News / 09.12.2014

Journalists and ethics in Ukraine

Amstor is one of the biggest chain of shops in Ukraine. They are can be found in any Ukrainian city. Also in Donetsk. On October 8, 2014 one of Amstor shopping malls was hit with a rocket, leaving nine people wounded. Two of the victims were the boys of 15, two friends who were unfortunate to live nearby. “We went there to buy some bread”, the boys told the following day when I found them in children’s traumatology department of Donetsk region hospital. “We were queuing to pay when the whole building started shaking. We got scared that the huge window pane would burst up and we threw ourselves away from windows. We thought that it would be safer but the missile hit the ceiling above us”. 

I happened to be in Donetsk that day of October 8. Having learnt about the Amstor, I went there. Two hours after the explosion, the shopping mall was empty. All the injured people had already been taken to hospitals. There was a huge hole in the roof. It was right above the confectionery section. There were pools of blood, water, juices on the floor. There were scattered candies in bright multi-color wrapping floating all over the place. 

There were a few journalists there who like myself were taking photos. There were people in the uniform of Emergencies Ministry. There were some people from among the guards of the shopping mall. Their superior told me that their colleague, a man with two kids, had received the severest head wound. 

My attention was drawn by two young men. They were moving around the shopping mall. There were also a camera and notepad in their hands. But both were dressed in military uniform without any insignia. It looked that it was rather difficult for a tall blonde-haired men to put down his notes. There was a submachine gun dangling below his knees. To all appearances, he didn’t have a single idea how to adjust a submachine gun belt. 

At some point, the journalist with a submachine gun came up to me. I could not but resist the temptation to ask him a question, “What are you?” The man responded, “I am a war correspondent”...

He was not the first “war correspondent” who got into khaki in war-stricken Ukraine. A few days before I attended the press conference by Andrey Purgin, DNR (Donetsk People’s Repubic second one in the chain of the political command). He announced establishment of their investigatory commission the aim of which would be to fix all crimes against civilians during this conflict. From among numerous journalists in a big hall of the Coal Industry Ministry I spotted a man in spotted light khaki uniform. He was holding a big mike with the indication of Russia’s 1st TV channel. He was middle-aged and strong. There was some kind of a holster attached to his belt. I caught myself at thinking that under no circumstances I would take him for a journalist if I saw him in a trench or in a dark street. Actually, I really felt like staying away from this alleged colleague of mine. 

There was another similar encounter. Also in Donetsk. Also at a press-conference. This time it was a press conference by Alexander Zakharchenko, the current prime-minister of the DNR. There were around fifty journalists at the press-conference, including French, Italian and American. But there were two journalists dressed in the same-style uniform. Unlike all the previous cases of uniformed journalists who were absolutely unidentifiable those two were branded. They had very special stripes on their sleeves. The one indicated their connection to some 2nd special task regiment. The other stated their affiliation with Sergey Kurginyan’s Time Essence Russia’s movement. I could not grasp what they really were. It really looked that they represented the new type of fighters: the regiment of people capable of writing but incapable of sympathizing with those people to whose houses they are bringing war by instigating and propagating for war over peace. 

I went to Ukraine in the middle of September this year planning to stay there for ten days. I spent more than a month there instead. The main reason was my pursuit of better understanding of the complex reality of the conflict-affected Ukraine.

That month in Ukraine filled me with very complex impression. Mostly, grim due to clear negative impact of politics on everyday life of common people. Politics is a trap which can entangle many innocen. There I came to realize how dangerous can be a profession of a journalist. Journalists can either harm or contribute to resolving the conflict, depending on their motivation. Those who I met in Donetsk dressed in military clothing and even holding arms were of the first type. They can be found on both sides of any armed conflict. But the crisis in Ukraine is of this specific type when you can claim that it is being waged not by politicians or the military, but by journalists and volunteers. 

There are two types of dangers this job potentially has.

Firstly, instead of helping people by exposing the truth, journalists can harm them by using real-life cases to justify their own stance. One of the most crucial case of such type was the documentary story by Asne Sierstad "The bookseller of Kabul" when the author attempting to make the narrative more comprehensible for its readers assigned thoughts to the main character's wife which the woman never shared with her. Consequently, the woman had to escape Afganistan, her husband also had to seek asylum abroad and Asne had to undergo many yeas-long court proceedings. While collecting people's stories in Ukraine, I often heard people saying shocking things but I gave a great deal of thought what to publish and how to quote people I interviewed. 

On one occasion, there was a Ukrainian woman telling me responding to my expression of hope that gone nightmarish conflict would be finally over, "It is necessary for us to do the utmost to ensure that our boys would kill as many Russians as possible". On the other occasion,  there was a teenage girl, a daughter of a woman who fled the East of Ukraine, who told that her father had joined the armed groups fighting on the side of self-proclaimed republics. I weighed between the itching to publish some "true-to-life" details and obvious danger such a revelation would place upon these two people. Noli Nocere principle by Hyppocratus is something pretty relevant to bear in mind while covering conflicts. Both Asne Sierstad or myself were nobody but visitors to the lands where people survive, not live. We stay with these people and then leave. I would not want to face the reality of my article adding an extra hazard to all the dangers they have to endure. I am not their judge. I have no moral right to jeopardize them. It is often better to take a second thought before exposing someone's identity. Even changing names doesn't necessarily help to avoid the danger of having the people in an article identified as it happened to the prototypes of Asne Sierstad's book on the bookseller in Kabul. 

The second danger of some journalists' zest to sport their new military informs is likely danger of endangering not only themselves but other journalists... A man in a khaki uniform makes an easy target as both sides could easily confuse them for one of opposing ranks, therefore, making them legitimate targets. During this trip to Donetsk, we decided to search for civilians who were hiding in basements of apartment houses in the vicinity of what used to be ten international airport of Donetsk. The last apartment houses are separated from the airport with just a 1,2-km strip of land. The landmark indicating the border is Putilovskiy bridge. The area is regularly shelled from Grads. When we drove up to the bridge, we got our of the car and came up to the checkpoint of the DNR combatants. There were around 12 armed people,  including a young girl, no older than 17, manning the checkpoint. I explained the purpose of our appearance in this wretched part of Donetsk. Alexander, who acted as a superior over the checkpoint, told me, "There are also civilians surviving on the other side of the bridge. But I'd rather not let you cross it. I would not say that I just ban you. But I really would not want you to be torn to pieces.. You know, you are look too much unprotected in comparison with other journalists". Alexander grinned disapprovingly. He then indicated a few houses where we could try to find survivors on "less dangerous" end of the bridge... 

Oksana Chelysheva

See also

All news

Reporters Without Borders and UJF: safeguard journalists and reporting in Gaza

The war in Gaza has brought untold suffering and destruction to civilians over the past nine months. Gaza has become a media black hole. The true extent of the humanitarian catastrophe and human suffering cannot be understood without active reporting by journalists. It is therefore essential to ensure that journalists can work as freely and […]

UJF Council: cuts to public broadcaster a threat to Finnish security

The media need support, not cuts. Yet some parties are calling for a weakening of the conditions for journalistic work. The impoverishment of the media field threatens Finland’s overall security and democracy.

UJF Council: top concerns of delegates include workplace harassment and pay equity

Delegates wanted to know what the union intended to do to prevent the continuation of abuse and harassment in the workplace. They expressed the hope that the union would promote a positive working culture in the media sector.