For journalists, Ukraine is a WhatsApp war

Lindsey Hilsum, a correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4 News, is one of the most experienced conflict reporters covering the Ukraine war. But she never heads out without an electronic tracking device that allows editors to monitor her every move. She is in constant and nearly instantaneous contact with her desk, and works closely with a security team with resources both inside and outside Ukraine. WhatsApp and Signal groups connect her to colleagues in the field—and provide a level of real-time battlefield information that, a decade ago, would have been available only to a top general.

It’s a far cry from the way Hilsum worked forty years ago, when she started out as a Nairobi-based freelancer covering Africa’s wars. “I would send a telex to headquarters in London saying we are heading to South Sudan for a couple of weeks and I’ll contact you when I get back,” Hilsum told me last week from her hotel room in Kyiv, where she was observing a daylong curfew. “There were no phones and no way of communicating. We were on our own.”

Ukraine has been called a TikTok war because of the way its images have been shared on social media. But for journalists it’s all about WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram. What’s changed, says Cameron Barr, senior managing editor at the Washington Post, is the “scale and severity” of the Ukraine conflict. The Post relies on a WhatsApp group with about two dozen reporters, editors, and security consultants to manage the reporting teams on the ground.

Colin Pereira, whose firm HP Risk Management is supporting about a hundred journalists working in Ukraine (and who is also the safety specialist for the Committee to Protect Journalists), notes that while messaging apps and trackers have become indispensable, their use can accelerate burnout and increase stress, particularly for editors running high-risk teams. Messaging platforms enable “easy check-ins and information sharing with those on the front lines [but] can also distract from key tasks at hand, create false expectations of 24/7 responsiveness and make it harder for staff managing operations to switch off,” Pereira wrote in a recent company newsletter.

The use of messaging apps can also render decision-making more complex, with senior editors and managers weighing in on operational issues, according to journalists, editors, and security consultants involved in coverage of the Ukraine conflict.

Ian Phillips, the Associated Press’s international editor and the organization’s safety lead, agrees that the use of messaging apps and tracking technology has accelerated during the Ukraine conflict but believes that overall they represent a significant net positive. “Technology is helping us here,” said Phillips. Yes, he regularly wakes up in the middle of the night to check his phone, but being able to see his teams moving down the road or on a train gives him some peace of mind.

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Tracking teams across multiple WhatsApps groups can be complicated, but this is a small price to pay for the ability to be in contact with those operating in high-risk environments, including the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where a team of AP journalists produced searing reports while trapped. (There were extended periods when the cell network was down in Mariupol and the editors were unable to reach the team on the ground.)

Phillips’s primary concern is the potential security risk created by use of the apps. Both WhatsApp—which is owned by Facebook’s parent company, Meta—and Signal, which has positioned itself as a more secure alternative, could be vulnerable to interception by high-level state actors using sophisticated spyware such as Pegasus. But there are more pedestrian concerns. With groups of editors, reporters, and security advisers connected across multiple locations and time zones, there is always a risk that a phone could fall into the wrong hands, compromising sensitive information. (The British Army banned soldiers from using WhatsApp because of fears the platform may have been infiltrated by Russia, according to a report in the Daily Mail.)

Gina Chua, the longtime executive editor at Reuters, who recently announced she was leaving to take a top role at a new startup, also sees the tradeoffs. New technologies can allow journalists to document events by verifying user-generated content, such as cellphone footage showing a strike on a school or hospital. This capability can change the calculus when considering a high-risk deployment. At the same time, WhatsApp groups in which everyone is weighing in can be challenging for senior editors who are expected to make the final call and take responsibility for the safety of their reporters on the ground. “Sometimes a hierarchy is what you need,” said Chua.

I saw this dynamic play out at CPJ, where I served as executive director for fifteen years. Our crisis protocol involved forming a discrete team, which would brief the top managers on an as-needed basis. This structure was designed to ensure that worried leaders were not micromanaging, and were directing their energies in the most productive direction, such as conducting high-level outreach or responding to media inquiries. This was the protocol we implemented when two members of our Africa team were detained while working in Tanzania.

However, when CPJ undertook the evacuation of Afghan journalists during the Taliban takeover of Kabul last August, we relied on WhatsApp groups for the first time, to coordinate with journalists, security advisers, and Qatari officials in Doha and Kabul who were moving people on buses to the airport. This approach allowed our small organization to carry out a complex operation that eventually helped get several dozen journalists to safety. But at one point I found myself in a WhatsApp group with an Afghan journalist and his family, who were circling the Kabul airport, trying to find a safe way in. Because it was a matter of life and death, I tried to do all I could to be helpful, and it was only in hindsight that I recognized that without any ground awareness, I was operating out of my depth.

New technologies can help manage risk, but war is still deadly for journalists. Journalist and documentary filmmaker Brent Renaud was killed and his colleague Juan Arredondo injured while reporting on March 13 in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. In a separate incident the next day, two Fox reporters, Pierre Zakrzewski and Oleksandra Kuvshynova, were killed, and a third reporter, Benjamin Hall, was severely injured. Ukrainian camera operator Yevhenii Sakun was killed on March 1 by a Russian artillery strike on a TV tower in Kyiv.

Michael Slackman, who oversees international coverage for the New York Times, said that what makes the Ukraine conflict so uniquely dangerous for journalists is that they are intermingled with a civilian population that is being barraged by Russian military forces. “They are working and living every day with the people who are being targeted,” said Slackman.

Despite the fact that Hilsum and her team had to take cover from artillery fire outside Irpin recently, she feels that the risks she must take to cover the war are still tolerable. But the decision is not entirely her own. Hilsum calls the constant negotiation between editors, security personnel, and reporters “the dance.” Technology has changed the tune but not the steps. At some point Hilsum’s editor may demand that she leave Ukraine for her own safety.

That possibility frustrates her, but then she remembers her good friend Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times journalist who was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012 after she went back to report on the siege of the city. Colvin never informed her editor because she knew he would not allow her to go. “She was wrong and he was right,” Hilsum believes. It’s something she thinks about every day. “I’m alive and Marie is dead.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of HP Risk Management’s Colin Pereira. 

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Joel Simon is a fellow at Tow Center for Digital Journalism. His next book is The Infodemic: How Censorship Made the World Sicker and Less Free co-authored with Robert Mahoney.

TOP IMAGE: A volunteer of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces stands in the crater from the explosion near a checkpoint in Brovary, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Russian shelling pounded civilian targets in Ukraine's second-largest city Tuesday and a 40-mile convoy of tanks and other vehicles threatened the capital — tactics Ukraine's embattled president said were designed to force him into concessions in Europe's largest ground war in generations. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)