From protests in the Balkans to the Ukrainian conflict — to truly understand what is going on, you must be on the ground and see for yourself. Freelance journalist and HackPack member Sergey Belous strives to be in the thick of it and keep an independent point of view. However, covering stories from the frontlines carries life-threatening risks that Sergey has personally experienced from being kidnapped to almost killed.
HackPack spoke with Sergey to understand what you can do to stay safe while covering conflicts, how freelance can help you remain independent and his most recent work in the Balkans.
Why did you choose to work freelance? What major benefits are there for journalists?
It’s more likely that freelance chose me. Currently, freelance is really the only opportunity to work freely and cover topics that I am interested in.
Yes, there are smaller publications that I could partner with on a more permanent basis, but I prefer to always retain a certain level of independence in my work. I personally am responsible for the quality and objectivity in balancing opinion and conclusions.
Whenever there has been a significant disagreement on a story, I could always constructively object with the editor. Or if I was faced with an extreme case, I can decline to publish and stop working with that publication. I am the one who witnessed what happened and understand events in the region.
What is the negative side to freelance?
First of all, being a freelancer creates specific difficulties with travel costs. I have been traveling to the Balkans since 2011, and I always stay the night at an acquaintance’s or a friend of a friend’s place. To cover travel expenses, I’ve even organized a crowdsourcing campaign through Facebook.
There is also less protection, as it is very rare when a publication will stand up for a freelancer or pull them out of a tricky situation in a conflict zone. So that is an additional risk.
You call yourself a war correspondent, what difficulties have you run into in conflict zones?
I have worked only in the Donbass as a war correspondent. Before my first trip to LNR and DNR in May 2014 [the self-proclaimed states in Ukraine called the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic], my acquaintances from Ukraine warned me that the government in Kyiv had an official policy stating that anyone working in those regions was ‘aiding terrorists’.
Because of this, I’ve suffered certain morale and physical losses. For example in August 2014, my colleagues and I were detained at a Ukrainian blockpost. Essentially, we were kidnapped and all of our belongings were confiscated. We were released thanks to a major commotion — petitions, announcements from international organizations and media pressure from Channel 112 and our colleagues. As a Christian, I consider it a miracle that we survived. We were literally a step from being shot. I heard a commander tell a guard, “wait, some people from above showed interest in these guys. They’ll come and interrogate them.”
We were blindfolded and no one knew where we were. During this time, one of our other captors said, “The war writes everything off, even you.” Journalists run into those types of situations from both sides of the conflict.
How did this happen? How can journalists protect themselves?
It was practically impossible to guarantee your safety on the Donbass territory where the fighting was going on.
First of all, I received accreditation to work in the Donbass, but it didn’t guarantee safety. But it did help avoid problems and formally permitted me to work.
Secondly, you should never carry documents or material about the opposing sides when crossing the front lines. This always will draw a negative reaction, suspicion and unnecessary problems. Previously, when we traveled from Donetsk to Slavyansk, we deleted all of our memory sticks and laptops. We didn’t put on display that we were journalists. Usually when traveling, it is best to keep that information to yourself until a critical moment.
When we were first detained, we were returning from Russia to Donets and carrying information about a refugee camp. We had covered the camp for Ukrainian TV 112, but we didn’t conceal any of our materials. The security forces didn’t like that we had ventured into Donetsk and that we had filmed a press briefing by Igor Strelkov [at that time Minister of Defense for DNR). It didn’t matter that two dozen other foreign journalists had also covered that meeting. Nor that we had press cards from the TV station and the editor in chief’s business card. They didn’t permit us to call anyone. We paid for this with five days in confinement and lost all of our belongings.
What steps can a journalist take to protect themselves while providing coverage?
Of course it is important to have a bulletproof vest and everything else. Channel 112 sent us vests from Kyiv, but we lost those along with our equipment after being captured.
When I returned to Donetsk at the end of November 2014, I began a Facebook blog by the pseudonym John Trust. Before this I worked completely anonymously in the Donbass. Being under the radar is also one condition of ensuring your safety. It was even more important for me as my relatives live in Ukraine. My followers learned that I didn’t have a bulletproof vest and gathered money so I could buy one. This is one of the positive moments of freelance. When your publication can’t afford to assist its freelancers, other kind people step in to help.
Also, while we are talking about vests and helmets, sometimes when you are on the frontlines, it is best to remove the Press markers. At least that’s what fighters on the DNR side had told us. However, I decided not to test this out on myself.
