KYIV -- A wave of panic gripped protesters as rumors spread that tanks were bearing down on Kyiv to quell the revolt against President Viktor Yanukovych.
Several news outlets ran reports and word spread like wildfire on Twitter. "There are tanks!" said one alarming tweet
on December 1.
But in fact, there weren't. And the news organization that finally debunked the rumor and stopped the panic was an upstart online television outfit that didn't even exist a month ago.
Lyudmyla Yankina, an organizing producer and volunteer at Hromadske TV, explains how the small online television station got to the heart of the story the old fashioned way: by reporting it.
The tanks were reportedly arriving by rail. Yankina dispatched journalists to two railway junctions where the tanks would have had to pass, interviewed railway employees, and established that the reports were, in fact, false.
"We checked whether these objects passed through," Yankina says. "We disproved this information. Society was very grateful because panic was really spreading in Ukraine and abroad where there is a big Ukrainian diaspora."
It has been minor news coups like this that have transformed Hromadske TV -- which means "Public Television" in Ukrainian -- from a little-known fledgling project into a go-to news source over three hectic weeks of demonstrations.
In The Thick Of It
Disinformation, misinformation, rumors, and speculation have been widespread throughout the crisis as throngs of protesters have taken to the streets to protest Yanukovych's scuttling of a landmark pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow.
In addition to its live-stream videos from the protests and on-the-ground reports from the streets, Hromadske has distinguished itself by going to great lengths to verify -- or disprove -- the torrent of information about the latest developments.
And they're doing so on a shoestring budget and a small staff that includes 150 volunteers who are working -- for the time being, at least -- for free.
Protesters like Evhen Polishchuk, a 24-year-old entrepreneur from Kyiv, are grateful.
"They've been there at all the hottest moments. They've passed on the latest information," Polishchuk says, standing on Independence Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations.
"To be honest, I hadn’t heard of them before, but it's really good that there are these kinds of people. I think you could say their work is extremely important when you just think that the Berkut riot police have beaten journalists. They work to provide the most reliable information."
'No Stations Like This'
Hromadske's meteoric rise has surprised even its founders, who didn't think the station would even be fully operational by now.
Plans to start up the station were first announced in June by a group of 18 media professionals who were disillusioned with journalism in Ukraine and tired of political interference in their work.
Journalist Natalia Gumenyuk, who previously worked at the privately owned Inter-TV, one of Ukraine's most influential channels, was among the founders.
"The idea is to create public television online that would operate according to the principles of global public mass media like BBC, NPR [U.S. National Public Radio], and all the others," Gumenyuk says.
"In Ukraine we don't have any stations like this; they're all state-friendly stations. Here, we have brought together journalists who for various reasons were either forced to leave central mass media for political reasons or who left commercial broadcasters -- which don't provide useful information and who are politically engaged."
Other co-founders include Mustafa Nayem, a well-known investigative journalist for the opposition newspaper "Ukrayinskaya pravda," and Roman Skrypin, who founded Channel Five during the Orange Revolution.
Feeling Its Way
The plan was for a soft launch on November 18 with just a few video reports set to go online. But the political crisis and street protests that followed Yanukovych's U-turn on European integration forced them to accelerate their plans.
By November 22, Hromadske was pumping out livestreams, interviews, and videos and providing at times almost 24-hour coverage. They have since added an English-language stream.
The station's management says they are planning on an operating budget of just $1.5 million for 2014, which they hope to raise from grants, advertising on their website, and voluntary viewer contributions.
Since they went online, Hromadske has raised $100,000 in viewer donations.
They have also received a grant from the International Renaissance Fund, a Ukrainian NGO founded by financier and philanthropist George Soros. Additionally, the United States Embassy in Kyiv provided a grant to purchase equipment, while the Embassy of the Netherlands provided funds to get the website running. To assure transparency, Hromadske posts its revenue sources
The hurried launch has often meant making concessions on the site's video quality but -- if the statistics are any indication -- viewers don't seem to mind.
On December 1, for example, when an estimated 500,000 Ukrainians took to the streets in the largest protest of the crisis so far, Hromadske boasted almost 500,000 unique users and 2 million pageviews with an average view length of 29 minutes.
In perhaps another sign of its emerging cachet, Hromadske on December 4 hosted a star media personality from Russia’s Dozhd TV, or TV Rain, a popular and successful online television station in Moscow that also found its voice during mass protests, in the Russian capital, back in December 2011.
Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian socialite who has reinvented herself as a popular social activist and journalist at Dozhd, traveled to Kyiv to interview Ukrainian opposition leader and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and his brother Wladimir.