RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of Donbas Realities, a one-hour live FM radio broadcast airing weekdays to more than 15 cities in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, including the occupied cities Donetsk and Luhansk.
Although the Ukrainian Service also reaches audiences in the troubled east under Ukrainian government control via web, television, and social media, the radio has repeatedly proved a powerful platform that listeners turn to for reliable information in times of crisis.
Since the outbreak of fighting with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, residents in occupied territories have been effectively cut off from most international media on TV and radio, and websites that don’t support the separatist line are periodically blocked. The signal carrying Donbas Realities is also sometimes blocked, but the program’s producer Tetiana Iakubovych says listeners who rely on the show are in constant touch with her staff in Kyiv, a demonstration of the more personal connection listeners have to radio.
“In separatist held cities sometimes there is a signal and sometimes not,” said Iakubovych. "But listeners call in and tell us ‘Gorlovka hears you! Donetsk hears you!’”
Broadcasting in both Russian and Ukrainian, Donbas Realities covers local and international news stories that are either ignored or misrepresented by pro-Kremlin media targeting audiences in the region. Recent programs have focused on transportation and infrastructure problems caused by the fighting, difficulties accessing medical care and education, and the recent flare-up in fighting in the city of Avdiyivka.
“The U.S. election was also a huge story for us because our listeners know that the outcome has an impact on the course of the war,” said Iakubovych.
Donbas Realities also holds regular live shows from eastern cities featuring panels of local people discussing their lives and the hardships they face living on the front lines. These shows were also especially popular with listeners in western Ukraine, who Iakubovych says are curious about how people live in the parts of their country affected by the war, but who have little opportunity to hear from them.
Newsgathering in a war zone presents its own challenges. According to Freedom House, open warfare in the east has made Ukraine “one of the most dangerous working environments for the media.”
Donbas Realities has reporters working in both the occupied and government controlled areas, with correspondents in the occupied territories contributing anonymously and observing very strict security protocols.
With divisions running deep, Iakubovych says the most important thing is that Donbas Realities is a reliable source of news and information for both Russian and Ukrainian speakers.
“Our motto is ‘Without Dividing Lines,’” said Iakubovych. “And we dissolve those dividing lines by applying RFE/RL’s rigorous standards of accuracy to ensure our credibility.”