Throughout 2014, the conflict in Ukraine split the country and media into two camps. Following the MH17 tragedy and death of all 298 passengers, the information war took off with many journalists left as victims and participants.
At the beginning of the Maidan protests, HackPack member Sergey Belous was covering the events from Serbia. As tensions rose, he set off for his home country of Ukraine to see and report with his own eyes.
Sergey shared with us his experience reporting from the crash site, how the conflict affected his views on independent journalism and the challenges of working in the heat of an information war.
Sergey, you arrived at the Boeing MH17 crash site the following day. How did you get there so quickly, what did you see?
I found out about the tragedy while I was in Lugansk [a self-proclaimed state within eastern Ukraine]. My colleagues and I immediately dashed over there. Through a roundabout way of different stops and rides, we made it there around lunchtime the next day.
The sight was indescribably horrible. The bodies of children and adults, hands and legs lay everywhere. Smoke drifted up from burnt remains and bones. I can’t describe how awful it was.
How were you able to work with all of your emotions?
When a correspondent captures these types of moments, they run into a moral dilemma. How can you be so cold-blooded and take photos of a disaster? You simply turn on the robot, toss out any feelings and chop out your ability to comprehend. You take photos as if you were running on automatic. It’s a very unnatural feeling.
When we returned to Donetsk in the evening, that’s when the nightmarish memories came rushing in. Putting it mildly, it is extremely depressing. My colleagues immediately took to the bottle to pour away the images. I don’t drink at all.
Photographing the consequences of artillery fire in civilian areas felt even more suffocating. We saw dead civilians and how much their loved ones were suffering. This is much scarier than photographing the front lines or a firefight.
Who were you working for?
At first, I worked with one famous Ukrainian media expert and blogger living in the EU. He had a very strong following on his YouTube channel and most videos would gather 100s of 1000s of views. So I gave him priority, especially as he promoted my material without any major changes.
But while we were traveling to the crash site, a major Ukrainian TV channel called my colleague and asked him whether we could take some video. This channel had provided relatively moderate coverage of the Euromaidan protests, so I agreed. Jumping ahead a bit, I think it is important to mention that I didn’t follow the channel’s editorial policy after the change of power in Kiev and through the beginning of the war in Donbass. I wish I had.
Why is that?
While I was driving to Donetsk from the crash site, the producer called me and asked, “What did you see? Did the terrorists permit anyone on the scene?” I told him, “Wait a second, what ‘terrorists’ are there? There are fighters for the DNR [self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic]. They are standing at the gate to the village Hrabove and checking documents. If you are a journalist, then they let you through without a problem.”
Then in a few hours, I was streaming the channel over the Internet and watching the report. I almost fell out of my chair in shame. They had used the materials I had gathered to essentially say, “Look at what these blood thirsty terrorists have done. The beasts have murdered hundreds of people.” This was a complete violation of journalistic standards because it was impossible to say who was at fault the day after the tragedy and before any investigation had begun.
The honorarium that they paid almost equaled what I could earn in a month at that time. They offered to continue collaborating, but I wouldn’t speak with them ever again. My conscious is far more valuable than material wealth.
Do you have any means for recourse in those types of situations?
If your material is used on air, then any form of justice is practically impossible to attain. It is more important to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. I try to work just with media outlets that reasonably use my content. I also write a blog about what I believe is important without any external censor.
While working in the Donbass, I continually had to avoid politicization and bias. An overwhelming number of my stories from there were just video, and any objections could only be made to the camera. I just give the participants of the events the opportunity to share their point of view. People have a choice to either watch an uncut report from the location or believe pundits and interpretations in the mainstream media.
Who else did you work for from the site of the crash?
On the third day after the tragedy, my colleague and I received a request to film a report for a Japanese TV channel. From the start, the Japanese requested to accurately show and tell what, when and where without any political affirmations, slogans or verbal accusations. A plane fell in such and such place with a certain number of victims and the investigation will identify who is at fault. And that was it. They categorically avoided political manipulations and bias to either side of the conflict. That truly impressed me.
How do you decide which media outlets to work with?
I watch how they cover events and which events they cover. Half the problem is when a media outlet tries to follow and repeat the government rhetoric and their position.
For me the fundamental criterion in selecting a publication is the extent of that aberration as well as the opportunity to minimalize its influence in my work. Ideally to nothing.
Secondly, I focus on the type of audience. Here everything depends on your goal. For example in the Donbass, I attempted to address the Ukrainian audience because I saw a need to provide uncensored material in the country. However, in the Balkans, I try to reach as wide of a Russian speaking audience as I can. But it is one that is willing to consume complex stories and tired of the political correctness in the mainstream media.
In Russia, the federal-level TV stations do not stray far from the official government line. However, in the printed publications, there are far more oppositional views. In the west, despite the belief that there is complete freedom of the press, they are also under pressure. The media outlets’ owners have their own interests and private agreements, there are transnational companies advertising and the financial elite with connections to the political circles and police services. And if I’m honest, the media is either an instrument of influence or a business and both of those are connected to politics.
Can journalism then be fully independent?
At the current moment, complete journalistic independence is not possible. Largely for the reasons that I’ve already described. This is why we are witnessing a devaluation of the idea of a ‘journalist’. The role of a journalist is seriously compromised and has become synonymous with sell out and unprincipled. Besides that, everyone who isn’t lazy is calling themselves a journalist.
Moreover, society also dictates the type of information it receives based upon what they are willing to consume. The polarization in society and simplicity of thought have very negatively influenced the independence of the media.
For example, people saw the protests in Montenegro with the posters: Everyone, this is Maidan! Despite, the fact that the two events were completely different. The slogans worked, though because it’s easier than trying to understand the details.
I appreciate people who think critically and try to write for those types of people. However, you must understand that there are far less people who think critically. Just compare the number of yellow press v publications vs. quality journalism. Now publications are focusing on clickrate and don’t worry about the depth and importance of a story. They only care about the stupid traffic!
Imagine, it is even difficult for a journalist like me to hold onto my independence. And I write a blog and travels on my own dime. Thank heavens that I have a small number of publications from Russia, Sweden and Germany who publish my stories as I present them. I am very fortunate to have publications that I trust and who trust me.
So how can we solve this problem?
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about crowd fundraising, only in a larger sense of the word. It has long since been time to create a new platform for journalists, so people could directly support them. This could be some sort of ‘information network’ — a synthesis between a social network and a news portal. On one hand, this would give a journalist the opportunity to be independent and on the other, readers could choose the most interesting and unbiased journalists to donate to. Users could see the general budget, costs and mention what is most interesting or confusing and then receive addition information. There are similar project like Patreon, but they have a different target audience and the functionality doesn’t meet the full needs of bloggers and journalists.
And this is completely possible to do. Take my 6500 followers and 1000 of the most active ones. If just one half of them saved on a cup of coffee per month and donated to a journalist, this budget could already diminish technical costs and increase the quality and quantity of material on the blog.
Many people complain that the mainstream media is not objective enough, that it doesn’t focus on important and interesting stories and doesn’t promptly report stories, however they continue to watch those networks. They say that there are no alternatives. But there are other options. This type of platform would not only satisfy the intellectual needs of a portion of the public but it would also revive the media industry and increase competition. Outlets that listen to their government’s political line, the capricious nature of the mass public or interests of their media owners may then have to strive to do better.
Connect with Sergey today through HackPack and expand your opportunities!