Andrii Dikhtiarenko is the Chief Editor of Realna Gazeta, an independent news outlet specialising in reporting on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Many of its journalists, including Andrii, are from the region or have direct ties to it. In response to the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Realna Gazeta relocated from Luhansk to Kyiv in 2014 due to the security risks that independent media faced.
In the interview below, Andrii recollects June 06, 2023 – the day the Kakhovka dam collapsed, unleashing floodwaters that destroyed homes and farmland, wiped out habitats, dislodged landmines and contaminated drinking water. Tens of thousands had to be evacuated; the death toll from the flooding remains unknown. With a critical need for independent and accurate information, Andrii recalls how the team at Realna Gazeta responded and produced timely content in response to the disaster.
This is the third piece in our ‘Voices from the Frontline’ series, which is dedicated to amplifying the voices of the Ukrainian journalists and media professionals that the Thomson Reuters Foundation has supported as part of its work to strengthen independent media around the world.
*Investigations into the cause of the damage are still taking place, with mounting evidence that the destruction resulted from a Russian explosion. The Kremlin accuses Kyiv of destroying the dam. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not reflect the views or opinion of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
How did you first learn about the dam collapsing? What were your immediate thoughts and actions?
The morning of June 06, like for many Ukrainians now, began with checking the news. I immediately saw that Ukrainian authorities were saying that the Kakhovka dam in the Kherson region had been blown up by Russian forces. Some of the editorial staff from Realna Gazeta gathered in the office, located in the centre of Kyiv – we always meet there on Tuesdays – and we started discussing what we could do.
I told the team that the Russian-occupied territories of the Kherson region were likely to be affected the most by the flooding. There were reports that people in these areas were simply left to their own devices by Russian authorities, which was later confirmed to be true.
I asked my team to monitor how the media in these territories covered the dam's destruction. Unsurprisingly, they blamed Ukraine, and there was almost no information on the consequences – the need for evacuation, the suffering and the death toll. So, it became critical to inform people about what was happening.
With your newsroom having relocated to Kyiv – over 450 km away from the Kakhovka dam – how difficult was it to obtain accurate information?
My main task was to find people on the ground and obtain information, so I started looking for contacts in the Kherson region.
It wasn't easy because these are mostly occupied territories, and people are scared to be seen as “cooperating” with the Ukrainian side. And in general, the Kherson region is not really our area of expertise. Realna Gazeta is traditionally more focused on the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as we are originally from this area – relocating to Kyiv in 2014. But it was clear that the destruction of the Kakhovka dam was an extraordinary event, and we needed to report on it.
Fortunately, I have many contacts. I am a mentor for the Media Development Foundation, an organisation that helps to develop regional media, and I know journalists that work for local Kherson publications.
We managed to find volunteers who, despite the danger, evacuated people from the occupied territories. We started working on material about them, which we subsequently published on our website.
We also published videos on TikTok. Earlier in June, we launched a Russian-language account because we wanted an additional communication channel with those that live in the occupied territories. Realna Gazeta is blocked in these areas, so TikTok is a means for us to reach them. Our first video was about how people from the occupied Donetsk region could evacuate through Russia and return to Ukraine. In no time, we received over 70,000 views. Because our first video was so successful, we wanted to see if we could reach people in the Kherson region with information about the dam destruction and flooding. And so, we published short videos with a volunteer who spoke about what was happening on the ground – it got a lot of engagement.
On that day, the traffic to our website increased significantly too. Our journalists worked hard – searching for information, verifying it and writing stories. News aggregators picked up some of our content, helping it to reach many readers.
Given the scale of mis- and disinformation, which clouds the public’s understanding of events and creates confusion, how do you verify information and ensure your content is accurate?
We take a thorough approach to verifying information. Typically, we try to find several sources to verify a certain event. We search for photos and videos, in addition to tracking social platforms. And if there are people on the ground who can verify something, we ask them to do so.
In the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, we have people with whom we communicate. They are undercover correspondents, and their main task is to verify information. For example, they can confirm if there really was an explosion. They can report back to say that they’ve seen the smoke, that the police are on the scene and so on. If they feel it’s safe, they can even take a photo to confirm the event. This is priceless.
In regards to June 06, I looked for government representatives and colleagues from other media in the Kherson region, so that they could advise on sources. While traditional methods of searching for information is important, informal connections also play a significant role. I contacted friends whose relatives live in the occupied territories, and they tried to find out information for us.
The collapse of the dam sparked fears about the risks to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. How did you navigate and address this threat on June 06?
On that day, there was a big focus on the possible consequences of the flooding for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, located further upstream. After all, the waters of the Kakhovka reservoir perform the cooling function for the nuclear reactors. No one knew whether this would lead to a large-scale release of radiation that day. We tried to digest the information about it and inform our audiences. This was critical, as we calculated that depending on the direction of the wind, the radiation cloud could reach the occupied Luhansk and Donetsk pretty quickly. We developed materials on the issue, with information on the possible consequences and how to prepare for potential disasters triggered by the dam explosion.
With such large-scale destruction, loss of life and habitats, as well as safety threats, what was the psychological toll of June 06?
It was a tough day mentally. People were very depressed in Ukraine. In my opinion, it was one of the worst days since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Because the disaster led to a lot of people drowning, it destroyed habitats and demonstrated that the Russians could do anything in the occupied territories. And that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant could be next. If they could do this, what would stop them from blowing up a nuclear power plant? There was also a restrained reaction from the international community. Almost no one responded to it with meaningful action. Nothing has changed. People just suffered and drowned. And the ecological and economic devastation will last for years.
As a Ukrainian, you are depressed by all of this. But as a journalist, you have to do something helpful in the moment – and that’s through providing people with timely and accurate information.
How do you support your team in such challenging and difficult times?
If you see that someone is struggling, it is important to support them, not to pressure them into working. On the contrary, you say we take action only when we have the strength.
I’ve explained to the team that sometimes it is better psychologically to work on a task, instead of constantly scrolling through the news. When you start communicating with someone, interviewing, or tracking developments, you get distracted and feel that you have done something useful, and it’s easier. Somehow, we are already used to this. Around five of us were reporting on the dam that day, while others were working on other projects or solving family matters. I never try to squeeze the maximum out of a person. I really value my team. I am not going to exploit them.
From the very beginning, I tried to make the Kyiv office a hub. It’s a place where you can relax, just sit on the balcony and read a book if you need to. My team can share their problems, their troubles, their fears and emotions with one another. Unfortunately, most of the team still works remotely and it is not possible to gather everyone in this way. But overall, I see many advantages to having an office and being able to come together in these difficult times.
To find out more about the first-hand experiences of journalists in Ukraine, read the other pieces from our ‘Voices from the Frontline’ series: