asked us to show the photos we took. They asked us, “What are you doing here!?”
Journalism is the fourth estate. It’s very important to cover, talk, provide this information about the war.
Roman Vintoniv: Yes, you are absolutely right, it’s just that for a soldier, for a private or even an officer, it’s very important to understand a reporter’s intentions when they speak to them here and now. I’m manning a checkpoint. Yesterday we had a strike because journalists came here the day before yesterday.
Marharyta Burkovska: Maybe because these places often have strikes in general?
Roman Vintoniv: No, that’s not the reason. The day before yesterday, reporters came—today there are strikes. Whether I want to associate the shelling with this or not, but the next time reporters come, I will be cautious. And when a group of journalists come, I don’t understand their intentions. You see? Are they looking for a sensation? Or to make a material about a serious problem? Do they work with Russia or not? Has this journalist ever been to Russia? Have they been to the Kremlin? I don’t know that and can’t verify that.
Marharyta Burkovska: Yes, we have press cards for that.
Roman Vintoniv: They allow you entry, but they don’t guarantee you a friendly attitude from all soldiers.
Marharyta Burkovska: It seems to me that this is an issue of communication. Who these people are on both sides of the communication.
Roman Vintoniv: And that’s why we have press sergeants and press officers who understand the media field better than others in the military. They are often a buffer that tries to establish contacts with reporters in order to understand right away who is looking for a sensation and who is doing work and looking for actual problems. Cooperation and communication is built over time. It is easier to work with people who are afraid to do damage, who will triple-check before they film and publish another video on Telegram. They receive more from the military because it's a reliable partnership. When journalists chasing sensations see shelling or a strike and immediately publish a video on Telegram, there will be fewer joint projects with these people. Because this is not a reliable partnership. And when you see a journalist for the first time, you don’t understand which group they belong to. You can only figure that out in the process of cooperation.
Marharyta Burkovska: There are press cards for this purpose.
Roman Vintoniv: No, it doesn’t work like that, a press card is not something that lets you label a person automatically.
Marharyta Burkovska: Why? In order to receive a press card, you need to undergo certain procedures. One of them is a Security Service check. Right now many press cards are “in the air.” People can’t work because this verification is underway. In addition, there’s too much bureaucracy: in every region, you need to fill out a pile of forms to gain access to recording in this sector. That’s also problematic.
Roman Vintoniv: If the goal is to film in liberated areas, my personal position is that media and reporters should be allowed there as soon as possible. Because there are actually a lot of problems in the liberated territories which need to be discussed and which the rest of Ukraine must know about.
But you should understand why you weren’t able to reach a certain place: if it’s an issue of security, or someone’s inaction, or a lack of roads or bridges. Or if it’s an issue of de-mining and infrastructure. Because on the first days of liberation, bridges are often blown up, there are only crossings, some roads are mined…
Marharyta Burkovska: Journalists find the roads quickly, and rather safe ones. Because they are primarily interested in it themselves, in getting there safely.
Roman Vintoniv: You have a very romanticised concept of journalists. There are the majority of journalists, they are very experienced, they arrive in the warzone, they know how to find safe roads, they know how to do first aid and so on. And, let’s say, there is a minority of journalists who cannot do that.
Even if it’s one in a hundred journalists, one in a hundred filming crews, are we prepared to pay this price? This one life? Or three lives? If there’s a simple way to avoid these losses, by saying: “Friends, don’t come yet. Wait a week, we’ll demine it, and they come”—then I’m in favour of this option. I realise that you are confident in your abilities, trained, you have a security guard and local contacts. But in the end the question of why people died will be the work of the military, not of editorial boards.
Marharyta Burkovska: No doubt, there are different journalists and different ways of presenting information. But I’ve never felt anyone chasing sensations among any of the people I’ve worked with. The job of journalists is to cover the news. If today there’s an evacuation in Irpin, we need to get there today and film it. Not in 10 hours, but now, while it’s happening. Yes, unfortunately, often these are hotspots. However, the reporters are doing their jobs. I am just convinced that we need to establish a connection between the press and press officers. Provide an understanding why journalists come to the battle zones, how they look for ways to present information not just with dry facts but with human stories. I think we should eliminate this rather inadequate position towards journalists, that they are some kind of pests that swarm you to take photos.
Roman Vintoniv: How long have you worked in journalism?
Marharyta Burkovska: I don’t work in journalism.
Roman Vintoniv: I’ve worked in journalism since 2004. I know very well what pests are, what sensations are. And I also know about the western media, about their code of ethics. I know what the media are and how they can be useful for the military. Of course, there are points of contact. But when an artillery shelling begins and there’s a group of journalists, I don’t want to spend my resources trying to get that group out of there. If there’s a threat, I will not let any group of journalists go there. Because then I will be held accountable. And I don’t want any of my brothers in arms to die trying to get those people out. And I am convinced that no commander wants that. My commander visits all of our wounded, attends all funerals, meets the families of the deceased. He knows what this pain means. And he knows what can happen after an order such as “Go check on the journalists there.” A death or an injury do not end after they happen. These are continuous processes. Journalists don’t feel this. They come, film, and leave. Later, if there’s a development in the story, they come again, film, and leave. They have many of these stories. So don’t think that the military are bad for not letting journalists in, or that they don’t understand your role. We understand it perfectly. But human life and the role of a journalist are different categories. And human life is much more important than someone publishing a news story a day later.
The text was prepared by Maria Glazunova.
Sourse: Detector Media
Photo: Stas Kartashov
The Ukraine War Archive project is implemented by NGO Docudays in partnership with Infoscope, with support from the Embassy of Sweden in Ukraine, the Prague Civil Society Centre, the Canadian local initiative support foundation Razom for Ukraine. Together towards victory!, as well as the Czech organisation People in Need, as a part of the SOS Ukraine initiative.
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