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How a Zaporizhzhia weekly newspaper continued to print special editions of the newspaper despite being close to the frontlines, a lack of funding, blackouts, shelling, and propaganda of the occupiers

“Detector Media” continues to share the stories of three Ukrainian media - the winners of the grant competition from the Stiykist’ Programme, which is held by East Europe Foundation in a consortium of non-governmental organizations led by the French organization ERIM, and funded by the European Union. The heroes and heroines of these publications shared with us how their local media held their ground in the full-scale war and offered the audience a new and much-needed product. “DM” has already written how Kharkiv's “Radio Nakypilo” went online to recover in the conditions of war and even ousted the occupiers from the Ukrainian FM frequency. The heroes of the second story work in Zaporizhzhia.

“We are media workers of that formation, of newspapers in print,” Hennadii Derybas, editor-in-chief of the "MIG" newspaper, declares at the beginning of the conversation. Later, Hennadii will tell us that he first went up to the editorial floor in 1981, and has been working there since 1985.

On the publication's website, one can read that the history of the weekly newspaper “MIG” began in 1939 under the name “Komsomolets Zaporizhzhia.” For 84 years, “MIG” has endured many historical periods with Ukraine. Currently, in the second year of a full-scale war, the editorial staff continues its work: the website is kept updated and they periodically print special editions of the newspaper with content about the humanitarian, economic, and political situation in the region, as well the exposing of Russian fakes. The demand for the newspaper is high, as people from the frontline areas live without electricity, they are on limited mobile communication and do not have internet access.

Hennadii Derybas told Detector Media how the team with decades of experience adapted to the new reality, what role the printed press plays in Zaporizhia, now that two-thirds of the region is occupied by Russians, and what impact the newspaper will have after the Ukrainians return their territories.

—  Hennadii, what are the three biggest challenges faced by your media during the year and a half of full-scale war?

 In the first months of the full-scale war, the challenge was the lack of a printed version. We have had a website for more than 20 years, but we are representatives from the era of printed media. The site was filled mainly with materials that already appeared in the newspaper.

The last full issue of 24 columns coincidentally came out on February 24, 2022, a Thursday. It is likely that it was delivered around Zaporizhzhia city, but the region was already occupied by the evening. For several days, we did not understand how to continue working. We did not know whether what  had happened to Berdyansk, Melitopol, and Tokmak would happen to Zaporizhzhia; whether the Ukrainian Armed Forces would stop the Russian troops or not. It was difficult to get to work, and even more so to secure the team.

Somewhere on the third day after the Russian offensive, we decided to release a limited 10-column web version of the paper. This was our first step in early March.

Read also: Oleksiy Pogorelov: The biggest obstacles of newspapers during the war are paper and delivery. But publications find a way out.

The next obstacle was the lack of funding. There was no advertising, no sale, no subscriptions. For a month and a half, we were able to exist on savings. We did not have independent sponsors, but the funds remained in the accounts, and we paid people some kind of salary. In addition, those payments of six thousand from Cabmin were available to us. Somewhere from the end of April, we started wondering about how to continue living.

The only solution was to write grants. We had never done this before, but our first attempt turned out successful. We received a grant from the Czech Embassy. From June to July, in addition to work on the website, we printed six issues of the newspaper. Then we had another pause. In this time our website was very successful. Viewership rose from thirty thousand in May rose to 1.2 million.

The third challenge was the lack of electricity. We started working, there was opportunity for  development, but the power outages stood in the way. Our system administrator was very helpful. He lived in the private sector, where the power was rarely turned off. That is, we transferred the files to him, he  transferred them further to someone else. We found a way out of the situation.

—  What internal and external resources helped to overcome these challenges?

 Our biggest internal resource is our team, which has been stable for more than two decades. During this time we have gotten used to each other; we worked on a rolling basis. There were no explosive fights: everyone knew their areas of expertise. But a year and a half ago, I was pleasantly surprised how my colleagues united and the decisions that they made for themselves.

