Vilne Radio on the frontline: An independent media from Ukraine’s hottest battle spot
On Vilne Radio’s 5th anniversary, EED speaks with Anastasiia Shybiko, founder and director of a unique local media in Ukraine.
Цей матеріал також доступний українською
“We were ready for the big war,” says Anastasiia Shybiko, “We didn't think that the entire Ukraine would be bombed, or that Russians would try to capture Kyiv, but we predicted that Russians would try to get Donetsk and Luhansk regions. So, we were prepared, and we were able to evacuate staff from the city of Bakhmut and equipment as well as possible in that situation.”
Anastasiia is the director of Vilne Radio, an independent media organisation normally based out of Bakhmut. This EED grantee has been reporting on local life, security and societal issues from the very East of Ukraine since 2017. Now, the city of Bakhmut is nearly destroyed, being the epicenter of the ongoing battle between the Ukrainian army and invading Russian forces.
Most civilians and journalists have been evacuated from the area and Vilne Radio is no exception. However, unlike many others, Anastasiia and her colleagues were much more prepared when the time came. The newsroom followed recommendations from EED, paid out all salaries to the employees earlier, and sent parts of its equipment to other parts of Ukraine.
“We implemented almost everything that we planned in case of evacuation and relocation of the team,” Anastasiia explains, “Despite the chaos of the first month, we managed to continue our work from other parts of Ukraine that were somewhat safer.”
“We want to remain as relevant as possible to the people in Bakhmut and the whole of Donetsk region,” she continues, “We are the top regional media that follows journalistic standards, and we want to be one of the first media that returns to the East after Ukraine liberates all its territories.”
Disrupters and changemakers
As Anastasiia puts it, Vilne Radio is a result of youthful determination and curiosity. In 2017, a group of volunteers who all shared an idea – to create a truly independent media in Ukraine’s very East – set out to make this dream a reality.
“We started with an idea, a mission, and a team, but we didn't have anything concrete that we could show at that time,” the journalist explains, “EED was the first donor that believed in us. We found EED in a very critical moment because we launched our project during turbulent times, and they enabled us to actualise our idea.”
With 16 team members, Vilne Radio has its own digital platform and an FM radio station. The latter has been an important source of information for local people in Bakhmut and the wider Donetsk region. As the media is located very close to the so-called ‘Donetsk People Republic’, an Eastern Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia since 2014, many people there also listened to Vilne Radio. For those audiences, it was an alternative source of information which debunked Russian fakes and provided objective updates on the local realities.
“Many people started to reflect and analyse after following us,,” Anastasiia says, “We know various cases when people in Russia or the occupied territories got a different point of view after reading or hearing our content. We contributed to the change of attitudes among many local people who, when the full-scale invasion happened, didn’t support the occupation. It was thanks to independent media like ours that people now have a better awareness of what Russia is doing, so that they don’t want to walk the same path with the invaders.”
Challenges and aspirations
For the Vilne Radio team, it was always crucial to remain on the ground. Throughout the years, the newsroom managed to get a sense of its audience and cover topics that mattered to them. The platform was blocked by the Russian authorities for that reason: because local reporting was making a difference in a region traditionally considered pro-Russian.
However, after 24 February 2022, the team could no longer report from Bakhmut. One out of two radio towers had also been destroyed, which limited the team’s capacity to broadcast its audio programming. Moreover, as the majority of Bakhmut residents are now displaced, their needs – and content preferences – have changed dramatically.
“It is a huge challenge to lose this close connection that we had with our audience,” Anastasiia says, “For now, we try to cover the needs of the people who remained in the region as well as the needs of those who left, but who still worry about their home area. It is not always easy to grasp all that while trying to remain a local media.”
Through its reporting, the team encourages locals in Bakhmut to evacuate from the dangerous areas and reports on issues that concern internally displaced people. In addition, Anastasiia and Anna, her colleague and co-founder of the Vilne Radio, regularly travel to the frontline areas to be able to talk to those who remain and to get more locally sourced information.
Going beyond expectations
“For now, our main objective is to survive,” she says, “We want to return to working locally, and we want to expand our professional coverage to further parts of the Donetsk region. We see that local media have an advantage over national media because they know and can do more locally. We want to be one of the best local media on the market and to serve as watchdogs during the reintegration and reconstruction processes.”
Anastasiia is proud of her team’s work despite the many challenges the newsroom has faced over the years.
“With Vilne Radio, we did something new,” she says, “It was a very brave idea, and it worked as our stories contributed to better decision-making on the ground. We went beyond our expectations as we did not just create an alternative to pro-Russian oligarch-owned media, we became the go-to media organisation for analysis and explanations.”
Vilne Radio gave back to the community in other ways, too. For example, the newsroom trained various locals who later became professional journalists and are now working with the media. Anastasiia hopes that this process will continue after the liberation of Bakhmut and their return to the East.
“The changes that we helped to generate will not be reversed,” the journalist says, “And we want to keep working in the area to contribute to more transformations. We are already looking into ways for creating meaningful content for those in the occupied territories and to help them after liberation.”
This article reflects the views of the grantee featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the European Endowment for Democracy, the European Commission or any other European State or other contributors to EED.