On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, radio journalist Viktoryia Panchenko had just 15 minutes to go.
It was 5:30 a.m. and the TV presenter was in her kyiv apartment.
“I heard gunshots or a rocket,” she said. “It was really terrible. We had 15 minutes to pack our things and our clothes and leave,” she said. “I didn’t get my toothbrush, but I took my perfume! I can’t remember how or why I did that.”
For the first day of the war, Panchenko reported for Ukrainian independent network LIVE.
“We were talking about war, of course. I remember hearing sirens, rockets and gunshots,” she said. “It was really awful.”
Later that day, the 34-year-old left Kyiv and hasn’t returned home since.
Like other Ukrainians who suddenly found themselves in a war zone, Panchenko crossed the Polish border.
In doing so, she and the others have joined Belarusians who have fled repression and mass arrests since President Alexander Lukashenko – a close ally of Vladimir Putin – won a disputed election in 2020.
But from Warsaw and other cities in Poland, these journalists have sought to continue providing information to the millions of people displaced by fighting or unrest.
When Panchenko spoke to VOA at a Warsaw cafe, she was adjusting to her new life in Poland. But his mind was always on Ukraine.
“It’s a very difficult situation in the media in Ukraine right now. A lot of people are leaving. But a lot of people are staying in Ukraine and working in the media,” Panchenko said.
“I hope to come back [soon]. I have my apartment,” Panchenko said. But “it’s in a difficult place. Many people were killed by the Russian army.”
Panchenko works freelance in Poland for a Ukrainian media outlet that broadcasts commentary and talk shows on YouTube. But she told VOA she was more excited about her work with a new venture set up by a Polish company to reach Ukrainians resettling in Poland.
Chain, UA24.tv, has not started running, but its website says programming will be broadcast in Polish and Ukrainian. Ukrainian presenters will focus on resettlement, assistance to refugees and others affected by the conflict, and live news coverage.
“We focus on positive news. This is a TV (output) for Ukrainian immigrants who came to Warsaw or Poland after the war started. So we will talk about the war, we want to tell our immigrants how to live their life in Poland,” Panchenko said.
The new venture is an example of how the media is adapting to war. Inside the country, major Ukrainian networks quickly established a 24-hour news service, News United, to provide uninterrupted coverage.
And organizations such as StopFake and the Eyes on Russia project are working to counter a wave of Russian disinformation about the war.
More than 4.6 million Ukrainians have fled since the Russian invasion, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
But Poland and neighboring countries have also provided refuge for Belarusians.
After Lukashenko claimed victory in the August 2020 elections, in which the main opposition candidate was forced into exile and others were jailed, authorities took a hard line on of dissent.
As of March 4, more than 1,000 people had been detained on political grounds and at least 32 journalists had been arrested since 2020, according to a United Nations report.
Authorities even hijacked a passenger plane en route from Lithuania to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, to arrest a blogger.
Zmicier Mickiewicz, a journalist with the Belarusian channel Belsat TV based in Poland, moved to Warsaw shortly after the disputed vote.
Two years later, he says, press freedom in his home country no longer exists.
Mickiewicz, 32, had no choice but to leave in October 2020.
“I and the people who helped me do live broadcasts during the protests were accused by the occupying Lukashenko administration of ‘coordinating mass riots’. That’s what they call independent journalism after August 2020,” he told VOA via email.
“There is no freedom at all in Belarus, let alone freedom of the press.”
Thanks to a network of citizen journalists still in Belarus, Belsat can still report.
Mickiewicz calls it “user-generated content”.
“People send us information, photos, videos, documents, etc. Telegram and some other means of communication allow us to get the information securely,” he said.
Mickiewicz was able to escape, but some of his Belsat colleagues were not so lucky.
Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova have been in prison since November 2020. They were arrested while covering a protest in Minsk sparked by the death of an anti-government activist.
Both deny the charges of “actions undermining public order”, claiming that their detentions are politically motivated.
Earlier in April, authorities added a treason charge to Andreeva’s case as her two-year prison term neared the end of her term.
Journalists from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were also detained. Like VOA, RFE/RL is an independent news network operated by the US Agency for Global Media.
Model of repression
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, media crackdowns have been a regular occurrence during Lukashenko’s nearly 28-year presidency. But it has accelerated in the last two years.
Mickiewicz says the government has always harassed independent journalists. He was first targeted when he was at school, after taking a course which allowed him to work for a local newspaper.
“Being a freelance journalist in Belarus has always meant being an enemy of the regime. That’s why my career choice is both a choice of values and a political position,” he said.
Although he faces arrest if he returns to Belarus, Mickiewicz harbors hope for a democratic future.
“Returning to Belarus is one of my main goals because it was the wish for a better future for my country that prompted me to take up journalism. I call my coming to Warsaw a ‘tactical retirement’ , not an exile,” he said.
Panchenko is also determined to return to her home country, saying she wants to keep Ukrainians informed about Russian military atrocities.
“I want to tell a lot of people the truth about what the Russian army did with my country, my people, the children and the Ukrainian women,” she said.
“But sometimes at night I can’t sleep after realizing what they did, watching all the videos and photos from Ukraine.”