First, almost no one left Zaporizhia. Secondly, they opened up: they began to do things that they had not done before. For example, we have been working on grants for a year and a half with journalist Anya Chupryna and accountant Halyna Lavrentyeva. Thirdly, we have five journalists, and among them, no one has less than 20 years of journalistic experience. They are so experienced that even in conditions without power, they were able to work like professionals: not to be carried away by gossip, to check all the information.

20–25 people remained in the editorial office. About thirteen are actively working, the others have quit or are working part time. Before the great war there were about forty of us.

Read also: How newspapers and magazines are surviving during the war: Seven stories from different parts of Ukraine

Both international and Ukrainian donors supported us. In addition to the aforementioned Czech Republic Embassy, we were supported by “Internews Ukraine”, the Academy of the Ukrainian Press and the National Academy of Sciences. The Association of Independent Regional Publishers of Ukraine, which united more than 20 publishers, also found donors from other countries: we received laptops, office equipment, charging stations, and power banks.

While getting acquainted with East Europe Foundation, we may have seemed a little insane, because we supported print media. The reason is simple: not everyone is able to use gadgets, not everyone has access to the internet, some do not have electricity. And the Foundation supported the idea.

During the period of cooperation with East Europe Foundation, we published ten special issues of “The Word of Truth is Our Weapon”. The grant helped to support our colleagues, because there was no money to pay salaries, as well as the printing shop, which we founded back in 2000. It worked, but there were few orders, so it is likely that we helped them survive in the war. Currently the situation has improved.

—  Tell me, please, did public organization status somehow help or does it now help you find new opportunities for development?

 After the invasion of the occupiers, we found ourselves in a difficult situation, it was about the survival of not only the publication, but also the members of the team. That is why we had to turn to donors for support. We were pleasantly surprised:  it turned out that the majority of grant-makers prefer to cooperate with public or charitable organizations. Since the members of our public organization have been working on the publication of the newspaper for several decades and have a wealth of experience, it is rather natural that international organizations have accepted our proposals. Thanks to the help we received, not only the authoritative publication and the team of like-minded staff were preserved, but hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians gained access to a source of factual information. We hope that our next projects will also be supported, because the problem of people having access to honest, expedient, and high-quality news has not disappeared.

—  Tell us how the idea of making special editions of “The Word of Truth is Our Weapon” came about? Why did you dedicate it mainly to countering Russian disinformation?

 Last year, in June and August, we published six special editions of the newspaper called “Truth will overcome wrongdoing” with the support of the Czech Embassy. Then, apart from the national news marathon, there were almost no sources of information. Newspapers in Zaporizhzhia stopped being published. Therefore, we tried to convey the truth to people with the help of special print editions of the newspaper. We are a frontline territory. There are a lot of fakes and misrepresentations from the Russian side about what is happening. We decided to focus on countering this and applied for another grant.

In September and October, large numbers of people left the uncontrolled territories of the region. Many drove without phones and laptops; stayed in hostels or rented apartments where there was no TV; either there was no internet access or they did not have the money to pay for it. These people needed a printed newspaper as a way access information. When we implemented the previous project, once we were almost ambushed - we brought newspapers, but there were so many people that we were almost torn apart. We promised to bring more.

Why did we pick the topic of disinformation? Because half a year after the beginning of the invasion, we realized that the former German Minister of Information Goebbels was resting [compared to the Russian propaganda machine].

We understood that it was necessary to debunk what people had been told and convey the truth to them. They left the territories where, in three to five months, the occupiers had enough time to tell them  what Russia was like and how they should be.

The special issues provided a lot of news and additional information about employment centers, humanitarian aid hubs, cultural events, and the needs of volunteer and charity organizations. They also told stories of people, for example, who moved twice - first from Donetsk to Mariupol, and then from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia - and started their lives again. That is, we did not dwell on the negatives. We looked for positive moments and wrote about them.

—  What kind of disinformation is seen in Zaporizhia? What distinguishes it from the general trends? What are the most popular fakes?