One other piece of advice is to avoid using radical rhetoric toward one side or the other. Don’t use demeaning slang, dehumanizing expressions nor rhetoric like “Separy”, “Ukropy”, “Vata”, terrorists, “Lugandon”, “Ukropiya”, etc. [derogatory slang used toward the two sides of the conflict]. At a bare minimum this is utterly unprofessional. You must express yourself in such a way that you wouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to say that directly to the person you are writing or talking about.
What other advice might you be able to give journalists visiting a new country?
First off, it is imperative to acquaint yourself with the country’s history, if only briefly, and then more extensively with how the crisis is being presented and information surrounding it. Second, always double check declarations made by your interviewees. Don’t take them at their word, especially when they speak about facts, numbers and accusations. Of course, each person in the feature can have any point of view, but it is very important that you approach everything with a critical eye.
Next, I would say retain neutrality and try to understand all sides of the story, contacting completely different representatives even if it is immediately apparent who is more guilty in the conflict.
Absolute neutrality is not always possible or more correctly one of the sides will refuse to recognize it. In Ukraine, it became completely problematic to travel to both sides and understand what was happening.
Finally, it is important to find a set of qualified experts for a specific country. These experts help to figure out the situation and check the quality of your story, correcting any vague comments or mistakes before it is published. While doing this, avoid using any language that could be turned into political agitation for either side. Only use clear facts. It’s a different matter if those facts themselves support one side or the other.
Sergey, what are you currently working on?
I am working on a major feature about the current situation in Macedonia and its year-long political crisis. I’ve been developing this report since January, and have already traveled four times to Skopje.
I am also preparing a report that goes beyond what any Russian-speaking media has covered, a feature on “Greater Albania”. If the topic has been brought up in the Russian language press, then it has only been a story rebroadcasted from an alarmist Serbian publication. They tend to state that Albanians are intensively multiplying and intend to not only unite Albania with the self-declared independent country of Kosovo, but with ethnic groups in western Montenegro, eastern Macedonia and even in Serbia’s Preševo Valley. Albanians do possess a “national dream”, but in reality, it is far more complex and multi-faceted.
What stage is the project on?
In January, I traveled with my coauthor throughout Albania, and my coauthor and I gathered an extensive amount of material. I also spoke with ethnic Albanians and Macedonians in Skopje. I intend to travel another time to ethnic Albanian settlements in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. There will be many interviews. This way we can show whether the people and political elite actually desire to unite into one government or alarmists are just alleging it.
Do the publications that you work with pay for your trips?
No, this is all on my personal initiative. I pitch ideas and am very glad that the editors give them attention. But this is all done based on my wild enthusiasm. I am a freelancer and not on a full-time salary, so publications don’t cover my travel costs. After all the costs, I will most likely break even on the feature about Macedonia. I might be able to supplement my earnings with additional texts and interviews for other publications. Plus if it is possible, I try to do video. But what comes first is that I work on what interests me and what I consider important for society.
How do you provide coverage if you are a foreign correspondent without colleagues in the area?
Unfortunately, many journalists that visit various countries do not understand the culture or the region. To avoid this problem, it is very important to find a good fixer or producer living in that country. Otherwise, it is very easy to make a mistake. And for journalists, the Balkans are both a political and ethnographical mine field.
As for working in the field, a key rule is that connections work. At a minimum, I have a set of connections in Serbia, including Kosovo. I have friends, colleagues and acquaintances in Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro. For me, the rule of six degrees of separation seems to work. Otherwise, you can simply comb through previously published articles to identify which local journalists write stories about your topic and try to contact them through their publication or social media. I’ve done both before.
Do you have any assistance maneuvering the Balkans?
I am working with a coauthor, Maxim Makartsev, a friend from the Institute of Slavic Studies. He is a specialist on the Balkans and professional translator. He regularly visits these countries and knows eight languages. I can understand Macedonian, but it is far better to have someone who can oversee things and help with fact checking. For the report from Albania, it is almost impossible to truly work without a good understanding of Albanian and his assistance makes all the difference.
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Sergey Belous is a war correspondent, who also focuses on politics and history. He has produced stories from the MH17 crash site in 2014 and covered the situation in Donbass throughout the Ukrainian conflict. Currently he is working on a feature about the situation in the Balkans. He has worked with publications around the world, including Russian Reporter, Channel 112 and Channel 17.