 If we go back to February 24, 2022, the first fake rumor was that Russian tanks would enter Zaporizhzhia at 3:00 p.m. I remember exactly: as usual, on publication day at nine o'clock I was at work, and this fake spread by word of mouth. Then the rumored capture of Zaporizhzhiawas postponed to Friday, then to Saturday, then “in three days.” Zaporizhzhiais  locatedabout 50 kilometers from Vasylivka, and 35 km from from Stepnohirsk or Kamiansky, which is now on the front line. So it was easy to believe. It was very disturbing and scary, because we expected the worst. By the way, this happened again in exactly one year: everyone expected that on February 24, 2023, Russia would abandon Vasylivka and Kamianske and instead would capture Zaporizhia. Even after the liberation of the Kharkiv Oblast, this fake was still heard in Zaporizhia, in particular from the appointed "gauleiter" authorities in cities occupied by Russia.

Many odious figure in the region spread rumors of misinformation. For example, Volodymyr Rogov in Berdyansk, and in Melitopol — former People's Deputy Yevhen Balytskyi. But the current head of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, is just as actively opposing him.

It was difficult, because we were all in very close contact with the currently occupied communities. In the first half of the year, thousands of people from “that side” passed through Zaporizhia, and everyone told their story. Whether they wanted it or not, some were spreading Russian narratives. About 500,000 of the local population left, but people still managed to fall under the influence of propaganda in occupied Orikhov, Pology, Berdyansk, and Melitopol. People were pressured. Publisher Mykhailo Kumok was kidnapped along with his family and journalists of “Melitopol News.” I have some friends who are still living under occupation. They are very dissatisfied with the Russians, but they cannot talk about it publicly. Even when we talk on the phone, we can talk about neutral topics, but not about how they live there.

The scariest events that we had - more than 12 airstrikes - was claimed by the Russians to be “destruction of equipment and personnel of the Armed Forces.” On the one hand, I support our administration: if there are no victims after an airstrike on Zaporizhia, we will learn only from the word of mouth where it landed. That is, we have a complete taboo on disclosing the location of the event. But on the other hand, people have no information to understand whether something really happened. And the enemy uses this. Sometimes they claim to have “killed Bandera fanatics”, or they “destroyed ten tanks,” or an “ammunition warehouse.” I would like to refute this. When the authorities allowed it, we did.

—  By the way, how did you verify the information for the special editions? What sources did you trust?

 We published official reports from the military administration. Besides that, we asked our journalist colleagues how they were able to get out of the occupied territories and what life was like there. For example, they invalidated the  Russian claims about the repair of gas networks and the restoration of communal services. In fact, this was not the case.

The occupiers also wrote that heating was provided in Tokmak, it seems, in November or at the beginning of December. We denied, because we knew the truth: many of us have relatives living there, everyone has someone that they care about there. Almost no communication with the occupied side is available, and we tried to give readers objective information not only regarding losses and shellings, but also about what is happening in the temporarily occupied territories of the region, from where our colleagues had been evacuated.

Our former correspondent, who is 70 years old and has retired long ago, spent almost a month held captive "in the basement" by the occupiers. We united, wrote an appeal. I don't know whose credit it is, but he was let go. He wanted to leave Berdyansk, but the Russians would not let him cross the border. Now he left his home, and went to live somewhere in a village, so as not to be in sight. We also wrote about such firsthand experiences.

—  You stayed in Zaporizhzhiaand did not quit working. Tell us what it was like to prepare layouts and print special issues despite shelling and blackouts?

 When the blackouts started, somewhere in the fourth week the schedules were formed. In the pauses, when there was electricity, we took all opportunities, when to come in to put together the newspaper, when to read the originals, when to send to the printer. Once I had to download the layout of the newspaper onto a flash drive and physically take it by car to the print shop, because there was no internet.

Nine months into the full-scale war, our partners from the Association of Independent Regional Publishers gave us charging stations, and power banks, and in this way we were able to connect the most necessary things, for example, mobile phones, a computer or a printer. Of course, we had a server with uninterrupted batteries.

One more nuance. Let's say two years ago, I would never have thought that I would know so much about computers. We worked with clearly divided responsibilities: someone read, someone did layout, someone printed. Now we are masters of all trades.

I developed an inner desire: I didn't go home until I finished my work. We are a stable team, we have been working for decades, we always took a relaxed approach to work: if a task wasn't finished today, then it will be done tomorrow. We can't do that now: we have to do everything quickly, quickly, quickly.

—  In your opinion, how did you influence your readers? What changes show the success of the project thus far?

 We distributed ten thousand copies of each special edition of the newspaper. But I think readership was twenty or thirty thousand. When you give a newspaper to one person, and they usually pass it on to two or three other people. People who came from the regions asked for several copies to give to their neighbors. Postmen worked, but there was nothing to deliver: newspapers were not published in the region.

Besides, people are used to our newspapers. Three weeks after the release of the last issue of the special edition, workers from the House of Press, where we always left newspapers, asked: “What should we tell people? They ask for 'MIG'.” I told them that we would look for opportunities to continue. We can publish a newspaper: we have the strength. What we lack is funds for printing services, and employee salaries.

People react to the newspaper in different ways. Some say “why do I need it?”, and others ask, “why was it gone for so long?”. Initially, I left two to four hundred copies in the humanitarian hubs. Then they say: “We don't have enough,” and we started bringing more.

I know that thanks to our newspaper, a craft manufacturer from Orihiv and a local chain of stores found each other. They came together in order to help each other survive in difficult conditions. Also, people have gotten in contact with volunteers, that we featured in our publications.

—  In what format do you plan to work further?

 We have recently received a grant and are working on our website. We pay special attention to social networks — Telegram, Viber, Facebook. We have prepared another project, but the details will be revealed only in September.

In fact, recently the Association came to our support again: it has connected us to donors who sponsor the publication of two issues per month. True, our journalists work on a public basis, because money was allocated only for layout and printing. We pay wages to creative employees from other sources.

For now, we will focus on special issues, because with our current situation, it is not realistic to organize the publication of a full-fledged newspaper. The main reason is that two-thirds of the Zaporizhzhia region is occupied.

We are holding discussions with our partners and donors to continue special issues. It suits us, because we are not left without work. The most important aspect in this is not earnings, but that journalists can utilize their skills. We have improved the material and technical status and would love to publish a full-fledged newspaper alongside with a TV program, where we would sell advertisement to receive income. But in our current situation it is impossible.

The actions that authorities take in the first moments after the de-occupation of the territories of the region are important. It will not be possible to launch a newspaper only with the help of donors. The authorities must understand that the printed press is a priority.

This was clearly discussed at the national level: in the de-occupied territories, access to information will be limited, with the exception of newspapers, for at least a year, possibly even more. There are no communications, no radio repeaters, no connection. It is not even known whether there will be electricity on deoccupied territory. But you can pick up a newspaper and read it, you can pass it on to your relatives. I don't know what it will be like after the de-occupation, but so far the local authorities are not doing anything for support. We provide them with special editions for distribution, but credit for it does not go to local authorities. Credit goes to us, and to our donors.

The restoration of the newspaper will also depend on the post office's ability to launch for distribution. Also, “Ukrposhta” has a lukewarm attitude towards the printed press - both at the regional and national levels. We can't pay a lot money, but they want to earn. But whether they will be able to establish the work of their departments in the de-occupied territories is also questionable.

The material was prepared within the framework of the special project “Post-war reconstruction” with the support of the Stiykist’ Programme, which is implemented by the East Europe Foundation within a consortium of non – governmental organisations led by ERIM (France) in partnership with Human Rights House Foundation, Human Rights House Tbilisi, the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, and funded by the European Union.

The opinions and statements expressed in the material do not necessarily coincide with the views of the consortium partner organizations and the European Union.

Photo provided by: Gennady Derybas / “MIG” newspaper

NGO “Detector Media” has been working for our readers for over 20 years. In times of elections, revolutions, pandemics and war, we continue to fight for quality journalism. Our experts develop media literacy of the audience, advocate for the rights of journalists, and refute Russian disinformation.

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